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Savvy Westerners lured East for their MBAs

Better prospects attract foreigners and returning Asian expats to the region's business schools

Jie “Jay” Bao traveled to America for his undergraduate degree before returning to his homeland and choosing CEIBS for his MBA (Photo courtesy of CEIBS)

KUALA LUMPUR/HONG KONG/SINGAPORE -- Apricot Wilson and Sebastian Lanfranco came from opposite ends of the earth to study for their MBAs in Asia.

Wilson, 29, was born in London, obtained her undergraduate degree at University of Cambridge and later worked in finance in Luxembourg before deciding to head to Shanghai to enroll at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS).

Lanfranco, 31, was born in Peru and raised in Australia, where he attended university and worked as a project engineer before enrolling at the Asia School of Business in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur.

When Asia's emerging economies began taking off in the last quarter of the 20th century, the region's aspiring corporate leaders invariably sought places at long-established business schools in the U.S, Europe or perhaps Australia. For one thing, they had little choice. Asia did not have an MBA culture, let alone Western-style business schools.

While many Asians still travel west or to Australia for their MBAs, there is a steadily increasing flow of non-Asians such as Wilson and Lanfranco heading in the opposite direction.

Although ASB is barely a year old, half its MBA class is from outside Asia. In mainland China, some 40% of students at CEIBS and Beijing-based Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business are foreign. At Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Business School, there are more than 40 nationalities on campus.

In Singapore's business schools, non-Singaporeans make up around 80% of MBA candidates on average, a reflection of the city-state's status as a trade and investment hub with a high proportion of foreign workers.

British-born, Cambridge-educated Apricot Wilson headed to Shanghai for her MBA (Photo courtesy of CEIBS)

Like many major business schools in Asia these days, the mix of nationalities is like a mini-United Nations. "We have 22 nationalities out of 100 students in the full-time MBA," said Jochen Wirtz, vice dean of Graduate Studies at National University of Singapore Business School.

For Western students interested in an Asian-based career, an MBA from a regional school guarantees strong employment prospects. For Apricot Wilson, China offered infinitely more career opportunities than the West. "The current mood in the U.K. and the U.S. left me wondering how easy it would be to find work," she told the Nikkei Asian Review. "China, on the other hand, is showing very different trends. My work has been in frontier market investment and everywhere we see the influence of Chinese business. This is only going to increase as [Beijing's] 'One Belt, One Road' initiative continues."

Reflecting the growing global reach of Chinese business, Wilson noted, students from the U.S. and Europe are beginning to venture East to Chinese business schools. "This suggests there will be interesting opportunities for those who do," she said.

Indeed, to students such as Wilson, the Asian MBA route is an effective way not only to learn the basics in a regional context but also to make valuable new contacts.

"If you want to transition your career to China then business school is a great springboard," said Matt Symonds, a Times Higher Education consultant.

Having decided on which country to study in, Wilson settled on CEIBS ahead of other Chinese universities, in part because of its ranking among the world's top schools (number 11 in the Financial Times 2017 list of top-rated MBAs -- the highest placed indigenous Asian school.) She admits she was tempted by the "glamor" of Hong Kong, but having studied languages at Cambridge, she wanted to become fluent in Mandarin, which made Shanghai a better option than the still largely Cantonese-speaking former British colony.

Wilson was also attracted by the CEIBS motto, "China Depth, Global Breadth," and the local flavor that would be injected into her classes. Since starting her 18-month degree course on Aug. 14, she has not been disappointed.

"In my first week, we had a balance of case studies, ranging from tourism at the Great Wall and accounting practices in Chinese natural resources companies through to more classic cases involving highly recognizable multinational firms," she said. "The majority of my classmates come from mainland China, and many of the perspectives which they offer are completely different from my own. Topics such as 'guanxi' [connections] and 'yi dai yi lu' [One Belt One Road scheme]' are commonplace, but more interesting is the insight into working in Chinese companies that my classmates provide during group discussions and classes."

To Wilson, local flavor also entails regular sampling of the Shanghainese specialities in the CEIBS canteen. "There is no better way to learn more about Chinese corporate culture than catching up with classmates over a bowl of noodles," she noted with a smile.

Action learning

In Kuala Lumpur, Sebastian Lanfranco has also found something distinctive: ASB's collaboration with one of the world's top business schools, Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management. The 20-month MBA course at ASB incorporates an "action learning" program that sends teams of students on a series of in-house "consultancies" to partner companies,both in Malaysia or abroad, to work on specific business problems and strategies.

Reflecting the firepower of ASB's board and backers, the school has more than 300 corporate host partners ranging from big regional names such as Malaysia's Air Asia, Astro Malaysia Holdings, Axiata Group, Sime Darby and CIMB Group Holdings to multinationals such as Boeing, Johnson and Johnson, Intel and Prudential.

Lanfranco said he had begun his MBA search by looking at U.S. schools and heard about MIT Sloan's collaboration with ASB, the brainchild of Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz, former governor of Bank Negara Malaysia, the country's central bank.

To Lanfranco and fellow students in ASB's inaugural intake, it was almost an advantage that ASB did not appear in global rankings of business schools, being too new to be evaluated.

"I was looking for top quality education, coupled with an unforgettable experience," Lanfranco said. "I actually like how, since the school doesn't have the legacy of more established programs with lots of history, the student body it has attracted in the initial cohort is made up of intelligent people from all over the world with a really adventurous spirit. This makes for a very collaborative environment and brings unique perspectives to every problem we tackle in class or on 'action learning' projects."

