Alumni perspective: MBA grads share what they’d do differently if they could do it again

alumni perspective FT future of business education

Alumni perspective: MBA grads share what they’d do differently if they could do it again

There are so many valuable digital dialogues surrounding MBA experiences, but so little time to catch all of the conversations. Here’s one we want to make sure you don’t miss.

The FT’s 2023 Future of Business Education series kicked off with a spotlight on the MBA experience. This virtual one day event provided an opportunity for ambitious individuals looking to enhance their global skill set and accelerate their careers to evaluate next steps. Partnering with the world’s top business schools, the series gave a detailed insight into the FT MBA 2023 rankings and tackled economic outlook trends, post-study green careers, and MBA financing.

Perhaps one of the most valuable sessions was the MBA alumni perspective which offered up honest takes on what MBAs would have done differently if given a redo. The alumni perspective session centered around helping attendees learn more about the job market after completing an MBA. Attendee questions were served up in real-time and the trio of panelists offered up their top do’s and don’ts when it comes to relationship building.

If you’re curious about what life after an MBA might look like but don’t have time to tune in and rewatch the discussion, MBAchic is recapping this thought-provoking conversation. 

Alumni perspective highlights include:

  • Making the most of an MBA experience
  • How programs influence post-MBA career paths
  • MBA funding methods
  • The true benefits of an MBA network

Meet the panelists

Neil Yeoh, Founder/CEO, OnePointFive: Neil’s company OnePointFive is a global climate advisory and expert network recently listed as a Forbes Next 1000 company. He is a 40 under 40 Most Influential Asian-Australian as of 2022 and has been invited to speak on business and environment topics at the United Nations, Oxford, Harvard, Yale, New York, and Princeton universities. Neil has a Midcareer Masters of Environmental Management from Yale University and an MBA from Oxford University. He also has degrees in Mechatronic Engineering, International Business, and Management from Adelaide and Hong Kong Universities.

Nasi Rwigima, Founder, UmWuga: Nasi’s startup UmWuga helps blue-collar and service industry workers get a great job today and then network and upskill their way towards their dream job. In 2018, he moved to the United Kingdom to complete his MBA from London Business School, which expanded greatly on his previous work and MSc and BSc engineering education. 

Maria de Mio, Manager Strategy Europe, AB InBev: Half Italian and half Finnish, Maria lived in Rome, London, New York City, Barcelona, and most recently Brussels where she joined the Strategy team at AB InBev Europe. She gained firsthand experience in early-stage venture creation particularly in the biotech space before deciding to pursue a full-time MBA at IESE in Barcelona.

Post-MBA Life

FT Question: How has the MBA shaped your career, what opportunities did it present? 

Neil: As a quick background, I basically struggled with my own cultural identity in Australia as an Asian Australian, and went to Asia, and was very interested in problem-solving and business. [I] experienced air pollution and got really ill, so I actually studied robotics engineering and business as an undergrad, and then went into the traditional consulting pathway for about four and a half years in Sydney…basically, when I found my own conviction of seeing air pollution as well as a huge curiosity around problem-solving and business, I decided to make the shift in my career from consulting into something more impactful. My choice to go to Oxford to do my MBA was for three reasons: 

  1. To internationalize my career to break through the bamboo ceiling as an Asian-Australian. 
  2. To transition into an impact career.
  3. To strengthen my business credibility. 

Through the one year program which I did back in 2015/2016, I was able to actually triple jump my career which is changing function, section, geography from all in gas consulting in Australia to really climate impact investing in New York. I was actually able to do that in an impactful way, and that led to me starting up my own climate advisory. Surprisingly enough, the internationalization was actually through working in London, Kenya and then right now where I am in New York, and the thing that I did not expect that has shaped my career to date, actually was the inspiring peer group that I gained along the way. We are basically like family when you are in an MBA and surprisingly they have been somewhat my competition, my support, my everything in the sense of continuing to push my career. So the last seven years have been a complete mirror image from where I started back in Australia.

