Besides meeting admissions directors and others from business schools, attendees at the CentreCourt event in London also got the chance to hear from five alumni who spoke about their experiences at business school.
Kunal Bhaget’s life was changed when he did an MBA at INSEAD 17 years ago. Following a career in investment banking and private equity, he built and sold a business in India. He is a huge advocate for INSEAD. He told Matt Symonds, co-director of CentreCourt, how the INSEAD network has been hugely important for his career, how the technical skills he learned there set him on his career path, and why being stuck in a forest brings the school’s students together.
Matt: Kunal, thanks very much for being with us.
Kunal Bhaget: Thank you for having me here.
Matt: You are an INSEAD MBA from the class of 2004. I think that more than half of INSEAD graduates start their own business in the five or 10 years after they graduate. That’s your story, too. Tell us about life after business school.
Kunal Bhaget: Life after business school was fantastic. I’m a big fan of INSEAD because it changed my life completely. I changed geography, I changed function, I changed industries. I went from being a hotelier in India to being an investment banker in London. For me the return on investment cannot even be calculated because, having a scholarship, the denominator was so low.
It was a fantastic experience. I loved every minute of being in college. And before I get on to the career path post-INSEAD, I must point out that I remember sitting in the auditorium on our first day, and we were being live-streamed an interview from a British alumnus about 25 years senior to us. And he said: “I’m so envious of all of you, because this is going to be the best year of your life.” And I must say it really was. I mean apart from the years with my wife of course, but it really was the most phenomenal year.
Post-INSEAD, I got a job from campus with Barclays Capital. I did my internship with them and then I went to work for them. From there I moved to Bank of America and stayed with them until after the acquisition of Merrill Lynch. Then I moved into private equity at a firm called Investment Dar. They’re the guys who used to own Aston Martin, Grosvenor House Apartments, etc. My boss was also INSEAD. And then after that I went entrepreneurial.
With my wife I created India’s largest single-serve coffee company. She also worked in the business for the first two or three years. We grew it to a team of 150 people. We took it to market leadership, and then we sold the business in 2017. And now I’m meeting venture capitalist firms and private equity, and looking at what I’m going to do next.
But what I must say is that every step of my professional journey has been down to INSEAD. I got Barclays Capital from campus. I got Bank of America because they were looking to expand the team, and one of my classmates who was working in Bank of America mentioned my name to the MD of the team. He didn’t tell me. Next thing I know, I get a call from them, and they said: “Oh, he’s recommended you. Would you come in for an interview?”
I got the private equity, although it was an application, I do believe there was a degree of nepotism, because there were 40 of us who interviewed for the role. The CIO of the firm was INSEAD, and among the 40 of us, I was the only INSEAD. So, I do remember during the interview there was a fair bit of reminiscing about old times on campus, so I do think that nepotism did have a little bit to do with my getting the role.
Matt: As you thought about business school as a personal and professional development and investment 16 or 17 years ago, did you have a career plan that you shared in your application? What is the magic of business school to then create these opportunities?
Kunal Bhaget: My ambition was to go back into hotels, or at least it was then. I’ll be honest, I won’t say that going into investment banking was very thought-out. I got an offer from a hotel company, I got an offer from McKinsey, and I got an offer from Barclays Capital. But banking paid so much more than the others, and as an impoverished student from a poor family in India who went to INSEAD on a scholarship, I’m not going to lie about it, the numbers that were being floated by banking vis-a-vis the others was so huge that I just made a decision based on that.
Matt: You have an incredible network, and it’s played in your favor in the years that have followed. But beyond the network, are there any skills you can pinpoint that you learned at INSEAD which have served you particularly well?
Kunal Bhaget: There are two sets of skills you learn. The soft skills and the technical skills. I think the easier one to talk about is obviously the technical skills. The technical skills were what helped me get the job in banking.
It was the first time in my life in an educational institute where the people teaching you were the guys who had written the books. So, with that kind of learning and teaching, it’s difficult not to get a decent job, right?
And I think on the softer side, they don’t try and mold your personality, but it does give you an incredible network, and a friend circle across nationalities, across types of people, and across personalities and industries. That has helped me to today.
What I didn’t mention is that my first set of seed investors in the business we sold were all INSEAD. Every single one of them was a classmate.
Matt: What do you miss most about the program?
Kunal Bhaget: I miss all of us hanging out together. And every day, being excited about learning so much. Every single day you learned so much that it was quite exciting.
Matt: And you work hard and you play hard. Whether it’s the clubs, the treks, national week, I mean it really is about building some tight friendships.
Kunal Bhaget: The socializing is very intense. Since we graduated, we’ve obviously made friends with people from other business schools. A lot of my classmates, their spouses have gone to some of the other top five schools. And I’ve noticed none of them have the kind of network we have, simply because of where the campus is — we were basically stuck together in a forest, so we had no other way to entertain ourselves but socialize with each other! So the network is stronger than other schools’, I think.
Matt: As you look at the next five years, and new ventures that you might pursue, how would you now, yourself, like to give back to INSEAD and the community?
Kunal Bhaget: I’ve been involved with forums such as this, going and tom-toming about INSEAD since the time I finished. I’ve been to a few of these. I’ve been on the committee which interviews prospective students, both here in London, and even when we were in India. Apart from the financial contribution we’ve given back, which we’ve done because I got such a big scholarship from INSEAD, has been the fact that we’ve been contributing our time ever so often. I’m very grateful to the school. It changed my life.
Matt: Well, thank you for the time that you contributed to be at Center Court and to share the interview. It was lovely to meet you.
Kunal Bhaget: Thank you very much.