IESE Business School isn’t for the faint of heart – or slow of mind. In fact, the program’s rigor has become legendary. Before joining the Class of 2022, for example, Michelle Marie Miranda Cua was told by an alumni member that “the pile of cases she went through went up to her waist when stacked on the floor.” To put it another way, IESE MBAs can expect to expect to dissect 600 cases over their two years – and three cases a day to start.
No wonder that faculty sometimes joke to students that “The first year is ours and the second year is yours!”
NO “CORRECT ANSWERS” IN CASES
That should come as no surprise. After all, IESE could be described as the Iberian Ivy. In the 1960s, Harvard Business School faculty came to Navarra University to help form an American-style business school. The result was an academic demanding two-year program devoted to case learning and intensive personal attention – with a curriculum guided by Opus Dei values and traditions.
That vision came to full fruition in 2021, when The Economist ranked IESE as the #1 business school in the world.
The hallmark of IESE, of course, is case learning. It has been described as learning-by-storytelling. Basically, MBAs play the role of an executive. That means walking in their shoes and weighing the choices available to them. In other words, students mimic managerial decision-making over-and-over until it becomes second nature. This process is only enriched by IESE’s diverse student body, where over 4-out-of-5 students hail from outside Spain.
Michelle Marie Miranda Cua admits that case learning was “intimidating” at first. However, the Philippines-born brand manager found the process to be profoundly enlightening in the end.
“The case study method] is the most practical approach to quickly learn how to manage various types of businesses, as it allows you to see things from the perspective of global business leaders across industries. There is no “correct answer”, as each case can be approached in various ways. I personally look forward to engaging in healthy debates with my peers as we work together to identify the best course of action to approach business problems.”
“A COLLISION OF IDEAS AND CULTURES”
That approach requires both private reflection and public debate. Every case starts with an open-ended problem. From there, students identify the various issues, probe their impact on employees, customers, and community, pinpoint the knowns and uncertainties, weigh options, and roll out a strategy. Class preparation is conducted both in readings and team meetings, though the true learning is often elevated in the classroom. Here, students are expected to publicly stake out their positions since much of their grade depends on participation. In the process, students are exposed to different perspectives and problem-solving methods from a range of functions, industries, and geographies. The result is a class that steps far away from general theory, writes Karina Ikhsan, a financial analyst from Kazakhstan.
“The case method allows you to participate in engaging discussions in a very diverse environment, challenging yourself and others, and getting out of your comfort zone. Voicing your opinions in a room of highly intelligent individuals teaches persuasion and the ability to state your case.”
Before coming to IESE, Zhu Shang was a screenwriter in China who is a relative newcomer to business. In many business schools, he notes, drilling fundamentals by rote is like “giving a civilian a gun then straightly kicking him out to the battlefield.” In Shang’s experience, the case method brings out the best in both seasoned talent and raw poets.
“The case method gives students a platform to think further than the frame. It is true that every group meeting has an agenda, but it doesn’t stop students from having a discussion based on the cases but outside the agenda, a healthy way leads to a collision of ideas and cultures. Secondly, working with the whole team on cases is like working in a real-world company. We will face the same problems as real companies would and try to solve them to the best of our knowledge, imitating what professionals would do. Less experienced students could study from industry veterans in the team and improve faster; experienced students also could take in new ideas to modify their strategy.”
WELCOME TO BARCELONA
And the case method brings an added benefit beyond supplying diverse perspectives and sparking new ideas, adds Chin-Hao Chang, a finance manager from Taiwan. “It’s also more participative and fun—a great way to avoid falling asleep in the class!
Indeed, the case method represents a proven way to build community. While cases cover the most profound issues dogging companies, the classes usually end in smiles and laughter. Case in point is the school’s Comment of the Week (CoW) tradition, writes Maria de Oca, a 2020 grad. “Every week in Year 1, we vote for the most outrageous comment from a student in the class. It is a great way to laugh off one’s mistakes and to encourage us all to not take ourselves too seriously in our daily case discussions. The winner gets to carry a stuffed cow toy around the school for a whole week.”
At the same time, case discussions aren’t the only means for learning at IESE. Rene Hyun, also a 2020 grad, points to a wealth of simulation exercises and consulting projects in the programming. While the workload is heavy, IESE MBAs get to spend two years in heaven: Barcelona.
