‘…But I’m warning you, once you see it, you’ll want to be part of it!’ How right he was.
Last week I bumped into an old friend from university. After all the heartily greetings and the mutual shock that it must have been easily 4 years since we saw each other, the conversation moved on to our current occupations. I have a pretty busy schedule traveling Eastern Europe and told him about the challenges I met while trying to carve out an improved business model for our South East Europe region. His story was of a different caliber; in September 2010 he was admitted to study an MBA in one of the world’s most prestigious business schools: INSEAD in Fontainebleau.
Whenever since I started studying Applied Economics, INSEAD always had a special place in my heart. Twenty minutes South of Paris, amidst a beautiful forest and at the side of a charming French village. But also; School where one of my favorite professors in my home university used to teach, a school which is home to thousands of business leaders worldwide, churning out (only!) 500 graduates yearly. And above all: in not too far of a reach of this 30-years-old finance professional. I have been playing with the thought of applying; my GMAT is good enough, but missions abroad (Greece, Poland, Turkey, Sweden) have delayed me. Not to mention the cost, on which I will touch at the end of the post.
You can’t believe how delighted I was when he invited me over for a day (It’s a four-hour drive from where I live). ‘Just come over, sit in a couple of lessons, get a feel of the atmosphere and of the culture. But I’m warning you, once you see it, you’ll want to be part of it!’ I was very aware of that risk, but last Thursday I jumped in my car and drove off.
Friday morning 8.30: there we were in a class called ‘Creating enterprise value’. My friend presented, just like all other students did, his valuation of a smallish company and his strategy to improve the financials, thus creating value when selling it back. No very far of the reality it seemed, because this presentation was followed by a presentation of an INSEAD MBA alumnus which actually has done it, and one by a venture capitalist.
I quickly discovered that the 50-something students in the rooms meant business. No bored faces of economics students having to follow academic considerations around micro-economics; they were sucking in all knowledge they could get out of their teachers, and went off to prepare a business plan on a company turnaround they would have to present by the end of the semester. For real.
Later that day I participated in a course on Business Strategy, had lunch with some fellow students, had a walk around campus and yes, I had a few concalls from work to handle as well. All in all, a very full day.
A few words on what I found and liked in Fonty:
Diversity: Insead claims it’s one of the spearheads of their programme and this is no marketing mumbo jumbo. A clearly implemented policy on diversity (on nationality and gender) became very visible while sitting at lunch: on every table one could easily find 5 nationalities sitting together. You know what also helps? People get tested quite heavily on their English, so there’s no energy consuming situations where half of the conversation goes lost in translation.
Languages: Above the English requirement, people are required to master 3 languages when graduating, allowing for an open and receptive mindset of the participants. Funny to hear an American trying his best French at the counter of a shop. It must be quite an intense experience for a lot of these people, stepping out of their comfort zone like this.
Dedication: and an almost humble disposition. One would expect, in an elite school like here, more arrogance or uptight characters. For the one day I was there, I saw above all a very sober and diligent approach by the people I met. Again, it helps to have everybody struggling in languages he or she does not fully master, and to be in the presence of top notch teachers.
Passion: the number one reason for many, including myself, to participate in the INSEAD program: a passion for business. This is not just education and the lessons are not just a transfer of knowledge in economics. People come here out of a passion for business. To start it up, to improve it or to take over one.
Money: no way around it, you need considerable amounts here. Around 55.000 EUR for tuition fee, add to that 25.000 cost of living and a year of missed income. Companies are less and less willing to fund the MBA so the students you see walking on campus are walking insolvencies at that moment. The pay expected after graduating is quickly filling the financial hole, reportedly in under 4 years. But, as I was told, it is definitely no certainty everybody lands a job paying 100K or more.
All in all an incredibly inspiring and fascinating experience, but… I still struggle to decide whether I should apply. It’s all part of knowing what you want and where you want to go. And no degree can teach you that.