Impossible? A Microsoft Executive Has a Baby in an EMBA Program

Ulrika Hedlund and baby


Swedish-born Ulrika Hedlund is an unabashed quant. A master’s degree in electrical engineering (from the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden) got her through the door at Microsoft, but as she began to take on more responsibility and transferred to Dubai, she found her management know-how lacking. After confessing to her Microsoft mentor about some work boredom, he regaled her with tales of his student days on London Business School’s traditional executive MBA program. “I did a little bit of research, but I wanted to stay in Dubai,” Ulrika says. “LBS had recently opened up the Dubai campus, so I went to one of the information sessions and felt this was the right thing.”

The program has delivered, but Ulrika broke a cardinal rule for EMBAs: don’t change much in your personal or professional life at the start of the program. She broke that rule twice. Two months into the course, she took on a more demanding job at Microsoft. Not long after, she found out she was pregnant. Ulrika is one of just three women in London Business School’s 64-person Dubai-London EMBA Class of 2011 – other classes have enrolled far more women – but classmates, faculty and staff have supported her from the get-go. As a result, she tallies a long list of personal and professional gains, and says she’ll actually miss the class work when it ends in April.

Moments after putting her five-month-old to sleep, she shares her story:

The further I got in my career, the more I moved away from technology. I needed more business knowledge. Plus, I felt a little bit stuck – I needed to change jobs. So when my mentor told me about the executive MBA he’d done in London as “the greatest experience,” I did a little bit of research. My husband did part of his MBA at Harvard and had a great time. He is still in touch with his HBS network. If was going to invest in an MBA, I wanted it to be with a recognized school with a good network and brand.

My first impression of my classmates when we met in Dubai was that there are a lot of men. We were only three women! In one way, I’m used to that – females are a minority in business and I did my masters in electrical engineering, after all. But I was disappointed. I hoped that by studying business there would be more women. On the other hand, I was happy because we were a big mix of people from all over. You have that in Dubai, but on the course there were really smart, professional people. I was really going to have to work hard!

We have very different personalities. In my group, which we keep for our entire core, we were six people. One guy was an American Libyan. Another was a general from Pakistan. Another was from Saudi Arabia. One is from Jordan. And one is from Lebanon. And I’m from Sweden. It was quite interesting. We learned to deal with different personalities and cultures.

I had to find a structure to manage the workload. We started in September 2009, and I changed roles in November, when I became the Customer Partner Experience Lead, and the Enterprise Marketing Manager.

So I got up every morning and studied for two hours before work. I did a lot of reading on the treadmill. The weekend is Friday and Saturday in Dubai. I spent Fridays with my husband, and on Saturdays I studied. I couldn’t study at night, I was too tired. If I sat down, I fell asleep. The work load depended on the module and how much preparation was required. On average, I spent 10 to 15 hours per week on core classes.

Even though I was a few months pregnant, I really wanted to do the assignment in Argentina in February. Argentina was amazing. We studied strategy in Buenos Aires, where we visited companies. The learning was how to thrive in difficult financial times. The rest of the world was impacted by the recent financial crisis; but in Argentina, they’ve had to survive that for years. I’d never been to South America before, and my husband and I spent an extra week traveling in Brazil.

We study between the two campuses, Dubai (based in the Dubai International Finance Centre (DIFC)) and London. It’s totally different in Dubai, but I like that. London feels like a school. There are students everywhere, and you feel that going-back-to-school feeling. We meet at The Windsor pub for drinks, and the coffee is really good at The Bite, the coffee shop on campus.

The DIFC feels professional – it’s business, it’s executive. I like the combination of both. In Dubai, you cannot run to a professor’s office to ask a question. But all of our professors have been very accessible – when they come back to Dubai, we meet up with them. They encourage us to call or email. Some faculty and our Dean, Andrew (Likierman), were in Dubai last week for our class’ recognition ceremony. Andrew’s all smiles. You see him and you smile yourself. Otherwise, the snacks and food between classes in Dubai are amazing, though the coffee is really bad, so we go to Costas.

The three adjectives I’d use to describe the program are motivating, professional and connected. We just finished the core classes this past weekend, though we started electives this past summer. I’ve taken Brand Management and World Economy, with Andrew Scott. I really enjoyed the marketing classes. It’s an area I’ve been working more and more on, and I’ve never studied it before. It was good to go back to the theoretical part of it.

My least favorite class was accounting. It’s one of those classes you know is good to do, and useful; but, you don’t really like it. It was like going to the dentist. Professors follow a distribution system for grades, so I can’t say they’re too tough.

I could apply the lessons immediately. We had sessions on leadership, organizational behavior and motivation. That was useful working in our groups. In marketing, I could apply some of the core things we were doing to my job. Sometimes, you learn something in class that, before at work, you didn’t understand or it passed you by. You think, ‘oh, that’s what it meant!’

If I hadn’t had a baby, I’d have been a lot more social, and I’d have attended a lot more bar nights. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to do that as an alumna. The alumni Gulf Association hosts quite a lot of activities between modules for all the different LBS classes. Then, there are also private barbecues and dinners.

Maternity leave in Dubai isn’t that long, just 45 days. Microsoft gives you 60 days.  So I took a leave of absence from work starting in July 2010, and had my baby in August. The leave of absence helped me complete my studies. LBS has been really helpful. They set me up with an office or group room at school in London and Dubai. When I’m in class, my mom or husband can watch the baby and I can go to see and feed him during breaks.

I’d tell applicants to talk to someone first. Someone you know who has gone through the program. Then, make sure you have your manager’s support. I had great support from my manager in terms of being away from the office, and being able to share the things I learned at LBS. It’s going to be a lot, so make sure you have that support. I paid for most of my MBA, and I’ve been given $10,000 towards tuition from Microsoft. In exchange, I have to stay with them for at least year after the program.

It helps if you’re disciplined. Make the best of it. You can go through and try to duck when the professor asks you something, and you may get away without reading the material. But at the end of the day, this is your investment in yourself.

A lot of people go through an executive MBA to get the bigger job with better pay. That was never my reason to do it. It was to grow, to increase my knowledge, and to be with really professional people. I get inspired by other people. Having gone through all those classes, I feel more comfortable. I know that I don’t know everything. But I know where I can go for more information. And I have self-confidence.

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