B-School Insider Interview: Alumnus, INSEAD, Class of 2013

We recently had the chance to speak with an Italian alumnus of INSEAD (Class of 2013), who began his career as an engineer after specializing in civil and environmental engineering. Eager to start putting his training to use, he decided against pursuing a PhD and instead joined a large corporation, where he steadily rose to the level of general manager. Although he enjoyed the responsibility and excitement of managing a team and overseeing a number of large, cutting-edge projects for a global leader in the industry, he felt that he was ready for a change but needed a better grounding in business and finance to move in a new direction. The MBA program at INSEAD fit the bill.

mbaMission: How did you come to decide you needed an MBA, and why did you target INSEAD?

INSEAD Alumnus: At some point, I felt like I wanted to get more education and develop my finance skills more. I felt that I was lacking some of the most important skills that I believe are needed in the corporate world. So, you know, everything that goes with finance, marketing, sales, a lot of things that I didn’t study at university. I had lots of technical skills I developed as a leader, but I didn’t know a lot about finance and related topics. And also I wanted to try and move to potentially other industries, maybe do some entrepreneurship, maybe change totally my job—it could be entrepreneurship, could be consulting, could be banking. I didn’t know, but I wanted to try something different.

The MBA sounded like a very good chance to step back a little bit, take a year off and try to look at things from the outside once again, develop skills, develop a network with people that came from different industries, different parts of the world. That was why I went for the MBA at that point. And my take was that I could go for two years in the U.S.—for me, the top two schools were Harvard [Business School] and Stanford [Graduate School of Business]—but I didn’t want to do that, because two years off, if you don’t get paid by your company, it’s too expensive.

mbaMission: Sure.

IA: So I decided to apply to INSEAD, and I later realized that actually I should have done that in the first place, because I found many more advantages from taking the MBA at INSEAD than I thought at the beginning. So in the beginning, I thought that INSEAD was not at the same level as Harvard and Stanford, because I was looking at schools in a very simple way: I was just considering the rankings in the Financial Times, this kind of stuff. But then when I started digging more, I realized that you cannot compare them, because they are different. You’re not talking about the same things. INSEAD maybe, from an academic point of view, it’s not at the same level as the top U.S. schools, but it doesn’t have the endowment that the top U.S. schools have either, because it’s a much younger school.

On the other hand, INSEAD offers things that other schools don’t offer, and one is the fact that you can get an MBA in one year. And one year is not a discounted version of a two-year MBA. It’s actually a way of being efficient, a way of concentrating the most important things you need to learn in a time frame that in my view makes sense, because two years off, especially for people from Europe who approach an MBA typically at an older age than people in the U.S.— they have a master’s already, while people in the U.S. only have a bachelor—two years is too much.

So that’s one big advantage and one reason I found INSEAD interesting. And then I actually got some confirmation by talking with people who went to U.S. schools like Wharton [the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania], that in fact in two years, you get to repeat the same topics over and over again. And another big plus with INSEAD is that it’s very international, which is something I don’t believe any other school in the world can give to the same extent.

mbaMission: Sure.

IA: The amount of nationalities is unbeatable. I mean, there are people from basically everywhere, and it’s a mix of nationalities, industries, expertise, points of view. It’s just incredible. That’s one of the things that INSEAD offers and you cannot get anywhere else.

And the third thing that was very important is INSEAD has an Asian campus in Singapore, and that is something that is only offered by INSEAD, if you look at the top schools. And to establish a network and be able to spend time in Asia, where basically you have professors and a lot of people that have connections with the Asian market and the Asian culture, is something you cannot get by being in the U.S. or in Europe—you have to be in Asia. And that was the third reason why in the end I found INSEAD the best option for me.

mbaMission: Sure. So did you spend part of your year on the Asian campus?

IA: Yes. I started in Fontainebleau [France]. I spent there four months. The way it works is that you can spend a whole year in the same location, or you can decide to move around. So after the first four months, which are fixed—the first four months, you cannot move, you just stay where you applied—then you can move, let’s say, from Fontainebleau to Singapore and then back to Fontainebleau, or you can do Fontainebleau and [then] Singapore, or you can even do Fontainebleau, Singapore, Wharton, Singapore, because you can do an exchange period with Wharton and Kellogg.

mbaMission: That’s a lot of moving around in ten months.

