Aiming Higher Than You Think You Can
Antoine Delacour, admitted to INSEAD
Antoine Delacour achieved what was for him the unthinkable: he has been admitted to the one of the top MBAs in Europe and in the world. When first considering MBA programs, Antoine believed that his unusual profile would be a disadvantage rather than an asset. Luckily, some good advice proved him wrong and his hard work, diligence, and willingness to aim high in his choice of programs for application paid off. Antoine discusses this and more in the following interview with the MBA Center.
Could you give our readers a sense of your professional and academic background?
I studied advertising at the French Business School, Institut Supérieur de Gestion, after which I immediately began my career with Havas at Euro RECG in Human Resource Communications.
Could you explain a little about Human Resource Communications, and what your responsibilities were within the company?
Effectively, it’s very similar to internal communications or communications for employees: we develop communication strategies to explain new developments within the company, details concerning projects, etc., as well as information campaigns for job candidates and recruitment. The task of our team, as that of a service provider, usually comprises listening to their story, synthesizing the information gathered, then converting these ideas into the words and images that compose the campaign.
My progress in the company itself was rather linear: I began as an account executive, was promoted to the status of a consultant, then ended as an account director managing a team of three account executives. For the last two years, I have specifically dealt with communications for companies such as France Telecom, CSC, and Alstom, developing communication strategies for the human resource departments. For example, for Alstom we created an international communication campaign targeting university graduates from all around the world.
What made you decide to invest in an MBA?
In brief, my job was changing, and I knew it was essential that I acquire new skills while broadening my perspective in order to continue in the field. Some of the work with the previously mentioned companies provides a good example: in order to meet their needs, both a global vision and deep understanding of the company itself were required. In general, a large part of human resource communications involves change management. All these tasks extend beyond the realm of advertising and into global management issues. At that point in my life, I realized that I would need to attain a greater understanding of these issues before fulfilling my aspirations of switching from advertising to consulting. The sector is evolving very quickly and will need strong leaders to determine strategies for the future. My hope is to become one of those leaders, and an MBA from INSEAD seems to be an appropriate step to take towards accomplishing that goal.
How did you determine which programs you would apply to?
Well, I knew I wanted a European program, specifically one in France, since I have a family that would make an international move difficult. However, I was unsure of exactly which programs I wanted to apply to. This was where my contact with the MBA Center helped a lot. From my profile, a coach determined a list of MBA programs that would be appropriate given my background, experience, and aspirations. Together, we developed a list of dream schools and “safety schools.” In fact, it was Hubert who encouraged me to apply to the top programs I never would have considered. At first, the program I preferred was HEC Paris; however, Hubert explained that I would need to achieve a very high GMAT score to ensure consideration. After I did quite well on the GMAT, he reevaluated my profile and suggested that I also apply to INSEAD. Before coming to the MBA Center, I never would have considered applying to INSEAD. Even when looking at the applications for HEC and INSEAD, I felt like the response to each question brought me farther away from admission. In the end, I was accepted at INSEAD before even completing the application process with HEC.
Did you find the application process difficult? If so, please describe the aspect that you found most challenging?
I think that the most difficult aspect of the application process was finding the relevant personal assets – a process that takes time and serious introspection. Coming from a relatively small and unknown field, my own tendency would have been to assimilate my experience as much as possible into another, better-recognized field on the application. It was Hubert who insisted that I try to capitalize on my uniqueness. My distinctive profile, he explained, could bring much needed diversity to an MBA program. In stressing this as one of my assets, along with some other elements of my experience that I never would have thought to include, I would make myself stand out from other candidates in a very positive way. Yes, that has to have been the most difficult task: defining oneself, being objective about one’s experiences, and identifying that which makes you different. I am not naturally inclined towards performing these tasks.
Is there any advice you’d like to share with other MBA candidates?
