An Indigenous Alternative to International Travel

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Monday, December 6, 2021
By Kelly Watson
Photo by iStock/eyecrave
When the pandemic halted overseas trips, Loyola Marymount students learned about Indigenous Native American tribes in the U.S.

One of the best parts of teaching international business is the opportunity to travel with students, watching them navigate the nuances of a foreign business culture and apply firsthand the tools they have mastered in class. At Loyola Marymount’s College of Business Administration in Los Angeles, EMBA students usually take such a trip during a one-semester class in the second year of the program.

The trip is part of a yearlong capstone project in which students assume the roles of consultants to large organizations that are expanding their businesses into foreign contexts. On their visits, students conduct on-the-ground research and gain important insights that will shape their final plans. They also take a day to complete a service project that will help an underserved community in the target destination.

After the COVID-19 pandemic made such travel impossible, we quickly began looking for alternatives. We knew we didn’t want to simply fill the void with a generic online experience. Most students were already struggling through long workdays online, and no one was enthusiastic about spending significant portions of class time on Zoom as well.

For our capstone project in 2021, we ultimately settled on an experience that was different in two ways. First, instead of traveling to an international location, we stayed in the U.S. and focused on solving a specific set of problems within a Native American community. And second, we made the experience more immersive for students by utilizing augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR) technology.

The experience provided us with a glimpse of surprising future opportunities for our global leadership studies. We realized that engaging with Indigenous and underserved communities could provide a model for conscientious international business expansion. Moreover, we saw how virtual technologies could enhance the classroom.

An Indigenous Alternative

We identified four key similarities—and a few key differences—between Native American tribes and the international populations that we might have visited under normal circumstances.

Market size. Native American communities in the United States are about as big as communities we ordinarily visit in locations such as Panama, Kenya, Croatia, and Lebanon. And while Native Americans are not a homogenous group, they face similar business obstacles, including discrimination, restricted access to capital, poor infrastructure on their reservations, and low labor force engagement.

Emerging commercial growth. The Native American market is evolving and growing in ways that are similar to markets in the developing economies our business students usually study.

With rich traditions, unique artwork, multiple languages, and a long, complex history, Native Americans offer cultures as diverse as the international ones our students have studied in the past.

Cultural context. With rich traditions, unique artwork, multiple languages, and a long, complex history, Native Americans offer cultures as diverse as the international ones our students have studied in the past. But unlike some international destinations, reservations are mostly free of Western influences like chain hotels and fast food. Venturing to a reservation could feel more foreign to a student than traveling to Shanghai or Singapore.

Business context. Recognized tribal areas are unique, self-governing nations with their own laws and business traditions. Businesses must navigate a context where land ownership is rare, loan collateralization is difficult, and getting project approval is a challenging negotiation between tribal elders and chiefs. Superstition, historical reverence, and balance with the natural world are some of the nontraditional elements that influence business decisions.

These four factors made the Native American tribes excellent partners for our students to work with on their capstone projects.

A Different Approach

My international business class builds on a prerequisite course students take in the previous semester. During the 2020–21 academic year, the 18 students in the cohort spent both semesters researching Indigenous peoples around the world, specifically looking at existing infrastructure challenges and potential solutions. We provided prompts and assignments along the way, but students did their own research.

Other classes in the program were aligned with mine so students were studying business cases and reading material on the same topics. For instance, the international negotiation class used Indigenous context for its classwork. Furthermore, since the U.S. does not necessarily lead the world in maintaining progressive Indigenous relationships, we made sure students had an opportunity to learn about best practices in other countries, such as Canada and New Zealand.

In my international business class, teams of students worked on projects designed to solve specific issues faced by some of the Native American communities. As an example, one team focused on bringing mobile Tesla solar panels to a reservation and creating a low-cost rent-to-own billing arrangement.

During the course of the year, about 20 Native American tribal leaders joined our class over Zoom to make presentations individually or on panels. We contacted these tribal leaders through network referrals, LinkedIn, email, and website inquiries and invited them to speak. Most of them participated during the weeklong immersion that we created to replace our international trip.

In some interactions, students participated in hands-on activities, such as learning how to cook a traditional dish or build an altar. In other sessions, they listened to presentations about the Native American way of life. The first speaker was a former Mohawk chief, who showed students a ceremonial belt with two rows of woven beads that represented two boats sailing together down a river—one a canoe, the other a ship. The belt signified that we are different and have different ways, but we are equals. As long as we stay in our own boats, we can go forward together.

This presentation helped set a cautionary tone of boundaries that the students respected for the whole course. In fact, one of our goals for the class was to avoid the patronizing relationship Native Americans traditionally have experienced with non-Native Americans. In all of our international outreach programs, we position ourselves as partners and collaborators as a way to reduce the impression that the culture is being studied. We generally present our students as consulting teams within large firms. In this consultative role, students gather marketing information and create business partnerships between their companies and the local population.

We found that tribal leaders were not “burned out” with speaking to student groups, and we were able to gather a wide range of perspectives. Students connected emotionally with the tribal members in a way we had not seen in previous cohorts.

This approach was particularly important during the immersion as we met with members of Native American communities. The receptivity we experienced from tribal leaders highlighted their ongoing desire to make sure their underserved communities are heard and recognized as something more than charitable causes.

