Completing Rutgers International Executive MBA degree tougher than surviving gun battles, floods and below zero temperatures

Ramsey Rayyis has survived shelling in Croatia, driving aid convoys through gun battles in the Republic of Georgia and delivering food via reindeer sled in Russia’s Arctic North in negative 45 degree weather.

But it wasn’t until the American Red Cross aide worker enrolled in Rutgers Business School’s International Executive MBA program in China that things got really challenging.

“Without a doubt, it was the toughest 15 months of my life – and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” said Rayyis, who alternated class time and studying with jetting around Asia to work on various humanitarian projects. “I really felt good personally, being able to juggle this.”

The 43-year-old California native who graduated from the Rutgers IEMBA in November may not have been a typical student. Then again, there’s no “typical” with a program that draws experienced professionals from more than a dozen countries to classes in Shanghai and Beijing, where they learn from Rutgers instructors who fly in from New Jersey and elsewhere.

Rutgers International Executive MBA
Ramsey Rayyis (Top row, second from left), Rutgers International Executive MBA 2010, in the mountains of Ningxia Province, China in 2007. The Red Cross distributed disposable cameras to school children and had them document their lives.

Kelly Brantner, executive director of Asian operations for IEMBA, said the 14 1/2–month program, which focuses on international business, attracts students who have an average of 11 years work experience at places such as embassies and multinational corporations.

“The level of discussion and the perspective individuals have differs based on culture so it makes for a very enriching exchange of ideas,” Brantner said.

That’s true not only between students, but also between faculty and students as well. Lewis Kerman, who teaches a Law and Business Ethics course in the program, said he’s always learning something new from the students whose nationalities range from Nepalese to Israeli, from Malaysian to Polish.

“Creativity is a by-product of differences among us,” said Kerman, a former dean at Rutgers. “When all of us ‘talk the same language’ – and that’s not necessarily a national language, but perhaps one of business or science – we all understand the same concepts.

“It’s only when there’s a ‘disconnect’ that we begin to think in new ways….New ideas and new ways of looking at things often come about from people with wildly differing backgrounds coming together to look at something in a new
way.”

For Rayyis, that coming together took some planning. While he had considered enrolling for several years, he wasn’t able to commit the time given his unpredictable schedule. That changed when he returned to China at the end of 2008 as a regional representative for Asia to focus on helping communities recover from the massive Sichuan earthquake.

He began the program with the idea of possibly changing careers and moving into the corporate world. But Rayyis said it took him less than a month of talking with fellow students about what he does for him to realize he’s got an interesting profession that he loves.

So while he still is open to any new opportunities his MBA might bring, for now Rayyis is sticking with his job of 1,000 adventures.

“Being able to witness lives changing from tragedy to hope is incredibly powerful, and seeing this every day reinforces Ramsey's drive to do all that is possible to help those in need,” said Luke Greeves, senior director of international management and planning for the American Red Cross who has worked with Rayyis since 1999. “Ramsey is a strong leader, consummate diplomat and mission driven – a combination of the most critical skills needed as the head of our office in one of the most disaster prone and strategically significant countries in the world.”

Rutgers IEMBA in China
Ramsey Rayyis (Right), Rutgers International Executive MBA, graduate in 2010, shown here in Russian Arctic North with the Red Cross in 2004.

Rayyis’s career with the American Red Cross began not as a worker, but as a victim of a natural disaster. He was in Santa Cruz, Calif., shopping in the wine aisle of a supermarket with a friend when the 1989 San Francisco earthquake hit, sending shelves of glass bottles crashing onto him.

He had to be rushed to the emergency room to treat the gashes. To make matters worse, his house was condemned because of the damage.

But after he recovered, Rayyis started working with the local American Red Cross branch, helping other earthquake victims rebuild their lives. A year and a half later, Rayyis was sent to do emergency relief work in Turkmenistan, the former Soviet republic that suddenly found itself independent in 1991 as the U.S.S.R. collapsed.

“I was excited to be there because it was this incredible opportunity,” Rayyis said about delivering food and medical supplies. “But at the same time, you definitely felt the depression. Here were people who worked their entire lives for something and it was done in one swift kick.”

To fund operations in the chaotic country with an inconsistent banking system, Rayyis said he and his colleagues would fly in from Moscow with tens of thousands of dollars in cash strapped to their chests. “It was crazy,” he said. “That was Wild West times.”

And Rayyis loved it. Turkmenistan was his first international assignment and Rayyis said he realized he was doing exactly what he wanted to do with his life. Although many in his field burn out because of the difficulty in coping with the pain and suffering they see, Rayyis said his optimism has helped him thrive for more than two decades.

“It is emotionally and physically draining to show up 24 hours after a devastating earthquake or visit some of the most remote and impoverished villages in the world, but that is what Ramsey does,” said Greeves, who met Rayyis in the Dominican Republic after Hurricane Georges. “He is energized by the passion to help others.  It is in his DNA.”

Rayyis needed that passion in 2004, if for nothing else, to stay warm when he ventured to Russia’s Arctic North to help distribute tons of food to villagers as part of a 3-year aid operation. They flew in by helicopter, but had to use reindeer sleds for the last leg of the journey in temperatures that dipped to negative 45 degrees (Fahrenheit and Celsius meet at about that point).

Along the way, Rayyis has lived in 13 countries and been responsible for operations in as many as 30. He’s helped in Uganda during a cholera outbreak, led food convoys through active battles during civil war in the Republic of Georgia and managed refugee camps in Croatia during the war there in the early 90s.

On his first night in Croatia, Rayyis was assigned night duty and shells started to rain down on the camps. It was his job to safely evacuate hundreds of refugees to shelters.

These days, much of Rayyis’s work is not as adrenaline fueled. Based in China until June, he has been working on Red Cross HIV/AIDS prevention programs in the country. And he’s overseeing the installation of water systems in 19 Chinese villages in areas affected by the Sichuan earthquake, so residents won’t have to walk a kilometer to get water.

But in May, Rayyis – married with a daughter – plans to embark on what could be his biggest adventure yet: his first visit to New Jersey to attend his graduation.

- Greg Saitz

TAGS: Alumni American Red Cross International Executive MBA