Peace Building MBA

The best classroom in a foreign country.

MBA students and business school faculty and staff around the world are working together in meaningful ways that build both prosperity and peace. We think the key is MBA students from different countries meeting and working together on commercial projects. Below we describe our current efforts at the UCI Paul Merage School of Business. We would like to hear about your similar efforts and begin a dialogue to expand these efforts more globally. We would be happy to share what we’ve learned with other schools interested in starting their own MBA Peacebuilding efforts. Indeed, we believe that the number of potential partnerships business schools could have with institutions in developing countries would well address business education’s underutilized capacity for doing good.

Please contact John L. Graham at for more information on partnerships among MBA students and business schools around the world.

The Program

Global commerce thrives during peacetime. Just look at the economic boom in North America after the end of the Cold War in the late 1990s, when formerly communist countries were opened to world trade. Trade causes peace through increased understanding and interdependence, while less trade causes less of both.

Economists have long argued this to be true. Solomon W. Polachek, for example, made this point in his 1997 article “Why Democracies Cooperate More and Fight Less: the Relationship between International Trade and Cooperation.” As he wrote, “the fundamental factor in causing bilateral cooperation is trade. Countries seek to protect wealth gained through international trade, [and] therefore trading partners are less combative than nontrading nations.” 

Or, as psychologist Steven Pinker puts it more concisely in his book Human Nature with a Human Face: “You can’t kill someone and trade with him too.”

With this in mind, we have embarked on a number of initiatives at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), designed to promote peace through commerce. These include partnerships with universities in conflict-affected nations and efforts to send MBAs out on peacebuilding missions. For some educators, this notion is controversial, and they don’t view commerce and peace as a sensible pairing. Instead they argue that the foci of business education should be efficiency, profits, shareholder value, and corporate welfare. For that reason, we find it’s important to explain the inspiration behind our promotion of peace through commerce. We believe that trade and international commerce play an essential role in reducing conflict at home and abroad, so as business school leaders, we must take every opportunity to promote trade as a catalyst for peace and prosperity.

We recognize that many business schools involve their students in valuable international consulting projects, but peacebuilding business projects are different in two distinctive ways. First, they involve areas of the world isolated from global commerce by past conflicts or nondemocratic government. And, second, they team up students from both campuses to work on projects in ways that expose them to both regions.

At the deepest level, business schools should not only teach students and executives in both conflict-affected and unaffected countries how to work together more effectively and inventively. We also should be catalysts for sustainable commercial relationships that build economic prosperity—and contribute to peace worldwide.

Inspired Start

At UCI, we first attempted to deploy MBAs as peacemakers more than a decade ago. In 2008, UCI and five other b-schools formed what we called the MBA Peace Corps. The other schools included the University of Notre Dame, Brigham Young University, American University, George Washington University, and the College of William & Mary. At the time, the consortium intended to solicit support from American multinationals. But then the Great Recession intervened, making it an inopportune time to approach companies for financial support. The MBA Peace Corps was put on hold.

Now we believe the time is right to revive this effort and launch a new set of initiatives devoted to peace through commerce. One of these is our partnership with the University of Havana (UH). As part of the MBA Peacebuilding Program (see, students and faculty from both universities will travel to each campus to collaborate on research and educational ventures; in addition, graduates, entrepreneurs, and potential investors from both regions will cooperate in mutually beneficial commercial ventures. The partnership between our schools is intended to restore the educational, personal, commercial, institutional, and governmental relationship between the two countries.

We also reinforce our school’s emphasis on peace through commerce with our own Center for Global Leadership & Sustainability and the UCI Center for Citizen Peacebuilding, where we conduct research on the topic and sponsor activities focused on peace awareness, nonviolence, and poverty alleviation.

