HEC Paris: Where The Grande École Has Gone Global

Bernard Garrette is the architect of a transformation at HEC Paris

Bernard Garrette is the architect of a transformation at HEC Paris


That diversity of people and thought has helped the school’s rankings. Ten years ago, HEC’s full-time MBA program was ranked 53rd in the world by The Financial Times. Just five years ago, it had climbed to 29th—and this year to 21st globally and seventh best in Europe. Overall, in its combined rankings of the MBA, executive MBA, master’s in management and executive education, the FT has also named HEC Paris the best business school in Europe in four of the past five years, tying with Spain’s IE Business School for the honor last year.

The architect of HEC’s transformation is Bernard Garrette, a gregarious and accessible one-time McKinsey consultant who has been associate dean in charge of the MBA program since January of 2011. Garrette knows the old and the new HEC well: he earned his master’s degree from the HEC “Grande Ecole” in 1985 and his Ph.D. from HEC Paris in 1991. When Garrette stepped into the dean’s role more than four years ago, his goal was “to transform a national champion into a global champion in the business education world.” HEC graduates are a vital part of the country’s power elite. The school boasts 11 alumni among the CEOs of the 40 companies on the Paris Stock Exchange with the highest market capitalization. It ranks fifth worldwide for having the most CEOs of the Fortune global 500.

“When people call us the Harvard of Europe, we like it,” says Garrette.  “When they say we are the Harvard of France, it’s not enough. We want the brand to be recognized around the world.”


Students who find their way to HEC are a remarkably global bunch. Katrina Senn, 25, who will graduate in 2015, came to the school as an American from California. But her father is Swiss and British, while her mother is Chinese and Indonesian. Senn had gone to the Lycée Francais Laperouse in San Francisco for a French secondary school diploma in economics and social sciences before doing her bachelor’s in Asian studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Senn spent a year in Osaka, Japan, teaching English and writing classes in high schools and then returned to San Francisco to work for the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO). after graduating from Occidental College with a degree in Asian studies, she left for Osaka, Japan, to be an assistant language teacher for a year.

Both her parents have MBAs—her father from Chicago and her mother from UCLA—and encouraged her to go for the degree. “I was looking only in Europe,” she says, “I was drawn to go some place new.” She focused her search on schools in Spain, France, and Italy, but found herself liking HEC Paris the best. “The culture here is unique,” says Senn. “It’s a very international program and we learn a lot about France.”

Many of the students here say they have chosen HEC over INSEAD because they prefer the fact that the MBA here can be taken in 16 months, rather than 10 at INSEAD, and because of the much smaller size, an annual intake less than 20% of what INSEAD admits every year. “INSEAD is a completely different world,” says Senn. “We have a small class. We get to know each other very well, and the focus is on individual growth.” Adds Marcus Vilcinski, 29, “HEC is one of the rare schools where you can find a wide range of students from all over. And 16 months is the right timing. I didn’t want to squeeze everything in 10 months at INSEAD.”


Vilcinski is Brazilian, though his father is half Japanese and half Portuguese, and he has lived and worked in Australia for three years. “The school is in the countryside of Paris so when you first arrive, you think it’s a negative thing,” he adds. “But if we were in Paris we could easily disappear into the city and the connections with each other wouldn’t be the same.”

Vicki Yang, 30, was drawn to the school for its specialty in luxury marketing just as Stern exchange student Connie Chen. The Chinese American had earned her undergraduate degree at New York University and then worked four years at the BankofAmerica. She put a year in at a strategy consulting boutique and then founded her own custom lingerie company in San Francisco. Keen to learn more about the upscale market, she found herself engrossed in the book, “The Luxury Strategy.” “I was so fascinated by the book that I flipped to the back and saw that the co-author (Professor Bastien) was teaching at HEC Paris. I had never heard of the school, but the more I read about it, the more excited I got.”

A big appeal was the school’s “luxury certificate,” a deep dive in a specific topic that requires the completion of three of four courses, a three-day business game that challenges students to address the problems of growth and profitability in the luxury market, and a group project that involves hands-on experience. The two compulsory core courses are Topical Insights in Luxury and Managing Luxury Brands, while the two electives are called Sense & Sensibility and Retail and Merchandising Management.

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