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HEC Paris: Where The Grande École Has Gone Global

HEC Paris is located on a 340-acre wooded campus in Jouy-en-Josas, just 12 miles southwest from Paris

HEC Paris is located on a 340-acre wooded campus in Jouy-en-Josas, just 12 miles southwest from Paris

For a recent business school presentation on the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Connie Chen came dressed to the nines. After all, the MBA exchange student at HEC Paris was leading a group of four classmates in the semester’s last session of a class on Luxury Strategy. The highly popular course is taught by a charismatic professor, Vincent Bastien, who was once the chief executive officer of both Louis Vuitton and Yves Saint Laurent Parfums.

A Chinese-American student from New York University’s Stern School of Business, Chen was smartly attired in a haute outfit, with a black-and-white sweater vest over a flowing pleated linen dress. But what most drew Professor Bastien’s attention were her Christian Louboutin four-inch stiletto heels.

The professor playfully urged Chen to come out from behind a podium to show off her black suede, gladiator-style shoes, announcing to the class in his strong baritone voice, “beautiful shoes” as the petite student obliged.

When a classmate reminded the professor that such comments would be politically incorrect in an American business school, Bastien laughed aloud. “That’s why I don’t want to teach in the U.S.,” he quipped.

Welcome to HEC Paris, a business school that has become truly global without completely losing its French roots. One of Europe’s finest business schools, HEC Paris is located on a 340-acre wooded campus in Jouy-en-Josas, just 12 miles southwest from Paris. It is a school that has undergone a dramatic transformation in the past five years, from a distinctly French institution, part of the elite “Grandes Ecoles” where entry is granted only to the very best students in France, to a truly international business school where every course is taught in English.

‘FREEDOM OF LANGUAGE IS FREEDOM FROM CULTURE’

As Professor Bastien says, “The students are very diverse. I want my class to be a reflection of the world and it is. Out of a class of 30 students, I had one from France, four Americans, five Chinese, with some from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Beijing, Koreans, Japanese, Mexican, Russians, Italians and a Chilean. They see the world differently. And the big advantage is that no one speaks French. You have more freedom of language here and freedom of language is freedom from culture.”

In contrast to either London Business School or INSEAD, which respectively take in 400 and 1,024 students every year, HEC’s full-time MBA program is small and intimate. The latest entering class—admitted in two intakes in September and January—is composed of 178 students. Some 85% of them are from outside France, reflecting 50 different nationalities, ranging from Brazil to the U.S. The school’s acceptance rate of 28%–which falls to 18% if you take into account candidates who completed an online profile but were not encouraged to apply–makes HEC more selective than INSEAD. 

The students, moreover, are taught by a cosmopolitan faculty of 110 permanent professors, 64% of them from other countries. Many of the professors are relatively new to the school, replacing a slew of inbred teachers that had been born in France and were proud products of the “grandes écoles.” Six out of ten are currently on the tenure track of six to seven years. HEC faculty who teach the MBAs are surprisingly down to earth, defying the stereotype of the stiffly formal and somewhat intimidating French scholars of years past.

THE SCHOOL SAYS THAT GRADUATES TYPICALLY DOUBLE THEIR PRE-MBA SALARIES

When HEC’s students graduate, they tend to find jobs outside of France. The career stats show that 72% of the MBAs find jobs outside the country, largely in Europe but increasingly in China, Korea, Singapore and India, often with French firms such as L’Oreal, LVMH and Schneider Electric, that have been gaining a foothold in Asia. On average, the school says, MBA graduates from HEC double their pre-MBA salaries and last year 89% of the class had jobs three months after commencement. The average salary with bonus was 95,160 Euros, or just under $130,000.

In 2009 and 2010, five out of the 15 top recruiting companies were french. This past year only one—the fashion conglomerate LVMH—was among the top 15 recruiters which includes such mainstream MBA players as McKinsey, A.T. Kearney,  GE, Credit Suisse, Unilever, and Johnson & Johnson. This year’s two largest recruiters are familiar names: Amazon and Google, which have respectively made nine and five offers to the Class of 2014 which officially graduates on June 13th.

“U.S. business schools are of a type,” insists Tony Somers, director of the MBA career management center. “They are all two-year programs and the jobs market is homogenous, both in terms of how the students find jobs and their ultimate location. At HEC, our students are from all over the world and they are placed all over the world.”