Diversity and recruiting the optimal MBA cohort

Diverse cohorts broaden students’ minds and skill sets, equipping them for the global marketplace and future leadership roles, writes HEC Paris’ Andrea Masini

In the past few decades, there has been a dramatic focus on the makeup of MBA cohorts in terms of nationality, academic and professional background, gender, religion, sexual orientation and other factors. This comes as little surprise, given that today’s employers are interested in hiring candidates who have experience navigating diverse, cross-cultural environments.

While diversity spans numerous characteristics, it is geographical diversity that is most often referred to in business education. We know that students are best prepared for top international jobs when they have a proven track record of working with people from different backgrounds. Just imagine the wisdom our students acquire when they work in small groups to solve complex business problems with, for instance, a tech whizz from Berlin, a policymaker from Egypt and a former Olympic athlete from South America. 

More responsible leaders

Success in an international career is no mean feat. Global managers have to be able to relate to people from different backgrounds, and to consider how they will think and react in various situations, particularly under pressure. The MBA provides these opportunities on an almost daily basis, creating better, more responsible leaders. These leaders of tomorrow will already have been challenged and confronted by opposing political ideas and conflicting beliefs by the time they reach managerial positions. They will not only be familiar with a whole spectrum of contrasting ideas, but they’ll know how to work best with the people who hold them. 

More than this, working with a diverse group of individuals helps students develop their soft skills effectively. For example, at HEC Paris, we send all of our MBA students to a bootcamp at Saint-Cyr, the prominent French military academy. This annual seminar is specifically designed to improve team-leadership skills through a series of increasingly difficult tasks supervised by leadership experts. Students must work in teams to achieve a common goal – and it reveals some important lessons.

Recently, I witnessed a shy student from Asia discover the solution to one of the Saint-Cyr challenges. Her nine teammates – who were more dominant, Western MBA candidates – loudly offered their own thoughts to the point that she gave up trying to tell them her idea. They failed the task. Since no one had heard the one team member who had the solution, the whole group learned an important lesson about their own cultural norms and the need to listen to every voice.

Having a diverse cohort allows these lessons to filter through the whole programme. MBA programmes usually consist of group work, and every person’s skill set is invaluable to the rest of team. Students develop the tools to understand diversity – from nationality to religious beliefs and sexual orientation – and see how they can work with, and benefit from, these differences. 

Opposing ideas that broaden the mindset

While most MBA candidates share some important characteristics, such as a desire pursue excellence and a willingness to work hard, they will discover new or opposing ideas that broaden their mindsets. Diversity offers practical benefits, too. 

Many people join MBA programmes with the desire to learn new languages, for example, and spend time with students whose first language they are keen to learn. At HEC Paris, our MBA candidates must be proficient in three languages when they graduate. Students learn from each other both in classroom settings and in informal social settings. Russian students connect with French students, for example, and they pick up new languages through their friendships. 

Cultural events

A diverse cohort is also a lot of fun. Students plan cultural events and invite their classmates, the faculty and the local community along to enjoy them. From cultural weeks that focus on traditional food and activities to various celebrations, such as Holi – the Hindu festival of colours – diversity enriches campus life. For example, for last year’s Nigerian Independence Day, our Nigerian students cooked a traditional dinner for the entire MBA student body. When we celebrated Holi at HEC Paris, Indian students organised a wonderfully flamboyant celebration with the local town mayor. It really was like New Delhi came to Jouy-en-Josas.

Despite cultural diversity stealing most of the focus, we can’t ignore our students’ work experience. Students should be able to learn from a wide range of professionals, from economists and doctors to engineers and bankers. Past employers among recent HEC MBA cohorts have ranged from Microsoft to the Peace Corps. Former job titles, meanwhile, have included everything from Air Traffic Controller for the Israeli Air Force to consultants from JP Morgan and McKinsey. We have even had the Acting Creative Excellence Manager for Coca-Cola in Pakistan and Afghanistan among recent cohorts of students. 