We draw inspiration for our activities from multiple sources. These include nonprofits such as the U.S. Peace Corps and the United Nations Development Program. We were inspired by the 2006 “Peace through Commerce” initiative sponsored by AACSB International and led in part by Carolyn Woo, then dean of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza School of Business. We’ve also looked to research institutions such as the Institute for Economics and Peace, a global think tank dedicated to quantifying the economic value of peace; and examples from the private sector, such as PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Project Ulysses and IBM's Corporate Service Corps, initiatives by both companies to  send teams of fast-track executives to developing countries to work on long-term projects.

Peacebuilding is not without challenges, over and above those that come with traditional international study and work projects. Perhaps the most prominent challenge is the need to overcome cultural barriers. In our work with UH, for example, we must address the language barrier, even though many of students from both the U.S. and in Cuba are bilingual. Language problems still cropped up requiring greater care using electronic, telephonic, and face-to-face clarification. In addition, we’ve had some issues with responsiveness from the students in Cuba – institutional barriers can slow down information flows and decision making – making patience a key tool. A lack of internet bandwidth in Cuba also can make even simple tasks online arduous.  Fortunately, both the governments are supporting efforts to widen the communications bandwidth across the Straits of Florida.

And, of course, we must find a way to support these programs financially. Our MBA Peacebuilding Program costs approximately US$1 million per five-year partnership with a foreign business school, with most expenses relating to travel costs for students and faculty. Therefore, we are continually fundraising to support the MBA Peacebuilding Program’s ongoing effort, targeting companies and their foundations, philanthropists, NGOs, and governmental organizations.

No matter how important we believe peacebuilding programs are to the mission of business education, we know that they cannot succeed without the backing of b-school leadership. At UCI, our dean’s support has been crucial to our efforts. Before coming to the Merage School in 2014, Eric Spangenberg was dean of the Carson College of Business at Washington State University in Pullman, where he created a program in Tanzania that was similar to the MBA Peacebuilding concept. After coming to UCI, he reached out to UH administrators in 2015 while in Havana, in an effort to strengthen that partnership. Early in 2017 he will be traveling to Cuba again to sign agreements. As he puts it, “A multicultural education better prepares our students to face the world we live in since 9/11, not in a spirit of fear but in a spirit of understanding and readiness to make it a better place.”

Relationship Builders

Despite the cultural and financial challenges involved, running a peacebuilding program creates significant benefits for our school. For one, we expect greater academic interactions and strong relationships to arise among faculty members at both universities. We expect that institutional relationships between the universities will grow in an organic way, perhaps involving other campus departments and schools such as engineering, arts, and sciences. Indeed, we are now working with the IBM Watson Group, the University of Havana,  and Cuban government agencies to explore a possible "Hackathon" event to be held in Cuba and the United States this spring focusing on innovations in healthcare. 

In addition, by providing opportunities to work with students and faculty in regions affected by conflict, the MBA Peacebuilding Program is helping students develop leadership skills, ethical awareness, and a sense of social responsibility. And, perhaps most important, they are learning to appreciate the importance of personal relationships, particularly in international business.  

As our dean is fond of saying, “You can’t build interpersonal, much less international, relationships over the internet. Think about the difference between texting ‘LOL’ rather than actually laughing out loud.” As our students build personal and professional relationships in Cuba and elsewhere, they will help build entrepreneurial cultures that will lead to more stable, peaceful environments. They will enable business schools to fulfill their missions to make an impact on society.

Peacebuilding in Havana

To help restore U.S.-Cuba relations, the University of California, Irvine (UCI), in California and the University of Havana (UH) in Cuba have partnered to develop educational programs for students and executives in both countries with the goal of making commercial transactions between organizations in the two countries more effective and efficient.

UH and UCI started working together in 2009. After the initial building of the essential personal relationships with our Cuban partners our planning for the student programs involved continuing communications and occasional travel there. Visits by UH officials to Irvine during that period were barred by the U.S. State Department. The University of California had maintained a long-standing license for educational travel and programs in Cuba through the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. In 2013, graduate students from the UCI Schools of Business and Law traveled to Havana for a one-week residential course hosted by the UH Center for Research in International Economics (CEIE). During that week, UCI students heard presentations by UH faculty and other Cuban officials, met with Cuban graduate students, and visited commercial operations and institutes in the country.