IA: You move around a lot. I decided to go to Singapore and stay there for six months, and there is a bidding system. You bid for courses and you bid for location using the same pool of points, and I took basically what they call a package to get six months in Singapore using very few points, so I was there until graduation.

mbaMission: How does that work with respect to class cohesiveness? That’s one thing you hear a lot about with the U.S. schools. How do you create a tight-knit student body if you have people moving literally all around the world every couple of months? Are you still able to form close bonds with your classmates?

IA: I agree that probably you manage to get better bonds with people with your liking at U.S. schools, because you probably are with the same people most of the time, and INSEAD is different. I think you can still bond a lot with certain people that have the same interests—you’re looking at the same industry or whatever. You can still become very good friends. I became very good friends with some, but I agree that it’s less fixed and it’s much more dynamic. The upside is you get to know many more people, especially if you move from one campus to another, but even if you stay on one campus, there are many [people] coming from the other campuses, and you get to know them, and you get to know people from Wharton and Kellogg as well because they visit—actually more Wharton than Kellogg. So by moving around, one downside is that probably you don’t bond with so many people to the extent that you can bond in a U.S. school, but you get to know many more. And you continue having the network afterwards. You can still chat with them. You can still meet up. I just had a few friends from INSEAD, actually, over to my vacation house. So it’s something that remains.

mbaMission: Okay. So, how would you characterize your classmates? What kind of people are INSEAD students, would you say?

IA: They’re international, from many different industries, with different interests, and very, very smart. So one thing that happened to me that had never happened to me before: when I was at university or when I was at my [pre-MBA] company, I was surrounded by colleagues, and some were smarter than me, some were less smart than me. So I used to be within a good mix. At INSEAD, I got humbled a lot because, you know, you are in this classroom, and basically everyone is—or you perceive that everyone is—smarter than you are, and it’s a very humbling experience. But I think this is not because it’s INSEAD; I think it’s the same at every top school, because they make a very tough filter at the beginning.

mbaMission: Definitely. How effective did you feel the school’s curriculum was in helping you develop the skills you went to business school to gain?

IA: Yeah. So at INSEAD, there is a well-known triangle: studying, partying, sleeping. And you cannot get all three, so you need to choose. And typically, people choose studying and partying, you know? So we don’t sleep, and that’s a matter of fact. I mean, it’s very fast paced, lots of group work, but it’s a very good mix, so it’s not focused on cases only. It’s a mix of cases, individual work, classes. It’s a very good mix, but it’s a very heavy load, because that’s the consequence of basically compressing everything into one year.

mbaMission: I understand. So what kind of partying do INSEAD students do? Are these more informal types of things, or are there school events that everyone takes part in on a regular basis?

IA: Mostly it’s informal. Of course, there are the usual school events, but mostly it’s informal, and it’s very different, actually, from campus to campus. So in Fontainebleau, it’s a very small city, where basically you are in the French forest. You have the campus, and then you have a lot of small houses around, so the social events are typically in people’s apartments, where people throw a party and then everyone goes there. And there are several parties at the same time, because you cannot fit everyone into the same apartment. Everything is planned on Facebook or via email.

Singapore is very—well, it’s different. It’s a big city, and everything happens typically in Dover [Parkview] and Heritage [View]. These are the two main places where people take apartments. I was kind of an exception, because I took an apartment in a different place, but all the parties happened typically in Dover and Heritage. And then of course, in Singapore, there’s a better chance to go somewhere in the city, because Singapore is much, much bigger. In Fontainebleau, you can go to Paris, but even though people think that Paris is around the corner, it’s actually not so close, because transportation is not very efficient.

mbaMission: How does housing work if people are moving every couple of months? Is there school housing, or do students kind of move in and out of each other’s apartments?

IA: So this is probably a downside. There is no school housing. School doesn’t really help on housing, and the way it works, basically, you try to group and find something together. Again, Facebook is the main platform, and you connect with people from—well, I was a 13J, meaning graduating in July of 2013— and you try to reach those from the 12D or the 13D. So you connect with people that are finishing their program or are about to start. So there’s a lot of exchange through email, Facebook, etc. That’s how it works.

mbaMission: Sure. That makes sense. Did you work with the school’s career development center? How did the recruiting experience go for you?

