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High flying: many EMBA students choose courses that are flexible and have short study periods abroad © Getty
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When Isabelle Graveline took time out from her role as a chief executive of Ontario-based plant maintenance and repair business, Kilmarnock Enterprise, she did so to leave her comfort zone. She had spent almost two decades overseeing a company recently ranked as one of the fastest growing in Canada.

Graveline was also keen to move away from her homeland, since all of Kilmarnock’s offices are in Canada.

She chose to take the International Masters Program for Managers, an executive MBA course run jointly by five business schools: McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management in Canada, the UK’s Lancaster University Management School, the Renmin University of China School of Business, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore and Brazil’s EBAPE/FGV.

The 16-month course was broken into two-week study periods, each hosted by one of the partner schools.

“It was important for me to experience how business worked in different countries,” Graveline says. “Your business lens can become clouded working in the bubble of one country.”

Her reasons for taking an EMBA rather than a full-time course are typical. Senior executives see the value in a global outlook even if their work never takes them abroad.

Partnerships between business schools satisfy EMBA students’ hunger for an understanding of different perspectives around the globe. Most of the top 10 programmes in the FT ranking of EMBAs are partnerships between institutions in different continents, while the remainder are schools, such as Insead, able to move its students between its campuses in France, Singapore and Abu Dhabi.

First-year students on Imperial College Business School’s 23-month EMBA programme travel to China for a one-week residency, based at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and later join a three-day study tour to Germany, including lectures at ESMT Berlin. Later in the course there is a US residency in partnership with Cornell University in New York City. Each involves not only teaching time but also visits to companies such as Wall Street banks in New York and factories in southern China’s Shenzhen region.

“We take this very seriously,” says George Yip, associate dean for executive programmes at Imperial College Business School. “We selected these partners because they are top schools in their countries, easy to work with and are not tied to our competitors, which is an approach I myself teach about alliances in my elective on international business.”

The rise of entrepreneurship as a career choice for EMBA candidates, whether they are looking to switch careers or shake up their organisation, is pushing schools to change curriculums. Start-up culture appeals to students across the range of courses run by business schools, but it is greater among EMBA cohorts. A study by education research and marketing specialists CarringtonCrisp, commissioned by accreditation body EFMD, found that people interested in a two-year MBA ranked gaining an entrepreneurial mindset as the 10th most important skill for them to develop. Those looking at an EMBA put it second.

“Perhaps those choosing flexible options are hoping to use the MBA as they start a business to learn key skills as well as network with those who might help their business grow,” says Andrew Crisp, co-founder of CarringtonCrisp. “The executive MBA is not just seen as a degree, but as a tool for start-ups.”

Out of the bubble: Isabelle Graveline was keen to see how businesses operated around the world
Out of the bubble: Isabelle Graveline was keen to see how businesses operated around the world

Applications for the EMBA programme at Chicago’s Booth School of Business are up, helped by greater numbers of career switchers and an increased interest in entrepreneurship, according to Phil Berger, deputy dean of part-time MBA programmes.

This interest comes both from founders looking to increase their skills and people wanting to learn about starting a business. “Less than half our students are entrepreneurs so it is aspirational for the majority, who still want to find a job afterwards,” he says. “What they want, however, is entrepreneurial skills to help make career changes and work in organisations where the management structures are flatter.”

Gender balance on EMBAs is often poor. The proportion of women on the EMBA course at Booth increased last year, but only to 22 per cent from a worldwide intake of about 240 students. This number has been higher but is a concern, Prof Berger notes, adding that the school has actively sought female applications, offering women-only scholarships. “We are trying to do more and more outreach to attract female students,” he says.

It is a similar story for the EMBA course run by Trium, a partnership between HEC Paris, the London School of Economics and New York University’s Stern School of Business, where a fifth of the intake of 60 students are women. Oliver Gottschalg, Trium academic dean at HEC, admits that it is a struggle to know what to do to increase the proportion of female students, although he notes that the $175,000 cost of the course, which only partly covers hotel and accommodation costs, may be more of a concern for female applicants, who tend to earn less. 

Isabelle Graveline’s tuition fees were $60,000, although once other costs are factored in she puts the overall cost of her studies at $100,000. She was one of four women in a cohort of 22 students, something she attributes in part to under-representation of women at the top level of companies.

The cost of courses such as hers is prohibitive to many people, although all but two of the students on her course were funded by their employer, including herself, she notes.

A bigger concern for Graveline was the lack of female representation at the front of the lecture hall. “When we had a female professor the viewpoints expressed on company challenges were completely different,” she says. “That is what is being missed.”

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