A Global Graduate Experience Like None Other: The Executive MBA From Columbia, London & HKU

Columbia Business School is one of three partners, with London Business School and HKU Business School, in an unusual global education experience

What could persuade you to jump on a plane and take two 20-hour flights once a month for 20 months? Especially if you had just had your first child?

For Beenu Arora, the answer was the Executive MBA-Global, a program run jointly by Columbia Business School, London Business School and HKU Business School in Hong Kong that is surely one of the world’s most intense and most compelling business education experiences.

Although he had already become global head of cyber defense for mining firm BHP based in Melbourne, Australia, Arora always wanted more. So he applied for and was accepted into the CBS-LBS version of the EMBA-Global. “LBS had always been a dream school for me, but I didn’t just want to get the London experience,” he says. “I also wanted to diversify that with Columbia and add the New York experience. Also, I always had the entrepreneurial dream, just like everybody else who goes to business school, but I knew I didn’t necessarily have all the tools.”


As a technologist by background, he lacked an understanding of financing, capital structure allocation or many other business fundamentals. “I knew I wouldn’t become an expert by going to business school, but I would understand the frameworks,” he says.

And that is why many managers, often more narrowly trained and skilled, return to graduate school for the executive version of the MBA. The fact that this unusual offering is truly global, providing deep dives into the three major economies of the world, is the icing on the cake.

The 20-month EMBA-Global comes in two configurations. On the American and Europe option, students study for four to five days on alternate months at Columbia and LBS, while the Asia-focused program is delivered mainly at HKU, with two classes in each of London and New York, and one in Shanghai. The New York and London version gives students two MBAs, from LBS and Columbia, while the Asian option results in one MBA, issued jointly by Columbia, LBS, and HKU. Both versions are impressively ranked on the Financial Times’ 2020 EMBA ranking, with the Asian option coming in tenth place and the New York-London version 20th. The salary increases for alums are also eye-catching: an increase of 85% for the Asian version and a 69% boost for the U.S.-European option.


But some use the program as an incubator of sorts to do their own thing. When BHP went through a restructuring while Arora was in the program, he decided to strike while the iron was hot. “Something I had learned from friends with MBAs from other schools, is that sometimes people wait for too long after they finish the MBA to start something,” he says. During a conversation over dinner in London one evening following classes, he explained his business concept to some classmates. One thought it was such a good idea that he wanted in. Soon after finishing their EMBAs, Arora and his new business partner launched Cyble, a tech firm that uses state-of-the-art artificial and human intelligence to provide early warning of cyber threats. For obvious reasons Arora won’t reveal the names of clients, but he says that less than 18 months after launching, Cyble is working with Fortune Top 10 companies.

Even by the standards of other top-class MBA options, this program has an impressively diverse class profile. A typical class consists of roughly100 students, around a quarter each originating from each of Europe, Asia, and Northern/Central America, while the remaining quarter comes from the rest of the world. On average, students boast a dozen years of work experience. In the last class, 28% were women and 26 nationalities were represented from some 60 cities. The most common sectors for students are finance (26%), industry/manufacturing (16%) and leisure/retail/entertainment (16%). General managers accounted for 32% of students.

The courses focus on “big picture business skills” aimed at rounding out the program’s general management perspectrive and building leadership capabilities. As well as deepening knowledge in core courses such as financial accounting and strategic management and electives like global entrepreneurship and mergers and acquisitions, participants take an Executive Leadership course to “develop self-awareness, leadership skills and team working ability.”


“We are seeking to prepare our graduates to lead change and shift perspectives on a global stage, deliver ground-breaking impact to their organizations, and work with open perspectives and a truly diverse, and international, mindset,” says Fiona Lennoxsmith, Director, EMBA programs at LBS. “This includes being able to design and implement strategies that drive competitive advantage, enable and deliver innovation and inspire those who work with them. It also means developing skills to lead strategic decision making while commanding a thorough knowledge of customers, markets, organizations and technology, besides remaining active learners who have the self-awareness, confidence and capacity to adapt to change.”

