Meet INSEAD’s MBA Class Of 2021

You don’t grow amid the familiar. To become a leader, you need to strike out on your own. That means exposing yourself to new ways of viewing the world and tackling everyday issues. Growth involves embracing ideas, testing limits, enduring failures, and learning constantly. That’s what sets INSEAD MBAs apart. They are as worldly as they are inventive – and as open as they are fearless.

Many have been defined by a leap of faith in their lives. Take Georges Mahl, a French data engineer. As a student, he completed a seven-month internship where he completely immersed himself in Japan – a culture he barely knew. The same could be said for Etienne de Geloes. At 17, his father was posted in Gabon – a change that upended his “privileged” upbringing where the people around him shared similar backgrounds and values.

“Living in Africa was really life-changing,” he admits. “I experienced diversity, met with people I would have never expected to meet, and built life-long friendships; I discovered new places, habits, concerns, and ways to think and face life. I felt enriched as I never had felt before, and I decided to always give room for diversity in the choices I would make in my life. I am thrilled to study this year with such a diverse cohort as the INSEAD MBA class.”


Other class members survived rites of passage, ones that prepared them to and embrace the opportunities ahead.  For Marco Vitali, that moment came a decade ago, when he nearly drowned after being caught in a rip current off the coast of Ghana. In response, Vitali says, he devoted greater attention to his physical and mental health and developed a plan for career success. Virginia Nuñez courted life-and-death when she started skydiving n 2012. Since then, she has completed over 600 jumps – and become a skydiving coach too. In the end, skydiving is more than a hobby for Nuñez. It is an expression of who she is and what she ultimately hopes to become

“Skydiving has taught me to follow my instincts, my dreams and my goals,” she explains. “It has improved my confidence, my risk-analysis and decision-taking skills under pressure, and (surprisingly) my social skills…Deciding to pursue an MBA at INSEAD is similar to my first skydive: it means leaving behind a comfortable situation, financial stability, and job security. But if there is something that I am sure about, it is that INSEAD will open up a world of opportunities that I cannot wait to discover.”

Indeed, every student is an opportunity at INSEAD. On average, each cohort features over 70 nationalities. In other words, as the popular INSEAD saying goes, “Every nationality is a minority.” Despite INSEAD’s French roots, there is no dominant culture in the program. In fact, many students have lived in a variety of countries before arriving in Fontainebleau (or its satellite campuses in Abu Dhabi and Singapore). For the Class of 2021, INSEAD is the total package: prestigious, diverse, rigorous, and deeply connected to every corner of business. These were many of the qualities that brought Lize Hartley to “The business school for the world.”

INSEAD’s full-time MBA program took first place for the third time


“First and foremost, I looked at schools that offered electives that would allow me to tailor my MBA around my career goals. Duration was also a factor, and INSEAD’s ten-month timeline meant minimal time out of the workforce, and I knew I would be able to handle the intensity of the accelerated course. Coming from South Africa, which is such a diverse country, INSEAD’s emphasis on diversity naturally appealed to me in terms of campus culture. I knew I wanted to be immersed in a group of peers from a wide range of backgrounds that would bring different points of view to every discussion so that I could learn as much as possible.”

That diversity and intensity is exactly what makes INSEAD grads so prepared to lead global teams and meet the highest expectations adds Katy Montgomery, INSEAD’s associate dean of global programs, in a 2019 interview with P&Q.

“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. 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.”


The people make any business school. In the Class of 2021, you’ll find students from seemingly every region and industry. At Harvard, Elisa Dierickx studied Evolutionary Biology before earning a Ph.D. in Zoology. In between, she spent two months on a deserted island in the Atlantic and founded an NGO to support the residents of Maio Island.  In South Africa, Lize Hartley was a TV presenter on SuperSport, one of the world’s largest sports broadcasters. Afterwards, she built a startup whose consumer products could be found on hundreds of store shelves in Europe and Africa. By the same token, Virginia Nuñez received the Young Marketers Gold Award at the Cannes Lions Festival, which she describes as “the largest global gathering in the marketing and advertising industry.”