IA: I haven’t really used recruitment services because at some point I decided I was looking into entrepreneurship, and I’m working on a couple of ventures. So at some point, I stopped taking care of the recruitment process, the formal recruitment process. I still took the chance to shoot a couple of emails to a few companies, do some networking. I went to a few events, but in general, I haven’t used the career service a lot. I know that people have very high expectations of career service, and they believe that if they get into a top school, then basically jobs will be offered to them, and they will just have to pick and choose, but that’s not the way it works. Typically, you need to network your way to a good job, though for some specific jobs like consulting, things are very structured. So consulting is extremely well structured, there are some very clear deadlines, there’s a clear path. If you want to go into consulting, then do this, this and that, and the consulting companies are 100% aligned, and that’s a very well-known framework. If you look at other types of jobs, you typically need to network your way through.

mbaMission: Have you already started a couple of ventures, or are you still in the process?

IA: I started them. I’m working on a venture in [Asia], and I’m advising a start-up that is moving to the Silicon Valley later this year. I’m helping them on the final things, and maybe I will get a job with them soon, but right now, I’m enjoying this working from home, because I haven’t been home [in Italy] for many years. So I’m taking the chance to work from here and go to [Asia] every now and then.

mbaMission: That’s great. What was your impression of the school’s faculty?

IA: From an academic point of view, there are some top professors, who are just the best in their field and at the same level as professors from Harvard and Stanford—if not better, in some cases. So there are a few stars. Then there is a big chunk of very good professors, like, extremely good, not top, professors, but very good ones. So you get a very good learning experience from them. And then, of course, you have some disappointing professors, but that is something I learned that is the same in every school. I mean, you get some stars, and then you get some low performers.

I don’t know the school policy, so I cannot say for sure what the policy is, but my impression is that they try to get the best for the most important topics. So, for example, in finance you can find some very, very good professors. For example, I had a professor, Antonio Fatas, who is a macroeconomics professor in Singapore; he’s a top guy who has been involved in a lot of organizations, such as the IMF and the World Bank, as well as with the EU Commission and the Fed. It was a fantastic learning experience, and I enjoyed the course a lot. It’s one of those courses where you say, okay, the fee is worth this course, because I got so much from it that I feel very well rewarded.

I also had a negotiation professor, Horacio Falcao, who is a Brazilian professor and has a very different take on negotiation, which he calls value negotiation. He used to work with [Roger] Fisher, who was one of the most known negotiators in the world. And this guy is also incredible. I never had such an intense learning experience, and I was really amazed. And then another finance professor called Pierre Hillion—French guy, extremely good, fantastic learning experience. I think I took up to six courses with him, a lot of electives, because I just found that this guy was amazing. In general, I think that probably at Harvard and Stanford, on average, you can probably get better professors—by better, I mean probably people that have more experience, they have been more involved with global organizations, etc.—but I think that is a consequence of the endowment, the fact that INSEAD is a very young school, and they don’t have as much money to spend on salaries. I think that that’s one of the reasons.

mbaMission: Sure. Did you have any interactions with the dean?

IA: Yeah, we got a chance to chat with him. I think the dean is a great guy. We got to talk with him a few times, though of course that was limited to his availability.

mbaMission: What resources outside the classroom would you say were the most helpful to you or the most interesting? Clubs or research centers or conferences—things like that.

IA: To me, the most interesting thing has been the Entrepreneurs-in-Residence program, which is something I looked into before INSEAD. When I finally started, I tried it out, and then basically every entrepreneur that was coming I was trying to get a spot and have a chat with. Some of these guys are really top guys, people who built large companies from scratch. Others are entrepreneurs in the sense that they have their own company or start-up, such as consultants or VCs [venture capitalists] or angels investing in start-ups. That was a very good experience, because you can get so much good feedback. You present to them your ideas, you tell them this is what I am thinking about and they’re very open. They can shoot it down. They can help you identify the most crucial aspects that you need to work on. They can give you some very good contacts. I got some very good contacts from these entrepreneurs in residence.

Overall, that has been one of the things I used the most. Another thing I want to mention is the alumni network. I thought that basically that was something kind of “on paper.” So there’s the network, and if you want it, you can use it, but then again, maybe you don’t really use it or they don’t really get back to you. But I realized actually they get back to you. They’re very keen on helping. Of course, some of them are busy, some of them are CEOs or don’t have a lot time to dedicate, but most of them get back to you and are keen to help and provide you with all sorts of contacts, ideas, feedback. So that was another thing I used a lot, especially for the project in [Asia].

mbaMission: That’s great. Well, to finish up, what do you think more people should know about INSEAD that they probably don’t know? What message do you think people should get that they’re maybe not getting about the program?

