Updates from IBD Thailand – Bangkok, Krabi, and Vientiane, Laos

Spring 2014 IBD students Christen Chen, Garima Dhingra, Zane Keller and Andrew Mitsch are in Bangkok, Thailand. 

Week 1

Our team arrived in Thailand on Sunday, May 18th. One of the things you first notice when you arrive in Bangkok is the climate. To say it’s warm and humid here would be an understatement: daily high temperatures routinely reach 38 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit) with humidity in the 70-80% range. Needless to say, the best time to explore the city is in the morning and evenings when temperatures are cooler.

shell1Morning in Bangkok

We are staying in the Sukhumvit neighborhood of Bangkok. Sukhumvit is a very modern neighborhood bustling with street life, soaring office and residential towers, and a vibrant mix of western and eastern stores and restaurants. The neighborhood is bisected by Sukhumvit Road, one of the main thoroughfares in Bangkok. This has worked to our advantage since the road is served by both the MRT (subway system) and SRT (monorail). We have found the public transit system here to be cheap, efficient, and safe. Transit is an especially favorable option due to local traffic and road conditions, which we will describe in a later post.

shell2The Sukhumvit skyline

On the second day of our trip, we woke up to the surprising news that the Thai military had declared martial law in response to recent political unrest. This development took a further turn when the army declared on the fourth day of our trip that a coup was in progress. Despite these alarming headlines, we thankfully saw little change in day-to-day life in our neighborhood in Bangkok.

shell3Coup in Thailand (source: CNN)

When we aren’t working on our project, we have enjoyed the local cuisine and coffee shops which are prevalent throughout the neighborhood. Thai food, which is most well known for being spicy, can also be surprisingly sweet and comes with various forms of meat (generally chicken or pork), seafood, and vegetables. To the surprise of the vegetarian in our group, it is relatively challenging to find strictly vegetarian food in Thailand.

Our first week in Thailand was an interesting one between the coup, the surprisingly modern and western environs of Sukhumvit, and the bustling street life of Bangkok. This weekend, three of our group members are heading to Chiang Mai, well known for its rich history. The fourth member will be staying in Bangkok and exploring the Rattanakosin neighborhood which includes sites such as Wat Pho, a well-known Buddhist temple.

shell4

Week two

During the second week, we finally had the opportunity to meet with our client in their office (the political situation previously delayed us from meeting with the client in-person). During the meeting, we discussed our project plan and scheduled some interviews with some of the client’s employees as well as several external parties.

shell5Discussing our IBD project with our client as we walk through the streets of Bangkok

shell6Meeting with our client in their office

We conducted these interviews throughout the week. When conducting these interviews, time zone differences often created a significant challenge: since our client is a multinational company, many of the employees that we spoke with were located in Europe or the United States. As a result, we conducted many of our interviews early in the morning or late at night from various locations. Additionally, employees in different geographical regions have different conversational styles: in Thailand, they prefer to build a relationship first before speaking, whereas in Europe and the U.S. the employees preferred highly structured and direct conversations. Subtle differences such as these are what make the IBD experience a true learning opportunity.

At the end of the second week, half of our team headed to Vientiane, Laos while the other half headed to Krabi, Thailand. Krabi is a quaint beach town located in southern Thailand which is lower profile than its sister beach town Phuket. On the first day, the group climbed up the famous Tiger Mountain; 1,200 steps the team finally made it to the top. The breathtaking views made the hour long climb worth the effort. Meanwhile, the pair that went to Laos enjoyed the French-influenced city of Vientiane and the relatively undeveloped countryside of Laos. When the team arrived back in Bangkok, the political tensions seemed to have eased a bit as the curfew was extended from 10pm to 12am.

shell7IBD team members visiting a Buddha garden near Vientiane, Laos 

shell8IBD team members riding an elephant near Krabi, Thailand

Week three

On the last week, the team was able to extract some great insights from internal employees of the company. Because the Thailand market in which the client operated was underpenetrated, we were able to gain best practices from other parts of the company. These insights were very informative in when forming our final recommendations to the client. On Friday June 6th, we presented our conclusions to three members of our client’s country management team. The recommendations were well received and we discussed the next action items as well as possible future consulting projects.

Cooking Up a Cultural Culinary Exchange in Asia

Trav spoon steph and aashi

Traveling Spoon’s Stephanie Lawrence and Aashi Vel, both MBA 13

Steph Lawrence gave her first dinner party when she was 12, serving 40 people. Aashi Vel grew up connecting to her culture through the scrumptious south and north indian food made by her mother in Madras, India.

Traveling Spoon curry croppedBoth women, MBA 13s, considered a future in food entrepreneurship but weren’t necessarily aiming for that straight out of b-school. Then, they met.

At a consumption function in their first week at Haas they immediately bonded over common interests such as, well, food. What followed has been a whirlwind of activity aimed at launching The Traveling Spoon, an online service helping travelers explore culture through the local cuisine. The tagline: Travel off the Eaten Path.

Lawrence, long an avid food blogger and a cook going back to her Easy Bake Oven days, had been thinking for a while about a Traveling Spoon dumplingphotoventure combining food and travel. While living and working in China in 2009, she made learning how to make dumplings from “a Chinese grandma” a priority. Checking this item off her bucket list made her want to share authentic local food experiences with shorter-term visitors to a region. That same year, she registered the Traveling Spoon URL, with the idea that in a few years she’d go to b-school and think about this some more.

Vel came to Haas with a finely honed palate and experience in industrial design for medical devices and consumer products. “I always want to be doing something creative,” she says of her move from design to cuisine. Prior to meeting Lawrence, she traveled in Tulum, Mexico where she too craved an authentic food experience. “On my way to restaurants, I’d smell the aromas coming from home kitchens and wish I were eating fresh tortillas made by a local Mexican woman instead,” says Vel.

Traveling Spoon Cochlin India 3

Amara Aigbedion, MBA 13, prepares to enjoy a home-cooked meal in Cochin

“Meeting Aashi is what turned Traveling Spoon from something I auto-renewed on Go Daddy each year into something real,” says Lawrence. Last winter they offered a Traveling Spoon experience to fellow students on a winter break trek through Southeast Asia, bringing 8 classmates together for a home dinner in Cochin, India. “This was the highlight of our trip,” says Jane Wong, MBA 13, of the feast of homemade appams, syrian beef fry, and fish curry. “I would jump at the chance to do another.”

Trav Spoon Steph with host

Steph Lawrence learning to make a traditional minced catfish dish in northern Thailand with a Traveling Spoon host

Berkeley-Haas coursework has followed the launch curve for Lawrence and Vel, who together took Entrepreneurship last spring to hone their business model. This year, they moved on to New Venture Finance to work on funding, Lean LaunchPad for deeper customer insights, and Women in Business to learn how to empower their partnering hosts (95% of whom are women).

While their aim is to be global, they are concentrating on Asia for now. Vel spent summer 2012 lining up hosts in India and the pair spent this past winter break in Thailand, Vietnam, and Bangladesh signing up additional hosts—a mix of established chefs and teachers along with home cooks. “An important goal for Traveling Spoon is empowering women in emerging markets,” says Vel.

Days that stretch to 3:00 a.m. are not unusual, but Vel says, “It never feels like work.” That’s due, in part,  to the fact that Lawrence and Vel are now close friends as well as business partners. Both say meeting each other is the best thing that has happened to them at Haas, making it clear that, wherever they travel off the eaten path, it will be together.

Trav spoon steph and aashi2