We were surprised and pleased to find that it was possible to gain access to significant influencers within the tribes. Because business schools have not historically studied Native Americans, we also found that tribal leaders were not “burned out” with speaking to student groups, and we were able to gather a wide range of perspectives. The impact of this exchange on our students was significant. They connected emotionally with the tribal members in a way we had not seen in previous cohorts.

Sustainable Solutions

A key part of every capstone course is enabling students to take the skills they have learned during the immersion and apply them to a real-world situation to complete a service project. Students in this class had that opportunity when they spent a day meeting with individuals from the Lummi Nation of the Pacific Northwest, whose entire way of life and culture is built around salmon fishing.

In the morning, over a Zoom call, Jay Julius of the Lummi nation and some of his fellow salmon fishers shared stories about the decline of the salmon population. We learned that the salmon industry has been devastated by short-sighted Western practices such as fish farming, intemperate logging, and unsustainably predatory fishing habits. These practices have led to habitat destruction, poverty, and a future that appears bleak for everyone. Furthermore, overfishing has almost completely wiped out adjacent wildlife such as orca whales, whose diet consists primarily of salmon. But students also learned that the industry can be revitalized if the tribes can revive the traditional fishing practices that have sustained and fostered salmon abundance for generations.

After the Lummi leaders made their presentation, the students spent the afternoon doing a rapid social enterprise exercise to brainstorm ideas to help the salmon fishers. They worked with their teammates and made their final presentations over Zoom.

We had made it clear to students in advance that, in order to devise solutions that would be sustainable over the long term, they should make profitability one of their criteria. This created an important tension for students: They had to consider the balance between community impact, people, the environment, and profits. For many, this was a paradigm shift in their thinking as they struggled to integrate what they knew of traditional business objectives and tools with what they had learned about a nontraditional society.

We were pleased to see that, in all the interactions, there was respect on both sides. Because students felt emotionally connected to the tribal members, they were more engaged with their project recommendations and seemed to feel a greater sense of ownership. This enabled them to focus on the importance of making business decisions that had a long-term impact.

After the students shared their ideas, Jay Julius told them that their presentations were awesome and even motivating to him. “It’s obvious you heard our stories and felt what was in our hearts,” he said. After describing our students as “thoughtful” and “great listeners,” he concluded by saying, “In our language, we say, ‘Haishka,’ which means ‘thank you!’”

The Virtual Advantage

Since students could not travel in person to visit the reservations or meet with tribal leaders, we used AR/VR technology to enhance Zoom and conference calls. All participating students and faculty members received Oculus Quest Goggles, which create VR simulations by connecting directly to the internet—no computers needed.

Wearing these, we could convene together in a virtual space several times a day during the immersion. We also could use VR technology to show students 360-degree videos that took them on virtual field trips to Indigenous communities and markets in India, New Zealand, and South America. The robust sights, sounds, vibrant colors, and engaging people were brought to each student’s headset in ways that would have been extremely difficult to replicate even if we had been able to travel safely and affordably.

 smiling woman wearing Oculus virtual reality glasses and standing before a colorful wall with Native American drawings on it.

All students were issued Oculus Quest Goggles, which they could wear to take virtual field trips to Indigenous communities.

The VR experience was enhanced by its sensory nature. We were impressed by the way it made participants feel like they were together in one space and the way it permitted participants to pick up on body language and nonverbal social cues. In future courses, class leaders potentially could use VR technology to point out the nuances of the way business meetings are conducted. For instance, in Japan, participants sit in a certain order, and VR technology could show how that occurs.

We took several steps to make sure students were comfortable using the technology. While the goggles come with prompts that help users set them up, we also made YouTube videos to help students with common issues such as how to hold the controllers and select apps. In addition, we sent students step-by-step instructions and held an orientation session the night before the immersion. The students quickly knew more about how to use the goggles than the instructors!

‘Transformative Student Experiences’

While our students could not travel internationally during this past academic year, our virtual visits with Indigenous people did provide ample learning opportunities.

Students learned that Indigenous thinking is more holistic and cyclical than traditional Western thinking, particularly in business settings. As they heard from communities that have survived attempted annihilation, they were able to put their thinking about business sustainability into a larger context.

School administrators learned that using AR/VR technologies can enhance Zoom meetings and conference calls. We realized that, in the future, we can use these technologies to immerse students in foreign cultural contexts, even to visit regions of the world where travel is difficult, unsafe, expensive, or culturally taboo.

Finally, administrators discovered that the Native American communities offer exactly the right environment for fostering globally responsible leadership. We feel there is more opportunity in this space for similarly transformative student experiences in the future.

Focusing on Indigenous people requires institutions to be brave in the face of the “consumerism” of some kinds of business education. Too often, sexy international trips can be more boondoggle than educational experience. School leaders must challenge themselves to abandon certain beliefs—for instance, that underserved communities require charity solutions and that solutions must be big to have big impact.

I hope to see more business schools around the world include Indigenous communities in their business projects in the future. At Loyola Marymount, we rotate our international destinations every year, and we are considering making capstone projects with Native American tribes part of our natural rotation. Once we have finally gotten through the COVID pandemic, we can make sure students get a chance to visit reservations in person—and gain an even deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by these distinctive communities.

Kelly Watson
Part-Time Lecturer and Executive-in-Residence, College of Business Administration, Loyola Marymount University
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