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IE Opens Its United Nations For Higher Education In Madrid

With King Felipe VI of Spain in attendance, IE University officially opened its new vertical campus yesterday with compact speeches by IE founder Diego del Alcázar and his CEO son Diego de Alcázar Benjumea, a faculty lecture on social entrepreneurship, a congratulatory video of UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres, and a multi-media show that could rival any in Las Vegas.

Guests who filled the 600-seat auditorium in the basement of what is now the fifth tallest tower in Madrid were given navy blue IE face masks and electronic bracelets that lit in fluorescent colors during the celebratory event to commemorate the new building in the north of the country’s capital. More than 80% of the 3,800 undergraduate students in the IE Tower hail from outside Spain, making the modern, shiny building something of a United Nations of Higher Education.

Business schools, of course, have put up all kinds of new high-tech, sustainable buildings in recent years but the IE Tower Is unique by virtue of its scale and scope as well as the students who will inhabit its classrooms and corridors. It is a one-of-a-kind campus, a landmark achievement for IE University, the city of Madrid, the country of Spain, and all of Europe. 


The 180-meter tall tower occupies 35 floors filled with 64 classrooms, a fab hall, a virtual reality pod, a creativity center, an exhibition hall, a massive sports zone with swimming pools, even a meditation room for students. The classrooms are equipped with the technology to simultaneously deliver face-to-face and online sessions. All told, there are 50,000 square meters of space inside the building, along with 7,000 square meters of green space.

One of the few high-rise university centers in the world, the IE Tower has the capacity for 6,000 students, a goal that is expected to be reached within five years. The building looms large amid four other already occupied corporate skyscrapers populated by executives and professionals from PwC, KPMG and other major global corporations which will no doubt bring aboard many of the students here for experiential learning projects, internships and full-time jobs. 

The students from IE’s degree programs in everything from business and management to design and architecture who began their classes here in September can already feel the difference. “For some students,” says Marc Smelik, vice dean of IE Business School’s BBA programs, “it feels a little intimidating.  There is a corporate feel to the place that brings out a professional attitude in our students, and a lot of them could end up working in environments like this.”


Laura Rojo, executive director of undergraduate programs, agrees. “There is an immediate level of importance that students feel in this building,” she says.

IE Business School welcomed a record 1,000 new undergraduate students this September, a 30% increase over the year-earlier numbers, to bring total enrollment to 3,500. Smelik attributes the growth spurt to the appeal of IE’s small class sizes of 30 to 60 students each, a pragmatic curriculum delivered in part by 400 adjunct professors who teach in the BBA programs, and the fact that IE was able to hold in-person classes throughout the pandemic.

Those students fulfill the early dreams of Diego del Alcázar, a serial entrepreneur and art collector, who founded the school 48 years ago. The students are from 140 countries, a unique undergraduate melting pot of widely diverse cultures and backgrounds. Many of the students from Spain, who make up less than 20% of the student population, boast international experience. The classes are taught in English in a European capital that tightly holds onto its language and traditions. Embedded in all the learning is an emphasis on innovation, entrepreneurship and change, concepts that are taught as if they were religious precepts.

In his remarks at the inauguration of the new IE Tower, founder Diego del Alcázar addressed the need of an older generation of Spain’s leaders to make room for the young


The building itself is a distinctively modern space, with design touches that make the place both welcoming and comfortable. In a student lounge, there is an art display of the word hello in multi-colored lighting in multiple languages. The contemporary furniture in the numerous student spaces is edgy and colorful. The office of Lee Newman, the dean of IE Business School, lacks an inch of mahogany. It is a white, sparse and narrow fishbowl of sorts in the middle of the 27th floor. 

The day before the inauguration of the building, ignited by the push of a button on a stage by King Felipe, IE founder Diego del Alcázar could be found marveling at the two digital portraits that hang on the outside wall of the auditorium. They are so realistic they could just as easily hang in the Museo Nacional del Prado, the national Spanish art museum. He proudly tells a bystander that a group of engineers from Los Angeles crafted the software behind the portraits with algorithms that allow the flowers in the pictures to sway when the wind blows outside the tower.

