Business leaders Ritu Kumar and Von Glass moved out of the classroom and into an immersive learning experience to develop their cultural awareness and identities as leaders as part of their AGSM MBA.

Although their reasons for enrolling in an MBA (Executive) program at AGSM @ UNSW Business School were slightly different, Ritu Kumar and Von Glass agree: the Leadership Immersion experience has been transformational.

After nearly two decades in the TV and film industry, Von felt it was time for a change and wanted to explore ways to transfer her skills to a different industry. As an experienced change manager, Ritu was interested in developing a wider network and opening up career opportunities. And they both attribute the program to making a lasting mark on their growth as leaders.

For Von, now the Head of Creative Strategy and Content Services APAC at Salesforce, the program changed how she works and leads. And for Ritu, Senior Change Manager at iCare, the experience has touched many aspects of life.

“The MBA has improved my problem-solving skills and helped me become a better leader at work and parent at home,” Ritu said.

And it was the Executive Year (EY) Leadership Immersion experience – an elective course in the final year of the AGSM MBAE – that left the biggest impression on the leaders.

The course immerses students in a cultural experience to develop their leadership skills outside of the classroom. Beyond the standard business, management and leadership aspects of a traditional MBA, this program immerses students in a First Nations project to provide a hands-on, transformational learning experience – a one-of-a-kind MBA program at Australia’s Best Business School.

It includes a one-week residential On Country with communities in Dubbo or La Perouse, workshops on cultural awareness and supplier diversity, yarning circles, reviews of the Reconciliation Action Plans of the student’s own employers, and learning about connection to Country, and First Nations’ perspectives of leadership. 

Several cohorts of around 40 students collaborate with Indigenous businesses and communities over 10 weeks to solve their challenges. The program wraps up with a one-week intensive residential experience on Wiradjuri Country (Dubbo area) or Bidjigal Country (La Perouse area), where students engage with the local culture.

A deeper understanding of Indigenous culture

After previously completing an MBA program in India, Ritu was drawn to the unique benefits offered by AGSM’s part-time MBAE program, including its flexibility, valuable networking and avenues for new opportunities – and decided to enroll in the program  with her husband. The two were determined to teach their daughter the value of investing in personal growth and lead by example.

Over the weeks leading up to the residential part of the Leadership Immersion program, Ritu worked in a team with Indigenous organisation Fletcher International Exports to find ways to reduce water usage in the meat preparation process.

Working closely with Indigenous leaders, Ritu learned how to lead with a cultural lens and adopt new ways of thinking.

“Indigenous communities find different ways to solve problems. They think from a sustainability and long-term perspective,” she observed. As the experience went on, Ritu and her team discovered how to ask the right questions by building trust and being curious with their client.

But it was day one of the residential on Wiradjuri Country (Dubbo) that really motivated Ritu.

“The ancestral stories shared had the biggest impact on me,” said Ritu, reflecting on the cultural awareness training, Welcome to Country and traditional yarning circles. “It was a different cultural experience but caused me to reflect on my own Indian culture. I could relate to a lot of the values and practices.”

This insight allowed Ritu to have deeper and more meaningful conversations and collaborate on developing solutions. Her team shared benchmarking and conducted a cost benefit analysis for the organisation. Using case studies from around the world, they identified markets to tap into and suggested an advanced water treatment plan to use recycled water to wash equipment.

“Working with Fletcher, I learned more about the acceptance of diverse cultures and considering future generations in the decisions we make today,” Ritu commented. “It’s not just about starting the conversation but also continuing it.”

A balancing act to grow as a leader

Completing the MBA has been instrumental in helping Von make a career change.

“If it wasn’t for the program, I wouldn’t have my current job. Where I am now has a lot to do with the people and network I become connected to,” she remarked.

For Von, committing to the program had the added challenge of meeting the needs of a newborn. An immersion experience required focus and undivided attention, which can be difficult with a baby in tow. But Von was determined to invest in her professional growth, and she didn’t have to do it alone. 

“The Student Experience team at AGSM refused to let me fail. The support I received was next level and gave me mental freedom and availability to obtain the skills I needed,” Von said.

This support included allowing Von’s mother-in-law to stay with her to look after the baby during the one-week residential experience – demonstrating AGSM’s commitment to supporting women like Von to succeed as leaders in the corporate world.

Like Ritu, Von was also moved by the first-hand cultural experience.

“I felt like they trusted me with their culture. If not for the program, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity to experience their world.”

The cultural activities gave Von a deeper understanding of Indigenous culture, particularly Wiradjuri, and allowed her to better consider their perspectives. This enabled Von and her team to deliver their project recommendations with greater empathy.

Native Secrets, a natural skin care brand co-founded by AGSM alumna Cherie Thompson (now also the AGSM Program Manager Indigenous Leadership Programs) faced the bigger picture challenge of the lack of intellectual property protection of the ownership of product, land and knowledge for Indigenous communities. Working with the team and Cherie, Von was inspired by the founders’ drive and ambition. Being around successful Indigenous business owners and leaders gave her a different perspective and motivated her to be part of restoring Indigenous communities.

As part of addressing Native Secret’s challenges, Von’s team recommended creating a governing body for businesses to request certification to label their brands or products as Indigenous. The solution included paying tax for certification, which would fund Indigenous welfare.

“We got to help Native Secrets solve a challenge that wasn’t limited to their own products but has an impact on wider Indigenous communities,” Von said.

Learning to slow down to speed up

While helping Indigenous organisations grow, students also experienced growth as leaders. This is thanks to the program’s integrated learning framework where responsible and ethical decisions become unconscious.

Alongside other students, Ritu and Von developed the skill of slowing down to listen to other people’s perspectives and adapt their thinking and actions accordingly. It also created a deeper connection between students in each cohort, with many forming lifelong friendships.

“I’ve been able to connect with people I wouldn’t otherwise be in the same spaces with – across profession, culture, religion, age and industry,” Von said.

For Ritu, some students in her cohort have “become as good as family”.

The experience of participating in the program transformed both of their leadership styles.

“Who I was as a leader at the beginning of the program is different to who I am as a leader now,” Von said.

“I’m now more understanding and compassionate. The teams I lead now are far more successful with more unity and better relationships.”

“Sharing my learnings has helped me build the trust factor and practise empathy to help others adapt to change,” Ritu reflected.

Find out more about the top ranked AGSM MBA programs available at Australia's Best Business School 2022/2023.