You wouldn’t expect to find the business school of the future at the University of Oxford. For many, it is hard to shake the image of its archaic “Dreaming Spires,” where students row down the River Thames at dawn, criss-cross wide courtyards for class, and don gowns for formal hall. While Oxford reveres its pageantry and tradition, Oxford’s distinction and longevity stems from its commitment to challenging norms and fostering lives of significance.
The Saïd Business School embraced that same vision when it was founded in 1996. Think of it as a startup wrapped inside a parent institution that’s older than the Magna Carta. Mainly, the school enjoys the brand equity of Oxford with the freedom to follow a mission completely different from peer programs. “You certainly get the ‘Harry Potter’ experience of formal dinners and exams in black capes,” says Elly Brown, a 2018 grad and member of P&Q’s Best & Brightest MBAs. “On the whole, I have found the business school to be very connected with the wider world. When I look around me, in many ways I believe the school’s progressive bent is ahead of the times, and is a marker of where the global business community is headed.”
A STARTUP BUSINESS SCHOOL WRAPPED INSIDE AN 800 YEAR-OLD BRAND
Where business is heading, Saïd believes, is taking on “world-scale problems.” Here, the goal is impact and the tools are corporate social responsibility, entrepreneurship, and inclusive policy-making. The school often likens itself to an incubator, a place to dream and experiment, to ask questions and take risks, to kindle, scale, and transform. That’s why Saïd draws students like Diana Kolar, a J.P. Morgan Vice President who describes her Class of 2019 classmates as “international, socially-driven and adventurous.”
That description certainly applies to Kolar’s classmate, Dr. Emma Karanja, who was most recently a medical officer at Gertrude’s Children’s Hospital. “What I wanted most out of this experience was a different approach to understanding business, and the program at Oxford Saïd offers you the opportunity to not only learn the core elements of business, but how to run a responsible business in today’s world. What better way to learn about global business than to be in a school that boasts of an international class representing 62 countries.”
That’s one reason why Saïd has fashioned itself as an MBA program where ‘everyone is in the minority.’ This creates a refreshing climate where every issue can be debated from every angle, a place where old world rigor blends with new world possibilities – and students can indulge in timeless rituals and expose themselves to the most enlightening perspectives.
A TRADITION UNLIKE ANY OTHER
“We are a young, vibrant, and innovative business school deeply embedded in an 800-year-old world-class university,” says Ian Rogan, MBA programme director at the Saïd Business School. “As well as being a member of a dynamic business school, every Oxford student is also a member of one of the University’s 38 colleges, which opens up the opportunity to meet academics and fellow students from around the world and often from a broad range of subjects. Colleges are also a focus for sporting and cultural activity. Teams compete with each other in sports such as rowing, cricket, and rugby; plays and musicals are staged in college halls and gardens; and concerts take place in college chapels and quadrangles. It’s an experience that is truly unique to Oxford.”
Indeed, the University of Oxford comes with a certain mystique. It is a campus where Gothic chapels, Neoclassic dorms, and Baroque palaces blend together seamlessly – with much of campus under the eternal watch of these landmarks’ famed gargoyles. Here, you’ll find an alumni roll for the ages: Stephen Hawking, Adam Smith, Dr. Seuss, W.H. Auden, Margaret Thatcher, Rupert Murdoch, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Sir Walter Raleigh. Even Lawrence of Arabia once milled around Old Souls College. In fact, over 50 Nobel Prize winners – in areas as different as chemistry, economics, and literature – call Oxford their alma mater. It was even the first place to catalog that lexiconic free-of-all popularly known as the English language. Like the language itself, Oxford – and Saïd – curriculum is often a blend of cross-disciplinary concepts designed to hone critical thinking skills while preparing students to unravel complex issues in uncertain times…no different than the generations that preceded them.
“Being part of a prestigious university like Oxford not only gives you an academic degree, but also allows you to be part of all the curricular and extracurricular activities of the university,” says Laura Aristizábal Borrero, a McKinsey business analyst with 130,000 Twitter followers. “Studying in a place like this, full of history and magic, is an experience that you can only have in a program like Oxford Saïd. It is a university whose prestige and academic level is known globally and in every field and I want that, because I want to work with people who are not only business-oriented.”
