You can’t escape the sense of time at the University of Oxford. Think Neoclassical columns and Gothic Spires, a place where Baroque passion meets Postmodern cheekiness. A mixture of grandeur and solemnity, the campus is highlighted by narrow cobblestone roads, preserved limestone facades, and carefully-manicured gardens. The overlapping revivals and restorations symbolize a timelessness of life and learning, a culture and history that balances tradition and evolution — a sensibility that embraces possibilities as much as living in the moment.
The Saïd Business School certainly fits the Oxford aesthetic. The building is a mixture of classical tropes and functional heft. That’s hardly surprising: the MBA program is barely 25 years old — a mercurial two-year-old compared to a university that can trace its lineage back to the Magna Carta. While Oxford ranks among the world’s oldest and most prestigious universities, the school’s spirit relishes openness over certainty, diversity over conformity, and innovation over pedestrian.
FACING “WORLD-SCALE PROBLEMS”
Indeed, Oxford is the birthplace of antibodies, penicillin, and lithium batteries — not to mention the alma mater for W.H. Auden, J.R. Tolkien, Stephen Hawking, and T.S. Eliot. That’s because the school isn’t designed as just a place to study. It is a milieu to experiment, exchange, and examine. That means Oxford alumni aren’t poets who imagine, but producers who make an impact. While Saïd has gained a reputation for being a social impact school, the program really treats business as a platform to “create sustainable solutions to solve world-scale problems,” in the words of Asha Scaria Vettoor, a 2022 MBA student.
“Yes, we do care about social impact, but not at the cost of business success. In today’s world that has gone through two years of fighting a pandemic, people are aware about the importance of seeing businesses as capable of solving problems outside financial returns. It’s not just that businesses are capable of doing it, it’s that businesses are more than ever, obligated to act in wholistic ways.”
That said, Saïd requires an adjustment, particularly when 94% of the MBA class hails from outside the United Kingdom. That doesn’t count the dizzying array of extracurricular activities that either harken back to a simpler era or position students at the cusp of technological and social change. Once students get past the FOMO and culture shock, they become part of a community unlike any other.
“When you first get to Oxford, the institution seems to be a byzantine agglomeration of residential and social colleges, academic departments, and centuries of bureaucracy that surround what seems like a young and energetic business school,” writes Daniel Bu, a 2022 student. “As such, it becomes easy to perceive the university as a little aloof and unresponsive. But my experience ultimately couldn’t have been more different. Each community is layered on top of the others very naturally, and offered completely different views into business, entrepreneurship, and the delivery of high-quality, affordable surgical care.”
ALWAYS AROUND INTRIGUING PEOPLE
Indeed, Oxford — and particularly the Saïd School — attract a certain type of student. Forget posh and patrician, Oxford students are more eclectic and purpose-driven. They want to better the world by unwrapping its mysteries, exposing its misunderstandings, and devising solutions that bring more people into the conversation…so they too can reap its benefits. That makes for some strikingly insightful and unforgettable conversations and connections between Saïd MBAs and the rest of the Oxford ecosystem according to the Class of 2022.
Just ask Nomhle Gumede Majola, a finance manager from South Africa. In the commons room at Queen’s College, she recalls sitting between an 18-year-old finishing a Master of Physics degree and a Grammy-nominated artist who is earning a Master of Physics degree. Her classmate, Taanya Khare, is currently partnering with a health scientist from Harvard, while living with housemates studying neuroscience and medieval history. For Jacob Bignell, a Kiwi who studied Commerce at Canterbury, the conversations are hard to beat. He observes that “one night, you sit between an investment banker and an opera singer, the next you sit between an astrophysicist and a professional rugby player.” Call it a perk of the Oxford’s college system, where MBAs can join any of the 39 colleges, living and dining each day with peers in dozens of majors.
“Each time I attend a formal dinner, play on the rugby field, or watch an Oxford Union Debate, I am amazed by the people I meet,” explains Samuel Bailey, a judicial counsel from the Caribbean Court of Justice who plays saxophone and bass in a reggae band. “Last year I attended a formal dinner at my college (Balliol), where I sat at the table with a diplomat, a film director, a politician, a writer, and three postgraduate students in history, computer science, and economics respectively. This conversation began with the short interrogation of me, as the resident lawyer, on the possible implementation of AI in the judicial system and eventually ended with a discussion on failing economies and modern philosophy. We traversed through several topics that night with the assistance of some Port wine and perhaps left with more questions than answers, but it was unbelievable the knowledge and wisdom that was shared in those five hours. This is the beauty of studying in a place such as Oxford, where you get access to a wider community of scholars with diverse backgrounds, ages, and studies to benefit from experiencing. Saïd Business School itself also promotes this diverse experience with 71 nationalities in the present class. Being the only the Jamaican in the class, I gain new perspectives every day!”
FROM FITNESS GURUS TO MODELS
And access too. You can bet that Adriana Solano Zárate, a Procter & Gamble supply chain guru, will be telling her children someday about the time she had dinner with Dame Sarah Gilbert, the co-creator of the AstraZeneca vaccine, after attending her lecture at Saïd. “It was incredibly interesting and humbling to listen to her explain the challenges faced during the vaccine development process and how she affronted them, also to learn from her responses to vaccine skepticism and even personally thank her for her relentless effort to make the vaccine a reality. This is the kind of experience that I believe I couldn’t have had elsewhere.”