“Who wouldn’t want to study in one of the most beautiful and exciting cities in the world on the edge of the Mediterranean and a couple of hours from the Pyrenees Mountains,” writes 2020 grad Joseph Friedrich de Miguel.
FROM ENGINEERS TO MUSICIANS
The full-time Class of 2022 arrives in Barcelona boasting credentials from nearly every industry. In his second year out of university, Chin-Hao Chang overhauled his company’s accounting system and helped spearhead an IPO. Davide Masullo was promoted to field engineer at his company’s flagship chemical plant, one that reached full capacity without accidents during his tenure. Similarly, Alisa Vaz was tapped by her CEO to orchestrate a company-wide move to a SaaS model. In China, Serge Winterhalder served as a team leader for BMW, where he coordinated experts in areas like development, manufacturing, and quality control – a role that extended out to third-party suppliers and contractors too. Working at Knorr, Michelle Marie Miranda Cua developed a recipe bot that enabled the company to better serve consumers while they are cooking. This commitment to the customer also helped her find her purpose as an MBA student.
“I met several Filipino mothers who worked tirelessly as neighborhood sundry owners. With no systems in place, they often failed to establish an organized inventory coupled with a systematic cash flow. This resulted in increasing debt faced in parallel with their responsibilities to their families. Through these encounters, I uncovered how micro-entrepreneurs often lack the access to technology to expand their businesses. My exposure to these realities ignited my passion for technology, as I recognized how simply streamlining operations would effectively help improve the lives of these micro-entrepreneurs.”
That’s not to say the class is populated strictly with hard-charging engineers, financiers, and marketers. Take Justo Gómez Palmés. Before business school, Gómez Palmés worked as a musician. He even released a solo album of his concert at Buenos Aires’ Picadero Theater – a venue so influential that it was once firebombed by the military junta. As Gómez Palmés was honing his art, he was also deepening his business acumen.
“In 2013, I took the plunge and spent almost 4 years fully dedicated, performing as an artist and developing my own music production agency start-up. This valuable time brought me great successes, like performing in well-known theaters, being nominated in prestigious contests and producing music for renowned brands. But there were downs that forged my character. As I learned how to deal with frustration, I understood the importance of moving forward and being courageous.”
“IT IS NOT YET THE TIME FOR YOU TO STOP AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE”
Zhu Shang has spent nearly the past decade in show business. A protégé of Zhao Haicheng – described as the “Tsar of the Chinese movie industry” – Shang already has two films to his credit. At IESE, he is working to better integrate the creative and management sides of entertainment. In some ways, business school was a risk for Shang, taking him out of an enviable spot for an extended period. However, he received some words from his mother that put his decision in perspective.
“During my career I had rough times but things were getting better,” he reminisces. “I had been given the chance to do what I am good at and live a peaceful life. I was so ready to settle down to what I had and put my hidden ambitions aside, maybe also start a family and have children. I also know that a 2-year MBA career could be very rigorous and demanding. It may keep me from a life in which I could take care my family, work/rest whenever I want and get paid for doing some simple TV dramas in 3 to 5 years in the future. There was definitely a choice to make. I reached out to my parents and asked for advice. My mother said, “Well, you are still young. It is not yet the time for you to stop and enjoy your life.” I thought for a while. Then I rebooked my GMAT test to Bangkok, flew there, and got the job done.”
Business school was a moment of truth for many first-years, a leap of faith designed to help them realize their visions for themselves. For Karina Ikhsan, IESE is the first step to starting her own company. “Metaphorically speaking, I see the path to my goal as a mountain,” she explains. “Surely, I could start climbing it now on my own, but it would take me a lot of time to reach the top. I believe that an MBA will provide me with tools and equipment to climb that same mountain more efficiently and will help me avoid a lot of mistakes that I could have made without this experience.”
To do that, adds Chuks Umeche, you often need to step away from the day-to-day to see the bigger picture. “I had been working non-stop for over 8 years since I left school,” he writes. “After some reflection on my past interests, my current experience and emerging options, the aphorism “you cannot inspect or change a flat tyre while a car is running at 50 mph” rang so true. It was clear I needed some time to rest and reflect. Taking an “aimless” break did not look like an interesting proposition. Instead, I chose to spend the next few quarters in business school to learn from a diverse international environment and have the freedom to explore several options.”
Page 2: Interview with IESE’s admissions director.
Page 3: In-depth profiles of 14 members of the Class of 2022