Achieving career transformation

Exposure to such a variety of peers is particularly important if students want to achieve career transformation. The close friendships they make during the MBA programme will invariably include people from other countries and industries. Finance professionals can look to the tech specialists, for instance, while managers from commerce can learn from those who come from global consultancies. 

This is a key reason why diversity really pays off at Business School – a more diverse MBA class transforms into a more diverse professional network. Students create global links with points of contact around the world that last for their whole careers. 

Students who choose to study abroad already have a head start. They immediately open themselves up to another culture, ready to absorb ideas that can help them far into the future. By spending time in France, students pick up aspects of the country’s heritage easily. That might mean being able to order the right wine at a business dinner, or holding conversations about art and history. 

Still, not all MBA programmes place such a high value on having a diverse MBA class. Many students tell us that they chose HEC Paris because diversity is at the heart of our programme. Every HEC student profile is unique and atypical. For this reason, students come to HEC Paris ready and willing to accept other people’s ideas. 

We are extremely proud of our diversity, and we work to ensure it at every step of the selection process. In perusing the quality international applicants that form a talented and diverse MBA cohort, some Schools are largely able to rely on their reputation. While HEC Paris is globally visible and receives exceptional applications from across the globe, our MBA marketing managers still travel the world to meet applicants personally and introduce them to HEC Paris. Today, our cohort is 93% international – those people are all from outside France – and comprises more than 50 nationalities. We are one of the most diverse MBA programmes in the world. 

Celebrating diversity

Once students join the programme, this diversity is both celebrated and utilised. The idea is never to enforce a level of standardisation, but to leverage each person’s uniqueness, their values, understanding and experiences. 

After all, the world is changing. Companies operate across borders and technology continues to break down barriers. The business leaders of the future should be able to experience how international companies work as soon as they join an MBA programme. We take this mandate very seriously at the HEC Paris MBA. 

Andrea Masini is an Associate Professor and Associate Dean, HEC Paris MBA. He holds a PhD in management from INSEAD. Prior to joining HEC Paris in 2010, Andrea was Assistant Professor of Operations and Technology Management at London Business School. He has a background in mechanical engineering and environmental management.

Meeting India’s demand for business education with responsibility

How Mumbai’s Athena School of Management aims to change the parameters of traditional management education in India

India’s burgeoning young and aspirational population ensures an ‘insatiable’ demand for quality business education, according to Aditya Singh, Director of Athena School of Management in Mumbai.

This underlines the importance of the place held by the country’s Business Schools in society, their responsibility towards it, and their potential to make an impact.

‘A good business programme is not only about a qualification,’ says Singh, cautioning   against the ‘commoditisation of business education’.

In the following interview, with Business Impact’s Content Editor Tim Dhoul, Singh outlines the approach and ambitions of Athena School of Management, encompassing the importance it attaches to internships and experiential learning as well as the value of community work.   

Demand for places at top Business Schools in India is high. Are there any particular qualities Athena looks for among its applicants?   

The phrase we use constantly is ‘marks don’t make a business leader!’. While we do give weightage to academics and scores, we follow a profile-based admissions process.

We evaluate applicants equally on the basis of their extra-curricular achievements, including achievements in sport, social impact projects and volunteering activities, as well as their work experience and any prior international exposure. Most importantly, we evaluate their desire and hunger to succeed in making a positive and sustainable impact both in business and society.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing Business Schools in India and the surrounding region, in your opinion?

Indian Business Schools have to be extremely careful to avoid commoditisation of business education. A good business programme is not only about a qualification!

With a huge young and aspirational population below the age of 25, there is an insatiable demand for good education [in India]. However, it is critical that Business Schools keep their eye on the ball and realise that the final measure of our success is going to be borne out by the number of our graduates that excel in the corporate world and the world of business.

How many entrepreneurs are we truly able to create?! Business Schools have to create actual and tangible management and leadership skills among their students.

What do you think makes Athena’s Post-Graduate Programme in Management (PGPM) programme stand out from others that are available in India?

The Athena PGPM is designed to be an experiential-based pedagogy with a focus on real-world and practical learning. Our goal is to ‘positively impact the world through our students’.