Funny thing is, Oxford students are giving the same plaudits to their Saïd MBA peers. That’d start with anyone who has ever met Sanoma Jean, a finance manager from California who has seemingly been everywhere and done everything. “Sometimes, I have to pinch myself when thinking of all the amazing projects and people that I’ve had the opportunity to work with,” she writes. “I have been part of the Global Trade & New Markets team at Tesla and working on nuanced and complex issues during the US-China trade war and became a Googler and champion of LGBTQ+ Pride in the Finance organization.”
Oh, and Jean is a certified personal trainer who has competed in national bodybuilding competitions too.
Looking for versatility? Check out Chibueze Dunphy Ewuzie. He earned a Master’s in Architecture…before becoming a bank product manager. He even won an international award for launching a subscription-based lifestyle platform. However, Dunphy Ewuzie’s first career was as different from architecture and banking as you can get. “I used to be a runway model and participated in pageants due to my love for fashion. However, I decided against it because it wasn’t as lucrative as I had earlier imagined. In hindsight, it helped to build my confidence as a teenager.”
A DECORATED CLASS
The Class of 2022 certainly left a mark in business long before they hit Universitas Oxoniensis. When COVID-19 sent people home, Mary Zhukovskaya stepped up to lead a critical audit with an all-remote team. In his first year in management, Jacob Bignell helped turn around a business unit’s EBIT, going from -5% to +18%. At the same time, Motaz Al-Ashhab racked up the awards at a top consulting firm.
“I have had the pleasure of working on a multitude of consulting engagements in a wide range of industries and geographies,” he writes. “Deloitte’s global footprint enabled me to work alongside consulting leaders from all over the world. My biggest accomplishment was receiving an “Exceptional Client Service” award during an engagement with a “Deloitte Crowne Jewel Client” for conveying brand and eminence across a team of 45+ senior-level consultants.”
In India, Taanya Khare drove a campaign that set up COVID testing in an impoverished state and supported frontline workers. However, the backstory would make for a classroom case study. “It was not the biggest project that I have handled, but it required me to step out of my defined role and deliver in a dynamic and unstructured environment in the middle of a nation-wide lockdown. As part of this project, I conducted due diligence on the vendor, negotiated costs, and engaged with the decision-makers. This had to be done while circumventing the unstructured PPE market, conducting virtual discussions, and ensuring adherence to the healthcare guidelines.”
The Class of 2022 has carried this momentum into their time at Saïd. Adriana Solano Zárate, for one, has been selected as a co-chair for the Global Industry OBN (Oxford Business Network), which promotes networking and knowledge exchange between members. Lakshmi C delivered the keynote at the Economics or Mutuality Conference on the future of performance. After being elected to the MBA Student Council, Mary Zhukovskaya has helped drive an ambitious agenda.
“In the first two months, we have pushed for creation of the Asia and LATAM Regional Business Groups, improved internal admin policies, pushed for even higher standards of Diversity and Inclusion, established great Health and Well-being support for our classmates, and opened a discussion on the diversity of cases used in the classroom. My colleagues organised several socials and put together a great team prep us for MBATs. And, of course, we helped classmates one-on-one in their times of need.”
TAKING IN THE TRADITIONS
Not that the Class of 2022 didn’t already have enough to do. MBAs can join everything from the Honeywell Singers to the New College Drama Society, though Cuppers (intramural) sports competitions are always popular. Jacob Bignell made varsity in Boxing and competed in his first fight in front of 300 attendees at the Oxford Union. That said, one of the most activities for MBAs — and Oxford students in general — is rowing.
“On the day of my first “Regatta” (rowing competition), I dressed up in my college’s colors and headed to Boathouse Island to compete along my crew against other colleges,” recalls Adriana Solano Zárate. “Right before our race, sirens started sounding across the island and all the races were suddenly stopped; turns out there was a swan swimming in the Isis river, and since all swans in the UK are property of the Queen, all activity had to cease until the swan had safely swum away from the regatta. Top that up with chanting a “Hip hip hooray!” at the end of each race, lifting our cox to take a traditional end-of-race picture, and closing the evening with a dinner at Christ Church’s famous hall, and its hands down the most Oxford thing I’ve done so far.”
Certainly, the “college” experience is another attraction for MBAs. It is punctuated by an evening dinner, which often reflects the unique history and traditions of each college, says Mary Zhukovskaya, who is part of Pembroke, a 400-year-old college whose alumni range from Samuel Johnson to Pete Buttigieg.
“I was lucky enough to bring my friends from other colleges to our formal dinner – a three-course meal served to you in the main hall (think Harry Potter great hall – complete with candles on the table and very old portraits on the walls!). You must wear a “sub fusc”, a black gown, on top of your clothes and you listen to a grace read out in Latin before you eat. After dinner, I briefly show them around our grounds, which include 400-year-old buildings, and talk about the history of the place. Fun fact: JRR Tolkien wrote “The Hobbit” and the first two books of “The Lord of the Rings” while teaching at Pembroke college!”
Next Page: Q&A with MBA Programme Director
Page 3: In-depth profiles of 12 Saïd MBAs