Well before he entered Wharton, Davis Smith had proved himself an entrepreneur capable of going international. In 2004, armed with a fresh international studies degree from Brigham Young University, Smith, along with his cousin, launched pooltables.com, a company that contracted out pool table manufacturing to China and then sold the tables in the U.S.
The business turned into the largest distributor of pool tables in the U.S., Smith says, but he longed to try a new venture, to learn another language and insert himself into some other overlooked foreign niche and make his mark. He considered a number of MBA programs, including Kellogg, Harvard, and Booth. “I got a package [of information] about Lauder and couldn’t believe what I was reading,” Smith recalls. “You get an MBA but also an MA in international studies, and you have to speak a foreign language. I discovered my goal was to get into the Lauder program.”
Indeed, in just two years, Lauder program students earn an MBA from Wharton as well as an MA in international studies from the University of Pennsylvania. While other business schools have scrambled to inject globalization into their curricula over the last decade, the Lauder program has been quietly churning out small batches of grads ready to neatly drop themselves into the thick of international business for the last 30 years. Alumni include Rosalind Copisarow, the social entrepreneur who created the first microfinance firm in Poland (Fundusz Mikro), and Anthony Davis, founder of Anchorage Capital Group.
‘The gold Stanford in international business education’
“The Wharton Lauder program is the gold standard for international business education,” says Tara McKernan, an executive vice president based in New York and Amsterdam at the executive recruitment firm DHR International. “When I see that on someone’s CV, I know that person understands the global economy.”
Lauder students wend their way through 24 straight months of an academic and experiential itinerary of humanities, social science, language, and business classes, lab work, and two expanses of multi-country travel.
“I was excited it was a business program that really integrated foreign languages,” says Katherine Littlefield, a University of North Carolina grad who worked in marketing at DigitalGlobe in Singapore before entering the Lauder program. The school, she notes, stresses the importance of acquiring a working knowledge of a new language, not necessarily relying on one already learned. (As part of the admissions process, applicants take an oral proficiency test in a foreign language.) In other words, if you already speak English and Hindi, get ready to dive into Arabic.
‘Yes, yes, yes, that’s me!’
“The group of people in Lauder is more international than any other program I was considering,” says Mila Adamova, a Bulgarian national who came to the U.S. to attend Colgate University, where she majored in economics and Spanish — and years later learned about the Lauder program via Wharton’s Twitter newsfeed. “I said, ‘yes, yes, yes, that’s me.’”
The Launder program begins in May. Students choose from nine different languages — Arabic, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish – and then specialize in the parts of the world that speak those particular languages.
They take international strategies courses, then spend two months traveling abroad, where they enroll in classes at local universities, visit local businesses, and network with Lauder alumni in the area. Although, Smith chose Portuguese, he ended up spending a month in Argentina and a month in Spain. Lauder students travel to, and study, many geographic areas, not just those related to their specialization. Smith went to 30 countries.
Exposure to different cultures and companies around the globe
“During that time, you’re being exposed to different cultures and visit different companies,” Smith recalls. “There was a meeting with a Lauder alum in Spain that really impressed me, and I looked through Lauder database and found a Lauder alum that ran a private equity firm. My cousin was in HBS and I thought we should start thinking about having a business overseas. The program reassured me that, hey we could this.”
Between the first and second years, students receive $3,000 each for more travel, to research their Global Knowledge Labs, in-depth “multi-continent” research projects – “Is the End of the German Beer Industry Near?” — completed by teams of students.
Other notable Global Knowledge Labs include a study done in conjunction with the United Nations on using mobile phones to facilitate health care in rural areas of Africa, an exploration of capturing energy from space (NASA requested a copy of the report), and a collaboration with Goldman Sachs Foundation on women’s health in developing countries.
Lauder grads total between 50 to 60 a year
Interspersed amid the travel, of course, the Lauder graduates, who number 50 to 60, are taking classes among Wharton’s general MBA population, which encompasses some 800 students. “What is great about Lauder is that it gives them a mini cohort,” says Mauro Guillen, director of the Lauder Institute. “They take advantage of the scale of Wharton but at the same time they get this intimate relationship with the others.”
By the time the straight-MBA enrollees start in August, the Lauder folks, whom the school divides into cohorts of five or six, already have an advantage, according to Smith. “The Wharton students didn’t know anyone else in their cohort, and the cool thing about Lauder is I already knew people in every cohort,” he says. “Lauder grads tend to be leaders of clubs at Wharton because they’re active from the first day of school.”
Lauder gets five applicants for each available spot, and admission to Wharton doesn’t guarantee acceptance to Lauder.
An intense experience with hefty price tag of $140,000
Of course, with this kind of opportunity comes extreme rigor. Lauder students work “twice as hard,” as the MBA-only enrollees, says Guillen. During one quarter, for example, Littlefield was taking seven courses while many non-Lauder Wharton peers were taking four.
There’s no such thing as splitting your time between Lauder and your position at the consulting firm; most enrollees quit their jobs or take leaves of absence for the entire two years.
Another caution: The program’s unceasing emphasis on diversity could overwhelm some. “If you want to focus on one language and one [geographic] area to the exclusion of other cultures, just get a global studies degree,” says Littlefield. “I think you’d be frustrated in the Lauder program. People here are talking about Africa and the Eurozone.”
The total tuition for the two years adds up to $140,000, with almost all students receiving some financial aid courtesy of the Lauder family, who created the Lauder Institute in 1983 in memory of their father, cofounder of Estee Lauder Inc. “Lauder is more generous than Wharton,” Littlefield says.
Half of Lauder grads end up working outside of the U.S.
After graduation, about half end up working outside the United States, according to Guillen. Most start their own businesses or get jobs in corporate development, marketing, consulting, or financial services.
Smith’s post-grad venture turned out to be not an equity firm and not in Argentina or Spain – it’s www.baby.com.br, an online seller of U.S. baby goods for Brazilian consumers. “One of my classmates was a Brazilian and we were talking about how great it is to be dads,” says Smith, who has two young daughters. “He told me that Brazilians would fly to Miami to buy baby products because you can’t get a lot of branded items like car seats or Carter’s clothes in Brazil.”
Although Smith won’t disclose Baby.com.br’s gross, he says it’s in the millions and that he and his business partner, cousin Kimball Thomas, have raised about $25 million in venture capital from the U.S. and Brazil. They plan to make it a billion-dollar company in five years.
“I realized Brazil was a perfect place for commerce,” says Smith, “and I don’t know if I would have if not for Lauder.”