Spotlight: alumni groups

We interviewed a few of our alumni group leaders to find out how they stay connected in their part of the world. Max Purser (MBA 2001) and Sharifah Bakar Ali (MBA 2010) have worked together to set up the alumni group in Malaysia – Kuala Lumpur (KL). This group has just begun its journey of group activities whilst our group in Russia – Moscow now has a regular programme of events throughout the year. This group is headed up by Peter Prabhu (MPhil Management Studies 1991) and Will Bland (BA Sidney Sussex 2000).

Tell us a bit about the group’s background. What prompted you to start the group?

Max Purser: “The original idea came from a visit by the CJBS alumni officer to KL back in 2013 however it was really only in 2016 that a decision was made to get something more meaningful going as the number of alumni in KL increased.”

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Peter Prabhu: “Before arriving in Moscow in 2004 I lived in Hong Kong, Singapore and New York, and was active in alumni activities in all three cities and I was dismayed to find that such an important country as Russia did not have an active Cambridge alumni group. Starting one on my own was a daunting task, so I kept it on the back burner until a dedicated CJBS alumni relations officer reached out to global alumni in 2012. With her help CJBS alumni held our first major event in 2013, a panel discussion entitled ‘Can Russia Compete Globally?’”

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Will Bland: “I lived in Beijing for a couple of years and I met some interesting people via the alumni group there, so when I returned to Russia I knew that there was potential. I met Peter at an alumni drinks event that he had organised. He had also invited a few people from other universities and I thought it worked. After that, there was a “meeting of the minds” where we had similar objectives in terms of inviting interesting speakers to address our alumni, creating more substantive events in addition to the purely social.”

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Sarah Tan: “When I was doing the MBA at Cambridge Judge, I co-chaired the Tech SIG. For events and general connections, I wanted to be able to connect with other alumni in tech but there wasn’t really an easy way. So the obvious answer was to start it myself!.”

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What are the highlights of the group’s activities?

Max: “We’re in our infancy but we’ve had one initial get together at the Mandarin Oriental pool bar with a view of KL skyline in November 2016. This week we’ll celebrate Chinese New Year together over what is known a Yee Sang, a traditional dish shared amongst ethnic Chinese in South East Asia to welcome the lunar new year. We have also created a WhatsApp chat group among the KL alumni for ease of communication. The chat group is steadily increasing in number as more alumni hear about the formation of the alumni network here in KL.”

Peter: “To be sure, we also arrange strictly business events. We hold an annual economic outlook panel and have arranged panel discussions on building internet-based businesses in Russia and the positive and negative aspects of piracy in developing intellectual property-centric businesses. But one of the things that distinguishes our group from other business alumni groups is our broad focus. During my time at Cambridge, I was very impressed by the cross-disciplinary perspectives and this is something we’d like to perpetuate.”

Will: “Some of the noteworthy events have included talks with a Russian focus on a broad range of subjects. Our most recent keynote was a talk entitled “Inside the American Mind” and delivered by a former Russian spy two days after the election of Donald Trump. We’ve also done cultural events – we had a talk from a Russian filmmaker and our next scheduled speaker is a photographer.”

Sarah: “Casual local meetups have been successful so far. We had one in coordination with this year’s Tech SIG in February (2017), and a good number of current students who took the train to London to meet alumni at a King’s Cross pub. About 50 people showed up in total.”

What challenges has the group faced, if any?

Max: “Honestly, we weren’t sure how many alumni are based in Kuala Lumpur or indeed Malaysia and whether there would be sufficient numbers to warrant a more formal group. The reality however is that there seems to be many more than anticipated. With 15 appearing at the first gathering and many more who sent their apologies there’s the making of a vibrant network. The other challenge is to ensure that the initially created group remains engaged. One way is to keep a steady pipeline of activities planned and roll these out periodically.”

Peter: “Well, financing is always a consideration! Thankfully, we have a good network in Moscow and have been able to secure event venues at low/no cost. We pitch the venues on the notion of the reputational benefit they receive from hosting a prestigious alumni group such as ourselves.”

Will: “We like to have guests of all ages, including current students, and this means that we have to negotiate hard with the venues that host us. Our speaker events and panels are a forum where we hope that people can listen, think and speak – we’re lucky that we usually achieve the balance between those three things. We’ve never silenced guests, but we were all taken aback by the insistent questions of one opinionated guest. We also have to take a few risks with speakers. We care about the quality of discussion rather than just the buzz that our events might create.”

Sarah: “As an interest-based SIG, we aren’t concentrated in any one geography, so we’re looking for more people to help organise events outside of London, anywhere in the world! We would also like to facilitate networking and discussion online about business and tech topics.”

What do you feel are the group’s key accomplishments?

Max: “Getting started!”

Peter: “Personally, I feel that one of our most important activities is the annual Going Up cruise for newly admitted students from all disciplines. As a foreign student myself I would have loved to have had an opportunity to learn about student life before arriving in Cambridge so as to “hit the ground running”. I feel Cambridge Alumni in Business is a thriving partnership between CJBS alumni in Russia and the general alumni who are interested in business issues, and can be used as a model for alumni engagement in other countries.”

Will: “We now have an established calendar anchored by certain recurring events: a Going Up cruise, a Christmas reception, the Varsity rugby, the Boat Race and an economic outlook panel. Generally, I think one of our most important accomplishments has been to expand our members’ opportunities for networking. We also hold networking events with other alumni groups – not only Oxford, but also US alumni groups like Harvard, Yale and Columbia, as well as the top Russian universities. We’ve seen business partnerships emerge organically from these networking events.”

Sarah: “We’re pretty new, so the key accomplishment has just been getting interest and members.”

Finally, what does the future hold?

Max: “We’re excited about how the group might evolve over time. Initially we’re looking to get together on a quarterly basis and are looking forward to becoming an integral part of the circuit that CJBS staff make in the region. Eventually we hope to link our activities to other Cambridge Judge activities in the area. We also hope to link with other similar alumni groups in the region to provide the KL alumni with an opportunity to get to know their peers in the region.”

Peter: “As a volunteer effort the group’s effectiveness is only as good as the energy and enthusiasm of the people involved. We’d like to see more Russian alumni step up and take an active role in the organisation of the group.”

Will: “In Moscow, we’re the only non-commercial, English-language organisation where high-profile speakers can be part of an open discussion with intelligent, open-minded guests from all walks of life. That’s a good place to be.”

Sarah: “Casual local meetups have been successful so far. We had one in coordination with this year’s Tech SIG in February (2017), and a good number of current students who took the train to London to meet alumni at a King’s Cross pub. About 50 people showed up in total.”Sarah: “Tech seems to be an area of growing interest from both alumni and current students. Tech is a wide field because it covers both function and industry, and the addition of Digital Business as a core MBA course is an indication of this.”