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When B-School & Politics Collide

Washington University in St. Louis Olin students at the U.S. Capitol. Courtesy photo

People with my profile are rare in business school. Prior to starting my MBA at Washington University’s Olin Business School, I worked as a political consultant, running election campaigns across India and East Africa. I co-founded a political organization in India and, through that group, personally ran four successful campaigns — including the 2014 national campaign that put Narendra Modi in the prime minister’s seat, and the campaign that made Nitish Kumar chief minister in the Indian state of Bihar.

So, given my background, I can occasionally be a little hard to impress. However, Olin’s recently concluded school trip to the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., was hands-down the most unique and value-adding academic experience of my life. To put that into perspective, I have studied at four colleges or universities across three continents.

The experience is part of a metamorphosis underway at Olin. The school is making several bold changes that I believe will propel it to the next level. One such change is leveraging Olin’s close association with Brookings so students can experience something very exciting and different than what any other business school offers.

Siddharth Walia in front of the U.S. Capitol. Washington University in St. Louis photo

TRIP PART OF NEW CAPSTONE COURSE

For someone who loves following global politics, this crash course from public policy leaders was truly a unique opportunity. I may not remember important finance formulas once I leave B-school, but some of these talks — addressing the way issues connect to politics, policy, and business — will stay with me.

The experience was part of Olin’s new capstone course, “The Global Business Environment in the 21st Century,” under the excellent guidance of professor Lamar Pierce. My class, the Class of 2018, was the first to take it. The course addresses three questions: How do institutions and government policy affect competitiveness and business opportunities around the globe? How do firms and institutions interact? What is the role of business leaders as stewards of global institutions and resources?

The course was extremely well structured, half the time involving in-class lectures — which, I must say, were brilliant — and the other half listening to talks and Q&A sessions from prominent Missouri politicians, including Todd Richardson, Republican speaker of the state House of Representatives, and several nationally acclaimed political pundits.

MEETINGS WITH NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL LEADERS

The icing on the cake, however, was a two-day residency at the Brookings Institution in Washington. ­About 115 members of the Class of ’18 made the trip in two waves between February 25 and March 2. Day one could be described as a crash course in domestic politics, regulatory process, and the three branches of the U.S. government. Day two covered business overseas, including China, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

The quality of the speakers could not have been better. For instance, a session called Understanding the Middle East was conducted by Ken Pollack, a former member of the National Security Council and CIA analyst and the leading expert on the Middle East in the Western Hemisphere. Another session, Understanding a Diverse African Continent, was hosted by Johnnie Carson, former U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Uganda and assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

If Brookings is the Mecca of public policy, these speakers are its apostles; for those looking to learn about doing business in different regions of the world, their words can be compared to scripture.

SOME (CLOSED-DOOR) COMIC RELIEF

It was not all serious stuff, though. Some of the anecdotes shared by the speakers had us all in tears of laughter. I guess there is no dearth of comedic material in politics, especially these days. (I wish I could share more, but these are considered private, academic, closed-door sessions.)

The school hosted a party as the two waves of Olin students crossed midweek, with prominent D.C. guests among the attendees at Brookings’ invitation. The good folks at Brookings also organized a private tour of the U.S. Capitol, complete with a visit to the floor of the House of Representatives with longtime former Michigan Congressman Bob Carr. I’d be lying if I said that the thought of sitting in Paul Ryan’s chair didn’t cross my mind. I decided against it.

For now.

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