If they fancy even more globetrotting, students can select up to two assignments shared by the UK-US and the Asian programs in such countries as Argentina, Dubai, South Africa or Germany. On these excursions, they will meet participants on the partner program, which helps them build and expand their network. Of course, the wider alumni network is also extremely powerful. LBS’s consists of 45,000 graduates, Columbia’s 47,000 and the HKU Business School’s 22,000.

Because of its inherently international flavor, this program has been understandably impacted more than most by the COVID pandemic. Since early 2020, classes have been run on a hybrid model, as with most schools, with classes consisting of “roomies” (those in the classroom) and “zoomies” (students attending via online videoconferencing.) Despite being disruptive, this has had some small upsides, says Lennnoxsmith. For example, the fact that speakers have been giving virtual talks has meant that people who would not have been able to travel to campuses have been able to appear, resulting in a more varied and more senior group of speakers. Also, students have been able to take part in elective courses from other locations, cutting some traveling time. The three partner schools say that they are currently working on program changes for the next intake that will “emphasize accessibility and flexibility” and will give participants more networking opportunities than ever, despite travel restrictions resulting from the pandemic.


It is true that some EMBA participants start their own ventures, but most see the qualification as a way to accelerate their career rather than a springboard to something entirely new. Antonio de Raho, who is currently studying on the Asian version of EMBA Global program, is one who has seen quick results.

He was working as a local R&D manager of manufacturing firm Bitron, based in Korea, and saw the program as a way to boost his knowledge in areas he was lacking, and to help him change location. Even before finishing, he has already achieved his aims, having moved into sales marketing, which he says “resonates” far more with him than his previous job. He has also relocated to Seoul, with a plan of moving on to Japan in three years.

“The EMBA-Global has changed me in many ways,” he says. “I can say the most important change I made is to be more proactive and not procrastinate as much as before. You really need to make more in less time.” This has been exacerbated by COVID, which has impacted the second year. Taking electives online from New York and London – respectively 13 and eight hours behind where he is currently located – has been “hard” but he “decided to still take the classes I deemed to be relevant for my curriculum and topics I am more passionate about. In the end, I did not want to miss the chance to make the most of the program in terms of academics.” Overall, he adds, despite the COVID-related challenges “I love the program and would do it over and over again – even though it has been demanding.”


What qualities do successful applicants have? Obviously, they need to have strong global experience, to be ambitious and to be in a decision-making role. Also, says Brett Hunter, admissions director for leadership programs at LBS, they need to “have a story to share and the willingness and ability to share it. They are also bright, both in terms of intelligence, but also in terms of their personality–who they are, how they come across.” Another quality that makes good candidates stand out is “resilience.” After all, Hunter points out, the EMBA-Global is hard work, mentally, physically and emotionally.

Between 30 and 40% of applicants have some level of sponsorship from their companies, adds Hunter. The number of applications for the program is obviously smaller than at the full-time MBA level because the number of people in their 30s and 40s willing to take this grueling EMBA while holding down full-time jobs is smaller than the number of younger people who are willing to take time out of their career to do a full-time program. As such, selection is more about getting to know candidates and hearing their stories. GMAT scores, or their equivalents, carry less weight than in full-time MBA application processes.

What advice would our current and former EMBA Global students give to anyone thinking about applying? “Don’t think too much about ROI, because it is not only the depth of knowledge you can accrue with the academic requirements that count but mostly the mindset a program like this gives you that makes the difference – and it will always be worth the effort both financially and in terms of time dedication,” says de Raho.

“Three things,” adds Arora. “One, keep an open mind. Some people try to come up with a playbook and say, ‘I will attend x number of events and do this and that.’ It’s not going to happen. The program is so tough and to some extent a rollercoaster that you can’t plan. Two, manage your time well. Some people think that an EMBA is easy, academically, but it is not. It is hard work. Add to that the travel, which becomes grueling after a while. Three, make sure you get buy-in from your family. You need their support because this is intense.”


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