In many ways, the IE Tower itself is the culmination of Alcázar’s decision to create a private university unlike any other in the world nearly half a century ago. The unassuming 71-year-old is a Grandee of Spain and the 10th Marquess of la Romana. His role in building from scratch a private university with 7,000 current undergraduate and graduate students, more than 60,000 alumni and an unprecedented network of 30 branch offices throughout the world has made this humble man, small in stature, a giant as a rare academic entrepreneur in this century. 


He created Instituto de Empresa in 1973, two years before the death of dictator Francisco Franco paved the way for Spain to return to a monarchy and a democracy. “My father obviously had a dream, a very crazy dream,” Diego de Alcázar Benjumea tells Poets&Quants. “That night was a tough night. Spain was at a very interesting moment coming out of a dictatorship and my father saw the opportunity of making Spain an attractive place to attract the best talent to Spain by founding an academic institution. Spain was changing and the world was opening up.”

“In his dream,” adds his son, “he saw very clear things.” His vision evolved around several key values and beliefs: a passion for change and innovation, a desire to instill in others an entrepreneurial mindset and an education steeped in the humanities including poetry, music and literature, even in what was at first a business school. 

In his father’s remarks at the opening, Diego del Alcázar paid homage to the role of the crown in its support of the country’s higher education system. Alcázar also addressed the need of an older generation of Spain’s leaders to make room for the young, just as he has in handing the leadership of IE University to his 37-year-old son.


His speech was delivered behind a face mask in Spanish without translation and was followed by his heir who spoke in both Spanish and English. Benjumea, who earned his MBA from rival INSEAD, made clear the university’s mission to educate future leaders devoted to positive change. “Educating the mind without educating the heart is not education at all,” he declared.

Ultimately, a building, no matter how tall or how grand, is just a building. Far more important are the students who will inhabit this learning space over the many years to come. As Benjumea puts it, “At the end it’s people who are coming here.” They are seeking a deeper understanding of themselves, or our society and the world, he adds.  

The student immigrants who sign up for an IE education buy into the belief expressed by Benjumea. Nearing the end of their teenage years, when the majority of college students have little clue what they want from life, they already know they desire careers in business and entrepreneurship. More than that, they want a truly global experience with people unlike themselves, an experience that delivers on the school’s motto “One World, Diverse Minds.” They come, moreover, with the belief that purpose and meaning can be found in business to improve the world. 


“There is a special type that gravitates to IE,” says Rojo, who teaches the first-semester business course Building Powerful Relationships (BPR). For many of the freshmen who arrive in Spain from cultures where feelings and emotions are rarely shared with others, her course is an awakening. To open students up to their vulnerabilities, she tells them that her course is like Las Vegas. “What happens in BPR stays in BPR,” she says firmly.

The new IE Tower stands in contrast to the university’s campus in Segovia, housed in the historic Convent of Santa Cruz La Real, where some 600 undergraduate business students study, or, for that matter, the campus in the city center where the graduate programs, including the full-time international MBA experience, resides. The new building, however, provides the opportunity for even greater expansion and reach. “We’ve made the undergraduate program scalable because when you have scale you can do a lot more for the students,” says Smelik. “You can build more partnerships, attract more recruiters, offer more elective, and support more clubs.”

The undergraduate business program at IE already boasts more than 100 electives, over 100 partnerships with schools all over the world, and more than 100 student clubs. This coming fall the program will allow students to pursue concentrations in finance, entrepreneurship, general management and consulting, or technology. Yet, despite its scale and its scope, the school sets out to provide students with a personalized experience. “Its like a Lego set,” explains Smelik. “We give students a block of bricks to start but everyone comes out with their own beautiful structure.”

And now, with the completion of the IE Tower, they can put those Lego pieces together in a beautiful structure in the heart of Madrid’s new financial center.