Preparing Myself For A Global Career: Reflections Of IESE Alums

Three alums. Three careers. All informed by the same experience, the two-year MBA program at IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain.

In a wide-ranging conversation moderated by Poets&Quants Founder John A. Byrne, three alumni discussed theeir decision to get an MBA from IESE and what impact it had on their ultimate careers. All three genuinely believe it would not have been possible to be where they are today if not for the MBA they received from one of Europe’s leading business schools.

The discussion–Preparing Myself For A Global Career–was livestreamed from the Barcelona campus of IESE. Founded in 1958, IESE entered a strategic alliance with Harvard Business School in 1963.  A year later, that collaboration helped the school launch the first two-year MBA program in Europe, using the same case study method Harvard had made famous along with its general management approach. Besides the truly global perspective ot its students,  with 85% of the MBA candidates coming from outside Spain, the school’s hallmark is its focus on doing positive good in the world and embedding in students the DNA of an entrepreneur. Students can chose to do their MBA in either 15- or 19-month-long options.

All three alums have used the IESE experience to make major transitions in their careers. A 2013 graduate of IESE, Victor Roma was a civil engineer who used the MBA to switch careers. He joined Amazon after getting his degree and is now general manager for Amazon in Spain. Christina Les Spalthoff, a former pharmacist, used her MBA from IESE to launch into a new career. Today she is associate manager for Europe and Latin American for Almirall, a leading skincare company with more than 1,800 employees. Her job involves a forging international partnerships and licensing agreements for distribution of the skincare line.

After being a consultant, Timo Buetefisch utlimately leverage his MBA experience to become a successful entrepreneur. He is a co-founder and CEO of Cooltra, a European leader in sustainable mobility solutions. He had been working for Bertelsmann after graduating with his MBA from IESE. But when his scooter broke down, he found it difficult to rent another one while it was being repaired. It was his Aha moment. With his partners, he purchased 25 scooters to start his business. Today, Cooltra owns and rents 15,000 in 40 different cities in six countries.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows:

John A. Byrne: So let’s go back to the very beginning. Why did the three of you decided to pursue an MBA to begin with? Christina, let’s start with you.

Christina Les Spalthoff: I was working actually at a pharmacy and to one point it was not enough. I thought I could do more in my life than just that. I was looking for something that could broaden it and that could open more doors. I went to an open day at IESE for an EMBA in Madrid and I loved the case study session. That basically sold me. The school had a really good reputation and it was very focused on people, which is also what has driven me throughout my career. I started with pharmacy, I went to an NGO, and then I came here.

Byrne: Did you know what you wanted to do when you started your MBA at IESE or were you still in the discovery phase?

Les Spalthoff: I did not know what I wanted to do. I knew that pharma was where I wanted to go, but I was quite open. I interviewed for other things as well, but pharma fitted with my previous background.

Byrne: Timo, you were a consultant when you came to IESE. Did you know what you wanted an MBA for?

Timo Buetefisch: I was pretty sure that I wanted a career change. I really wanted to be an entrepreneur and, I thought this would be a great platform to get to know new ideas, to work and develop some ideas. During my MBA, I founded another startup which failed, unfortunately, after one year. This was a really inflection point in my career. After three years of consulting, I thought this would be a good moment to take two years off to analyze different options and also just get to know other people from other countries and get great input from the professors.

Byrne: There is an entrepreneurial spirit that’s part of the DNA of the school as well.

Buetefisch: Absolutely.

Byrne: Did that inspire you to create a startup while getting your MBA?

Buetefisch: Sure. It’s a great platform to develop your own business. IESE is one of the only schools that has a VC fund, which is managed by the school and invests in new startups founded by school members or alums. That helped me get started. Then there is a business angel forum, which is a community of business angels. They look at different student projects, and they decide to invest in the great entrepreneurial classes. There’s a big mixture of things that help to develop your own entrepreneurship projects.

Byrne: Yet when you graduated, you decided to go with Bertelsmann?

Buetefisch: I guess I have to explain it because as I failed in my startup, I was totally broke. First of all, I put in all my money in the first start up and then I also took loans with personal guarantees. There was actually no way other than going to work for somebody else for pure financial reasons. Bertelsmann was an incredible experience. I worked as assistant to the CEO for two years here in Barcelona but then I started the new project, and here I am after 13 years still with it.

Byrne: That’s really an impressive story. So Victor, why did you come and get an MBA?

Victor Roma: I’m a civil engineer and I used to design bridges and subway lanes. That was a job that I really liked and at that time, I actually really enjoyed what I did but then, the question came, do I see myself doing this for the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years? The answer was no. At some point, that there was a high level of monotony or repetitiveness in the things that I was doing. When I decided to pursue a career in general management, IESE was one of the top schools that is very focused on leadership and people and creating a positive impact in society. This was something that was very important for me. That’s why I decided to do an MBA and specifically at this school.

Byrne: Did you know exactly what you wanted to do when you came here?

Roma: I thought I knew what I wanted to do and then I changed my mind several times. In the first month, especially with banking and consulting coming to recruit students you felt that if you’re not applying to those, why did you do your MBA? Then, I sat back and realized this is not actually what I want to do. Then I went back to the basics of why I had come here to do the MBA.

Byrne: You joined Amazon right after the program?

Roma: Right after finishing here in 2013.

Byrne: Christina, you chose IESE because of the school’s emphasis on doing positive good and the focus on how people have to understand that a decision that they make affects others. That’s meaningful work and there’s purpose in it, and it is an important part of IESE’s culture. Timo, why did you choose IESE?

Buetefisch: I’m sure all of us applied to different schools. I got actually accepted by Harvard and by IESE, and for me Harvard was always my big dream. But after visiting both schools, I fell in love with IESE. It was the students and professors I met during the welcome day. I immediately developed friendships here and that made me decide to do a European program.

Byrne: When you told your friends you turned down Harvard Business School, what did they say to you?

Buetefisch: My friends weren’t the problem, it was more the problem with my father. He definitely came to understand my choice, and looking back now, connecting the dots, it was the best decision I could ever have done.

I think all of us who make our life decisions by listening to your heart. For me it was more of an emotional feeling that I had. This school is smaller. It’s more private, more personal. I wanted to do a European MBA, I think. I wanted to work on an international level, but within Europe.

Byrne: IESE is going to give you greater international diversity, obviously You’re going to get a more intimate experience and it’s going to be more focused on doing positive good in the world. Let’s roll the clock back again and pretend, you’re about to apply, with the knowledge that you now have, what advice would you give to yourself. Christina?

Les Spalthoff: I made the right choice as well. I had no doubt throughout the whole process-

I would advise others to talk to the alumni and the professors. Go to the school on an open and experience it for yourself

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder of C-Change Media, a global digital media company of higher education content. C-Change now has five websites, including Poets&Quants, and the author or co-author of more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers, and is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, and editor-in-chief of Fast Company. He also is the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools.