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September 29, 2008 8:47 am

Indian school building a world reputation

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When I started the one-year MBA programme at the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad, I asked myself a question: how did ISB go from an idea to a real-life business school in less than a decade?

I have found out the answer to that and much more in the past four months.

ISB has been a grind, albeit an enjoyable one. It has meant personal sacrifices – giving up a comfortable job with one of India’s biggest media companies, and more pertinently, leaving behind Neeti, my wife, in Mumbai.

But I have made new friends and learned new things as well as being the subject of a few embarrassing photographs but I feel much richer for the experience.

The success of ISB could well have been serendipity – gaps in the Indian system of management education and demand for managers in a growing economy all but assured its success.

But all 440 of the students in ISB’s class of 2009 have learnt – through lectures in competitive strategy – that the vision behind ISB was backed up by “consistent activities along the value chain”.

In simple terms, nothing has been left to chance, from the support of three of the world’s top business schools, Wharton, Kellogg and London Business School, to the world-class infrastructure and faculty.

As resident students, we have nothing to complain about. The infrastructure is undoubtedly better than any other business school in India and compares with the best in the world.

My own room in one of the ISB student villages is substantially bigger than my bedroom at home in Mumbai.

We now take things such as 24-hour access for granted – the library is arguably one of the best in Asia and there are usually enough students taking a break from gruelling corporate finance assignments to play a game of squash at three in the morning.

The resident faculty come with a high pedigree, and are not shy of partying with the students every once in a while. But the unique selling point of the school is the visiting faculty, drawn from Wharton, Kellogg and LBS.

We have been taught by professors including Bob Stine and Richard Waterman from Wharton (statistics), Prashant Kale (strategy) from the Ross Business School at Michigan and Jagmohan Raju (marketing) from Wharton to name a few.

After running as far as possible from finance and accounting all my student and professional life, I have finally begun to enjoy these subjects.

Like other top business schools, we have been fortunate to meet achievers from all walks of life.

CK Prahalad gave a rousing speech on the “opportunities at the bottom of the pyramid” and NR Narayana Murthy, co-founder of Infosys, spoke on building an institution and the role of entrepreneurs in creating social impact.

On a personal level, however, I most enjoyed the interaction with two Indian entrepreneurs: Sanjeev Bhikchandani, a successful dotcom entrepreneur and Manish Sabharwal, who set up India’s first “temping” company, TeamLease. Both of them stressed the importance of believing in an idea and backing it to the hilt, rather than focusing on financial numbers and conventional wisdom.

No praise can be high enough for my fellow classmates.

One study-group partner was part of the core team from Samsung that designed the iPhone chip; one of the most versatile students on campus is a rocket scientist and there is also an accomplished Indian classical vocalist.

Another student has 15 patents to her name, while another has won five gallantry awards for services rendered in the armed forces.

Sporting celebrity also gets a look-in thanks to Viren Rasquinha, the former captain of the Indian National Hockey Team.

Though all of the students are competing against each other, we have found that we gain more through collaboration on organising events such as the first-ever private equity conference at a business school in India, all-night parties and knowledge-sharing sessions.

But beyond the high-powered work and play, two big questions remain unanswered: the first is personal: will I succeed in the mad rush for a great job in consulting or investment banking – the holy grail of business school?

The answer to that will have to wait for now.

The second is social: are students immune to the demands of an economy where the disparity between rich and poor keeps growing?

This issue was made more pertinent by the graduate student board that decided the vision for our batch would be “Young managers with a conscience”.

An answer was not long in coming: on August 15, India’s independence day, ISB’s Net Impact Club invited more than 250 children of mixed ability to campus and the entire student community played games, painted pictures and so on.

At the end of the day there were 250 happy children and a group of future managers who realise that there are few pleasures greater than bringing a smile to the face of a child.

In August, when floods hit Bihar, a state in Eastern India, and displaced nearly 1m people, ISB students raised nearly Rs600,000 (£7000, $12,910) plus medicines, clothes and water purification tablets, and shipped it off by train within a week.

So to go back to those two questions – do ISB MBA students really look beyond the faculty and their future?

With four months of experience, I think the answer is a resounding yes.

And to the first – well, I cannot answer it directly, but I am convinced that when the race begins for that “perfect” post-MBA job, this progressive attitude will not disappear.

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