From Romania to London B-School

Vlad Gudov at London Business School

Typical of many of the MBAs at the London Business School, Vlad Gudov is something of a citizen of the world. Born in Romania, he witnessed the hardship of communist rule as a child. Gudov spent a year in a rural town in Washington State as a high school student. He worked for Procter & Gamble’s Balkans Business Unit, traveling extensively in nine countries for the consumer packing goods giant. And among his most cherished memories as an MBA student at LBS was the time he spent to South Africa helping a local entrepreneur set up a business near Cape Town. Gudov, who studied economics and international business at a university in Romania, earned his MBA from LBS this year and begins work on the global marketing team at Vodafone headquarters in London in mid-September.

His story:

I was born in 1978, so I grew up during the harshest period of communism, the last 10 years. My first memories of Romania are of poverty, people standing in line for hours or days to buy various necessities, food included. I remember distinctly that there were items of food which were considered luxury, which only diplomats would have access to, as they were sold in special stores. Bananas and oranges, for example. We weren’t dirt poor, but still I remember my parents struggling, even for food sometimes. They were engineers, my father in construction, my mother in the telecom industry. Yet to save money and to be able to enroll my sister and me in a school that was in a better part of town, my parents sold their apartment and moved in with my grandparents.

I also remember being acutely aware, as early as my first few years in school in the third and fourth grade, of that feeling that you are being watched. Of course, at that age it was rather benign, but still we were all aware we had to be careful who we talked to, what we said, how we behaved. You may have read Herta Muller who describes quite accurately the feeling of widespread paranoia, of not being able to trust anybody. That was, in my case, heightened by the fact that I was in the same classroom as a very close relative of the dictator’s. She was a wonderful girl, we were good friends, it’s just that having that presence among us made us perhaps more aware of things than most eight- or nine -year-olds would have been.

The very first time I set foot in the London Business School was back in early 2008. My first impressions were strong. That day I had two very good conversations with current students. I sat in an interesting class on entrepreneurship and remember being impressed with the caliber of the discussion and the interesting personal story of a speaker who came in for the second half. I met somebody from admissions who was very helpful. And, needless to say, I loved the campus. It may sound superficial, but I knew that the way the place looked and felt would carry a lot of weight in my decision. I remember standing on the first floor of the Sainsbury building, looking out onto the magnificent front lawn and out toward Regent’s Park, thinking this might just be the place for me.

I applied to Harvard, Wharton, Columbia, London, and Michigan’s Ross School. I ended turning down a full scholarship from the Ross School to come here where Vodafone gave me a scholarship.

As an entering student in August of 2008, my first interaction with LBS was still positive. Yet the overriding feeling I remember was that of being overwhelmed. From day one, a lot of information was thrown at me, there were many new people to meet, and a lot of things to do and choose. It took me a while to start making sense of everything. I breathed a big sigh of relief that I had come three weeks earlier. I managed to get settled into my apartment and figured out what the heck a council tax was and how you set up a utility bill. With that part out of the way, I could focus on the school and the MBA program. There’s something here called the ‘flat hunters pub crawl.’ It’s organized by second-year students to allow all the newcomers to mix. You meet in a different pub, five nights a week. Every evening, there are dinners held to meet your classmates, and all of that socializing then leads to the start of the academic program. You take the core courses in five streams, with about 80 people in each, and there are six-to-seven person study groups with everyone a different nationality. Your study group stays together for the entire first year.

Out of the 20 professors I had in the first year, I would only flunk one. More than 50% are in the very good category. Michael Hay, who teaches Discovering Entrepreneurial Opportunities, is fantastic. The student evaluations of the professors are public so when you choose your second-year courses, you get an Excel spreadsheet of the professors’ ratings to help you.

If I had to change anything about the experience, I would take fewer core courses, allow more waivers so if you’re from corporate finance you can waive out of that course to take an extra elective.

The five adjectives I would use to describe London Business School are intense, eye opening, flexible, diverse, and rewarding. There are so many opportunities to try out new things, or to hone skills you already have. We work hard, but we enjoy our time in London and at LBS. The 24 hours in every day were definitely not enough!

What I always tell prospective students and new admits is that no matter how smart you are or how many things you have seen in your life, you will discover new personal and professional opportunities at LBS that you never thought of before. And if you did think of them, you thought they would never interest you.

The MBA at LBS is, if nothing else, what you make of it. The school offers you a blank sheet of paper. It takes great pride in giving you the freedom decide what you want to do. You have, more or less, two years to try anything, to do things at whatever pace is good for you, and to basically reinvent your life, or, for some, to confirm that the life you had before was truly making you happy.