IA: I think people approach an MBA or apply to an MBA [program] as a process where okay, you do the GMAT and then you start thinking about the essays and then basically you apply to a top school, and all top schools are kind of similar. So I just need to decide whether I want to go to the U.S. or I want to go to Europe. But it is not like that. In fact, INSEAD offers things that other schools don’t offer. There is a big difference.

It’s very international, a broader network. So if I get an MBA from Harvard, maybe it’s considered the best business school in the world, but if I then happen to be working in Asia, there is no way I can get the same network I can get with INSEAD. INSEAD is more international, very broad in terms of industries, different nationalities, different skill sets, expertise. And the other big thing that people don’t realize is that with INSEAD, you get in one year the same that you get in two years at another school. You think that in two years, you will get double what you get in one year—but that actually is not the case. You can probably get a little bit more from two years, but you cannot get double. You probably get a couple more electives. You get the chance maybe to think more about your future, but again, in the end, they are very similar. So that’s one thing I don’t think everyone realizes.

Another interesting point is that for example, McKinsey [& Company]—and I say this because I know a lot of people want to go to McKinsey—INSEAD is the business school that provides the most graduates to McKinsey. So a lot of people think maybe, if I go to Stanford, I’ll get a better chance because it’s more known, but that’s not the case, because people in corporate, people in consulting, people in banking, they know INSEAD. Maybe if you stop someone on the street and you ask, “Do you know Stanford?” they say yes. “Do you know INSEAD?” and they have no clue. So the brand is not as strong that way, but when it comes to finding a job, the brand is as strong and is much broader because you can apply to jobs in Asia and Europe, U.S., South America, everywhere.

mbaMission: I see your point. What kind of advice would you give to someone who is either already coming to INSEAD for sure or is targeting INSEAD as their top choice? What kind of insider advice would you give them on what to expect or do?

IA: If they want to apply and they want a tip to increase their chances of getting into INSEAD, I would say INSEAD values a lot your international experience, so if you’ve always been in the same country, try to frame it in a way that you can show some international experience. They value a lot the fact that they’re international, and you will be put in a very international environment, and you need to be able to deal with it. So that’s one thing I recommend to people that want to get admission. Then another thing is you need to have three languages. So, people from the U.S. or from an English speaking country, I suggest that they start thinking about their entry and their exit language. You need to know three languages. Two have to be very good. The common one is English—that’s a no brainer. And then the second one is typically your mother tongue, of course, but for someone from the U.S., it’s probably a bit tougher. So you need to know another language very well. It’s not enough to just be able to say something in that language. You need to know that language pretty well.

mbaMission: So you need to know three coming in or two coming in?

IA: Two coming in. So there is English, there is the entry language that you have to know very well and then there is an exit language, which is something you need on a basic to professional level. You need to be able to have a conversation. You need to be able to write down a text, but you don’t have to be as good [in it] as the other two. So, for these reasons, I recommend applicants to start polishing their languages, because I know people that still haven’t received their diploma because they are still trying to get the exit language.

mbaMission: Does the school provide any classes or resources for people to help them with this aspect of the program?

IA: Yeah. There are some classes for the most common languages. Another thing you can do is—and this is another big advantage of such an international environment—let’s say there’s a student from Spain and he has a partner, and the partner could give you some teaching and you  pay them for individual classes or you organize a class of three or four people. You pay them a certain amount per hour, and you can get some help with the language and can develop your language.

mbaMission: That’s great. Did you have anything else you specifically wanted to add?

IA: Yes. In the end, I would recommend that everyone take an MBA at INSEAD, because my personal experience is that the learning that you get through class is important, but I don’t see that to differ a lot between schools. So that is sort of a given if you go to a top school, you get that level—maybe a bit better in some top U.S. schools, but in general, you’ve got more or less the same level, and the experience is kind of similar. You get a lot of fun, you get time to think about your future, so this you get, but the one thing that you don’t get anywhere else is the network and the international experience. That is something that you only get at INSEAD, and so my recommendation to everyone who’s thinking of taking an MBA is to go to INSEAD, because it’s an investment in your future. You get a global network that you can leverage for the rest of your life, to a better extent than you can with other schools. So that’s one big reason for me to recommend INSEAD to everyone. INSEAD is the business school for the world!

mbaMission: I see what you’re saying. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us about the program. It’s great to learn more about INSEAD.

IA: No problem. Thank you, too.

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