Nasi: I started my career as an aerospace engineer, and then serendipitously fell into the renewable energy industry, developing utility scale projects. Our industry kind of died because of political pressures, and my team fell under our parent company, which was an equity firm. I found myself in the commercial world for a few years, so I think that journey up until when I began my MBA was somewhat opportunistic and one of the things that happened during my MBA is that I had the time, the space, the support, and infrastructure to be more intentional about what I wanted to do with my career going forward. It allowed me to spend time coming up with a startup idea, flesh it out, and eventually launch the business. Raise money, build a team, etc. and that for me has been hugely exponential for my career. But I think the biggest thing that the MBA has done for me is teach me to dream bigger from South Africa and I think I am not sure why but I had a smaller mindset before I did my MBA. There was something about being in let’s call it a world class city where there are a lot of really smart and interesting people around me that just helped me reach out from a smaller mentality perspective and look a little bit further and it’s one of the things that helped me push myself into starting a business and I think that trajectory, hopefully continues for me.

The two streams I had coming in were renewable energy and private equity and my first two questions for myself were which one do you like better, which is the one you want to double down on and come out of the MBA and pursue and by the end of my first term, my conclusion was neither. But I found myself really interested and passionate about the technology world which seemed somewhat new to me, but was vibrant and entrepreneurship was also looking really exciting, so spending my time in those two spaces, I think they really came together for me, and I ultimately launched a startup, which was great.

Maria: I was a part of a two-year full-time program, and generally what you get is the opportunity to be a part of an internship to kind of test the waters in case you were changing careers, wanting to go into a new industry so it was a great opportunity for me to learn more about what I was passionate about. For me, a little bit different than my colleagues here, kind of reverse, I started with a background in early stage venture creation, particularly with startups, and my need was really to deepen my skill set, and that is the main reason why I looked for an MBA. It had a tremendous impact on my professional career in so many ways on a professional level. I think it really allowed me to go deeper into what my skill sets are, and test them against a great number of individuals that were so much smarter than me and really global mindsets and on a personal level I think that has a very unique impact on each of us in a very different way. For me, it really allowed me to get deeper knowledge, a certain level of maturity, a certain level of awareness that I think are invaluable in any type of environment.

I started my career learning by doing, and I wanted to go deeper into that. I always knew I was very interested in general management in fact, I covered a position in general management prior to my MBA but no one taught me anything, so I was lucky enough to have met people who bet on me and I was lucky enough to have done good, but the MBA really allowed me to learn about opportunities out there bigger companies for me personally, I wanted to transition from learning by doing to learning by actually applying strict academic rigor to now being able to actually wrap it into a more corporate environment.

MBA Redo

FT question: What would you have done differently before, during, and after your MBA if given the opportunity to make changes to your experiences?

Neil: Before the MBA first and foremost, if you are looking to make a career transition, the MBA goes by like a click especially for a one year program like Oxford. People coming in [and] trying to figure out what they want to do is probably not the best solution, and for a lot of European MBAs that are shorter than the two years. You don’t have that summer to do that internship, figure out what you want to do and go from there, so my suggestion that I would have wished that I [had] done was quit my job or change my job career earlier in Australia before actually heading to the MBA. I did do a month of internship in a more social impact consultancy that did help me bridge, but it would have made it a lot easier to have a bit more of an interesting background coming into the MBA.

During the MBA, a lot of the times your CVs look very very similar. You are told to put your CV in an MBA format and sometimes I felt very overwhelmed because there were these very high-quality people coming in and they are in line for the same jobs [as you are]. So, something that I wished I had done was just lean into my personal differences, I think I had a lot of imposter syndrome coming into the Oxford MBA, which forced me to try to be someone that I necessarily wasn’t and it was a very quick realization during the MBA to be my authentic self even as much as I didn’t see my career as very interesting or impactful [as others]. There are a lot of unique perspectives I could have brought much earlier into the MBA rather than trying to sound smart. If I did that and just leaned into my authentic self, I could have actually navigated a lot more of those career decisions.

Finally, post-MBA, those interactions with alumni with a one year program – being able to keep in touch with classes outside of your existing class can be a bit tricky but don’t underestimate the value of just sort of asking for that help.

