A Letter From Hyderabad

For a business school that was little more than an idea ten years ago, the Indian School of Business has come a very long way. First conceived in the late 1990s with the explicit goal of becoming “an internationally top-ranked, research-driven, independent management institution that grooms future leaders for India and the world,” ISB has leveraged India’s corporate elite (the CEOs of 30-40% of the Indian stock exchange sit on its board) and early academic partners like Wharton and Kellogg to aim for the fences from its groundbreaking in 1999. In a decade’s time it has managed to earn Financial Times’ blessing as the thirteen-best business school globally, an impressive 717 average GMAT for its admitted students, and year-in-year-out placement success with firms like GoogleMcKinseyGoldman SachsBoston Consulting Group, and Microsoft.

ISB’s rapid success is all the more remarkable given that global success has meant going against the grain of Indian management education, from refusing government money (and therefore government admissions quotas), emphasizing research, and insisting that applicants accumulate work experience before applying to filling 28% of its class with women, when India’s IIMs manage only 10%.

Yet ISB’s most distinguishing characteristic–its identification with India–may also be the challenge that has kept it from translating its obvious quality into the kind of brand power that puts even relatively new schools like INSEAD in a higher league (at least in applicants’ eyes). How to get aspiring elite MBAs with no particular interest in Indian careers to earn an “Indian” MBA? That question partly explained the invitation this and 15 other admissions consultants received to come to ISB last week as guests of the school.  Over two and a half crowded days, consultants from the U.S., Brazil, Singapore, and France were treated to a tour of ISB’s oasis-like campus (replete with indigenous peacocks and meticulously landscaped grounds), actual classes by ISB’s formidable faculty, and information sessions on everything from ISB’s history and current status to its research centers. Punctuating the ISB-focused schedule were tours of two of Hyderabad’s leading industrial lights, Infosys and Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, and a dinner at a palatial local eatery.

Most memorable from this visitor’s perspective were the students–witnessed in action in a Strategic Innovation Management class and off duty during a catered feast of Murg Biryani and other local delicacies. They were sharp, ambitious, and eager to share their pride in their school. And though ISB’s student body is overwhelmingly Indian (hence the invitations to consultants to help change that fact), the exceptions–a Buddhist priest from Japan seeking the management skills to market his Tokyo temple, a Sri Lankan-Australian tech marketer who turned down Kellogg–were equally impressive. ISB’s six “centers of excellence” also stood out:  the Centre for Emerging Markets Solutions is taking a practical, hands-on approach to incubating solutions to “base of the pyramid” issues in healthcare, housing, and energy; and the Centre for Teaching, Learning, and Case Development is attempting to offset the Western-centric focus of MBA cases by writing cases about emerging markets.

But perhaps most memorable was a session near the end of the event in which ISB’s leadership took off its collective marketing hat and asked the consultants for frank feedback on what ISB can do to convince more non-Indians to seek their management degrees in Hyderabad. The ideas they received were candid, creative, and, to this participant’s ears, spot on.  ISB’s pitch is that India (and of course China) must be part of any aspiring executive’s field of reference; an MBA who doesn’t ‘get’ India and the emerging markets is just not bound for the top. What better way to learn the emerging markets than to study there?

But to applicants the hard realities of brand, placement, and salary matter more than appeals to global awareness. Eighty-one international companies come to ISB to recruit–including the likes of Deloitte, Citi Bank, and Novartis–and a U.S. student graduating from ISB can as easily land a position with a U.S. firm recruiting at ISB as with an Indian one (it’s the Indian ISB grad seeking a U.S. job who’ll face visa challenges). Yet most applicants still consider ISB as an option only for those who want to build a career in India. To break down the applicant preconceptions that keep ISB off the same short lists as Harvard, Stanford, or Wharton, ISB will have to market itself as a great school that happens to be in India (with all the special advantages that entails), rather than ‘the Indian business school.’ Columbia, for example, is a great business school whose greatness is enhanced by but is not coextensive with its New York location. ISB is already a great business school, but its location is not yet perceived as a value-add. That will come. With savvy marketing by ISB, it may come sooner than ISB imagines.

Paul Bodine is an MBA admissions consultant and the author of Great Applications for Business School, Perfect Phrases for Business School, Perfect Phrases for Letters of Recommendation. He can be reached at Paul Bodine Consulting, www.paulsbodine.com.

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