It all comes down to alchemy

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Our flight is taking off from Pudong Airport, Shanghai, en route for Bangkok, for a short break, before we – myself, my wife and our two small boys – head for Lausanne in Switzerland to settle into what will probably be one of the most challenging years of my life: I have been accepted to study for the coveted IMD MBA.

As we leave Shanghai I stare at the city’s skyline – rising at an amazing speed (said to be one floor per day). When I look back on the past 15 months, I am reminded of the feeling one has when living in Shanghai: great excitement at a frantic pace.

My life began to change significantly in July 2005. I was running a European textile agency in New York City, where my family and I had spent eight years.

With the end of quotas between China and the US on most textile products, and the sharp increase in quality levels of Chinese fabrics, I anticipated a possible downfall in my European business. I contacted some Chinese suppliers and began sourcing wool products in China. Business began to take off and I realised that I would need to move to Shanghai to establish my sourcing office.

Simultaneously, I decided to act on a long-term goal: I have run my own business for the past seven years and want to lift it to another level. To achieve this goal I need to share my experience with other young professionals and learn from their successes and failures. What better place to do this than in a business school? I would be among like-minded people and at the same time would be strengthening and broadening my business knowledge by enrolling in a challenging MBA programme.

Friends and accomplished business advisers gave me unanimous advice: this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and experience, but to make it worth the overall investment and to stretch my leadership abilities I would have to join a top MBA programme. I faced two challenges: How to choose the right programme and how to get in?

At an MBA fair in New York I felt daunted by the number of programmes. How could I make a shortlist, when all 50-plus business schools claimed to be “one of the best programmes”?

I selected three prime criteria on which to base my investigations and choices.

I wanted to join the “crème de la crème”, an elite programme, to study under world-class professors and to have peers who were of such a high level that I could learn from their experiences. To that end, I cross-checked all the leading MBA rankings to get a balanced view.

I am 34, married, with children. The opportunity costs – leaving my business and being without an income – meant that I could only study on a year-long programme.

At first sight, Asia and particularly China would be the right place to study since I work there. However, in the long run, for cultural and family reasons I wish to raise my children in Europe and alumni networks are usually more powerful in the regions where the programme is based.

After extensive (and exhaustive) research, I had narrowed my search to three programmes: the MBA programmes at IMD and Insead at Fontainebleau, France and London Business School’s Sloan Fellowship. But, while going through my final analysis and preparing my essays, I realised that LBS was out of the question, if only for financial reasons: life in London is far too expensive for a family of four (without income).

For the next six months, I went through the usual struggles facing potential MBA candidates: the GMAT, completion of essays, while at the same time shifting first part of my business and then my family who had been in New York, to China.

Once in Shanghai, my initial plan to form a joint venture with my existing Chinese business partner did not work out: our interests were not aligned. His company was looking to make short-term profits; my goal was to build a “fashion sourcing office” focusing on product development and quality control. I learned – the hard way – one of the local traditions: real negotiation starts when the deal is “inked”.

I spent the next weeks interviewing local and non-Chinese entrepreneurs. What business structure did they adopt? What were the key factors in their success? And, of course: Whom should I be contacting? Fortunately, I met the right partner – one who could both host my organisation and nurture it. His six years in China, sourcing a wide variety of products, gave me an immediate entrée.

At the same time I was offered interviews at both IMD and Insead. I decided to visit Lausanne, to get a feel for the campus, even though I could have taken my interviews in Asia. A day of interviews at IMD confirmed my intuitive decision. IMD would be my choice – if I was admitted.

In Lausanne, I was impressed by the diversity and maturity of the participants. During the interview day I attended a leadership class and in one hour, 40 students expressed their wide-ranging points of view, with each participant giving a “new eye” to the topic. I witnessed, and look forward to, the small size of my MBA class (90 students), the cultural diversity (40 nationalities represented) and the high calibre of the applicants. I am not certain why, but for me the alchemy works.

A few days later, the great news arrived: I was admitted. After meeting a Shanghai IMD alumnus, I was introduced into the dynamic Shanghai IMD community. Our class took shape, ready to go full speed ahead when classes begin this week.

I have a strong feeling that after I complete my IMD MBA, I will be able to bring my business to its highest potential. My goal? I will try to grow it at the same pace buildings rise in Shanghai – one floor a day.

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