Nasi: I think based on where I was in life, I got married two weeks before I left South Africa to move to London for my MBA, and it was slightly difficult in the beginning from a family perspective, from a personal perspective, so the only thing that I would consider doing a different way is to have done it sooner in life, perhaps five or six years before when I actually did it. But I think I would still do it the same way given those two options because for me, it was amazing to go through this experience with someone, with my wife, to have her support throughout. It also meant that I was coming in at a slightly later stage in my career, which to me was beneficial because I brought a lot of experience that made the in-class the in-person experience a bit richer for me. But I suppose I did not get to travel or party as much as some of my friends, so these are just different ways in which you can have an experience that is really fulfilling. I am very happy with mine, but I just want to point out some things that I have thought about.

For the “during” portion of my MBA, I am really happy with how that went. I really threw myself in to maximize the opportunity. I really did everything that one could do during an MBA so I’m very happy with that. 

After the MBA it’s really been head down, trying to build a business which has been one of the most enriching and insightful experiences, I am also very happy with how that went. 

A couple of things that could have been different, the tail end of my MBA (I graduated in 2020) was during Covid so we went into lockdown. I think the last four months of the program it all went on Zoom in our tiny apartments in London and we did not get to do the final things that we had kind of earmarked for the end of it, but that was not in my control, so I can’t really say I would change any of it. One thing that was amazing is that my wife and I had our first child during the MBA, that was in my second year and [while] many people might think that is the worst possible idea because you are busy and you might lose out on a ton of the experience, for me, it was perfect because I was in this flexible environment. I could choose my course schedule to make space for me to figure out how to be a father for the first time, so it was actually incredible. 

Maria: Less pressure. It’s personal, right? But I think in general looking back, I worried and I pushed myself a little bit too much especially at the beginning because you walk in an environment, we were 354 people from more than 58 countries, just my class! So it was amazing. There is so much richness. There is so much variety of backgrounds that it is easy to start pointing out what your flaws are or what you don’t have, what you’re not good at and the pressure of making the most of it at the right time and doing everything correctly and passing everything with A’s. I think it’s very important in the sense that it allows you to have this straight line in front of you but at the same time, it’s not realistic. That’s the truth because we are all different. We have all of our strengths and weaknesses, and by just acknowledging that you really can go through the program and make the most of it not only in terms of success post-MBA but also in terms of personal growth. 

Everybody is really encouraged to start the MBA with a clear Northstar and I think that’s awesome but at the same time I think if I could start again, I would have my Northstar somewhere in the back of my head as a clear goal that I want to achieve but at the same time, allow myself a little bit more flexibility being open to what is to come and try to remember that we are all different so we all have something to give in different ways. Learning comes really from every corner. I got it from my teammates who were awesome, my professors who still today are my mentors, so it really comes in so many ways that one should keep oneself open.

MBA Funding

FT Question: How did you fund your MBA, any advice you wish you had reflecting back on your experience? 

Neil: Back when I applied to my MBA 2015/2016 was a very different time so actually, my decision was about the one-year MBA because basically what you are trying to evaluate is the opportunity of your time and the cost of the program versus the value that you could potentially gain. I had an offer for partial funding through my consultancy, but it required me to have basically golden handcuffs to return back, and I did not necessarily feel like that was the reason why I wanted to do the MBA. Not to level up in the consulting field, but to completely shift, so I took the complete risk on my own to cover my own expenses and was able to —just—in some senses and was able to grow back anything else financially when I got my job in New York.

Nasi: At the time I was deciding which program to go with, I’m sure everyone that is considering doing an MBA knows you apply to more than one program because you might not get in. There were two that were looking good, and I was trying to make a decision and one business school offered me a full-ride scholarship, and that really helped make the decision. The process of being in the running for that scholarship, there really wasn’t a process this was through the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and it is for the what they have called the most promising African candidate going into a London Business School MBA so just by applying for the program and being accepted into it, I was put into the running for this scholarship. So about two weeks after being told they were offering me a position, I got a second call that let me know that they would carry me the way through which was incredibly valuable for me. I think importantly, it is one of the key things that allowed me to dive straight into a startup after the program or even really during the program because I did not have student loans that I would need to think about on the way out, I could jump straight into entrepreneurship, and I am deeply grateful for the scholarship.

