AU students welcome French president and business leaders to Banff

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Standing in the receiving line with French business delegates at the Banff Centre, Sandy Ennis watched as French president François Hollande—flanked by Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper—made his inspection of the Canadian honour guard.

“It was pretty special—the atmosphere, the day, the French president coming to Alberta,” Ennis says. “It was a moment to be proud of being Canadian.”

Ennis was one of five Athabasca University MBA students who were selected as ambassadors for the French state visit. In total, 12 Alberta post-secondary students were in attendance. Also there from AU were Carmine von Tettenborn, Jay Schurman, Alex Mather and Heather Foidart.

The Banff Centre, with its stone, glass and wood beam architecture nestled into the gentle slope of Tunnel Mountain, provided the backdrop for Verlyn Olson, Alberta minister of agriculture, and Stéphane Le Foll, France’s minister of agriculture, agri-foods and forestry, to sign the Letter of Intent for the Agricultural Trade Agreement between Alberta and France.

It also offered a practical setting to learn about international business in the context of an actual trade mission. “You read a lot about startups and expansion strategy in your textbooks but it’s very different to sit with international business leaders and see how those ideas translate from Europe to Canada,” said von Tettenborn.

Much of the students’ role was to act as translators and guides for the visiting diplomats, which led naturally into conversation about business matters. Both Ennis and von Tettenborn were interested in how regulatory differences between the nations factored into discussion. “It was interesting to be able to have a conversation with the French delegates and business people and learn what their operations were,” said von Tettenborn, “and if they weren’t operating in Alberta, what industry they wanted to expand into and what their challenges were.”

“They wanted to know how to infiltrate the market,” added Ennis. “It was interesting to hear what they need to know about Canada and how to do business here.”

“It really demonstrated the scale and magnitude of international expansion, the timelines and the due diligence that has to go into it,” concluded von Tettenborn.

Von Tettenborn’s ears perked during a discussion about supporting greater collaboration in the post-secondary sector, and encouraging more student exchanges and cooperative work experiences as a way to build stronger ties. “I’d definitely sign up,” she said.

For his part Schurman was impressed by the sheer scale of French businesses already operating in Canada. “It helped me get a better understanding of trade impacts on different industries,” he said. “A lot of that actually ties into what I do now.”

The historic significance of the occasion—the first state visit by a French president to western Canada—and the rareness of such opportunities made it all the more memorable for the five students.

“If you’ve ever given an opportunity like this, seize it!” von Tettenborn advised. “You never know the connections you’ll make and where they’ll come in later.”

Ennis agreed. “It’s a once in a lifetime thing you kind of have to do.”