“The competition brief was pretty simple: develop a product or campaign to support refugees,” she tells P&Q. “I created a business case, the Orange Lipstick Movement, tied to the launch of a new orange lipstick line. Each lipstick would be named after a real refugee woman, and the launch strategy would focus on telling each woman’s story. The official refugee’s Olympic flag for 2016 was orange – drawing on the color and design scheme of lifejackets – so I highlighted these lipsticks as a flag that every women could wear as a sign of support for refugees. Winning a Gold Lion at Cannes is a huge milestone for any marketer, but it was also a personal turning point for me. I realized the power that brands have to shape the behavior of a society, and I decided that I wanted to take a step further to drive change through brands.”

Speaking of honors, Nancy Tong was named by TRADE magazine as one of its 40 Rising Stars when she worked at Goldman Sachs. Lucy Yiran Liu, an IBM designer, developed an app to support flight crews – one that achieved a 95% adoption rate by prospective users and was described by one flight attendant as “a Christmas present.”  At the same time, Etienne de Geloes served as a company commander in the French Army, once leading a 120-member squad on a peace-keeping mission in Lebanon. However, de Geloes’ best story likely comes out of his civilian life.

INSEAD Campus in France. INSEAD photo


“In 2007, while working in London as an intern in a private charter company, I was contacted by a band manager to organize a tour in the US and in Canada.” He shares. “That’s when I received the scans of the passports, for customs, that I discovered it was for Bon Jovi. I did not know there could be so few intermediaries between an intern in its first year of business school and an internationally successful band.”

Each year, INSEAD’s full-time MBA program conducts two student intakes: J-Class (Enters in September and graduates in July) and D-Class (Arrives in January and graduates in December).  This year’s J-Class features 310 students, down from the usual 500 students. It was a deliberate decision by school, one driven by the pandemic that enabled the school to maintain its on-campus, in-class experience while adhering to strict social distance protocols such as masks, hand-washing, and intensive classroom cleanings.

“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.”


Despite COVID, INSEAD experienced a 58% surge in applications for J-Term (with last year’s J-Term fetching over 3,000 applications). Overall, 232 students completed the fall in Fontainebleau while 78 more studying in Singapore. In terms of GMAT scores, the Class of 2021 boasts a 706 average, with scores ranging from 560 to 780. The GMAT was also a popular platform at incoming students: just 4% oi the class submitted a GRE score.

Overall, 32% of the class is made up of women. True to the school’s international mission, just 5% of the J-Class hails from France (though, technically, Singapore residents account for another 5% of the class). The largest cohort belongs to China at 11% with the United States holding 9% of the seats. Indian students represent 6% of the class followed by 5% shares from the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, and Spain. Overall, there are 64 nationalities in the 2021 J-Term, including nations like Pakistan, Mongolia, Iceland, Cameroon, and Bolivia. At the same time, 29 different languages are spoken among this year’s cohort.

On average, the class is 29 years old, though 26% of the Class of 2021 is 31 or older. They also bring an average 5.5 years of work experience to the full-time MBA program, including a 62% share who’ve spent 5 years or more in the post-graduation workforce. Consultants make up 26% of the class, followed by Financial Services (21%), Technology and Media (15%), Retail (8%), Manufacturing (7%), and Corporate Services (5%) among the largest sectors. Academically, the largest portion of the class – 36% – earned undergraduate degrees related to Business. Engineering majors account for another 25% of the class, with the rest falling into Economics (12%), Sciences (10%), Law and Political Science (8%), and the Humanities and Arts (5%).

Page 2: Interview with Urs Peyer, INSEAD Dean of Degree Programs

Page 3: Profiles of 10 Members of the Class of 2021

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