If you want to have a truly unusual global MBA experience, the Asia School of Business is a sure bet. The school, a partnership between MIT Sloan and Bank Negara Malaysia, the country’s central bank, can rightly claim to have the most innovative MBA program in the world today.
Roughly a third of the 20-month MBA curriculum is comprised of required experiential learning. Every MBA candidate has four team-based projects, one each semester, plus an individual project in the summer. That’s five major projects in five different countries with five different companies.
The architect of this program is MIT Professor Charles Fine who was asked to lead the creation of Asia School of Business in 2014. As president and dean of the school, Fine was able to build a new and highly creative program from scratch, with no academic legacy or bureaucratic politics.
“We felt that action learning, clinical work, and interaction with companies was central to where business education was going,” Fine says. “And the Sloan School does a lot of action learning projects. But by being able to take a clean sheet of paper, we were able to design a curriculum around action learning right from the start. So we built our curriculum around MIT courses and projects with companies in Southeast Asia every semester.”
For the school’s inaugural class, which entered in the fall of 2016, there was an assignment for a clothing factory in Vietnam, a retailer in Thailand, a telecom company in Malaysia, a marketing strategy brief for a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary in Thailand, and several product development projects in Myanmar for Procter & Gamble. Each project, moreover, involves working on-site with the company for four to five weeks over the course of a 14-week term. And all that experiential learning doesn’t even include the full week the entire class spent in a Boeing plant in Malaysia, working side by side with teams of Boeing employees, or a manufacturing course, or a six-week immersion in the U.S. in Silicon Valley, Washington, D.C., New York, and Sloan’s campus in Cambridge.
While more schools are putting greater focus on experiential learning, it’s often built into elective offerings and not required. More importantly, such project work tends to remain a peripheral part of the typical MBA experience. In MIT Sloan’s curriculum in Cambridge, for example, students can sign up for action learning courses in three of four semesters, spending two weeks on-site for each project, or a total of six weeks if an MBA candidate took full advantage of those electives.
That radical redo of the MBA experience, along with extremely generous scholarship money, has allowed Asia School of Business to attract an exceptional classes of diverse students from all over the world (international student diversity is extremely rare for Asian business schools, which have found it difficult to draw students from outside their regions or home countries). The first class included a U.S. Marine captain, professional musicians and athletes, a spiritual adviser, community volunteers, successful entrepreneurs, and Ph.D.s in computer science and physics. The students entered the program speaking more than 20 languages. “The class is highly multicultural, and part of the education is working with other students from all over the world and learning about how business and cultures work around the world,” Fine says. “It’s a very different education than being in a school where everyone is from the same culture.”
In creating the school from scratch, Fine had a unique advantage. He was able to dip into the stellar MBA applicant pool of the Sloan School to recruit candidates who just missed an admit from Sloan for its MBA program in the U.S. Some 40% of the students already had master’s degrees before coming to the school. Roughly 40% are women, and the average age of an entering student is 28 years.
“We marketed to risk takers and risk seekers,” Fine says. “We said we are going to be about change. We are going to change you and teach you to be a change maker. A certain kind of risk-seeking student took us up on that. Our students are savvy, with high emotional intelligence. A lot of them are extroverts. They want to talk, they want to get involved, they want to produce, and they are fun to be with.”
Fine’s fellow professors at Sloan have been uniformly impressed with the first cohort. “The overall intelligence and leadership potential is among the best I have seen in my 30 years of teaching MBA students in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world,” says S.P. Kothari, an MIT Sloan finance professor. Nabil El-Hage, a former senior associate dean at Harvard Business School, goes so far as to say that he believes at least five of the inaugural class of 47 students would easily earn Baker Scholar recognition at Harvard. Only the top 5% of HBS graduates are awarded Baker Scholar distinction.
The curriculum is meaningfully different in another way: The entire class is also given an all-expenses-paid immersion to the United States during the program. The six-week stint features a week in Silicon Valley, a week in Washington, D.C., and New York City, and four weeks on the MIT campus in Cambridge. “So they get some exposure to the MIT entrepreneurship ecosystem and the MIT culture firsthand while they are in the U.S.,” Fine says.
Most of the fundamental coursework in such business basics as accounting, finance, and marketing is done in intense one- or two-week modules to make it easier for visiting MIT professors to fly into Malaysia, teach and then return to the U.S. And the emphasis on project learning — together with a six-week trip to the U.S. — has meant there is no room for electives at all.
“We had to design it that way, but it gives us a huge amount of flexibility to build in a lot of project and academic work,” Fine explains. “For the next few years, we will maintain that model. As we add more faculty locally, we will have more capacity to teach over the course of a semester and over time we will probably ramp down the Sloan faculty involvement.”
So far, just under two dozen Sloan faculty have been involved with the school, and Fine has hired nine professors from eight countries across four continents to the school’s permanent and local faculty. His hiring strategy is to focus on newly minted graduates from prestige Ph.D. programs. They lack the experience of professors who know the ins and outs of teaching in an MBA classroom, but they represent a long-term strategy to build an institution. Among the school’s early recruits are Ph.D.s from Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and Columbia. “They are all young faculty, but we think they are people with high potential and they will grow with us,” Fine says.
The central bank and local business leaders, moreover, have thrown their support behind the school. The first three or four intakes of students have use of the bank’s training facilities and a private upscale hotel where students reside. A permanent home for the school, including a residence center that will accommodate 700 students and 200 faculty and staff, is expected to be completed by 2019.
Even though the school was able to tap into the Sloan applicant pool, it also has had to change the rules on MBA admissions to some extent. Unlike established business school programs, ASB has what it calls a dual-track admissions process in which so-called unconventional candidates can apply for admissions without a standardized test score. In the first class, fully a third of the students went that route by persuading the school they have a high IQ to make it through a personal interview, a video, and recommendation letters. Not surprisingly, the school does not report an average GMAT score for the class.
“If you take the unconventional track, you have to convince us you are capable of doing the work, and you are someone we would want in the program. For the first couple of years, we have a large number of our students on a full scholarship. We want to attract the best students we can, so we are giving a high number of full scholarships.”
The official tuition for the full program is only $85,000, a total that includes all the travel and accommodation for the action learning projects and the U.S. immersion, along with accommodations at the exclusive Lanai Kijang residential complex, an easy five- to ten-minute walk from the academic campus. The complex is more like a five-star resort than a dorm, with a modern gymnasium, expansive swimming pool, and retreat spots under swaying palm trees. In fact, the program may well offer the best MBA value for money on the market today, given the scholarship aid and the extras that come with the sticker price.
In ten years, Fine imagines that the Asia School of Business will be a vibrant intellectual community turning out exceptional global business leaders for the region on a regular basis. “I hope it will be a vibrant center of business thinking,” he muses. “To some extent, we are attracting students who want to do good in the world. I hope we build a reputation for having students who want to do something better for the world.”