Above all, make sure you are using your preparation time wisely! A place like the MBA Center can save you time, since there you can find a concentration of resources and information that would otherwise require a great investment of time and effort to obtain. It is definitely worthwhile to find someone knowledgeable to chat with before beginning the process, since being steered in the right direction can save you a great deal of time and energy.
HEC Paris MBA: Collaborative Knowledge-Sharing Is the Key
Fabien Zanini, admitted to HEC Paris, INSEAD and ENPC
By Anna Cianciara
Fabien Zanini needed a way to break with his past: nine years of professional experience in the commodities market promised to keep him firmly in place unless he could find a way to make a successful switch. Not always an easy task, but with an MBA from HEC Paris it will be not only feasible but highly probable that Fabien will have no difficulty finding a new position in his preferred industry, strategic consulting, after graduation. Fabien describes this and more in the following interview with the MBA Center.
Could you start by telling us a little about yourself?
Well, to begin with, I studied economics at the Paris XII University, graduating with a specialization in finance. After finishing these studies, I worked in the commodities market for nine years. During that time, I had the opportunity to successively fill the positions of Market Analyst, Broker, and finally International Buyer in the cereals market.
So, why did you choose to do an MBA at this point in your life?
As you can imagine, after nine years of working in the same industry, it was difficult to envisage a way in which I could easily change fields. For years, it had been my dream to focus my career in the direction of strategic consulting. I realized that in order to make this transition successful, it would be necessary to not only to gain the necessary knowledge and experience to change fields, but also to improve my international exposure and thus posture myself for a higher level position. What better way to accomplish these goals than through an MBA! And particularly, as in my specific experience, an MBA from HEC.
Which aspect of the application process did you find the most challenging?
GMAT was of course a difficult part of the application because it required a lot of work. But for me, the GMAT did not represent the greatest challenge. The most challenging part of the application process was the writing of the essays. Writing one set of essays for one application is challenging in and of itself – the hours or reflection, drafting, refining ideas, editing, and then refining the ideas again – but when you have to complete essays for several schools, the process becomes even more complicated. After the main ideas of the essays are completed, then you have to take yet another perspective on these same essays: reworking each essay, tailoring the content to fit the essay questions and requirements for each school.
It sounds like you applied to a couple of programs. Which programs did you apply to?
I applied to HEC Paris, ENPC, and INSEAD.
Why did you choose HEC Paris over the others?
I was impressed first by HEC’s collaborative environment. Many MBA programs seem plagued by cutthroat competition – not my preferred learning settings. This collaborative environment is reinforced by the strength and cohesive support of the student community for its members. This was evident as early as the interview. I was interviewed by alumni who received their degree several years ago but were still actively involved in the workings of the HEC MBA community. A couple of my other incentives for this program over the others were the strong international networking community, the great number of electives offered by the program, as well as the potential of finishing with a double degree from HEC and NYU Stern.
The learning environment can best be characterized as collaborative knowledge-sharing. In many cases, the real discoveries come from group work where one student with particular knowledge or experience in the subject in question will teach or clarify it to the others. Students frequently review in groups for exams, and willingly help each other if needed for assignments. Thanks to the smaller class sizes – there are 126 students in the September 2006 intake – it is easy to get to know professors as well as students, and many professors know us by name.
What has been the most interesting aspect of your experience so far?
Learning from others. I have to say that I was indeed surprised by what I’ve learned from others students in the program, through team work and sharing experiences. Having the opportunity to meet and work with people from all over the world has been truly enriching and has broadened my perspectives in ways I never could have previously imagined. It was thanks to this program that I discovered people that I would never have met otherwise. HEC is special in the fact that the program itself helps to build true relationships in this diverse body of students, cementing lifelong friendships through fostering a true sense of solidarity.
Do you have any advice for other MBA applicants?
Some people refer to MBAs as each having a specific “brand,” or “image.” I prefer to think of MBAs each having its own “personality.” As with people, knowing that you will have to spend a long time with the MBA program makes it extremely important to find the one that fits your needs. Often it is necessary to do extensive research to determine the “personality” that fits best with your own. I think that the most important factor in determining a program’s personality is to talk with alumni, since they usually reflect the community built around the MBA quite clearly.
