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Why Women Go To Europe For An MBA

studentsIf you’re a woman from North America who is studying for an MBA in Europe, you might very well be considered one of three types, according to a new study commissioned by the London Business School.

You might have a “dual background,” meaning you were born outside of North America from foreign parents.

Or you could very well be a “traveler,” a citizen of the world who has a sustained interest in foreign cultures.

Or you might be a so-called “candid American” who has lived her entire life in North America but now wants to break out.

The project, led by the Forté Foundation, a U.S.-based non-profit that works to advance women in business, found that most North American women who venture to Europe for their MBAs do so because of the international network. The study interviewed a selection of North American women enrolled at five top European MBA programs to gather qualitative insight and form a hypothesis as to what their profiles were. This was followed by an online survey of North American women enrolled at those five schools to verify and refine the hypothesis through the collection of quantitative data.


An overwhelming majority (80%) of North American women say the reason they chose to study for an MBA in Europe was for the international network. Additionally, 91% of those surveyed said that it was the diversity of their student classmates that attracted them to their European MBA program.

“If you want to get noticed by CEOs of organizations, you need to have two things:  international experience, which speaks to your network and your ability to operate globally, and P&L experience,” says Wendy Alexander, a former member of the Scottish Parliament, who now serves as the associate dean at London Business School for Degree Programmes and Career Services.

In an interview with Poets&Quants, Alexander said “there have always been two sorts of women who have come from the U.S. to Europe. There were always people who wanted to study in Europe because of a family connection or because they were travelers. But a completely new group has emerged: What we call candid Americans. These are women who have spent their entire careers in the U.S. and decided to come to Europe for their MBAs. It’s because they realize that functional leadership in one geography isn’t enough. If you are a woman who wants to make it to the top, you need to have global reach and you need to have early profit-and-loss responsibility. Those are qualifiers for the c-suite jobs in the future.

“The hypothesis is that if you want to be noticed quickly, increasingly employers want to see that you can lead a global team,” adds Alexander. “Women who have realized this will go the farthest in their careers, because they will have the X factor for the future: experience, expertise and cultural awareness. Moreover they will be highly qualified for global roles where they can shine early by delivering growth in new markets.”

As of November 2012, there were 141 North American women enrolled in MBA programs at five of the leading European business schools: London Business School (45%), HEC Paris (11%), INSEAD (33%), IE Business School (7%) and SDA Bocconi (10%).  Some 65 women responded to the online survey.


The research identified three distinct profile types within the pool of North American applicants:  The Dual Background, the Traveller and the Candid America, which represent, respectively, 40%, 35% and 25% of North American women who choose to pursue an MBA abroad.

  • Dual Background women are usually born outside of North America from foreign parents.  Their mother tongue is not English.  They immigrated to the U.S. or Canada when they were children and grew up there.  They tend to have a science or engineering degree from a second-tier North-American university and half of them went on an international exchange programme. They want to do an MBA to progress in their career. A European MBA makes sense to them because it enables them to leverage their dual background. They often have a personal reason to study in Europe such as relatives or a partner based there. They usually want to return to North-America after graduation.
  • Travellers are citizens of the world. They were born in North America but displayed an early, sustained interest for foreign cultures. They usually studied economics or international relations at a second-tier North-American university. They went on an international exchange programme and they also worked abroad, often for lesser known companies. Some of them were actually based in Europe at the time of their MBA application. They decided to get an MBA in order to move their career forward in the corporate sector.  Travellers are flexible with regards to post-MBA job locations and would consider Europe as well as North America or Asia.
  • Candid Americans have lived and worked all their life in North America. They attended a top U.S. University where they earned a finance degree. Half of them went on an international exchange programme. They have had a successful career with a finance or professional services company. Initially, they considered and applied to American MBAs but they eventually took a chance on Europe. Compared to the other two profiles, Candid Americans like to take risks. They want to switch careers – maybe start their own company – and possibly change location as well.

Elissa Ellis Sangster, executive director of the Forté Foundation, said in a statement:  “This research study helped us to build a comprehensive profile of North American women who have an interest not only in studying for an MBA, but doing so at one of our European partner schools.  It’s an important step in building the pipeline of women business leaders and reaching them as early as possible with solid information about business education.”

“I had never lived abroad when I decided to apply to a European business school,” said Sarah Peden, a 2010 London Business School MBA graduate, who fits the profile of a Candid American in the research.  “It was a risk for me, but I needed to get out of my comfort zone.  Studying abroad not only expanded my global network but prepared me for making the switch to a new career.  It was a worthwhile investment and opened up my career options.”