My Story: From Cell Phones to IE’s Online Executive MBA

Nadia Vadachia with friends

Nadia Vadachia is the regional technology manager for South East Africa for MTN, the largest wireless mobile network in Africa and the Middle East. She wanted an MBA “to get more confident,” she recalls. Local B-schools in her native South Africa offered a traditional executive MBA experience, with classes meeting twice a week. But Nadia was stuck with a common, logical hitch: where to leave her 10-year-old daughter during class. Without a solid answer, she set her sights on executive MBA programs that offered less face time, and more flexibility.

A few Google searches later, she found IE Business School’s online, International Executive MBA program (IEXMBA). So far, she’s sat next to her 40 classmates twice: first, during a two-week campus visit in Spain in June 2010, and more recently during a two-week trip to China. The class’ final face-to-face is in Spain in July 2011, with graduation soon after. While she admits that her body “has taken a toll” from the exhaustion brought on by coursework, she says she’s a better person for it.

Her story:

I just got back from Shanghai. The best part about the trip was finding out that I was doing well on the MBA. I had been weary. I went to school and university in South Africa. When I enrolled in a program that’s so international, I wondered how I would compete. I have two degrees – a BS in Science from University of Natal, in Durban, and a Master in Engineering from University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. But I was worried about my classmates’ standards of education. Would I manage? I did. I’m thrilled–I feel that I can compete with the rest of the people in the world. I can add value and learn. It gave me an empowered feeling.

I did this program to get more confident. Part of that is because I’m a woman. Men see work differently than the lady who gets married, has children, and has other aspects of life that need attention. I looked at The University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science, but sitting in a lecture theatre to learn wasn’t going to work for me.

I was married at 19 and had my daughter five years later, so I’ve had a lot to deal with. At the moment, I’m a single mom. I’m the sole breadwinner. So the length of the IEXMBA is great too: 13 months is just long enough.

IE offers a lot of financial aid for women. You’re honored and respected, and given an opportunity.  I got a scholarship for 20% of the program. The rest I had to pay for. Thank god I was saving money for a rainy day. My parents are helping me a bit with the fees, too. Coming from South Africa, this is a hell of a lot of money: it’s half the price of my house! My company gives 500 Euros towards a €50,000 MBA. [The class starting in November 2011 will pay €55,200.] It’s nothing. And then, they take it out of your salary! After you pass, they pay it back to you.

The MBA has changed who I am. Once, this guy said to me: the person who knows they’re wise, and the wise person, are 1,000 miles apart. If you don’t know it, you cannot use it. I needed confidence. But I’m a perfectionist. I want to know I know everything really well. The good thing about an MBA is that you cover every aspect of a business, so you can get in there and do something if you need to. Before the program, I didn’t know about finance. I was clueless on marketing. The moment that someone spoke about these subjects, I would switch off. I didn’t feel I had the base knowledge to make sense of it.  But now, everything is changed.

At the beginning, I was tense and worried. There was so much I was trying to do. You start to face the limits in life that you have, but don’t face enough. Women know this well: when you have just had baby and are so exhausted – all you want to do is sleep, but the baby is crying. How do you do it all? You cannot. Now, I’m applying that to the working world: I have limited resources, but I have to make this work. You can work yourself to a grinding halt and forget about your family. But then you end up like every other executive sitting at the top of a company, divorced. So you start holistically: your body needs exercise, you need to eat well, and to spend time with family. The MBA gives you time to work through this challenge.

Now, it’s running like a train, smoothly on the track. I’ve got my cases at the bedside, there’s a roster for the team. You start to trust others in a way that you didn’t before. Whatever it will be, it will be enough. Quality isn’t always available. And if you want more, you’ve got to sacrifice time with your family. Despite that attitude, I did OK in seven subjects: I got three As, four Bs, and my team won the entrepreneurship prize for our group!

I met my classmates for the first time in Spain, in June 2010. There are 40 of us, split into two classes. There were only four women in my class of 20, and another three in the other section. Everyone was very cautious and cordial in Spain. But when we were online, we started to get to know each other.

You’re not going to get along with everyone. In the first half, I was on a team of six people, and part of another project with four. I had close, direct interaction with nine people. We came from diverse backgrounds, and it was a challenge working with very different personalities. One of my groups included a Spaniard, a German, and a Kuwaiti. Everyone was in a different time zone. But you find a way to get the work done. I don’t think, in all the years I’ve worked – and I’ve been in telecommunications since 1999 ­­– that I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many culturally diverse people. It got me to see how far I’m willing to go to make a relationship work, and how far I’m not.

And teamwork is a challenge, no matter which course you do.

Sometimes the group work can be appalling; but, if you don’t get people to work together, you’ll never learn. You’ve got to find a way to weather through even six months of a relationship with someone.

In our first, face-to-face lecture in Spain, I had all concepts hurled at me from seven subjects. I was overwhelmed. There was too much to read. But I know now that the lectures were high-level overviews of the content we were about to work with in detail online. In Shanghai, the second time around, the face-to-face sessions were marvelous. I knew that I simply needed to understand the big picture. Then, week-to-week, online, we would build on it and fill in the knowledge gaps.

My favorite course was Entrepreneurship. The professor is American, so he’s got this way of making you believe, ‘I can do this.’ He’s been instrumental in my feeling more confident. At the end of the class, we had to present a business case to investors in China. He came, he pressed us, and even videotaped us. It’s amazing to see how much we learned. Anyone can give you a book to read about business, but Francisco López Lubián, my Financial Management lecturer said: “I want to know if you can analyze, think, articulate and present something that’s valuable with meaning. Yes, you need basic principles, but there’s more to it than that: that’s what separates an MBA from others.”

The best part is that you can apply these things immediately. I  find myself questioning why things are the way they are at work. I’m developing an opinion about how things can be better. Recently, I had to write two questions to the CEO of our MTN group about how I feel about human resources and our company. The quality of my questions was quite different.

One thing about not seeing lecturer (in person) is that communication needs to be crisp, clear and precise every time. For instance, we had a lecturer or two who would change the syllabus. It was irritating. In one class, what we expected to be a group assignment was later changed to an individual assignment. Wee had to regroup and reorganize our work. Another professor added an assignment one week before we left for Shanghai. Luckily, this didn’t happen often.

IE is consistent about checking throughout the MBA that we are feeling comfortable. After the first period in Spain, we completed a survey on each professor. During the online period, we got questionnaires. If we have problems with some students not participating, the lecturers are helpful and willing to work with both the students who are working, and even those who are not. Their job was to carry all the people and get them to work – to commit to what we were doing.

The online tools are where you network. On our program’s online blog, you can speak to other people who have done this MBA. Our class doesn’t have a chance to interact much with the other EMBAs and MBAs at IE. Mainly, it has been the 40 people in our group that we got to spend a lot more time with. When we were in Spain, they were having an alumni function, and we went to that. But it was a one-off. In Shanghai, we also met some previous students.

In terms of enriching my life, and fulfilling my hopes and dreams: I’m rich. I’m not going to network with people because I want them to further my cause. I want to because they get value and I get value. My financial management professor is telling us at the minute that accounting values and economic values are not the same. Economic value is what’s important to you. As much as it was difficult, I wouldn’t trade this year for anything. The MBA was an initiation. It opened me up to the possibilities to the world.

When I got back from Shanghai, I found myself looking at the pictures. I was nostalgic. These new friends understand things about you that even your family doesn’t.