Kanika Gupta Shori, pictured in Dubai, says Wharton improved her human resources knowledge © Anna Nielsen
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Real estate entrepreneur Kanika Gupta Shori had no previous work experience when she enrolled for an MBA at Delhi’s AIMA. So nearly a decade later, and four years after setting up her own cross-border brokerage, Shori decided she needed to go back to business school, this time in the US. “I wanted to feel how international companies work,” she says.

The entrepreneur’s start-up, Square Yards, now operates in 10 countries and has 1,800 employees. She enrolled on the five-week Advanced Management Program at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 2017.

Shori, an Indian who now lives in Dubai, is one of a substantial number of MBA graduates who are returning to business school to top up their knowledge and skills. According to data collected by the Financial Times for the 2018 Executive Education rankings, more than a quarter (26.1 per cent) of respondents who studied on advanced management programmes, and 21.5 per cent of those on lower-level general management programmes, already had an MBA.

Such statistics have not been lost on business schools, for which there is a clear opportunity in keeping their alumni close — especially as more senior managers and entrepreneurs are paying for executive programmes themselves, rather than being funded by their employers. In December 2010, Wharton revealed plans to offer “tuition-free” (no fee) courses every seven years to lure back its MBA alumni, and two months later the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley announced a scheme to provide two free days of executive education to all its MBAs within five years of graduation.

Seven years on, the Wharton scheme is welcoming back the first MBAs to benefit. “As this is our pilot year, we are actively monitoring alumni selection and experience, so that we can tweak the parameters to better address the alumni population,” says Jane Simons, head of life-long learning.

Kanika Gupta Shori chose Wharton for her executive programme

The challenge has been to provide targeted content in a broad format, adds Simons. Wharton now offers courses online, on campus and in different regions around the world for its 96,000 alumni.

While Wharton is pushing ahead, Haas has shelved its scheme for tuition-free courses. “Part of the idea was that they [MBA alumni] became repeat customers,” says Rich Lyons, dean at Haas. Yet although alumni took up the two-day tuition-free courses, they did not return for other short programmes.

Prof Lyons believes, however, that other schemes in place at Haas encourage alumni to return to the school, such as a discount on short courses and the alumni audit, in which all MBA alumni can sit in on current MBA classes.

In Europe, IMD in Switzerland and Iese in Spain offer discounts for alumni — in the latter’s case, of between 10 and 25 per cent. Iese alumni can also attend its three-day free annual Global Alumni Reunion, which rotates between Barcelona, New York, Madrid and Munich. The event, which attracts between 600 and 800 alumni each year, includes academic sessions by Iese professors — in 2017, it addressed topics around luxury goods and fast fashion, cyber security and the healthcare sector — as well as more than 20 corporate speakers. There are also more than 300 events a year, such as conferences and speakers, spread around the 45 alumni chapters.

Kanika Gupta Shori at a development project in Dubai © Anna Nielsen

Once a year alumni can seek free advice from professors — if they are looking to start their own business, for example. The school has also launched a free mentoring service for alumni, says Mireia Rius, associate dean for executive education. Courses on digital transformation, big data, blockchain and 3D printing are in high demand at Iese, she says, as are aspects of leadership, such as women’s leadership and managing different generations in a flat organisation.

At IMD, more than 10 per cent of MBA alumni return to the school to study on executive courses, especially on leadership and digitisation. “People are saying: ‘I just don’t know enough. I don’t understand the terms. It’s coming at me too fast,’” says Sean Meehan, dean of the MBA programme. “One thing you ignite on a good MBA programme is the desire to learn. They have a real desire to continue to learn. They never feel the job is done.”

In China, where there are fewer MBA graduates, those who do return to school also look for specialised programmes — for example in advanced marketing, healthcare, intellectual property and sports and leisure, says Wang Gao, associate dean for executive education at Ceibs in Shanghai.

Sung-Joo Lee opted for Stanford for her executive programme

For Sung-Joo Lee, who graduated with a part-time Australian Graduate School of Management MBA from the University of New South Wales Business School in Australia in 2008, one benefit of the Stanford six-week executive programme — which she paid for herself — was the boost to her confidence. “I always had this chip on my shoulder about not going to a top US university,” she says.

It was the network she developed that really justified the price tag, she says — the list price for the 2018 Stanford programme is $73,000. “To be really frank, I didn’t learn anything [on the programme], but I had two people approach me with [job] offers,” says Lee.

Back in Dubai, Shori says Wharton gave her time to reflect, a great alumni network and a much wider perspective. One of the most important lessons from the course was about human resources and “connecting much more with my employees”, she says. “One area I can work on is understanding what people are trying to say and reading between the lines.”

Graduate’s alma mater had the right answers

Liana Logiurato believes in executive education. Since graduating with an MBA from IMD in 1997, the mergers and acquisitions specialist has taken eight short courses, each of one to two weeks in length.

Yet Logiurato, until recently global head of M&A at chemicals group Syngenta International in Switzerland, bemoans the lack of programmes for senior executives. She had hoped to attend a programme that would expose her to US culture, after working for many years in Europe and Asia. “I called up people, I sent emails, I looked into the top schools — top, top-notch,” she says. “When it [came] to high-end breakthrough programmes, I couldn’t find anything new.”

Logiurato eventually decided to return to her alma mater on the IMD Breakthrough Programme for Senior Executives. She says she has no regrets: “You get out of there and you think you are walking in a different way, you are thinking in a different way. It is super-powerful.”

This story has been amended since publication to make clear that Shori did not do her Delhi MBA at an IIM.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.