Latin American countries need to be more united when it comes to training workforces, developing new businesses and playing a greater role in global education. Indeed, this is a time for collaboration, not individualism, asserts Pablo Carrera Narváez, director of the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESM) in Mexico City. For its part, Monterrey Tech, as it is also known, has 33 campuses across Mexico, as well as in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and most recently Argentina. In an interview with Universia Knowledge at Wharton, Narváez discusses Latin American business education in a changing and challenging world.

Universia Knowledge at Wharton: How has the Latin American region been dealing with the economic crisis of the past year?

Pablo Carrera Narváez: Latin America should play a stronger role globally. There have to be more synergies [between the region’s countries] because during this challenging period, each country seems to be working independently of the others. In that respect, we can learn a great deal from European Union members, which in spite of different languages and cultures have strengthened the euro and trade relations. In this region, where Spanish is the common language and other things bring us together, I would think there are many opportunities.

UKnowledge at Wharton: What might some of those be?

Narváez: People ultimately provide the vision for [any] business — [deciding] how high they want to go…. The challenge lies in ourselves. It’s about realizing that the world offers many opportunities. We know that this is a region with high poverty levels, so [ITESM tries to help alleviate the problem by offering] scholarships — for example, for courses on how to set up micro-enterprises. [Editor’s note: Of ITESM’s 91,670 students in Latin America, more than 40% receive some form of scholarship.]

ITESM puts a lot of emphasis on the value of the family in our society, [such as] how to care for children or take part in civil efforts to improve hygiene and health, which are basic necessities for enabling access to education. Through our Community Apprenticeship Centers — which provide high-quality education to low-income and geographically isolated places — we bring together people who don’t have easy access to private or public education. With the technology and the training in social values that ITESM provides, they can transform themselves and make an impact in parts of society where education needs to progress. As such, our institution contributes to the economic, political, social and cultural development of the community in which we work.

UKnowledge at Wharton: In times of crisis such as today, what advice can you give to the region’s executives?

Narváez: A lot of advice can be given on facing the crisis. One thing is to have an open, clear state of mind so that you do not despair. We know that it is not easy, but you also need to have patience. [Another] important thing is to act fast. Be ready to answer all your emails and rely on all your contacts. It’s easy at times to ignore their potential, but often family, loved ones and friends are the best allies when developing new leads during difficult periods. This is a time to be creative, and the market demands that.

In addition to teaching finance and management, we try to inject a little motivation. A lot of talent in the region needs to get out and prove itself. Motivation is achieved by … generating change within people, then changing the leadership and ultimately the vision of a business.

UKnowledge at Wharton: How can universities and companies work more closely?

Narváez: It is a challenge for universities to bridge the gap between the academic and business worlds. When [that gap is too wide] … the costs [of training and integrating young recruits] for business are higher. So we rely on laboratories and courses sponsored by various companies. That way, we can simulate, for example, an automobile assembly line so that mechanical engineering students can imagine what it’s like to work at an auto plant.

Meanwhile, we have “The 100 Best in Latin America,” through which we have [already] provided more than 500 scholarships to Latin Americans, who join the high-performance program with a commitment to giving back to their native countries what they have learned with us. The program not only involves studying for a career but also, for many, traveling abroad to gain business experience [outside their home countries]. That way, we are preparing them to be closer to professional and labor markets.

UKnowledge at Wharton: Despite the region’s problems, how can students acquire a more global view of leadership?

Narváez: In that regard, globalization is very important. It’s a way of enabling professors and students to get to know new markets, cities and ways of doing business. When you have access to courses and academic expertise from the region, the flow [of knowledge] generates added value because you’re sharing a global vision…. [students] can look at markets in an open-minded way, exploring the possibility of [expanding] branch offices or franchises [in other parts of the world].

We are convinced that internationalization opens the mind. To be able to take advantage of our vision in the classroom, students must learn to unlearn. At ITESM, we are interested in learning about educational trends in other places such as India and China.

UKnowledge at Wharton: What advantages do you have when competing against European and American universities and schools opening up in Latin America?

Narváez: First, we have a global vision. Our focus is international in terms of content, adapting to local ways of doing business so that people receive added value that has a global character. In addition, we use a mix of methodologies that makes the experience in our classrooms unique, providing students with scenarios that develop their talents and enhance their training. Finally, we offer the possibility of having an international network….

The greatest challenge facing a regional university is to understand the culture of each country and its needs in order to produce content and [teaching] methodologies that create value and satisfy companies.

UKnowledge at Wharton: Has technology improved the way business is taught?

Narváez: We use various methods such as projects, case studies, workshops and videos [and] it’s an approach based on the experience of executives. We use a technology platform that lets companies deliver classes within their own organizations, whether they are a supermarket or a bank. That way, we reduce costs, and we design the content according to the needs of each company. We’ll also soon be running Illuminate, which enables 20 people to share a PowerPoint or PDF file at the same time. This reduces costs and travel time. We also have virtual education.

But regardless of the [tool used], we always stress how important it is that part of the contact takes place in person in order to humanize it. Technology doesn’t just work on its own.

UKnowledge at Wharton: What are the ideal characteristics enabling managers to deal with the Americas or with the entire world as part of their work environment?

Narváez: A visionary, a citizen of the world who deals with things that are important, and not necessarily with things that are needed right away. This person has the ability to surround himself or herself with people who focus on adding value to the customer, in an environment that is ethical and reflects universal values. To communicate these values, professors must show integrity in what they teach and what they do.

UKnowledge at Wharton: Based on the experience at your other branches, what are the differences between doing business in different countries? How would you characterize the students and executives of different countries?

Narváez: I see many similarities among the students who study in our branches, including a skill of immediately putting into practice what they learn and an ability to react quickly to the increasingly exacting demands of the marketplace.

As for the differences, there are countries whose economies are more open than others, so [executives from those countries] sign up for programs involving [say] international business, logistics or negotiations. That is the case with Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile. Other executives have developed [courses] more suited to the special characteristics of their own countries, such as the petroleum industry and mining sectors in Ecuador and Peru.

We’re learning something new every day from our expansion in Latin America. Now, we are learning about the Argentine market to capitalize on what the region has experienced to benefit Argentine professionals and companies.

UKnowledge at Wharton: What are the general educational challenges facing the region?

Narváez: In all the region’s countries, we must establish synergies so that we are more competitive as a bloc, and can turn ourselves into an attractive market for investments that allow us to generate wealth in a socially harmonious environment.

The challenge is to promote an entrepreneurial culture focused on values, especially during a time of crisis when [a survival instinct] makes people make many mistakes in a bid just to stay afloat.

UKnowledge at Wharton: How do you think Latin America will emerge from the crisis?

Narváez: We want to communicate a message of optimism that business people can bring back to their companies and countries, and we want education to be an ally in the process of emerging from the crisis.

Our region is accustomed to crises, and this one is going to pass. While we can’t become indifferent to what is happening, we also shouldn’t close ourselves up and start crying. We have to open our eyes, be optimistic and above all, be very agile when we take action.

The region needs a more optimistic vision of the future, [managing] risks but also reinventing models that are different from what exists today so that companies can differentiate themselves and improve their performance.