All MBAs worked as consultants, bankers, or engineers, right? Actually no. It’s true that a large proportion of the people in MBA programs come from corporate jobs, in Europe as in the United States. But by no means everyone has that to traditional business background. In fact, top schools are often hungry for people who can bring unusual experiences and perspectives to their MBA cohort. And that’s no different on either side of the Atlantic.
Here are five people who prove that even if your career has taken place outside an office, you can still make it to a top European MBA program.
Old job: Professional ice hockey player
MBA: Saïd, Oxford, UK
I started playing ice hockey when I was seven and was part of the Canada team that won the world championships under-18s. I was in the Olympic development team for four years, even when I was studying for my undergraduate degree at Yale.
After that I played for the Calgary Inferno, which won the 2019 Canadian Women’s Hockey League championship, and at the same time I was also working at my family’s auto-dealership business, selling cars. But the league closed down, meaning that at the moment I can’t make a living from playing hockey, so I decided to take an MBA to learn skills that I can bring back to the family business.
Saïd appealed to me because it has a bit more of a liberal feel than American programs, and also it’s only a year long. I only have one year of work experience, but I think that Saïd likes people with stories and I was able to tell a good one. My sporting experience has helped because this is an intense MBA, but I am used to juggling sport and schoolwork — all those years doing my homework in the bus on the way to games has paid off.
At Oxford I’m playing on the men’s varsity ice hockey team. About three-quarters of us are Canadian. They are all over 6 feet tall and I’m only 5-foot-3, but they still check me, which is how it should be — it’s a full-contact sport. I can hold my own.
Old job: Contemporary dancer
MBA: IESE, Barcelona, Spain
I started tap-dancing when I was 4, and slowly got into ballet and jazz. I did some competitions and won a dance scholarship to the University of Arizona, so I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts. Graduating, I worked as a professional dancer for 11 years, most recently at the Hubbard Street company in Chicago, which calls itself the U.S.’s premier contemporary dance company. We would rehearse for 40 hours a week and perform on average 50 times a year. I’ve danced all over the U.S., as well as in Europe, South America, and Asia.
Being an athlete starts to take a toll on your body. I am 33, so not quite at the age where I would have to stop due to physical constraints, but I knew that the day would come, and I wanted to be the one who decided to stop.
I’d been wondering for a few years what I wanted to do next. I became a representative for the dancers in my company and negotiated a collective bargaining agreement, and I really enjoyed it and started thinking I would love to learn about business and apply that to my dance knowledge somehow.
I think maybe what I bring to my MBA cohort is some softness. I come from a community where the way I interacted with my co-workers is very different to a lot of other industries — I think I bring a lot of empathy, and I know how to give people space. Also, I am learning that I work very hard. In dance you are competing against people who are very disciplined. The striving for perfection has been a part of everyday life for me.
Old job: Museum development officer
MBA: Judge, Cambridge, UK
I am from Montreal, which is a very arts-focused city, so I grew up immersed in that world. My undergraduate degree was at McGill, where I focused on anthropology and also spent time involved in the theater, visual arts, and singing.
I took an MA in material anthropology and museum ethnography at Oxford. After that I had an internship at the V&A in London, where I worked on the David Bowie exhibition before returning to Canada, where I ended up in a fundraising role at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.
I was fortunate enough to have an understanding of collections and fundraising and I was starting to manage people, so I thought an MBA would be a good way to learn more about that. Also, core MBA subjects like finance and accounting are really valuable to me.
Judge appealed to me because the MBA has a Culture and Arts Management specialization, but also because of the focus on technology and innovation, which is something arts institutions have typically not been able to embrace because they are so busy trying to survive financially.
I think that a lot of people on an MBA come from organizations with a profit focus, and I can add a lot to the discussion of wider purpose and understanding the pursuit of other kinds of value.
My advice for people from non-traditional backgrounds going through the admissions process is that it is important to be authentic and not try to fit your story into a specific mold. Tell the story of how you developed a passion into a career.
Old job: Motorcycle stunt rider
MBA: Warwick, UK
I got my first motorcycle when I was 16 to ride to college, did my first local motocross race at 17, and at 19 I signed for a national team run by TVS, the third-biggest motorcycle manufacturer in India.
When TVS launched their entry-level sports motorcycle, they sent me in to do a few stunts for the promotion. After that, I started getting a lot of calls to do stunts for other advertisements and companies.
I’d do wheelies and stoppies, jumps, the basic stuff, maybe a few tire burnouts and slides. I’ve ridden down mountain slopes with rocks and streams and I was once suspended by a crane with the motorcycle for a Continental Tires ad. I’ve also been the stunt double for the Indian cricket team captain, MS Dhoni, and several film stars. I did a Coca-Cola ad once.
It’s glamorous, but also injury-prone, as you can imagine. I’ve broken pretty much everything you can, and I gave up when I was 23 after tearing all the ligaments in my knee. Afterward, I worked for Toyota for several years in India before taking my MBA.
My motorsports experience means I can make quick decisions and calculated risks in a high-pressure, fast-paced environment. Also, as a professional sportsman you develop a very high sense of self-awareness because you constantly focus on improving yourself. You are aware of strengths and weaknesses and you know how to reflect upon what you did right and wrong. These are all transferable skills.
Old job: Film producer
MBA: ESMT, Berlin
I and my partners started our business in Georgia — which is in southeastern Europe between Russia and Turkey — eight years ago because we saw that there was huge potential for filmmakers from the U.S., UK, and France to make their films in our country, where they could save up to 40% of their budget. We produced and co-produced films with budgets in the tens of millions of euros and went to the Cannes and Venice film festivals. We made films with the likes of Michel Hazanavicius, whose The Artist won the Best Film Oscar, and French director Riad Sattou, on his satirical film Jacky in the Kingdom of Women.
When we expanded to Bulgaria, Romania, and the Czech Republic, I realized that I was lacking some skills, such as the cultural and behavioral elements of business. I decided that an MBA could fill in the gaps.
I’d say to anybody from a non-traditional background that on an MBA, especially an international one like mine with over 80 students from more than 40 countries and 25 industries, you discover things you simply wouldn’t have on your own. Working with someone from the German army and a McKinsey consultant, for example, helped me understand things from a different point of view.
I think I have helped people understand that the film business is not all about creatives, and that there are classic business procedures behind it all. I’m currently working at Factory Berlin, an ecosystem of innovators and entrepreneurs. My MBA added the skills that I needed to work in Europe’s tech capital.