Do you aspire to someday be CEO? A generation ago, the road to the c-suite ran through a core discipline such as finance or engineering. Now, organizations have added a new demand: overseas business experience. Take European conglomerates. According to a September report from DHR International, a leading executive research firm, 87% of the CEOs in 30 leading public companies in Germany have worked overseas. The percentage is 63% among CEOs in France’s top 40 — with both numbers representing a 10% increase in the past decade.
There’s no secret why companies are pivoting toward leaders with successful international track records. And you’d be hard-pressed to find an MBA program that teaches global business better than INSEAD. Based in Fontainebleau, France, with campuses in Singapore, and Abu Dhabi, INSEAD tags itself as the “The Business School for the World.” That line is more veracity than vanity.Just how diverse is the program? According to Virginie Fougea, associate director of admissions, the incoming Class of 2017 features over 70 nationalities. However, you won’t find a dominant nationality at INSEAD, with Americans and Indians representing the highest proportion of the class at 9% each (and French and Chinese students each representing 7% of the class followed by Canadians at 6%). True to its cross-cultural vocation, INSEAD also requires students to be fluent in two languages upon entry and learn a third by graduation. That said, classes are still taught in English, which has replaced Mandarin as the top native language among students (with French, Arabic, Hindi and Portugese also ranking among the most common languages spoken by the 2017 Class).
Forget a world that’s flat and Western. At INSEAD, students enjoy a 360 degree view of business that covers every corner. More than that, the classes are taught by a faculty where 93% of its members hail from outside France (and 97% possess doctorates). “I have not seen a more diverse business or school, where students from all over the world come together to share their experiences and knowledge, says Serban Dick, a 2017 class member who climbed the ladder at PwC in both London and Papua New Guinea. His classmate, Evgeniya Armstrong, a native of Russia who holds master’s degrees in law and finance, was equally impressed. “Even if you are coming from a very international work environment, there is a good chance that you are still going to be challenged intellectually and emotionally because there are so many different personalities and cultures here.”
SKYDIVERS, KITSURFERS, SALSA DANCERS AND KAYAKERS
Fougea describes the Class of 2017 as “adventurous risk-takers yet humble individuals.” That cuts to the heart of the INSEAD experience: the class isn’t just diverse in term of its nationalities. The full-time MBA is equally rich in terms of personalities and life experiences. Armstrong, for one, describes herself as an “explorer, achiever, and creator, believing in constant development and bringing structure to chaos.” She’ll fit right in with Dick, who is “keen to explore the world and change the world.” As explorers, neither boast the chops of Singapore’s Kailing See, who has “explored 42 (new) countries across 5 continents over the past 10 years.” However, the most fascinating terrain likely belongs to Ivo Vassilev, a man of myriad contradictions: “Humble, but confident; responsible/organised, but fun; finance oriented, but loves arts; realistic but spiritual.”
They also aren’t afraid to laugh at their own foibles. Turkey’s Eser Tireli, who studied engineering at Michigan and worked at Bain & Company, once locked himself in a fire exit…during a job interview. “Luckily, the partner interviewing me had a sense of humor and gave me an offer in the end,” he jokes. Dick was circled by a shark during a night dive in the famed Great Barrier Reef. “It was not fun at the time,” he notes.” During her first skydive, Armstrong decided she would rather plunge to Earth at 120 MPH solo than take her chances with an instructor pulling the cord in a tandem jump. “I just could not trust my life to someone else,” she says.
The class is adventurous in other ways too. Canada’s Jacquely Vanos taught herself how to kitesurf, while China’s Muzi Yu is a certified salsa dance instructor. Before entering INSEAD, American Lindsay Van Landeghem trained as a whitewater kayaker before hitting all seven continents. Not surprisingly, Vassilev greatest journeys take place in his mind. “I have recorded three songs and am also a play actor. I sometimes write poetry.”
CLASS INCLUDES FIRST FEMALE COMMANDER OF AN ISRAELI MILITARY COMPANY
Many have also overcome difficult odds in their professional lives to achieve smashing successes. Just put yourself in the shoes of Hila Shabtai, a woman who served in the Israeli army before moving to KPMG and Procter & Gamble. She had to bear the pressure of being the first female commander of a reserve company in the history of the Israeli defense forces. “In retrospective I completely underestimated the resistance I would face in my reserve unit,” she admits. “The combat company was made up of 120 men older than me that never served with a woman before, and could not have imagined serving under a younger woman officer command.”
Despite some doubts, she was inspired by the words of her commander: “Where else in the world at the age of 21 would you be able to be a ‘CEO’ leading a company of 100 people?” To earn her company’s respect, she “endured the same physical training as everyone and didn’t accept any special privileges.” Her “determination” and “professionalism” eventually wore down their misgivings. “Over time, I gained their trust and appreciation and I am today an integral part of the unit’s officer group. Over the past eight years, I believe I’ve changed mindsets and attitudes that were deeply rooted and created a precedent for other female officers to serve in various reserves combat units.”
Shabtai isn’t the only pioneer in the Class of 2017. Germany’s Claudia Kampel made the unlikely jump from classical guitarist to management consultant. After conducting intensive research and doggedly pursuing opportunities, she landed an internship with McKinsey, which she converted into a job offer. “I think it is most important to keep going and not get de-motivated when your original plans don’t work out or when you experience drawbacks during an application process — there always is an alternative and it might turn out to be a much better fit than what you originally wanted to do!”
The incoming class is filled with similar stories. China’s Shu Shu oversaw asset valuation, due diligence, and portfolio integration in Shell’s $4.5 billion acquisition of Repsol…while pregnant. Armstrong launched a practice group in her law firm that became one of its top revenue streams. And Vassilev is better prepared than most for INSEAD after the “culture shock” he faced moving to Dubai to work as an auditor (while studying for his accounting qualification). “I never gave up and continued to work hard both academically and in terms of my job, ultimately getting promoted year on year, while also obtaining two Middle East awards for highest scores in my accounting qualification exams.”