Commute: Cayman Islands to Palisades, New York
I had always intended to get an MBA but had initially planned to do a full-time program about five years after undergraduate school. Yet I’ve been having so much fun living and working in various countries during the past ten years that I didn’t make time for the MBA. My present life and work environment in the Cayman Islands is very stable and conducive to my taking on a project like Cornell’s Executive MBA.
The Cornell program requires four 8-day intensive sessions at the main campus in Ithaca, NY and 35 weekends at a forested compound outside of New York City. When I signed up for Cornell’s program there were many direct flights to New York City from the Cayman Islands where I live and work. I thought I’d have it relatively easy. But as the economy unraveled, many airlines cut down on flights so now I must fly indirect. On the weeks when I must travel to New York, I work a half day on Friday and head to the airport for a 2 PM flight to Miami. I wait in the Admirals Club until my next flight to La Guardia. That is a 2.5 hour flight so I am presented with balancing the temptation of watching a movie with the possible need to finish homework or study for an exam.
I arrive at La Guardia sometime between 9:00 and 11:00 PM and I have a prearranged car service to drive me to the class facility. When I started the program I took taxis from the airport, but I found that for every 10 taxi drivers, only 1 could actually find their way to this site outside of the city. Further, they charged more than a hired car. Now I have a regular pre-arranged service with a friendly driver and a familiar car.
I arrive at the facility sometime between 9:45 and midnight, get the same room that I request every time, then try to get a good night’s rest before a packed weekend of classes. On Sunday afternoon, I get out of class at 12:30 to catch a 2:05 flight from Newark to Miami. After a layover, I arrive at Grand Cayman at about 8:30 PM, try to get to bed by 10:30, and start a work week early the next morning.
I work for ABN AMRO, a Dutch Bank, as a Senior Fund Accounting Manager. My responsibilities in the past have generally consisted of accounting and valuations for hedge funds, and managing a group of CPAs/Chartered Accountants. I am presently leading a conversion of our existing clients to a new online hedge fund trading platform. Recently, this project required that I spend three weeks in Mumbai last October. For my MBA’s ‘Global Business Project’ my team worked with a non-profit foundation in Zambia helping women in the city’s slums get established in microenterprise. This school project fell right alongside my business trip, so I spent a total of five straight weeks away from home, in India, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Namibia.
My employer is not paying for the EMBA. The financial crisis hit my company’s then parent, Fortis Bank, particularly hard, ultimately leading to its nationalization by the Dutch government. That closed the window on the tuition reimbursement program. A number of my classmates had their anticipated corporate funding dry up during this time as well. My company has, however, given me a total of 17 free days per year to use for this school program and they have been very flexible toward accommodating my school schedule. A number of students get absolutely nothing from their company, so I am luckier than many.
Why Cornell? In 2005, while on a business trip to Hong Kong, I was introduced to a Managing Director who invited me into his private office and proceeded to give me an abbreviated version of his entire life’s story. He said, “I went to Cornell, and I can’t begin to tell you what a difference it has made in my life and in my career.” I later learned that he graduated from the Johnson School in 1972. He was a remarkable and interesting man who indeed had quite a life and career. From that day on I have wanted to get an MBA from Cornell.
In addition to this unique personal experience, Cornell’s Johnson School clearly has a great reputation as a top tier program at an Ivy League university. There are also a number of logistical advantages to this program compared to the University of Chicago, where I was also accepted, or other New York City schools which I considered. Cornell’s program takes place largely at a forested compound in Palisades, New York. It has a hotel connected to it, good dining facilities, racquet ball courts, a pool, weight room, a bar, tennis courts, a jogging trail, and much more.
Going there for the weekend is getting away from it all. All class members elect to spend the night there even though many could easily drive back to their residences in the area. This environment encourages us to spend the entire weekend in close quarters with our classmates. We have a good deal of time to socialize, work on team projects, and even play sports together.
I contrast that with other programs which take place in metropolitan areas. In those programs there is no overnight residence facility, few amenities, and everyone scatters after class gets out for the day. The in-town students go home and the out of town students are alone in an unconnected facility. One of the key benefits of any MBA program is meeting people from other businesses and other walks of life. An executive MBA program, by its part-time nature, really reduces the opportunities to build relationships with classmates. To me, this is why the Johnson School’s choice of such a facility is very important, because it maximizes our experience outside of the classroom.
Its Saturday-Sunday schedule, rather than Friday-Saturday, allows me to only miss a half day from work every two weeks, only spend two nights away from home and my wife, and maintain as regular a life schedule as possible given the circumstances. My wife and I don’t have children yet, but we’re expecting our first at the end of this month. That will mean that my schedule from then until graduation at the end of May will get exponentially more complicated, but for good reason.
I have become a very efficient traveler as a result of this experience. Sort of like George Clooney in “Up in the Air.” I travel in economy, but I get the best seats (reclining exit row window seats), go through the shortest lines, and I have everything ready ahead of time. I can move through an airport with lightning efficiency. That is a skill which will be with me for life.
My roundtrip flight to and from New York is 3,097 miles. After the grueling 10-hour trek from Grand Cayman to La Guardia I have a 45-minute car ride to the weekend facility. Having gone through this hectic schedule for about 20 months now, I feel a bit shell-shocked. Once it’s all over with, I am sure I will look back and realize that all the travel, expense, and time away from home was a small price to pay for the experiences, the friendships that I have made, and my Ivy League degree.
To read the stories of other EMBA road warriors: