“I may not have a job, I may not have money, but I bet you I can add up all the change in your purse, real fast!” The words are by Kanye West, from his debut album, The College Dropout, berating the middle-class obsession with degrees – and they are also a pretty accurate description of most MBA students.
Following my first term at Cambridge University Judge Business School, I can now add a few other number-crunching skills, such as producing a discounted cash flow model, interpreting a set of financial statements and creating a spreadsheet model of a demand-based pricing strategy. I could also entertain Mr West with a few ideas on developing talent for his record label or designing a marketing strategy.
It is extraordinary how much you can learn in a short space of time in the right environment. Our first term was packed with core courses on economics, corporate finance and accountancy, organisational behaviour, marketing and quantitative methods – the bread and butter of any MBA course. The pace was frenetic, with classes most days from 9am to 5.30pm and readings, preparation, group work and guest speakers on top of that.
More unusually, we also had a course on management practice – known as the “couch sessions” – which focused on the more touchy-feely aspects of how we interact and how we bring different assumptions to bear on any given situation, based on nationality, culture and background.
The diversity of the Cambridge MBA provides particularly fertile ground for this, with 150 students representing 46 nationalities, and it was remarkable to experience the honesty with which people were willing to share their views and expose their own prejudices and stereotypes in class discussions. These classes often took the form of games, inevitably involving competitive elements combined with restricted communication, to illuminate how we often allow our assumptions to fill in the blanks.
As an MBA student in Cambridge you are a member of a college in addition to being part of the business school. The college forms the social hub of Cambridge life for most undergraduates, but the intensity of the MBA programme and the many hours spent in classes and group work mean the business school quickly takes centre stage. Throw a young family into the mix as well and it becomes really tricky to find time to enjoy college.
But such experience is a deeply enriching part of studying in Cambridge, so I was determined to make some time for it. A night of dining at high table with the college fellows turned out to be rich in ritual and was a great opportunity to mix with people outside the business school who work on entirely different subjects: the research interest of my companions that evening spanned Shakespeare, sex trafficking and integration issues in primary education.
The college matriculation dinner was a high point of the term. We were treated to some of the delights of the college wine cellars and a feast for all the senses. My college, Jesus, is one of Cambridge’s largest and was founded on the site of a 12th-century Benedictine nunnery. After dinner, a candle-lit prayer was held in the chapel, part of the original buildings. Sitting in the semi-darkness, listening to the all-male choir in red cassocks, it was hard not to feel transported back in time.
Back at business school, Michaelmas term culminated in a consulting project for a Cambridge-based new venture, providing an opportunity to put our new-found business skills into practice. My team worked with a biotech start-up to develop a business model to fund further proof-of-concept studies of their fruit fly technology.
It was a huge challenge to move from textbook examples and classroom case discussions to the real world, to develop a plan not for a global corporation with lots of resources but for a tiny start-up with lots of ideas, few customers and no cash. Our team of five represented five different nationalities and professional backgrounds, having to deliver results in a very short time.
Working on the project in parallel with our classes took careful juggling and quite a few late nights as we got to grips with the ins and outs of services in the world of fruit fly research. As the deadline arrived, it was with real pride that we could present our work, confident that we had not just achieved what we set out to but had also gone substantially beyond our brief to help the company get off the ground. It was satisfying to feel we had made a real contribution, despite being in the early stages of the MBA.
After Christmas we came back to the full flow of Lent term, having to tackle our new core courses of strategy, international business, innovation and operations as well as planning the next consulting project. This time we shall work with a global firm, in my case Cisco.
So, as I add up the change from my first term in Cambridge, I realise that the most important changes have taken place in the non-cash transactions despite the negative cash flows incurred by a year without a salary. The skills I have mastered so far, coupled with the practical experience of the consulting projects, have already provided a return on my investment and my decision to do an MBA feels like a good one.