As economic and political trends continue to change at pace around the world, can business schools equip students to flex to these developments, and continue to make an impact globally? Can they keep up with what’s happening out there in the real world of business and politics, and provide a relevant, adaptable education?
Your new community
If you’ve lived and worked in one culture, especially in a large ‘monoculture’ such as China or Russia, then a business school could be your first experience of living and working with a large group of different nationalities.
For Cambridge MBA alumna Maxine Nwaneri (MBA 2007), it was a shock:
“It took me out of my comfort zone of exposure to mainly two countries – Nigeria and the UK – and plunged me into a rich pool of different perspectives and ways of thinking and seeing the world. At first, I felt uncomfortable, but I soon adapted – we were all in the same situation, after all.”
“The class size at Cambridge is a very powerful advantage in this regard” says Amy Kennedy-George, Head of MBA Programme at Cambridge Judge Business School, “in that you can’t hide among people you feel comfortable with! Classes are streamed, and the streams are changed every term so that, through the year, candidates will all work with each other across the 205-strong class, and the 50+ nationalities. Study groups also change every term.”
“Students organise cultural events themselves and mix with a wide variety of nationalities through their Cambridge College. Our faculty here is also very international. Then there is the fact that Cambridge’s location, close to some of the major UK airports, makes it a great base from which to take short haul flights at weekends to different countries and gain exposure to many different cultures.”
Amy also highlights the Management Praxis course which is significant enough to span two terms of the Cambridge MBA:
“This course is designed to help everyone to communicate and work effectively across cultural boundaries, and latterly how to contribute to and lead high performance teams. It provides a safe space to work through any issues if students are struggling with challenges around these themes. The first team project, the Cambridge Venture Project, deliberately puts diverse groups together to deliver a project with a real client company. It’s tough, and immediately impresses on students the need to understand different perspectives, to have highly-polished team-working skills, and to open their eyes to new and unexpected approaches.”
For Mahesh Sudhakaran, Cambridge MBA alumnus and currently Chief Digital Officer for IBM’s Energy business, the global experience on the MBA brought home the similarities, not the differences, between people:
“Common experiences and challenges are the best way to form a bond and doing this with over 50 nationalities making mistakes and learning together, it is a priceless gift of the MBA. We MBA students discovered we had similar hopes, ambitions, fears and expectations – we were more similar than dissimilar. This realisation was my biggest learning – and I’m eternally thankful to my cohort for that.”
Opportunities to explore
A good part of the Cambridge MBA can be spent outside of Cambridge on a variety of activities like the Global Consulting Project, Special Interest Groups and treks. It’s all designed to give the students the optimum chance to experience life and work in as many global locations as possible.
At Cambridge, much emphasis is placed on student-led activities, to drive initiatives, seek collaborations, and to bring others with them as their ideas and interests evolve. The student-led Special Interest Groups (SIGs) see Cambridge MBAs really develop their interests, targeting sectors or regions they wish to learn more about, or highlighting themes they care about.
Cecile Gani, SIG Lead in the Cambridge MBA Careers team, says each year is fascinating as the students take their groups in all sorts of unexpected directions:
“The students form the groups they want and can take them down any route they like. This makes it very dynamic and interesting as the SIGs are different every year depending on who is in that year’s cohort.
“For instance, in the current 2018/19 class there are 30 SIGs – some geographically focused and some sector focused. We have groups concentrating on Africa, Asia, the Middle East, China and Japan. The Japan SIG is particularly interesting this year – the group will be visiting different anime companies including Studio Ghibli. The Africa group holds a flagship conference in Cambridge in April, playing host to Ministers from African states and big players in African companies.
“For the first time we also have a group called PRIDE which has been organised by LGBT+ candidates and their allies. They are holding their inaugural event in January and have invited a prominent LGBT+ speaker – Martin Stead, CEO Of Nutmeg and a Cambridge alumnus – to give the keynote speech.”
“Student treks are also a great opportunity to immerse yourself in the business reality and culture of a new region, to understand the trends for growth in that market,” says Sadia Cuthbert, Head of Business Development at Cambridge Judge.
“There are several treks per year to places like Silicon Valley, the Middle East, China, Africa, Japan, Israel – students organise themselves to visit places of interest. They visit companies, meet alumni, and research employment opportunities.
“Treks can often support a Global Consulting Project (GCP), which students undertake in student teams. They learn so much from this four-week, live project – often travelling overseas to liaise with the client and deliver final presentations. “
Launchpad to a global future
Maxine says the experiences she took part in could not have prepared her better when it came to setting up her venture:
“It has made me so much more audacious. Where before I might have felt intimidated in certain situations, now I will get on a plane anywhere and feel I can talk to anyone. My immediate business goal is to help at least 1000 women on each continent overcome the struggle to find work life balance as they start and grow their families, and the MBA set me up brilliantly to do this fearlessly. I emerged from it a real citizen of the world with friends everywhere. There were over 55 nationalities at my wedding which says it all about the reach of my post-MBA circle!”
Mahesh credits his Cambridge experience with kickstarting the global career he dreamt of when he started his education in his home country of India:
“I wanted a truly global job post MBA and Cambridge gave me the skills – hard and soft – to achieve that. With IBM I have had the opportunity to live and work in the UK, China and the US, as well as the opportunity to travel to over 20 countries. Anywhere I have moved globally with my job, Cambridge alumni have helped me settle in, build networks that have helped me locally and navigate the culture. Alumni in China especially went out of their way to ensure I understood the culture and were literally on call to help whenever I needed them.”
Roupen Alexandrian, a Cambridge MBA alumnus who hails from Armenia and is a Senior Officer at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, found that Cambridge fed his ‘addiction’ to learning about other cultures:
“I was already addicted to developing and expanding my global experience. Although I had been exposed to international environments through the UN, the uniqueness of the MBA was the curiosity we all shared about each other’s cultures and the common interest we all had to learn and share our cultural capital. I’ve benefited in lots of unexpected ways, for instance, we had a classmate from Bhutan during my year. I wasn’t even sure where Bhutan was before meeting him. By the end of the MBA I was using the famous Happiness Index of Bhutan! I value the great friendships I came away with. They are relationships that go beyond just networks, beyond transactions, and are based on trust built through the amazing shared experience of the Cambridge MBA.”
Advances in technology mean the MBA student of today can choose their country as easily as spinning the globe. As students get ready to head off on treks to places as diverse as Dublin and Dubai with companions of many and varied nations, they may well come to the conclusion that the exposure to other cultures is the single biggest benefit of their time on the Cambridge MBA.