The programme’s key features include: multiple internships with some of India’s top companies and startups; international immersion programmes across Europe, Asia and Canada; a faculty that includes top corporate leaders at CEO, Director and VP levels; a campus in Mumbai, the commercial capital of India; and small class sizes to ensure quality teaching and a keen focus on the students’ personality and soft skills.

Can you tell me how internships are incorporated into Athena’s PGPM programme and why the School places so much importance in them?

Internships are an integral and important part of the Athena PGPM. The programme includes a two-month long internship in each semester, which works out at a total of six to seven months of internships during the whole programme.

Interns are expected to implement their learnings from class, and to improvise and execute on a real-time basis. Each intern has a mentor attached from the company who guides them.

Alternatively, some students choose to pursue an international internship where they work with organisations in different geographies, along with understanding and appreciating different cultures and societies. Athena students have interned in different countries in Europe and Asia, including Italy, Turkey, Germany and Nepal.

Aside from internships, how else does the School facilitate experiential learning?

Experiential learning is a constant form of learning where the student is the ‘centre of gravity’ and the faculty are enablers and facilitators of learning rather disseminators of information. In order to facilitate, we include design thinking, action learning and project-based learning. 

Students pursue live projects with companies and NGOs, case study competitions, multiple internships along with consulting assignments. Students also have to work with projects in the social sector and with non-profits in order to truly understand business impact at all levels of society.

Do you think that PGPM/MBA curricula should be developed in collaboration with employers?

At Athena, we believe that potential employers have an extremely important role to play in the design and implementation of our programme. We follow the end-user process of curriculum design in order to keep our modules relevant and at the cutting edge of business practice and innovation.

Inputs and guidance are taken from senior stakeholders representing potential recruiters along with roundtables and conclaves that are held to discuss the changing and rapidly evolving business environment.

Can you tell me a little bit about Athena’s international immersion modules?

Global exposure and cross-border learning experiences go a long way towards creating future global leaders. While the international immersions are not mandatory, an increasing number of students are embracing the opportunity.

This year, we have students travelling to Singapore, Germany, Canada and the US for modules on topics ranging from leadership and entrepreneurship to analytics and Industrial Revolution 4.0. The experience of studying at these global institutions as well as interacting and living with students from across the world is a truly life-enhancing experience.

I note that community service and personal development initiatives are actively encouraged at the School. Can you tell me of any programme requirements here and/or what options are available to students during the programme?

While prior experience in community and/or social development is not mandatory, it is preferred. At the School itself, we actively partner with organisations such as Rotary International, AIESEC, Rotaract and other NGOs to make a positive impact on society.

Athena is also an academic partner of the United Nations Global Compact which reinforces our vision to contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

It is mandatory for all Athena students to complete at least one live project towards community/social development.

What are your hopes for the School in the next five years – what do you want to see happen?

Our vision is to challenge the limits and change the parameters of what traditional management education has been in India. We see trending areas in business education that include entrepreneurship, analytics and design thinking, and we wish to establish a centre of excellence in each of these.

We also hope to increase the trend of international students studying with us in Mumbai. The hope is that, in the next five years, an Athena business graduate can create value for their organisations or create their own venture anywhere in the world equipped with experiential and innovative learning, international exposure, and a desire to excel and contribute to society.

Is there anything you’d like to see change among Business Schools both in India and in the rest of the world?

In a rapidly changing socioeconomic context, we have to become nimbler and more flexible in delivering solutions to our students which are relevant to the business environment.

We need to be able to predict change effectively and stay ahead of the curve rather than playing catch up. Business Schools also need to shift focus from extremely theory-centric learning to practical and real-world learning while encouraging students to become change agents in their future organisations. We have to harness new technologies so that they can complement and, in some cases, supplement current learning methodologies.

Aditya Singh is the Director of Athena School of Management in Mumbai, where he currently teaches leadership and differential thinking. He has more than 15 years of experience across the corporate sector, consulting, entrepreneurship and academia. Aditya is a graduate of the Wharton School’s Accelerated Development Program (ADP) and holds an MBA (PGP-FMB) from the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research in Mumbai.

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