EMBA Program Uses Virtual Reality to Experience Indigenous Communities

For the second year in a row, the LMU Executive MBA program delivered an impactful international immersion experience in a virtual setting. The experience, which typically includes an international trip, is part of the year-long, team-based capstone project where students build a business expansion plan to address a pressing need (housing, transportation, energy or education) within a developing country or underserved community.

Professors Kelly Watson and Ellen Ensher kicked off the week-long experience with a new twist – virtual reality! All students received their very own Oculus Quest 2 headsets and met up in the collaborative Spatial app, which quickly turned into a happy hour and the first quasi in-person connection the students had with their classmates in nearly a year of quarantine.

Given the enduring Covid-19 pandemic, the EMBA program fully embraced the power of technology to get an authentic peek inside Indigenous communities in the U.S. and around the world. The VR experience removed geographic barriers and allowed diverse perspectives on some of the most pressing issues – and proven solutions – facing Indigenous people around the world. Tribal leaders from the nations of Ojibwe, Mohawk, Seneca and Lummi shared their daily lives and experiences. A panel from the Association of Women in Tribal Gaming addressed obstacles for Native American women. Members of the Native American Business Association discussed how to develop successful Native American business partnerships. Representatives of tribal communities in Tanzania and Honduras, as well as the Lummi Fisher People of the Pacific Northwest, also participated.

Professors Watson and Ensher led the charge in envisioning and conducting the program with help from Casey Joseph, CBA instructional technologist, who assisted with the design, implementation and management of the virtual reality experience. The students immersed themselves in virtual field trips, using 360 video in VR to experience many Indigenous contexts from New Zealand to India to Alaska.

“It was like we were right there!” said one student about his experience sitting in a mud and dung hut while a young mother cooked for her family in Tanzania. “We got to travel to corners of the world most people can’t go,” said another.

The students also participated in several cultural experiences, including a meditative session in alter building with LMU Anthropology Professor Ernesto Colin, and an interactive cooking demonstration with renowned Native American chef and author, Lois Ellen Frank.

One highlight of the week was a social innovation exercise where student teams interviewed members of the Lummi nation to understand the looming extinction of salmon in the Pacific Northwest, then used design thinking to develop and test potential solutions. Co-led by LMU Marketing Professor Madhu Viswanathan, an expert in subsistence marketplaces, the project demonstrated a bottom-up approach to sustainable business solutions.

“The LMU international capstone project is notably unique,” said Professor Ensher. “We don’t choose a destination based on what natural resources or labor markets are available to be exploited. We start with people and their real-world community problems, and encourage students to build sustainable, triple bottom line solutions. The difference is profit is not the primary motive, but rather the means to balance stakeholder interests and derive sustainable community benefit.”

As part of this process, students examine deep social problems to identify opportunities for business to help. It is not business-centric, nor is it resource-centric, which often leads to business taking an exploitive role. Instead, students gain cultural understanding as well as empathy for the communities they serve and must consider creative, impactful, profitable and sustainable solutions.

“We heard from a variety of tribes and they face very different issues with very different approaches…it’s important that you go directly to the source…directly to the people you are trying to help,” said one student. “In a word, this experience was transformative.”

Feedback from students, presenters and outside guests about the experience was highly favorable, and plans are being made for future use of these and other innovative technologies in CBA.

In May, students will present their final business plans to a mock board. One team is developing a solar farm for Indigenous community power. Another is leveraging creative housing design to build community housing on tribal lands. Other topics include eco-tourism, culturally-relevant business education, and job placement services for Native Americans.

“We hope this experience not only provided students with real-world business skills for international expansion, but that they leave inspired to make a difference in the world,” said Professor Watson. “That’s the LMU way.”