In front of a filled-to-capacity classroom, Othmane Khelil is describing the start of the Arab Spring. “After Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire, the people of Tunisia moved to a clear message: ‘We want freedom, we want dignity’,” he says, switching from a photo of the emblematic Tunisian vegetable seller to one of a massive street demonstration.
What is most interesting about this presentation isn’t the vivid images, or Othmane’s impassioned insights into the Arab Spring’s impact on Tunisia up until the present day. Instead, it’s the fact that as an MBA student from Tunisia, Othmane is speaking firsthand about events that rocked his homeland.
Using students as a powerful source of information about their own countries is the crux of a new speaker series organized by the HEC Paris MBA’s International Affairs Society (IAS). The brown-bag sessions, held Tuesdays at lunchtime, allow students to learn about geopolitical issues from their peers while sampling a traditional dish from whichever region or country is being discussed (in Othmane’s case, a spicy Shakshuka).
Started in January, the weekly sessions are a big hit with our 92 percent international class. As an entirely student-led initiative, they are free (except for those who order a meal), and cover subjects suggested by MBA students themselves. Every Tuesday brings a hard-hitting new topic—recent ones included the French presidential election, the Venezuelan oil crisis and India-Pakistan relations.
“These talks perfectly complement the business side of the education that we receive at HEC Paris,” Othmane explains. “They analyze the geopolitical contexts that affect business and market dynamics.”
As a member of the IAS core team, Yee Theng Ng, MBA ’18, finds such interactions offer more value to MBA participants than bringing in outside speakers (though the IAS still does for formal evening events). The big advantage she sees is that students are more likely to dedicate a lunch hour to learning if they know the speaker. She also says that students ask questions more freely. “We know each other by nationality,” she explains, “but sometimes we feel like we don’t know enough about our respective countries.”
Others appreciate the opportunity to share—and correct misconceptions—about their homelands. Othmane volunteered to talk about the Arab Spring because “not many of my classmates knew that it started in Tunisia. I wanted to clarify incorrect ideas about the country’s safety and terrorism problems—problems that exist in many European countries, too—and to promote tourism in my country,” he explains. “My dad has his business in tourism, and the industry was massively affected after several attacks.”
The IAS began in 2014 as a student-led initiative within the HEC Paris MBA. Events are planned by a team of 10 to 15 MBA participants. The group’s faculty advisor, Affiliate Professor Jeremy Ghez, says, “It’s a great initiative that explores the intersections between business and geopolitics. When they interact with each other, with professionals and with diplomats, the MBA participants are better able to understand the overall business environment. In their professional careers, they will never make a decision in a political or geopolitical vacuum. Therefore, it’s crucial that they understand those dynamics.”
Along with the brown-bag series, the Society has two upcoming events on this year’s calendar. The group will invite speakers from outside the HEC community to discuss the Iranian Presidential Election in April, and One Year after Brexit in June. To learn more, follow the AIS Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/International-Affairs-Society-HEC-Paris-MBA-381184955592382/.