MBAs PARTICIPATE IN ALL ASPECTS OF CAMPUS LIFE
For the Class of 2019, the college system holds special appeal. MBA candidates aren’t just Saïd students, but a part of the fabric of Oxford itself. That means they can choose to be part of one of the school’s 38 colleges. Think of the college setup like Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. Instead of Ravenclaw or Slytherin, students can bunk in Exeter College (which traces its roots back to the 1300s) or University College (which once housed Bill Clinton). Often mixing graduates and undergraduates – not to mention various disciplines – the Oxford colleges are unrivaled opportunities to grow both academically and socially.
“You are embedded in a university with a history that goes further back than the United States and connected to a legacy of learning along with former kings and queens,” observes Cassandra Sullivan, a Deloitte consultant from Idaho. “While I am eager to study finance, social impact, marketing, etc., I truly believe being able to connect the dots between all disciplines is crucial to being successful in business and most look forward to year of immersive learning at Oxford.”
Along with this, MBA students can choose from 200 clubs and societies at Oxford, such as the Oxford Revue (comedic troupe), Oxford Singers (pop music vocal group), and the Stubbs Society (international history scholarship). Such dizzying options can make new students prone to FOMO. That’s just part of the transition. The part that really matters, says Alma C. Gutierrez Toledano, is the “transformational conversations” – ones that can happen “everywhere and anytime” outside Saïd.
“It is a place where you know you are surrounded with smart people doing studies in Mathematical Finance, Biochemistry, Birds Behavior, Social Policy or English Literature,” she writes in a December blog post. “Learning to have any kind of conversation makes your mind free, makes your soul feel what others feel, and shapes you to become in a better version of yourself.”
FROM CHEMIST TO GOVERNMENT POLICY MAKER
Doing this requires students to be open to making a transition. Of course, the Saïd Class of 2019 has made similar shifts long before they set foot on Oxford proper. Take Cassandra Sullivan. Eight years ago, she was a first generation student who was ready to follow her mother’s footsteps and drop out of college. However, her mother would hear of it. “I ended up graduating as a ‘Top Ten’ from my class and am obviously grateful that – for the first time in 18 years of my life – I listened to my mother,” she jokes.
Sullivan wasn’t the only class member to brave life-altering shifts. Vivek Elluru transitioned from being a biomedical engineer to becoming a finance whiz at Ernst & Young. The same is true for Laura Aristizábal Borrero, an attorney by trade who quickly mastered Excel models and financial statements at McKinsey. Then again, Tim Krupa – a biochemist – ended up working on youth, sport, and disability policy for Canada’s Office of the Prime Minister.
“[My biggest accomplishment was] playing my part on the incredible team that elected Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister and, later, assisting with the implementation of his policy vision for young Canadians,” he writes. “I am also proud of what was achieved over two summers in rural Zambia, where I worked with teachers to design and implement after-school programs that promote youth development and gender equality.”
A BUDDHIST MONK-TURNED-BANKER
Who is the Class of 2019? Naturally, a motley mix like Oxford would attract an eclectic student body. Dr. Emma Karanja describes herself as “Dr. Miranda Bailey meets Margaret Hale.” Far less pictoric is Laura Aristizábal Borrero: “A lawyer and business consultant with passion for social impact, politics and serendipity.” On a less serious note, Diana Kolar appeared alongside Michael Strahan on Good Morning America, dressed as a princess and riding a convertible down 5th Avenue in the German-American Steuben Day Parade. Looking for adventure? Meet Maitha Alsuwaidi, a Dubai native who has taken dives with seals, stingrays, and sharks.
Alas, Weerawit Pipatwongkasem has taken some deep dives too…into his consciousness. “I practice a number of martial arts including Thai Boxing and Karate. I used to compete as a junior tennis player. I was also a Buddhist monk, practicing meditation and studying about mind and body.”
In their careers, the Class of 2019 has worked tirelessly to blaze new paths. At BP, Khalida Abdulrahim organized the company’s first Africa Conference to boost the company’s presence there. Diana Kolar headed JP Morgan’s Junior Women in Banking (JWiB) group, where she focused on boosting opportunities for female analysts and associates. At the same time, Sultan Fahad Alotaibi helped to shepherd a cultural correction when he served as a delegate on Saudi Arabia’s General Sport Authority (GSA).
“In this role, I co-developed plans to commercialize sport clubs, renovate old stadiums, and widely expand the role of Saudi women in sports. Results to date include introducing sports classes for the first time in girls’ schools, and permitting women to attend sporting events in stadiums for the first time in Saudi Arabia. As I am a proud father of two young girls, playing a role in these changes has meant the world to me.”