As I landed in Barcelona International Airport on May 11, coming from a developing country, I was used to prodding and quizzical looks at immigration. But to my surprise, I was greeted with a smile and was asked a simple question: “Are you a tourist?” My minimalist response that I was there for study abroad immersion was happily accepted, and I was let through with an arrival stamp. This small interaction at immigration created a lasting impression of Spain that not only stayed true as we progressed through various business interactions and social immersions but also made me realize the work that lies ahead in terms of working toward creating a truly diverse, inclusive and equitable culture.
Traveling toward our hotel on a readily accessible public transport bus, I witnessed world-class infrastructure with beautiful weather and serene mountains surrounding the city of Barcelona. After checking in and eating a hearty lunch, we explored the ancient Roman roots of the city on foot with Christina, who took us time-traveling though ancient Roman times with a fun interactive game in which we deciphered clues. We got to learn about the rich history of Spain as we walked through various ancient monuments and streets. Our host from Austral Group, Laura, spoke about Spain being the third powerhouse in the EU after Brexit, the four official languages spoken in 17 regions of Spain and the country’s public education and health-care system. One interesting fact was that despite this robust health-care system, Spaniards do not misuse it, relying on home remedies whenever possible and taking really good care of themselves, facilitated by beautiful weather — 300 sunny days in a calendar year — and gastronomically friendly cuisine. Later, we were treated to a delicious Spanish spread at Restaurante Barceloneta, with a view of the beautiful seafront flanked by multistory yachts, where I had traditional paella. As we retired for the day, I was excited about the next, having experienced an awesome, action-packed day 1.
Day 2 began with a bus ride to Port de Barcelona, where we visited the European School for Intermodal Transport (Escola Europea — Intermodal Transport). After an information-packed boat tour of the port of Barcelona, where we witnessed yacht docking operations, container operations, newly manufactured car shipping operations, cruise operations, fodder unloading, energy operations and new expansion to increase capacity, the director of the school, Eduard Rodés, explained how the port operates on a landlord model, how it makes money and how they are implementing their strategic vision of becoming a logistics hub for Europe and the Mediterranean region. He also discussed how sustainability was a key driver in strategy implementation with several programs such as waterfront electrification, creating LNG infrastructure for LNG as shipping fuel and rebates for green ships. The session was especially interesting for me as it helped me understand why the EU is still invested in hydrogen as the next frontier of energy despite rapid advances in electric mobility and grid-size batteries. Rodés explained the types of hydrogen (gray, blue, yellow and green) and talked about the investments being made by the EU in pipeline infrastructure. He also explained how carbon capture technology ties into net-zero carbon economics.
The next business visit on day 2 was at Marinva HQ, where we witnessed how gamification can be leveraged to bring about organizational transformation. Through a simple game in which we had to assemble a spaceship model in groups of four, trading off on quality vs. cost with one member changing teams mid-game, we understood how such an exercise brings out personality traits that can be subsequently addressed for a cohesive organizational culture and team building. This session was personally revealing for me as I learned that I need to work on my listening and team player skills as I tend to assume a leadership role naturally and tend to operate in an autocratic but friendly manner instead of listening to ideas and creating an inclusive team environment. The presenter explained that the game approach was based on a solid body of research; they were recently employed by Barcelona’s municipal administration to come up with a game to fight isolation and its side effects, created by lockdowns and quarantines that were necessitated by that pandemic. As we enjoyed sea waters after the session and returned to the hotel, I pondered what I could do to improve my team player skills and I read about the papers and books referred to by the presenters, Esther Hierro and Sheila Boudount Kouach.
Day 3 began with a session on sustainability at HP by Filiz Akede, General Manager, Large Format HP Printing — Western Europe. We learned how we are in a period of continuous change with a renewed focus on sustainability, with younger consumers becoming more and more concerned with the provenance of products. Akede discussed megatrends such as rapid urbanization, changing demographics, hyper-globalization, accelerated innovation and how technology will impact work, education, industry, society and health. We discussed several examples of stated impacts, such as carbon capture, vertical farming, 3D-printed bone implants, container ships with sails powered by natural wind, artificial meat and the metaverse. She explained how the motto of “Learn, Un-learn, Re-learn” is guiding HP through times of change and how the motto and megatrends inform HP’s 10-year plan and strategy.
