mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with Hima Bindu, Former Associate Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at the Indian School of Business

Update: Hima Bindu is no longer the Associate Director of Admissions at the Indian School of Business (ISB). 

We were pleased to have the opportunity recently to speak with Hima Bindu, the Indian School of Business’s (ISB’s) associate director of admissions and financial aid. During our conversation, Bindu provided us with valuable insight into the following:

  • The school’s notable growth and rise in the rankings in its short history
  • The ISB’s partnerships with Wharton, Kellogg, London Business School and other international institutions and what these connections mean for its students
  • The advantages offered by the school’s one-year program (even for career changers) and the reasons the ISB chose that format
  • The wealth of resources and support offered to entrepreneurially minded students that many may not realize the school offers
  • The program’s goals and efforts related to international enrollment and recruiting
  • What gurukul means and how it is integrated into the ISB’s program and philosophy

Read on for the full transcript of the conversation.

mbaMission: Hello, Hima—thanks so much for joining me this morning, and on short notice. I appreciate your flexibility.

Hima Bindu: Not at all. I’m always happy to speak about the school for candidates.

mbaMission: The ISB was just an idea in 1995, and the doors opened in 2001. Only 11 years later, it’s a top international school ranked quite highly, particularly in the Financial Times. What has been the secret of the ISB’s success?

HB: The ISB is the youngest school to be ranked among the top 20 global by the Financial Times. We owe this achievement to the strong faith and vision of the founders of the school, whose relentless effort brought that vision to reality.

During the 1990s, when the school was just an idea, India saw a 10% growth in GDP. With a population of a billion and only a few hundred quality managers being educated in the country, the founders foresaw the need for strategic leaders and managers. ISB was established on the strength of that vision and this has been instrumental in the school’s success. Of course, our associate schools, the faculty, the board and the students have also contributed enormously to this success.

mbaMission: You mentioned partner schools. Can you tell me more about that—how those partnerships work, what you all share and how you share it?

HB: The vision of the school is to be top-ranked globally as a research-based school. So, when our founders embarked on setting up a premier business school in India, they sought to associate and partner with the best institutions in the world, such as Wharton, Kellogg and London Business School, which are known for their expertise in the areas of marketing and finance, as well as leadership and strategy. They are also our founding associate schools.

After ten years, we have tied up with other international schools offering specialized courses, such as Tufts Fletcher School and MIT Sloan for manufacturing, and infrastructure management for our Mohali campus.

The association provides for sharing research, joint research, curriculum design and even faculty, on a mutual basis. Our curriculum is largely modeled on that of these schools. Professors from these schools, who are acknowledged thought leaders in their area of expertise, not only teach at ISB but also participate in joint research activities.

mbaMission: Very interesting. The ISB is a one-year program. Was there ever a consideration of being a two-year program? What are some of the advantages of the one-year program?

HB: When we began a decade ago, it was a strategic and well-researched decision to start a one-year program. We examined the traditional two-year model that’s prevalent all across the world and understood where it was lacking.

Thorough research conducted by McKinsey [& Company] on the future of MBA revealed that professionals are increasingly finding it difficult to give up two years of their time mid-career for academics and preferred the option of a one-year program. Research also suggested the possibility that professionals could in fact pursue two MBAs during their career. Besides, the ISB program is designed to have 680 to 720 hours of instruction, which is on par with a two-year program, with a standard of 720 to 740 hours. The content and program are almost the same. The only difference is that there are no frills such as holidays, Christmas break, summer break and internships. On the upside, one saves a whole year, and it’s a great opportunity cost saving for an aspiring professional.

mbaMission: What would you advise career changers, who feel like they need that time for a summer internship? Is the ISB still an option for them?

HB: ISB has introduced a program called the Experiential Learning Project, which enables interdisciplinary exchanges. Students from one specialization are encouraged to pursue their interests in other areas as well. This gives them the advantage of understanding the product space and nuances in various disciplines of study. For instance, a student from an IT [information technology] or software background wanting to explore consulting or a marketing professional interested in programming can do so with the help of this program. More than a hundred companies approach ISB with specific projects across industries and functions, providing the interested students the opportunity of a career shift. And it is not uncommon that often, these projects turn into or open job opportunities for students.