The community is incredibly diverse: there are so many nationalities and languages here, professional backgrounds and life experiences, beliefs and principles, goals and aspirations. You name it, and you will find it in the LBS community. And it’s really rewarding. I’m able to use this adjective now that my experience as a student is over. I look back on my time there and I can say that the two years have definitely been worth it.

Two things were very challenging, and in a way they are closely related. First of all, making choices about what to invest my time in (like I said before, there are only so many things one can cram into 24 hours at LBS), and second, my post-MBA professional choice. I was undecided and explored a lot of options for a very long time.

Obviously, there are many moments I look back on and they put a big smile on my face, but one of them in particular stands out. in March of this year, an LBS colleague and I, together with two MBAs from Duke (we were all on exchange at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business) were sitting on the front porch of a South African artist in Khayelitsha, which is a township on the outskirts of Cape Town. We were there on a mini-consulting project for an elective course we were taking, and the project’s goal was to help this local designer set up a crafts business. The secondary, long-term goal was to help him create an art center in the township, ultimately a source of inspiration for other budding craftsmen. I remember thinking, as we were gathering information from him and bouncing potential business development ideas off each other, that if this is the least of the things I have done with my two years at LBS, then my time was well spent. You don’t often have the opportunity to make a big impact in somebody’s life, and the four of us were literally using what we had learned during the MBA to change somebody’s life, helping him achieve a very important dream.

There are two pieces of advice that I look back on and that I am most thankful for. First of all, in the days when I was deciding which program to go to, an old friend of mine, who had already graduated from Columbia University, told me that I should never make the decision based on money. She was saying that to emphasize that the amount of the scholarship I had been awarded should not be the primary criterion for choosing the program I would join. Instead, I should focus on which schools that accepted me would be the best fit, which one would be the best match with my future career and professional aspirations.

The second piece of advice I received, and this one is as trite as advice gets sometimes, but highly necessary, was ‘to step outside of your comfort zone, try new things, things you would have never tried or didn’t have time to try before, push yourself to really make use of the proverbial blank sheet of paper that the MBA offers you.’

The greatest challenge I faced in the MBA program was finding the “right” profession after getting the degree. I toyed with many alternatives during the program, not only in terms of the field (consulting vs. industry vs. entrepreneurship, for example), but also in terms of my role (marketing vs. business development vs. business management). I was luckily able to explore several of these routes through first-hand experiences: my internship, a class project, and my second year project, but also vicariously, through what my colleagues were or had been experiencing. That’s an unexpected benefit of an MBA program. You’re surrounded by fascinating people who are always an important source of information. It helps to inform and to shape your decisions.

An event that changed my life? Outside of the MBA, a major event in my life was the year I spent as a high school exchange student in a small town in Washington State. I was just 17-years-old and found myself spending a year in a place called Grandview. Just two weeks after my original host family pulled out of the program, and with it my big, shiny dream to be in California, a family in Washington agreed to take me in. Coming from a big city in Romania with 2.5 million people, I knew that living in a village of 9,000 was going to be difficult. And it was. In a couple of months, walking down the street I would have to look really hard to find somebody I didn’t know. There were few places to see; few exciting things to do. What happened though was that I immersed myself in the spirit and life of an America that few tourists ever get to experience. I met amazing people: my host parents, a religious Methodist couple, very involved in the life of the community and in the church. They showed me the true meaning of living inside a community. Or my English teacher, with whom I am still in touch after so many years, who has become one of my best friends and from whom I learned the joy of imparting knowledge and giving others the tools to succeed. This experience came at a perfect time, when a lot of my personal values and principles were still being shaped. If nothing else, I truly learned how much good we can do with the smallest of gestures and how there really are few things more noble than helping others. It may sound trite again, but it was a good lesson to learn at that age.

I am grateful for the people I have met, that life, chance or destiny, has brought in my path. Some of them taught me important lessons that have shaped the way I see the world and influence others. I am also grateful to my parents for having given me, as I grew up, the tools to succeed. In the poor and famished Communist Romania of the 1980s and even in the effervescence of post-Communist Romania in the 1990s, offering your children a chance to succeed was not an easy feat. I am grateful to them for having accomplished it.

Other “My Story” features:

From a Hollywood Talent Agency to Chicago’s Booth School of Business

From Deloitte Consulting to Harvard

From an Army Ranger in Iraq to Harvard

From West Point to Berkeley’s Haas School of Business

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