After this knowledge-packed session, we took a bus ride to world-renowned tourist attraction La Sagrada Familia, later followed by the Player Experience tour at Camp Nou, the stadium home of FC Barcelona. It was interesting to see how FC Barcelona leverages merchandising as a key revenue stream apart from club operations and to know that they won 16 championships and awards across various sports and teams (both men’s and women’s), apart from the men’s soccer team.
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Day 4 began with a bus ride to Montserrat Monastery, where we learned about its rich heritage in the mountains. We later drove to a vineyard, where we learned about the art of making the local sparkling wine, Cava, and its history, as well as wine testing, and we were treated to a scrumptious lunch at Mastinell Hotel.
The next day, we took the high-speed train to Madrid from Barcelona, completing a 624-kilometer journey in two and a half hours, traveling at the breakneck speed of 300 kilometers per hour with lush green fields on both sides of the track. Reaching Madrid, we explored the city on foot, walking through a UNESCO world heritage site with monuments right next to our hotel.
Day 6 began with a discussion of Spain and its economic and industrial overview with professor Germán Ríos, who is chair of the observatory on Latin American politics and economics at IE University. He discussed the Spanish economy and its context in the world economy and the European Union. We asked him questions about his stint at the World Bank and what role these global organizations will play on the world stage with growing national boundaries due to the rise of nationalism across the globe. He shared an interesting perspective on the topic, concluding that even though nationalism is rising, globalization achieved until now cannot be undone overnight, and global organizations such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the UN will be required to do more, not less, in the future to ensure a level playing field.
The session was followed by a visit to the Prado Museum, the main Spanish national art museum, where we experienced great art and learned about rich Spanish art heritage, styles and methods.
Day 7 began with a presentation by the CEO of Voicehumans, Javier Furones, who discussed how the metaverse is poised to take over as the de facto medium of web interaction, superseding websites, and how Voicehumans is changing the customer service space with unique AR and AI-assisted one-on-one digital interaction avatars to further improve the reach of customer service. They also worked on creating brand imaging and avatars in the metaverse. As an exercise, we created an avatar for Coca-Cola based on a Canva template, and we came up with a unique business idea to be implemented in the metaverse as a fun activity during the presentation. Our idea was to set up a VR/AR adventure experience that would allow patrons to experience extreme sports such as skydiving, extreme skiing, mountain climbing and deep-sea diving from the comfort of their homes or at a nearby adventure center. The other team came up with a platform that would connect experiences such as specialty cooking classes from a Michelin-starred chef to interested patrons in the VR/AR world. They went on to list and demonstrate several of these niche experiences that are currently not as accessible due to the cost and infrastructure involved.
The session was followed by the most interesting piece of the whole immersion. We visited the design studio of Serial Cut and were treated to super high-quality and visually and aesthetically awesome videos and graphics by their founder, Sergio Del Puerto, who initially began as a freelancer. He talked about his freelancing, setting up a design studio, interactions with big brands such as Chevrolet, Sonos and Nike, and how such fundamentally abstract and creative work is executed and what goes into ideation and production. We were surprised to know that all the videos showcased were created with the use of physical props and were not CGI. He showed us a behind-the-scenes video to further detail the process. Although we had limited time with Del Puerto, we wished we could sit and chat with him all day to know more about this fundamentally creative and abstract business.
On day 8, the CEO of HEWEGO (Health & Wellness Goals) delivered a presentation on his young venture, which works to create individualized health plans for working professionals to help them achieve metabolic, emotional, physical, musculoskeletal and nutritional health. He explained how the proprietary platform is not only about creating AI-assisted personalized plans but also helping people acquire skills to achieve their health and wellness goals. I was amazed by the CEO’s vision of implementing a certification program that will create discount programs for insurers in which a person certified by HEWEGO (by virtue of participation in and compliance with HEWEGO plans) would be eligible for deep discounts in insurance plans across the globe. It was fascinating to witness firsthand a young venture created by a physiotherapist and a clinical phycologist with such a grand vision. Their success enforced the business-friendly administrative infrastructure available in Spain and the EU in general.
The day ended with an enthralling flamenco performance by a team of six. Before the performance, we learned about the rich history and improv nature of the performance we were about to witness. The discussion gave us insights into what goes into training and perfecting the art of flamenco across its three disciplines of tap dancing, singing and guitar as we enjoyed the performance with a new perspective.
As the study abroad immersion came to an end, I was amazed by the truly inclusive and diverse nature of Spanish society. Every business we visited demonstrated how such a diverse societal structure fosters business and how a business-friendly administration creates a land of infinite possibilities and unique business propositions. It was hard to not fall in love with Spain!