Can or Not? Lessons from an MBA Study Tour

A group of about 40 smiling people in Singapore's Chinatown, behind a banner that reads 'UCD Smurfit School MBA'
Day 1 in Singapore: UCD Smurfit MBAs explore Chinatown, jet-lagged but happy

Ireland’s Ambassador to Singapore, Sarah McGrath, shared this question which she hears every day: “can or not?”.  This incisive question sums up the Singapore our MBA class saw on the recent “Doing Business in International Markets” module, which brought us into contact with businesses across the country. It’s also a question that we’ve all asked ourselves–not least when considering taking the plunge back into full time education at UCD.  For some of us, “can or not?” has meant, “can I leave my home and immerse myself in a completely new culture?” For others it has meant, “can I abandon a career I’ve worked hard to build, and take a chance on something new?” 

Five young women in business casual dress in front of a black-and-white mural, in cartoon/comic book style, of people reading and playing musical instruments in a landscape built of books.
Author and friends search for a bookstore and find this mural

For Singapore, a milestone “can or not?” moment came in 1965 when it found itself an unexpectedly independent nation, following the dissolution of its union with Malaysia. Suddenly on its own, without sufficient space or resources to be self-sufficient, Singapore had to learn how to self-govern and grow. They did this with the efficiency of a well-run company. Throughout the trip we saw proof of Singapore’s unrivalled ability to “plan and deliver”. Through this business mentality, Singapore designed an enviably liveable city. 85% of Singaporeans live in public housing. They have a world class health system, and exceptionally low levels of crime. Instead of “can or not?”, the question that comes to mind is, “if Singapore can, why can’t we?”

Giant electric trees with plantlife growing up the trunks and glowing wire crowns.
View of Gardens by the Bay light show, in front of the iconic Marina Bay Sands

Every company we visited had stories of coming across a challenge and answering “can”. One example that stayed with me was 3M, a materials innovation hub.  Their business began with an adhesive gone wrong: the adhesive produced was not sticky enough to permanently glue anything, not even paper. They asked the question, “can this be used for anything else?”, and so the Post-It was born.  

A dozen young people in cocktail attire in front of colourful skyscrapers and a dark blue sky.
Author and friends at farewell dinner by Singapore River

There’s a metaphor in here somewhere for transferrable skills. Starting an MBA for many of us means stepping off the path we thought we were on, and discovering how to use the skills we’ve learned for a different purpose than they were intended. For me, stepping away from hospital medicine posed a similar dilemma. Like the dodgy post-it glue, I felt perhaps I wasn’t doing what I was made for. One of the greatest learnings of the MBA for me is that there’s always a way to use what you have, and add value. Medicine teaches empathy, curiosity, perseverance–all skills that can be applied to any area of life and work. 

I’ve seen the same in classmates who are coming from different professional backgrounds: some are natural people managers; others have great analytical insights. Some have a unique perspective on any topic, and others are exceptional project leaders. Some can build a connection with anyone in minutes, while others can break down any concept and teach it to the rest of us. The MBA has helped us all to recognise the skills we have, and to adapt them to different uses–just like 3M’s post-it. 

About 20 young women in cocktail attire smiling for the camera.
Women of the MBA with Singapore tour guide Vidhya at welcome dinner

GSIC, a not-for-profit open innovation hub that connects sports bodies with tech start-ups, has a similarly can-do approach. Sports organisations contribute problem statements, often focussing on fan engagement, sustainability, smart venue development, athlete performance and wellbeing. Tech start-ups provide solutions such as virtual reality training programmes, sustainable drink dispensers, and smart equipment to give instant feedback on strength and accuracy. They answer the question of “can or not?” daily, and their answer is that somebody, somewhere, can.  

A group of 40 in a corporate hallway, with the neon logo 'KERRY' in the background.
Smurfit MBA students get a flavour of Kerry Singapore

Kerry Group gave us another example of collaborating to find your “can”. The problem they needed to solve was “what flavours will be popular next year, or five years from now?”. They found a unique way to answer this, in collaboration with Microsoft. Their AI programme monitors micro-influencers across many regions, registering when and how different flavours are mentioned and drawing insights from this data. 

About 15 young people dressed casually, holding umbrellas, and smiling broadly. Behind them, a giant sculpture of a dragon spits water, and grey clouds lower over a low cityscape.
MBA Classmates enjoy a rainy morning in Singapore (pictured in front of Singapore Merlion)

This is another lesson learned from the MBA programme: there’s no need to go it alone.  I’ve seen from our group projects that when a group works really well together, the end result is better than what any of us could have achieved on our own. Outside of lectures, our class has worked together on successful events, community outreach projects, and more.  This week we’re hosting a fundraiser for the Irish Hospice Foundation, which has been a huge class effort and has raised >€2,000 already. This goes to show what can be accomplished if you have the right people around you.  

Speaking of which:

A poster for the Cycle Challenge being put on by the MBA Community Outreach group, to benefit Irish Hospice Foundation.

Another memorable visit was to MONA, a social enterprise focussed on reducing food waste in the region.  Also interested in renewable energy, MONA’s big “can or not?” is, “can we live more sustainably, and can a small group of people make a difference?” Forced to pivot from their original business plan, MONA adapted their skills to create an enterprise that provides low cost options to those in need, and reduces the burden of waste on their environment.  

This, too, relates back to our MBA experience. As well as recognising the skills we have, and learning to benefit from those of our classmates and our network, we’re also learning that everything is teachable. Whether it’s negotiating work conditions, presenting to potential investors, or, like MONA, leading a team to tackle an important issue: nobody is born with the ability to do these things, and anyone can learn to do them. 

An overhead shot of the MBA class surrounded by household goods and packed boxes in a warehouse-like space.
MBA students on a visit to MONA social enterprise

If I take one lesson from the MBA and our Singapore experience, it should be to always ask “can or not?”. And if the answer is not, then it’s only a matter of finding the right people and training to change that. Luckily for us, many of those people can be found in our diverse, quirky, and multi-talented MBA class.

Text: Caitrín O’Leary, Full Time MBA Class of 2024
Photos: Sagar Srichand Purswani, Full Time MBA Class of 2024