Inside INSEAD’s 24/7 Culture Of Conflict

INSEAD MBA students

There is likely no more unassuming a geographical placement for the world’s best business school than INSEAD’s European campus. Perched atop the Financial Times’ global MBA programs for the second year in a row, INSEAD’s headquarters in Fontainebleau, France, is nestled against an old, massive deciduous forest some 35 miles from Paris. Living in the middle of that 110-square-mile national forest doesn’t prevent young professionals from converging on what is increasingly known as one of the best business school experiences anywhere.

“We have today 86 nationalities on campus,” boasts Dean Ilian Mihov, from his office overlooking the trees. “We create teams of people that sometimes are from countries that are at war with each other. Because we want to make sure that during this year they learn how to interact in teams with somebody that you may not like.”

After this year’s repeat first-place finish in the FT’s ranking, INSEAD’s 10-month program has become a legitimate presence in the cacophony that is the elite MBA market. If applicants or other schools are now intrigued as to what exactly sets apart the school, which has campuses in Singapore and Abu Dhabi, a consensus is the extreme global nature reflected in Mihov’s comment.

“There is no other international business school, so what exactly do you mean?” laughs Urs Peyer, dean of degree programs and an associate professor of finance at INSEAD, when asked what sets INSEAD apart from other international business schools. “We don’t have a dominant culture. The top nationality in this year’s class is 9%. That means everyone is in the minority.”


Of the 1,003 students in the Class of 2016, 31% came from Asia Pacific, some 30% came from Western Europe, and 13% came from North America. Between the two intakes — one in January and one in September — 93 countries were represented. Impressively, INSEAD also placed 2015 graduates in 57 different countries. What’s more, 80% of that class changed either work, sector, or job function. All of this happens within 10 months, an accelerated timeframe that includes two four-month academic blocks and one two-month block when most students snag internships.

“No one comes to INSEAD to learn about the French culture or doing business in France, or Singapore, or the Middle East,” points out Peyer, who flew fighter jets in the Swiss Air Force before pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. “They all come here to learn a global perspective. And I think that only happens at INSEAD.”

Indeed, 93% of INSEAD’s Class of 2016 was international. For comparison, Harvard Business School enrolled 35% international students in this year’s incoming class, while Stanford’s Graduate School of Business enrolled 40% and Wharton had 32% international students step onto campus this fall. At London Business School, 90% of the students in its latest class hail from outside Britain.


What sets INSEAD apart from U.S. schools, insists Peyer, is the complete lack of dominant country focus. “We’re not a school like in the United States, where people come to learn about the United States and all of the cases are written about United States businesses,” Peyer says. “If they teach globally, it’s through the lens of an American company or an American employee. And we don’t have that, by construction.”

But how does the school, which awarded its first MBA in 1959, differ from other European players? For one, Peyer says, is INSEAD’s strategic moves to both Singapore and Abu Dhabi. According to Peyer, about 25 years ago the school began to emphasize academic research — still a strength today. In 2000, the school officially opened up shop in Singapore. And in 2007, it set up a research campus in Abu Dhabi. Three years later, the school officially made Abu Dhabi its Middle East campus. Along the way, INSEAD established partnerships with Wharton and China Europe International Business School (CEIBS).

“I think that if we had not gone to Singapore, INSEAD would not be where it is today,” Mihov says. He adds that about 75% of INSEAD’s students spend time on both the Fontainebleau and Singapore campuses, though that’s not a requirement. In addition to students being able to experience both vastly different campuses, Mihov says  faculty has been given the opportunity to research and write cases on two very different markets. “We have developed expertise on Asia and Asian companies that otherwise I don’t think would have developed,” Mihov says. “It’s very difficult to build cases on China or India or Singapore or Indonesia by sitting in Fontainebleau. You can do it, but it’s not as insightful as when you’re there.”


It was the Singapore campus and the school’s global approach that attracted Brazilian Fernanda Antunes to INSEAD. She first heard of the school from one of her first supervisors at Endeavor, a nonprofit that serves as an accelerator for high-impact entrepreneurs. Seeking to jump from entrepreneurship to venture capital, Antunes primarily looked at INSEAD and Stanford’s GSB. But the global appeal won her over and she enrolled at INSEAD and spent her first four months in Singapore.

Once in Singapore, Antunes was surprised by the city-state’s rich entrepreneurial culture, INSEAD’s Wendel International Center for Family Enterprise, and the intensity of her classes and classmates. “They come with a mindset of knowing a little bit more about what they want to do,” she says of her fellow INSEAD students, noting the full-time MBA average age is 29 — slightly older than the typical age of 27 or so at American programs. “And I think that’s important,” she says. “If you want to take two years and explore different options, then maybe a two-year program is better. But if you have narrowed down a field you want to work in and go deeper into that field, in one year you can do more than that.”

What’s more, Antunes says, the intensity brings the large class closer more quickly.  “I don’t think the two years would make a difference,” Antunes responds when asked if she felt two years would be better for building networking relationships. “I have many, many people I’ll take with me for life.”