INSEAD’s Ilian Mihov Imagines The Future

INSEAD Dean Ilian Mihov sat down for a chat in San Francisco with Poets&Quants. “The only engine of economic growth in the long run is business creation,” he says

Ilian Mihov is an economist who takes the long view of the link — inextricable, indisputable — between economic and social progress. The dean of INSEAD, one of Europe’s foremost business schools, likes to talk about a favorite paradigm: business as a force for good. He uses China as an example: A hundred years ago, China had 840 million people below the extreme poverty line, each making less than $1.90 per day. In other words, 85% of the country’s population lived in the most abject conditions with little hope for betterment.

A hundred years later, China has fewer than 25 million in extreme poverty.

“By any historical standard, this is a miracle,” Mihov says. “Globally, in the last 40 years alone, more than 1.2 billion people have been lifted out of poverty. That’s really phenomenal.

“And when you think about it, how did it happen? The answer is only one: economic growth. It is not government subsidies, it is not philanthropic giving, it is not foreign development or aid. It is economic growth. And the only engine of economic growth in the long run is business creation. If you don’t have people setting up factories and so on, you don’t have jobs, you don’t have growth.”

And INSEAD’s role? “We want to change the way that people think about business. The mission of the school is very simple: train people to be the best intrapreneurs, leaders, managers that can change the world,” Mihov says. And the French school he leads just may have the clout to do it.

Ilian Mihov, dean of INSEAD


Mihov was in San Francisco this month to attend INSEAD’s Alumni Forum Americas, a two-day gathering of the school’s U.S. alumni and C-level executives, global decision-makers, and thought leaders to discus trends currently shaping the global business landscape. More than 400 attended, making it the biggest gathering INSEAD has had outside its home bases of France and Singapore.

Mihov, who became INSEAD’s dean in October 2013, does not seem overly concerned about the school’s recent downtick in rankings fortune. Ranked No. 1 in the world by Financial Times in both 2016 and 2017, INSEAD was knocked down a peg in 2018, coming in second behind Stanford Graduate School of Business. Yet INSEAD this year earned its third consecutive No. 1 in Poets&Quants‘ international rankings and was named No. 2 by Forbes for one-year international MBA and second-highest ROI. Overall, a very positive picture.

Mihov sat down with Poets&Quants at the site of the recent alumni event, San Francisco’s Intercontinental Hotel, for a wide-ranging interview that touched on rankings, the goal of gender parity in business schools, the so-called “Trump effect” on U.S. schools and whether European schools are benefiting, and more. Among the issues discussed were the topics du jour, including entrepreneurship, innovations in venture finance, the impact of technology on public trust, and INSEAD’s latest ventures: the Institute for Business and Society and the Center for the Study of Wealth Inequality.

The event, and others like it, is “about imagining the future,” Mihov says, “and how technology is going to change the future. What is our role? What is the role of trust? The ethics of AI and so on — blockchain, gender, all of these things are really relevant, really interesting, and they are issues that we talk about in school every day as well. This is why we see so many people coming to these events, and there are more and more.” INSEAD will have another event in Amsterdam in June, he notes, to talk about business and society and major shifts in management education — continuing the big conversation that INSEAD wants to lead.


INSEAD is located in Fontainebleau, an hour’s drive south of Paris, an idyllic space abutting a national forest. But though its surroundings are pastoral, its reach is global and its example followed by other top B-schools on any number of fronts: research, international courses, alumni mobility. One of those fronts, however, is (somewhat surprisingly) not gender equality. Like many top programs, INSEAD’s 10-month MBA program has struggled to increase its percentage of women students, with the latest cohort being composed of only 33% women — well below its U.S. counterparts and even some of the school’s European peers, like Oxford’s Said School, which reached 40% last fall. For Mihov, this is a good time to talk about gender equality in B-schools: INSEAD in 2018 is celebrating 50 years since admitting its first female MBA candidate. The school will mark iW50, as it’s been dubbed, with a summit in June, as well as Jennifer Petriglieri’s four-day Women Leaders program scheduled for the summer. INSEAD has also launched a Gender Diversity Initiative led by Zoé Kinias, Mihov notes, and the effort to reach gender parity — without putting a thumb on the admissions scale — will continue.

“We have two classes of about 500 students so we have more than 1,000 students every year, so in actual numbers we’re the third-largest supplier of female MBAs in the world. But in percentage terms we’re not where we want to be,” Mihov says, noting that 91% of INSEAD alumni surveyed in late last year expressed interest in efforts to increase the representation of women in high-impact leadership positions.

“Right now my belief is that the goal should be gender parity. We have created a new Gender Initiative to explore the question, but at the same time we think it’s a failure of society that we have so many gender biases, and we’re trying to understand what business can do to minimize these. Within this Gender Initiative, what is really exciting is that there is so much great research using state-of-the-art methodologies, getting data, and trying to understand what is behind these numbers — pay gap and all these other things.

“For INSEAD, we decompose the data, and we find that from the United States, we get 40-45% women; from China, 60% women. We realized that we have a much smaller percentage of women from European countries. Of course, we’re still a very European school. Then we go into each one of these countries — Germany, Italy, Spain — and we try to understand why fewer women apply. Obviously we have enough applicants, if we want to put the number to 40% or 50% we could, but we don’t want to do it just to say, ‘I have this number.’ You want to do it in the right way. And one hypothesis for why we have fewer female applicants from these countries is that for INSEAD in particular, we are admitting students who are a bit older, average age around 29, and this may not be the optimal time for female students who may be considering starting a family around this time.”

(See next pages for the full Ilian Mihov interview, edited for length and readability.)

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