As well as being one of Asia's newest business schools, ASB is one of the best-funded and smallest, for now. With just 47 students in its inaugural 20-month MBA program, it is now preparing for its second annual intake. Zeti estimates it will take at least five years to gain a ranking, and happily acknowledges it will provide valuable time to further develop the school. Lanfranco sees the school's relatively small size as another plus, saying it enables students to interact closely with the world-class faculty. "We have visiting MIT professors all to ourselves, while back in Boston, students are fighting to be able to sign up to their classes," he said.

Sebastian Lanfranco says there is an "adventurous spirit" among his fellow ASB students. (Photo courtesy of ASB)

Like Wilson, Lanfranco believes that Asia is ripe for motivated Westerners: "The amount of opportunities you see when you live in this region is very motivating, and everything is cheaper than in the West, so starting a new venture does not seem far-fetched. Also, through our 'action learning' projects we've seen how big companies are looking for people with the skills that ASB is helping us develop, and currently the demand is far greater than the supply," he said, adding: "This is one of the most exciting, well-connected and affordable places in the world."

'Repat' factor

Those opportunities are also luring Asian expats back to their home turf for MBA studies. Jie "Jay" Bao, 31, was born in Qingdao, China, but headed to the U.S. for his undergraduate degree. He double majored in economics and management at Purdue University's Krannert School of Management (number 69 in the FT's MBA 2017 ranking) and worked as a marketing specialist for a property investment company in Miami before deciding that his best prospects lay back in China.

Bao went into digital technology "because it's a new and booming industry," rising to become director of operations for Digital Creative Co., a Chinese company that specializes in creative visual content, high tech exhibitions and indoor theme parks.

"I had a good career over the past few years," he said. "However, I felt an increasingly obvious bottleneck in my basic business skills and knowledge."

That is when Bao decided he needed an MBA. He chose CEIBS partly because of its reputation, as well as its high ranking and international faculty. "What also excites me is that the MBA program will provide a deep understanding of the Chinese business world while at the same time, offer a global vision," he said. "This just matches perfectly with my career plan. What's more exciting is that beginning from the class of 2019, CEIBS will have a new concentration in digital service, which [also] just matches my intention perfectly."

Reflecting the trend toward entrepreneurship echoed across most Asian business schools, Bao outlined his ambitions: "After I graduate from CEIBS, my short-term goal is to enter a multi-national tech company to gain more first-hand corporate management experience. In the long run, I hope to set up my own digital technology company someday."

In Kuala Lumpur, ASB is also attracting returnees. Among its first intake, Jia Wann Tong, a 31-year-old Malaysian student, says she grew up with Malaysian, Chinese and Japanese influences, but gained both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in the U.K.

Then, after working for almost six years in the oil and gas industry, she decided she need an MBA and initially approached the Massachusetts-based MIT Sloan school, which ranks 13th on the FT list. But when she learnt of the U.S. school's collaboration with the Malaysian central bank in founding ASB in her home country, she "jumped at the opportunity" to enrol.

Jia Wann Tong, an MBA student at the Asia School of Business (Photo courtesy of ASB)

Tong cites three reasons for her choice: Top quality education with MIT faculty; a syllabus centered on the 'action learning' scheme providing "real" business experience; and the heavy focus on the Asian market, which she believes is at the forefront of emerging economies.

The unique style of the action learning format, she says, stands out for the hands-on experience it provides, allowing MBA candidates to exercise leadership skills and apply classroom learning to management challenges.

"By exposing me to a wide range of companies from start-ups, Fortune 500 companies to government related corporations, 'action learning' gives us a taste of real-life challenges in respective industries and better understanding of the options after I graduate," she noted.

ASB's Asian location was also a major attraction. "The region is filled with opportunities due to its status as a major foreign direct investment magnet and the emergence of regional value chains driven by regional business leaders," Tong says. "ASB is the only business school that provides the fusion of both Asia insights and MIT's genetic blueprint."

Unconventional students

Perhaps not unique, but at least rare in Asian schools, is ASB's recruitment policy. While targeting students with outstanding qualifications, the school also provides slots for what it calls "unconventional students," who lack the formal credentials normally required to enter an MBA program.

There are currently several such students in the school's inaugural intake. In the words of Zeti, co-chair of ASB's board of governors, they are "outstanding," not least because without conventional qualifications to fall back on, they must demonstrate more promise and talent than other candidates in their presentations and interviews.

In the past, opportunities for such people in Asian business schools were largely limited to already proven, self-made entrepreneurs who built businesses from scratch without formal education and later decided to take executive MBA programs or other management studies to improve their business skills.

Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing also prides itself in opening its doors to students who would not normally walk into a Chinese MBA program. Associate Dean Li Haitao gives the example of Cindi Mi, who left school at 17 but after completing a full-time MBA at CKGSB, went on to found the hugely successful educational startup VIPKid.

Work experience sometimes substitutes for academic qualifications when enrolling in Executive MBA programs, which are typically aimed at mid to senior level executives.

Particularly in Asia, according to Ernest Saudjana, a recruitment partner at Boston Consulting Group, Asian MBA candidates tend to have longer work experience than their Western counterparts, who are generally younger.

"In the future I expect that the proportion of our hires based on prior experience will go up," he said.

However, such policies are still rare, according to Michael Pettis, a former Wall Street banker who is professor of finance at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management.

"While the level of intelligence at Chinese schools is extremely high, you do not often get those weird geniuses who test very badly," Pettis said. "At one school I know of, they joke that Einstein would never be allowed in."

Alongside the region's rising community of MBA students, Asia's new breed of pioneering business educators such as ASB's Zeti are determined to change all that.

Simon Roughneen, Asia regional correspondent, contributed to this article.

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