On a bright day in San Francisco, Professor Lutz Finger is front and center in a round classroom at INSEAD’s Hub in the Bay Area talking about the limits of artificial intelligence. He shows the mostly masked students fresh from the school’s Singapore campus the caption Microsoft’s algorithms placed on a photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel: a 40-year-old boy wearing a blue shirt. Then there is the photo of a man and his dog under the caption: a dog wearing glasses when the dog’s owner has spectacles.
“People think that Silicon Valley has all the answers,” he tells the students. “It doesn’t. We overestimate it.”
The messaging in his Digital Business Models and Deep Learning course, however, may well be less important than the fact that this is the first time graduate students from INSEAD have been to the Hub since it opened just before the pandemic struck with full force, causing the world to stop. Other than a grand opening ceremony on Feb. 28 of 2020 and an early visit by participants in an executive education course, the place has been eerily quiet and empty for nearly 13 months.
INSEAD’S FIRST MIM STUDENTS ENDURED WEEKLY COVID TESTS & TWO LOCKDOWNS
Even though only 14 of the 94 inaugural students from 32 countries in INSEAD’s first cohort for its new Master in Management (MIM) program are here, their presence is something of a triumph. Since the MIM program launched last September, this is a class that has shown remarkable resilience by navigating through a pandemic that completely disrupted their higher education journey. Several students, including a few who made the trek to Northern California, ended up with COVID-19, forcing them to isolate for up to three weeks from their classmates. They endured weekly COVID tests and a complete lockdown in their second term on the Fontainebleau, France, campus and then in Singapore.
The entire class only got together for the first time in March when the program moved to INSEAD’s Singapore campus. The full gathering of the cohort on March 20th was promptly dubbed “Unification Day.” “Until we got to Singapore not all the students were on campus due to COVID or travel restrictions,” says Andrei Dogaru, a 23-year-old Romanian student who was diagnosed with COVID in France. During his time in quarantine, Dogaru explains, “I stayed in my room for over a week and had a system with flat mates to make sure it was all clear to come out.” He views that all-together moment in Singapore as one of the program’s highlights. “It was the first time that all 90-plus students were there and we celebrated that with an on-campus dinner.”
And yet, just as remarkably, in a year turned upside down by the pandemic, roughly 60% of the classes have been conducted face-to-face, INSEAD managed a surprisingly smooth transition for these students from Fontainebleau to Singapore, and was still able to pull off this San Francisco immersion called “Building Business in Silicon Valley.” Several of the students who came to California even arranged to receive both doses of the vaccine while here.
‘THEY FACED CONSTANT UNCERTAINTY’
“Everything was there to make them bitter,” believes MIM Program Director Thibault Seguret. “Everything was against them. They faced constant uncertainty. I wouldn’t even know who would be on our campus the next day. We would get the COVID test results in eight hours, and if someone was positive they would have to go in isolation. But they showed initiative and incredible resilience. They showed passion, and they are incredibly talented students.” He notes that one student spent 45 days in isolation and then flew to Singapore where she had to spend two weeks in quarantine before joining the group.
If the pandemic changed the rules of engagement, it did not diminish the experience in any meaningful way. “It’s been the best year of my life, even with COVID,” says 24-year-old Hendrik Gaens from Belgium. “It mostly comes down to the people. I’ve made friendships that will last forever. I know I can reach out to anyone of the 93 students on anything.”
His classmate Dogaru agrees. “It’s been one of the best years in my life,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I was very surprised that I have gotten along with all of my classmates. The beauty of it is we are all open-minded with an interest in learning from each other. The different experiences and backgrounds of my classmates have made the program so much richer than I ever would have imagined. INSEAD has some amazing professors. I haven’t experienced that level of openness and accessibility with professors ever before.”
‘IT TOOK SEVEN YEARS TO REACH A SLIDE DECK’
For INSEAD, founded in 1957 as the first business school outside the U.S., the new MIM program is the first time the school has enrolled as young a class. MIM students tend to have little to no work experience, often arriving directly from their undergraduate studies between the ages of 21 and 23 (the average age of the initial cohort is 22, seven years younger than INSEAD’s MBA students). That may have been a reason for the program’s unusually long gestation period. It was discussed internally for years.
“Alumni like me were either supportive or a bit traditionalist, asking, ‘Why would we do this?,'” says Seguret, who earned his MBA from INSEAD in 2012. “‘We are more about education for more senior people.’ A new degree program goes through several years of work with faculty and employers. We wanted to see what the market needed and why employers would hire this age group. It took seven years to reach a slide deck but it was a gold mine of what is in demand right now.”
INSEAD originally announced the full-time program in May of 2019 with the first cohort to begin 16 months later in September of 2020. In Europe, the MIM market is well developed, with a master’s in management being the predominant graduate degree in business over the MBA.