Just a few years ago, I scoffed at my colleagues at Bain who were pursuing an MBA. “Why spend $175,000 and 2 years of your life just to get a stamp of approval from Harvard, Stanford or Wharton?” I challenged them. “There’s much better ways of gaining a similar experience and network.” Today, however, I’m happy to have been accepted by Wharton myself. Where did this change of heart come from?
Here’s how it happened.
It was the unofficial office sport for analysts during my time as a consultant in Bain’s office in Brussels, Belgium. As soon as you had spent two years at the company, you’d start to apply for as many top MBA programs as you could. In the shortlist, INSEAD in France was the office favorite, as many of the partners had gone there, and Wharton, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Chicago were among the top American contenders.
THE DRAMA OF PRAISE OR SILENT HUMILIATION
My colleagues spent their weekends studying for GMAT, their nights writing essays, and their days impressing their bosses to get the best recommendation letter. And then finally, when the letters of acceptance came in, there was the drama of praise or silent humiliation.
I didn’t participate in that office ritual, nor in the similar race that was going on in the alumni chapter of my student’s club. Why? Because “there’s only three goals worth pursuing in an MBA,” I told my friends and colleagues, “and you can achieve all of them in a better, less expensive or more efficient way.”
What were the three purposes I saw?
- You want to have “Columbia”, “Chicago”, “Wharton”, “Harvard” or “Stanford” on your resume.
- You want to build a unique international network of business contacts.
- You want to learn some things about business that you can’t learn in your current job.
Here’s what I wrote later in my application letter to Wharton about that.
I couldn’t make sense of [an MBA]: we had just spent half a decade in college and worked as consultants for merely two years. Suddenly, we were going to learn administering a business. We didn’t even know what a business really was. For us it was a bunch of excel models and PowerPoint presentations. The truth is, we didn’t go to business school for the B and the A. We wanted to get “Wharton” on our CV, “build a network”, and change jobs. I figured that there were better ways to spend $175,000, build a network and get a good name on your CV.
AN ALTERNATIVE PLAN TEMPORARILY PUT AN MBA OFF
So instead of applying for an MBA, I made an alternative plan that would cost me less, give me more time to travel, and still allow me to fulfill all the goals above. It consisted of the same three building blocks:
- To get an Ivy League degree, I spent nine months at Columbia University’s Journalism School. I got a Master in Business & Economics, and an entry ticket to the very intriguing world of journalism.
- To build an international network of business contacts, I wrote for the Financial Times in London, The Philadelphia Inquirer in Philadelphia, and the Handelszeiting newspaper in Zurich. I also attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, and sat down for interviews with at least 10 Fortune 500 CEOs, as well as several political and societal leaders.
- To learn “business”, I got a one year scholarship from the Belgian King, who every year sends 15-20 Belgian high potentials abroad for a “real life MBA”. With my scholarship, I set up the U.S. division of Eddy Merckx Cycles, the bike company of the world’s most coveted racer of all time, Eddy Merckx.
I was very happy with the choices I made, against an MBA, and in favor of a real life MBA and a two-year adventure. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s willing to go off the beaten track.
But having worked for more than a year as country manager for Eddy Merckx, I did feel like I needed some more training and development to advance. So I took a look at some Executive MBA programs.