Maria: For me personally, I didn’t get funding so it was a personal choice to invest in myself. I do think that it is a big commitment so everyone should make their own decisions based on their own circumstances. In my class we had a big percentage of people that got sponsored by their companies, mostly consulting firms, other people self-funded, and then a percentage of people also got some sort of incentive whether it was through a fund or through other types of sponsorships. Of course it [was] a huge investment for me. It was worth it for me. It is something that I really wanted to do. I was able to do it, so it was quite straightforward in my case.

Value of an MBA

FT Question: What is the balance between the value you gain between the academic part and the network part of the MBA experience, what were the advantages of that network you gained?

Neil: For me, the MBA beyond the network was about credibility. I think a lot of the time I felt like I was questioned why am I in this room, looking like a young Asian child at times, especially in the corporate world isn’t necessarily the easiest when you have an undergraduate from a place that people may not recognize so if anything, it wasn’t as if the MBA suddenly changed my academic [background] and I am so much smarter from it. I did learn a lot, but what it gave me was not only the peer network, but the ability to just get on with the work like, ‘hey I managed to do this program it is a reputable place, why don’t we talk about business’ versus ‘hey where is the manager?’ when I am the manager and I just look young. 

I think the peer network was more from an encouragement standpoint. I remember coming in and seeing these peers that have done phenomenal career pathways and if anything it was a confidence booster to say well we are in the same place, so that is actually possible for myself and so in that sense the peer network was not about being in contact day to day, we are definitely following each other professionally and personally, they are the inspiration for me taking these huge chances. [That] leads to the final part, the peer network for me was less about opening doors for me at Oxford, but it was a peer network where I could learn lessons that I would not have to make mistakes from. I managed to meet Jack Ma a few years back at the World Economic Forum, and he says the biggest lesson learned [that] you can have as an entrepreneur is to learn from people who have made mistakes that you can avoid. If anything, when I was at the Oxford MBA, I did my entrepreneurship project with someone that had already started and failed and scaled a business and they became one of my mentors and my advisers. Even today when there is something specific I need to ask, they are the first person that I ask to make sure that I am doing the right thing.

Nasi: I might even split it into three [categories] and say one-third is the academic experience one-third is the networking or the social relationship experience and one-third is the out-of-class extracurricular experience where you might be engaging in clubs, you might be doing internships, you might be attending talks in the evenings to expand yourself in other ways. I would say all three offer equal value, but it is probably only possible to do two of them at a very high level. To answer your question directly – what has the value of the network been, when starting a business you need people to speak to, you need connections into industries and to businesses that you are hoping will be your customers. You use the name of your school, the name of people in that school that work at investment firms, VCs that are angels, that know angels, when you are fundraising that’s really valuable, so you use it. You absolutely use it, I started doing customer discovery work while I was a student. I would reach out to people that ordinarily wouldn’t respond to me, but using my LBS email under the guise of ‘I am a student doing a research project and I have some questions for you.’ So these things are highly valuable just as much as the academic experience.

Maria: I found so many new friends and colleagues and people who I respect that I go to on a daily basis for advice, for professional or personal issues. That has definitely been one of the biggest assets that I took out of my MBA. The feeling is a family-like environment with a very rigorous academic schedule, so it felt like we were all living on the same crazy wave, and that has brought us very much closer together on top of it. We also lived by the values of the school, one of which was the spirit of service and at my school in particular there was this approach to helping others without wanting anything back or expecting anything back and that had a domino effect with all of us not only in my class but also previous years and future years that I have seen was quite strong. So even today, I am in touch with alumni. It’s a nonstop community that to this day I still have very much a part of my life.

Are you an MBA with an alumni perspective you want to share with the MBAchic community? Connect with us here and learn more about opportunities to feature your experience.

MBA Alumni perspective
Alumni perspective: MBA grads share what they’d do differently if they could do it again

Photo by Mikael Kristenson

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