It also depends on the stage of a student’s career. An internship in the early stages makes more sense than opting for it with work experience, as in the latter case, one is already well aware of organization dynamics—in which case, a project is sufficient to provide insights into the particular industry and decide whether to pursue a career in it.

mbaMission: You mentioned in the past that the majority of ISB students specialize in finance and marketing. Is there a program that you would point to as a particular strength for the ISB? For example, if you are X kind of student, you want to go to the ISB.

HB: “Planning an Entrepreneurial Venture” is a very popular course with almost 80% of student enrollment. One reason could be that most students who come here plan to set up their own entrepreneurial ventures as they graduate. This is extremely useful for their career because the process of planning a new venture is no mean task. It needs expert guidance and sufficient funding.

To address these specific issues, we have facilitated a conclave referred to as ‘The Incubator’ for entrepreneurs, where venture capitalists gather to offer funds to promising entrepreneurs and support them in their ventures. The ISB is also dedicated in its effort to cover a student’s educational loan for the first 18 months, until the project acquires a concrete shape. In addition to the monetary support, the students are also given the advantage of space on campus to set up their company, expert advice and information about availing seed funds.

What needs a word of mention here is that a student experiences a multitude of things as part of his or her business education; it’s never about just academics. Specifically at the ISB, there is never a dearth for the ones who seek more! We have concepts and programs that are specifically designed to help the students derive more out of the course. “Shadow a CEO” is one such concept, where a student can bid to spend a day with the CEO of any reputed organization. Furthermore, specific and unique programs catering to categorical sections of the society have been the tour de force of the institution—Net Impact and a Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Entrepreneurs are some examples of such programs.

The monotony of working in an organization for years at a stretch is broken by the many traditional and nontraditional activities on campus. Various events and clubs facilitated by the school open new windows for students to interact with professionals from different fields, such as fashion designing or philosophy. This tremendous learning cannot be discounted for anything.

mbaMission: Right. That’s great. I know that the ISB recently opened up the Mohali campus, and there’s also the Hyderabad location. Are there plans for any additional campuses?

HB: There are no immediate plans of expanding our base. Instead we are looking at ways of bolstering our faculty resource, as they can ensure the growth of the school. Currently, the numbers are optimum, with 560 students at the Hyderabad campus. The campus at Mohali, with 210 students, was started with four research centers in manufacturing, health care, public policy and infrastructure.

mbaMission: So there’s really no difference between the campuses?

HB: None at all.

mbaMission: Okay. The ISB is a case-based school. How do you account for this learning method in the application process? What are the parameters you consider while selecting or rejecting an applicant? Are there applicants who make you actually say, “Okay, this person might be a great candidate, but I’m not sure he or she is going to be a great case student?”

HB: An applicant’s GMAT score, leadership potential, the depth and quality of work experience and extracurricular activities are as important as his or her academic qualifications and study. A spike on any of these factors strengthens the chances of admission. Our efficient selection process helps test the applicants against their specific skills that remain relevant to his or her chosen career. The practical tests during our interviews prove effective for students who think out-of-the-box to arrive at a solution for a particular problem. However, the use of case studies as part of classes depends on the discretion of the professor as well as the subject being taught. Although the course structure is predominantly case-based, it is flexible enough for a student to perform better at theory if he or she chooses to.

mbaMission: What are some of the red flags you see in the applications you read? What really says to you, “Oh boy, maybe this isn’t the right candidate for us”?

HB: Inconsistencies in performance, immaturity and lack of focus as to why they want to do an MBA are a few pointers that spell trouble. Chance is that many applicants see an MBA more as a natural progression than as a conscious choice which adds value to their career and business. If essays and recommendations of the student are things that speak volumes about the skills he or she is going to bring to the table, a history of no achievements, awards or credentials holds up the red flag.

mbaMission: I see. What do you think the ISB still needs to work on going forward?

HB: Going forward, we want to increase the numbers of international students and truly diversify our student body, not just in terms of nationalities, but also in terms of drawing students from nontechnical disciplines. ISB and India are known for top-notch talent going into the engineering field, but we’d like to increase the diversity of students from alternate fields, such as liberal arts, medicine and architecture. However, it will be tough to make them want to earn an MBA.

But increasing the percentage of international students is one of our biggest challenges. It stands at a meager 5% to 6% as opposed to the ideal 20% targeted. Many students do not see India as a destination for higher education and for building their careers.

But this is an extremely short-sighted notion, because most of the growth in future decades will be in India, as we offer a population of 1.2 billion, of which around 500 million belong to the fledgling middle class of consumers. We have to attract more international students.

