10 Business Schools To Watch In 2021

The year of COVID at INSEAD


You wouldn’t expect an international business school to launch a campus on American soil. The market is tapped out, some might say – there are just too many strong players there. Head out to the Blue Ocean where there is space and demand. Well, INSEAD didn’t follow the advice of Blue Ocean Strategy – whose authors actually teach at the school. Instead, INSEAD dived head first into the American market, opening a 13,000 square foot campus in San Francisco last February. The campus is an effort, 20 years in the making, that expands INSEAD’s reach beyond its Fontainebleau, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi campuses. It also further positions INSEAD to better contend for Harvard Business School’s crown as the top provider of executive education.

This expansiveness is one reason why INSEAD is among the few international MBA programs to compete in the United States. Marketed as the “Business School for the World,” INSEAD’s identity differentiates itself from all comers swimming in the red. That differentiator can be summed up in two words: Global and Diverse. It is a place where differing backgrounds, cultures, and philosophies meet, a mingle over a melee, leaving graduates far more open, diplomatic, and worldly than when they started at INSEAD.

“During my first week at INSEAD, I learned no nationality makes up more than 10-12% of each cohort, which is very different from other programs,” explains Jane Chun, a 2018 INSEAD grad. “We joke that everyone at INSEAD is a minority and that’s true without a dominant majority. There’s a constant cross-pollination of ideas across business, politics, and culture. INSEAD remains a microcosm of what I hope my life will be: global, stimulating, and fun.”

Katy Montgomery, associate dean of degree programs at INSEAD, frames the experience another way: “A lot of times when I talk to students they tell me that their study group of five people is the most diverse group they’ve ever been in. This is our philosophy, our spirit, our DNA.”

Katy Montgomery, associate dean of degree programs at INSEAD

While INSEAD is expanding outward, it is refreshing itself inward. The school has earmarked over $100 million dollars to renovate its main campus in France. Of course, the school can afford it with a €270 million dollar endowment – and that was before it received its largest gift ever, €60 million dollars, from an anonymous alum in May. In 2020, INSEAD also launched an MiM program to better compete with European programs that dominate this degree market. Not surprisingly, INSEAD carved out its own space in the area, accenting areas like sustainability, digital disruption, and soft skill development.

Perhaps the school’s most ground-breaking development, however, has been its increasing use of immersive virtual reality (VR) in courses. “Last year, we have announced a partnership with Israeli VR start-up ActiView to establish the world’s first VR classroom for higher education,”  explains Urs Peyer, INSEAD dean of degree programs, in a Q&A with P&Q. “The use of VR glasses and carefully chosen case studies in the classroom enable students to experience real-world business dilemmas and scenarios. Each VR kit is connected to a tablet enabling student-lecturer interaction and real-time analysis of student behavior. In October, MBA students taking Professor Guillaume Roels’ Competitive Supply Chains elective went on a virtual reality trip to the factory floor for an unparalleled lean operations experience on campus.  Virtual reality brings immersive learning experiences which allow the students to learn at a much faster rate than when reading.”

Yes, INSEAD tends to buck convention. That was certainly true with its response to COVID-19. The school remained committed to face-to-face teaching, resulting in the J-Class being cut from 500 to 310 students. INSEAD also instituted an intensive protocol that included mask-wearing, social distancing, and hand-washing. Classrooms were even thoroughly cleaned between sessions. While classes remained in-person, activities like class speakers and job fairs were moved online. Most important, the school engaged in regular testing of students and faculty.

The main thing is we test everyone once per week,” says Virginie Fougea, global director of admissions and financial aid for degree programs at INSEAD. “If you want to be in the class you need to get a negative test. This is one of the big pillars for the safety and health of everyone. Then immediately you can know if a person tested positive. Every one of the handful of people who have tested positive on campus was asymptomatic so this is important. We have to be humble.”

And humility – between diverse classmates and rigorous academic requirements – is exactly what MBAs absorb during their 10 months in the program. “There were many days at INSEAD where you had more work than there were hours in a day: almost 12 hours of back-to-back courses, an extracurricular meeting in the evening, a company presentation, a few hours of homework, a few hours of reading, a party to attend…and don’t forget you need to eat, exercise and sleep,” observes Jane Chunn. “Almost all business schools have demanding full-time programs, but the one-year, multi-campus design of INSEAD adds a layer of complexity of less time, but with more logistics and travel.”

The upshot, of course, is that INSEAD truly prepares MBA for the global collaboration and increased expectations that lie ahead of them, adds Katy Montgomery. “It’s amazing that they’re able to pack up, go to another country, plop down, and start going to class in such a diverse place,” says Montgomery when speaking about INSEAD MBAs. “I think with the future of work – with the gig economy and the volatility and uncertainty – I don’t know of any group who would be better able to manage that. They deal with that every day. They are in this 10-month program on multiple campuses dealing with diversity. During that time, they are job searching, working with a personal leadership development coach, and going on treks. These people can handle a lot, but they can also handle not being perfectly structured. That’s where we’re going and that’s an amazing skill to have.”

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