Education is treated as the great equalizer. It exposes the possibilities, challenges the norms, and compels people to reflect, act, and grow. However, education doesn’t take root in the comfortable. To last, it demands openness and trial-and-error – choosing purpose over pretense, discussion over diversion, and revision over routine. Few things make people more uncomfortable than leaving home.
Mark Twain once wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Perhaps he was envisioning INSEAD, immortalized as “The business school to the world.” INSEAD is certainly a far-flung enterprise. Students can choose between campuses in Fontainebleau, France or Singapore – with a short-term option in Abu Dhabi as well. It is also a large operation, attracting over 1,000 MBA candidates each year over two intakes. However, it’s not the locations that bring out their best in MBAs. Instead, INSEAD requires a new way of thinking and interacting – thanks to a class boasting 94 countries.
SO DIVERSE THAT YOU FORGET THAT YOU’RE IN FRANCE
At INSEAD, you don’t need to travel the world to learn how to practice international business. Just show up for classes, walk the halls, join the clubs, and take part in the field trips. Here, 96% of students hail from outside France. That creates a dynamic that’s different than anywhere else, say INSEAD alumni.
“At INSEAD, your classmates will come from different backgrounds and will think differently,” explains Sukru Dagdelin, a 2018 P&Q Best & Brightest MBA from Turkey who returned to Bain & Company after graduation. “Be ready to have debates with them to create innovative ideas. You might be inspired by your Iranian female group mate, while discussing a go-to-market strategy for an e-commerce platform or you might get valuable organizational behavior insights from a medical doctor in your class. In other words, having an ability to work with completely different profiles is a must to be successful at INSEAD.”
Dagdelin’s classmate, Fatoumata Sy – another 2018 P&Q Best & Brightest MBA – observes that she felt overwhelmed sometimes by how culturally diverse the program is. “Even after having lived more than 17 years in France,” she muses, “whenever I arrive at INSEAD campus, I am in a new planet with no cultural boundaries, and such a unique diversity that I sometimes forget that I am in France.”
‘PEOPLE DON’T APPRECIATE HOW TRULY INTERNATIONAL WE ARE’
In many corners, the term “international programme” is overused, says Virginie Fougea, director of MBA recruiting and admissions at INSEAD. In her experience, INSEAD takes this designation to another level, with the school taking pains to ensure no region or culture dominates the classroom.
“People don’t really appreciate how truly international we are,” she explains. “I think they only realize how diverse INSEAD is when they visit the campuses or talk to our alumni or recruiters. Our students definitely live it in their day-to-day lives and activities on campus. I wish more people could experience first-hand exactly what “international” means at INSEAD. Regardless of religious beliefs, cultures, nationalities, orientations, and political inclinations, everyone helps everyone; students can be whom they truly are, without the need to hide a part of their personality to succeed. It is easy to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion here: students arrive as strangers, by the second week, they are friends, and at the end, they have become a family.”
The Class of 2019 is no different. Who are some of the students who bring unique perspectives and different cultural backgrounds to the table? Start with Siddharth Handa, an engineer from India who holds a unique claim to fame: He built his own car. How did that happen? As an undergrad, he put together a team for SAE Baja, where 100 international teams design and test their vehicles – a discipline that requires budgetary and project management acumen as much as engineering prowess. Not only did Handa’s team raise $30,000 in sponsorship, but his team ultimately won first prize, besting teams that he describes as “better-funded and more experienced.”
“It instilled in me the confidence that I can achieve anything I set my mind to. And frankly, how many friends could bring up ‘building their own car’ when meeting new people at a bar!”
“I CAN PUT A 250 POUND PERSON ON MY SHOULDERS…IN HEELS”
Handa didn’t stop there. After graduation, he co-founded The Baker’s Dozen, one of India’s largest artisan bread companies. His biggest feat? In just three months, he increased production by five-fold in order to shift from being a retailer to a supplier. That’s not all that Handa is famous for doing.
“I co-hold a Limca World Record (India’s Guinness Record) for “The longest plastic-refill chain” made by interlocking plastic refill chains to a length of 120m comprising 3600 refills.”
Looking for the perfect elevator pitch? You’d be hard-pressed to top West Point grad Tanja Duester:
“I can fly helicopters and put a 250 pound person on my shoulders…in heels.” How is this for responsibility? As a deputy director of aviation operations in the U.S. Army, Duester was responsible for 150 soldiers in her garrison. For her, INSEAD offered the right mix to take her from “here to there” in her career.
“My here was Army officer in the USA and my there is working back in Europe. INSEAD struck me as the perfect place to make that transformation and expand my network.”
JUSTIN TRUDEAU’S DIGITAL SAVANT
Then there’s Adel Boulazreg. In 2015, he was dubbed a “digital savant” by one media outlet. A senior policy advisor for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Boulazreg was credited with helping his boss win the election thanks to his mastery of the modern tools of politics: data, aggregation, and algorithms. This wasn’t the first crowing achievement for this 26 year-old wunderkind. He cut his teeth working for Barack Obama’s second American Presidential campaign, before moving on to help elect the Premier of Ontario and the Mayor of Toronto.
These experiences, Boulazreg notes, have prepared him for what awaits him at INSEAD. “Working in government and having grown up in Canada, I have a first-hand understanding of diversity and of multiculturalism. Through interactions with family, friends, colleagues, and diplomats, I’ve learnt that respect for others’ way of life and viewpoints is at the heart of a diverse and a multicultural society. I’ve come to understand that diversity is grounded in learning from one another through the exchange of life experiences, opening up each other to different understandings of life.”
These aren’t the only notable students in an impressive class. As an amateur golfer, Bernardo Frère was a three times Portugese Junior Champion and played for its National Team. At the Ghana Investment Awards, Benjamin Amoah-Adjei took home the Gold Award for being the Research Analyst of the Year. If you’re seeking a sales star who can beat her quota in any environment, you might want to look up Natasha Saini.
“A trader in my industry is only as good as their ‘book’ (i.e. client base), ” she notes. “I asked for a move to Singapore during the worst couple years for the shipping industry in recent history (2015-2017) gave up my book from Middle East and built a new, one up from scratch hitting all my targets.”
A GLOBAL AND INTELLECTUALLY-STIMULATING CLASS
In a class this diverse, it can be near impossible to boil the student body down to a few overarching traits. Benjamin Amoah-Adjei, for one, tags his classmates as global. “Several of them have multiple nationalities and almost everyone has worked and schooled in several countries, which means they are pleasantly open-minded. The variety of personal and professional experiences I have heard have been mind-blowing so far.”
This variety, says Adel Boulazreg, makes for some provocative discussions. “Prior to even setting foot at INSEAD, we organized a pre-MBA trip to Ibiza, Spain. Over the span of the first 36 hours together, we had had five intellectually-stimulating conversations, ranging from current global affairs, to moral and ethics, and to certain principles of quantum mechanics.”
Even more, they are true to themselves – and embrace others as they are. “Everyone is so curious about each other and open to his difference and uniqueness,” adds Gauthier Joyeux, a clinical specialist from Nice. “We are all at the same level here and there is no discrimination in color, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Each individual enriches the others by its authenticity.”