INSEAD’s academics are grueling. P1 (period one) – hell, as some people call it – is intense. I thought running four companies simultaneously was difficult. No. P1 made my brain hurt. The combination of trying to get to know your classmates, to get along with the team members in your mandatory-can’t-change-it-even-if-you-wanted-to group, and to make sure you’re keeping up with the pace of both academic and non-academic demands was punishing.
Let me put this in perspective. Imagine sitting down to do finance homework from a professor who assumes that you already have a base level of financial knowledge. I knew how to operate excel, make it sing and dance. Beta? What’s a beta? What’s a yield curve? Oh, you mean that little graph in the corner of the Financial Times? For the next four hours, I’m on Wikipedia, Google, FT.com, figuring it out, and then I come back to start my homework.
On the other hand, I am comfortable with mathematics. When you’re sitting in the library and see classmates having a harder time with the quantitative-heavy material, what do you do? You help them. So it’s not just about your workload and your priorities, it’s about the collective work that needs to happen. Finding a way to balance that is a struggle.
Everyone’s going to say their classmates are intelligent. But INSEAD MBAs have applied knowledge, and they’re humble about it. Some people think knowledge is power, and they hold back. But that isn’t right. Knowledge gets people together. I went to class with a guy who had a bachelor’s degree in Ancient Philosophy, and had worked for the Open Society Institute (George Soro’s private foundation). His job was to add value to civilization. He had assisted the General Counsel, working on legal issues in over 60 countries. After INSEAD, he got a position with Soros Fund Management. He’s never going to become antiquated when it comes to the markets: he’s paying attention to social issues, too.
I was part of student government. Last year, we ran it differently: we shared responsibility. So we didn’t run for a particular position, like president. We shared the title. There were multiple Presidents or VPs. I was Vice President of Student Affairs in P3, VP of Administration in P4, and President in P5.
The professors at INSEAD aren’t beating the academic bible. They’ve done it. When you learn about options and valuating companies, you learn from (Professor of Finance) Theo Vermaelen, a guy who has not only taught all over the world, and published proficiently, but who has consulted to IBM, Air France, Emerging Mexico Fund, and ABN-AMRO. He has also been a portfolio manager for various companies. They drive theories home in the real world by pointing to experience.
We had two campuses to choose from: Fontainebleau, France and Singapore. [INSEAD now has a third campus in Abu Dhabi.] Fontainebleau is, obviously, very European. And you’re in the middle of the forest. Paris is 45 minutes away, so you’re one train ride away from that cosmopolitan feel, but for most part you’re in the forest, having amazing experiences in class, and parties in chateaus, which most students rent. (I was in a villa.)