Our strength lies in our research and case studies that we also use as a teaching tool. There is every chance that students find the case studies rather nonrelatable, as 95% of the case studies taught in business schools are Western oriented and are based on brands in Western markets. We are working towards building our own research and developing many cases in Eastern regions, markets and brands. Over the next decade, one of our prime interests is to build a big repository of material drawing evidences from domestic examples and cases.

mbaMission: And the ISB still has a relatively small percentage of international students, about 5% to 6% per year, but you say the school is targeting closer to 20%, right?

HB: Ideally, it should be 20%, but we would like to increase the pool so that we get a better selection.

mbaMission: Right. And similarly, about 13% of the most recent graduating class found positions outside India. Is that because students are mostly looking within India? Are there a lot of international firms on campus recruiting for positions outside India? If someone is determined to find work outside of India, can they find it?

HB: Around 340 companies come to recruit at ISB. They come for Indian positions as well as international positions. We also have alumni across 22 countries now, so that helps us spread our wings. With the kind of tutoring a student receives at the ISB, his or her possibilities are seldom limited by aspects of a job being local or international. It is always a mix of both. The recruitment depends more on functional aspects and capabilities of the candidate. Our students are flexible as far as locations are concerned. We do have a large number of multinational and transnational companies who recruit at ISB, and our students typically are a global resource for them.

Although 60% of our placements seem domestic, a closer look at them reveals that the lines demarcating local and international are blurring.

What the companies demand today are strategy leaders who can be placed anywhere in the world, irrespective of industry and function. The international students have an advantage with regards to placement because they already possess international passports, and employees find it convenient to place them across the world. The charm of placements at ISB is that the companies that come here to recruit also provide for lateral placements.

mbaMission: Can you talk about the gurukul and how it features in professional development? I thought that was a very interesting feature of the program.

HB: Gurukul is Sanskrit for school. In ancient times, both the royalty and the commoners sent their children to gurukuls, where they stayed with their teachers and received education.

At the ISB, we have tried to replicate this ancient model of Gurukul, where we organize a series of talks by renowned professionals from an industry, who collate and delve into new answers and workings of that particular industry. These professionals spend weekends interacting and sharing knowledge with the students. The most practical insights about the functioning of specific departments such as marketing, supply chain, programming, etc., can be learnt. For example, how does marketing at Unilever work? It’s going to be very different from how Tata Steel manufactures steel or how Suzuki makes an automobile.

mbaMission: That sounds like a great way to help people make that transition. Can you just talk about the social life at the ISB? What can someone expect when they come to the ISB?

HB: With over 19 social and professional clubs on campus, social life is “uber” at ISB. It’s a fun-filled, high-energy environment, where high-achieving professionals enjoy the buzz of sharing ideas with their peers. There’s so much happening on campus—parties, sports, social outreach, study treks, music and dance lessons, dramas, comedy shows and art exhibitions. We even have a sports league on campus. It is amazing how students juggle their social life and academics and still achieve success. When the question is about how much you choose to do, the Spanish students just had a weekend cooking Spanish food for the whole school!

lmbaMission: That sounds like fun!

HB: Yes, it was.

mbaMission: Is there anything else that you want to add, anything you think would be valuable for people to know about the ISB?

HB: Before zeroing in on one particular school, there are specific aspects a candidate should keep in mind. First, recognize the potential of having India on the resume for future professional growth. Second, while assessing the quality of faculty, return on investment and brand reckoning of a B-school, ISB steers ahead because this is probably the only school where you can listen to a Wharton and a Kellogg professor under one roof.

Finally, the third factor is placements; the support that you receive at ISB is excellent. So you should keep all these factors in mind and then make the call. Cost is also an important factor. Just imagine, for $50,000 U.S. dollars, including accommodation and food, you’re getting to listen to top-notch professors in a booming economy that is fast opening up.

mbaMission: That’s great. Thank you for speaking with us today. I loved my MBA experience, but I imagine it would be fascinating to spend a year abroad in an emerging economy. It’s such an exciting place and an exciting time! It just sounds like so much fun.

HB: No one who has visited India or ISB has ever returned unchanged. ISB transforms you.

mbaMission: I believe that! Well, thank you so much, Hima, I really appreciate it. We’ll be in touch!

HB: Thanks, Jeremy. Great talking to you!

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