Our MBA Peacebuilding Program is modeled on our prior collaboration with the University of Ulster. In 2004, we sent 25 Merage MBAs to Northern Ireland to visit businesses, meet with UU students and entrepreneurial organizations, hear from executives and officials, and learn what it’s like to do business in an area affected by conflict. Once our students returned, both UCI and UU students collaborated online to produce business plans. Then, Northern Ireland students and entrepreneurs traveled to Irvine to receive the business plans and meet with potential investors. (To learn more, read “The Dimensions of Peace” on page 24 of the May/June 2006 issue of BizEd.)

After the U.S. re-established relations with Cuba in 2014, we were able to accelerate our activities. In February 2016, for example, we collaborated with Alexis Codina, professor of economics and management, and his colleagues at the UH Center for the Study of Management Techniques to develop and deliver a two-day executive education program. The session trained 30 Cuban managers to negotiate with Americans and other international businesspeople, as they gear up for burgeoning commerce between our two countries. Our universities are now collaborating on research into the Cuban negotiation style.

In March 2016, 30 of our MBA students traveled to Havana for an encore of the 2013 program, but with an import twist. This time, ten UCI students formed teams with ten UH students to develop business plans for four Cuban enterprises: two large state-owned enterprises in the food and high-tech industries and two entrepreneurial ventures in 3D copying and personal care. (See “Learning in Cuba” on page 62 of BizEd’s July/August 2016 issue.)           Because this program is new to Cuba we have intentionally moved slowly with this 10-by-10 prototype.

In each of the five years of our proposed MBA Peacebuilding Program in Cuba, we plan to expand our team projects to include 30 UCI and 30 UH students serving ten Cuban enterprises, beginning in 2017. In addition, once we can obtain permission from both countries’ governments, we hope to have the 30 Cuban students visit UCI each year for a one-week residential course. We estimate that it takes approximately 400 manhours of our students’ time to develop one typical business plan for each organization in Cuba. Merage School students receive course credit for their participation.

Over time, that means that approximately 300 students will travel between the two countries to learn firsthand about differing commercial systems and cultures. Collectively, they will develop 450 cross-cultural personal and working relationships and develop 50 business plans for fledgling Cuban organizations. Our hope is that the net positive effect of our students’ work on Cuban society and economic prosperity will be substantial.

Cuba leading experts

A key sector of the Cuban economy is tourism. Here José Luis Perelló (standing, left), is the leading expert in Cuba speaks to UCI students. William Hernández Requejo (standing, right) translates.

Visit to Central Havana

UCI and UH students visited both a clinic and doctor’s office in central Havana.

International negotiations at UH Feb 2016

Cuban managers sit with Alexis Codina and John Graham (first row, right), while William Hernández Requejo speaks about international negotiations at UH in February 2016. The two-day program included lectures, discussions, videos, and experiential learning.

Expanding Our Efforts, Vietnam

As our next step, we are expanding the impact of our MBA Peacebuilding Program beyond Cuba. In May 2017 we completed a pilot program in Vietnam. We are working with the International School of Business at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Economics (UEH), with the goal of creating a similar MBA Peacebuilding Program in Vietnam. Our initial contact with UEH dates back to 1995 during Vietnam’s Doi Moi reform period. Yes, patience is important in international work.

Finally, we have a favorite quote that we think sums up what we’re trying to achieve. Made famous by Father Gregory Boyle, CEO of Homeboy Industries, it’s his company’s slogan: “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” Boyle is talking about his organization’s mission to build peace on the tough urban streets of Los Angeles by creating jobs for recently paroled gang leaders. We see the mission of business schools—and the role of MBAs as peacebuilders—as very similar. If we provide our students with the right opportunities, they can turn conflict into commerce all around the world—one relationship and one business at a time.