Akeem Shannon was looking out the window of his office facing Busch Stadium as he reflected on the growth of his company, Flipstik.
“It’s been a good year,” he said, not out of ego, but in observation of his and the team’s efforts to get into retailers including Target, Best Buy and, most recently, QVC.
Hustle and help from the University of Missouri–St. Louis DEI Accelerator program have taken his company from $400,000 in valuation to over $5 million.
Now that he’s made his mark in the United States, he’s looking to expand to the international market, and he’s been getting help from the International MBA Intensive course, an innovative business course in the UMSL College of Business Administration, as he tries to make a splash across the pond.
The IMBAI is a 7- to 10-day course in partnership with University of Applied Sciences in Aschaffenburg, Germany, and the Seinäjoki University of Applied Sciences in Finland. The course is worth three credits and has a goal of 30 participants – 10 from each school.
The signing of an Agreement of Cooperation between all universities to continue the collaboration took place last week. Professor Joe Rottman, director of the International Business Institute as well as the chair of the College of Business Administration Strategic Planning & Innovation Committee, led the ceremony, greeting all those in attendance and introducing faculty and staff from all three institutions.
He later noted how poignant the course has been, even engaging students from Ukraine last May during the country’s uprising.
“They were incredibly engaged and brought so much value,” he said. “That shows the strength of this partnership and how impactful we can be.”
During the course, students analyzed current trends in international consumer products, created global positioning strategy, studied prior successful product launches and developed strategies to enter the European market.
Teams are formed to create an international business plan for the chosen company, which differs every year. At the end of the class, the teams present their plans to a panel of faculty members and the business owner.
The partnership, which will enter its 10th year in May, has had 14 classes and over 300 students. It offered the hands-on experience many participants were looking for.
“I chose to take the course because I had not attended a practical course before, and I wanted to take the course to learn practical knowledge and experience,” said Sandy Su, a student from Taiwan in the UMSL International MBA program.
Su’s team suggested Flipstik approach an international expansion in steps.
“We suggested that Flipstik can enter the European market in stages,” she said. “They can first work with regional retailers. After a while, they can cooperate with big retailers, such as Argos in the UK and Globus in Germany. At this time, Flipstik not only can convince them by showing them that Flipstik has worked well with regional retailers and the sales are good, but also Flipstik has the sufficient cash flow to pay for the slotting allowance.”
Student presentations allowed Shannon to gain more insight regarding what to consider when entering an international market, such as cultural differences, spending habits and variances in how people in the U.S. use their phones versus those abroad.
“It was a great experience,” Shannon said. “We got actionable insights. One of the things we told the students was that we don’t want just a bunch of information. I want to be able to hand off these presentations to my team, and they can execute. They told us about influencers, gave us their contact information and why they would fit the brand. They told us about distributors, retailers, brokers and sales groups. Having that actionable data was key.”
Andrew Tychsen, director of marketing at Flipstik, agreed that an authentic take from those who live abroad was an asset.
“Insights from actual Europeans on methodologies and recommendations were very valuable,” he said.
Dario Liberona, professor of circular economy, marketing strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of Applied Sciences Seinäjoki, Finland also believed the students were on target when emphasizing the importance of understanding cultural differences in marketing when taking a product abroad.
“The way you sell to Finnish people is very kind of shy,” he said. “They make these jokes that they invented social distancing. So you can be too aggressive with the marketing. And then, of course, there’s language issues. We speak Finnish, even though a lot of people speak English there. I think in terms of distributors too, there’s different distribution channels.”
Steven Berberich, UMSL’s provost and interim vice chancellor for academic affairs, who participated in the signing, champions the IMBAI program, touting the importance of an international component in higher education.
“We’re all about creating a global educational experience on our campus,” he said. “When we’re able to bring students and faculty from other institutions here, and then in subsequent years send our students to those other institutions, we’re expanding the horizons of the students in the program. It’s an expansion of the educational experience. It’s creating a global environment and establishing networks. The exchange increases the value of the degrees that each of you are getting from your respective institutions.”
Su agreed that the intensive course added exponentially to her educational experience.
“The course helped me improve my English skills and experience an American studying environment,” she said. “For example, compared to Taiwan, students in the U.S. are more willing to share their thoughts in the class. I gained knowledge regarding business administration and broadened my horizon by living and studying in another country.”
Shannon intends on implementing the findings and recommendations from the students next year.
“I was really impressed with the presentations,” he said. “One group even used our language and our branding within the presentation very effectively. It looked like we made it ourselves. They really went the extra mile.
“This type of program is the kind of course all business schools should have because it’s experiential learning. It’s a real-world scenario to provide value to a startup organization.”
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