From Congo to Chicago: Achieving International Leadership with Harvard and Chicago GSB
Eric Mboma, admitted to Harvard and Chicago GSB
by Anna Cianciara
Eric Mboma already has a Master in Public Administration from Harvard, but his academic aspirations are far from over: Eric now plans to complete his MBA at Chicago GSB. The eldest of seven children, Eric shuttled from Africa to France and attended a few foreign boarding schools along the way, learned responsibility at an early age. Fluent in six languages, he has easily adapted to various cultures and has studied in an international context. Even as a teenager in his hometown in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he discovered that “from a small spot in Africa, you could almost see the world.”
Taking a moment to unwind, Eric tells how his strong sense of family and love of both his native country and France shaped his career choices and determination to pursue both MPA and MBA degrees in the United States. Afterwards, he plans to contribute to improving the investment climate in Africa.
How did your early education and upbringing prepare you for pursuing an advanced degree in an international environment?
I moved to France with my whole family – I have four brothers and two sisters – in 1986. I went to the French “collège” (equivalent of American high school) and studied in a general program. In 1988, the whole family went back to DR Congo because of my father’s increased responsibilities in the Congolese mining industry and frequent travels.
Going back to Africa for a while was a great opportunity for me to better know my home country and proved to be instrumental in helping me better relate to it. Traveling and living there was key to improving my command of three of the four national languages that I already spoke by that time: Lingala, Kikongo and Swahili (there is nothing exceptional to this, as almost everyone is relatively fluent in at least two national languages and sometimes French). I had started learning German and even Latin in Congo as well.
In Africa, I was lucky enough to be exposed to diverse educational experience: I attended Congolese and French schools alternatively. Actually, my father made the conscious decision to have us change schools so that we could have a chance to build a genuine experience. During that time frame, I had the chance to make friends with a diverse body of Congolese students. Often, my classmates and friends were representatives of diverse national, cultural social and even political backgrounds, some of which were the children of diplomats, and most of us were truly privileged to have traveled extensively and at an early age. I remember that some of them had left countries such as Lebanon, Greece or even eastern Africa to seek a better life in DR Congo, making it their second country. For me, this was a wonderful and inspiring experience through which I grew acquainted with the exceptional individuals who made up quite an accurate picture of the Congolese society. At the end of the day, with that kind of experience you just simply get used to having different perspectives on things. You make diversity a part of your daily life and view globalization from complementary angles.
Eventually, you become a different individual, an African with a synchronized tempo with the world, a person lucky enough not to be outpaced by global trends; you belong to the world, you walk, run, rise and fly with it. Today, many of my friends are from diverse places around the world, ranging from Micronesia to Latin America. Similarly, while in the DR Congo, I would look at local firms with a global reach and realize that from a small spot in Africa, you could almost see the world!
What have you accomplished in your working life so far?
After a brief experience in corporate finance in the mining industry with a Congolese major, I came back to France in 1997 and worked as a Finance officer for the General Manager of the holding company and investment arm of an African press group, Jeune Afrique.
I joined a UK-based IT company as a consultant in its Global Finance Division the following year. For more than ten years, the firm had achieved its growth by executing a series of merger and acquisition deals (targeting and buying out 14 firms that operated in 24 countries). During the summer 2003, I joined a competitor based in Oslo, Norway. As a senior consultant, I was in charge of setting up a new business unit. I performed my role while acquiring a deeper expertise in Information systems management at ESCP-EAP. I am now looking at slightly different options for the future and consider career paths that would combine my passion for finance and emerging markets.
How was your experience studying for a Master’s in Public Administration at Harvard?
Tremendously rewarding in many ways! I understood and experienced that the University is committed to bringing together extremely interesting persons.
I was also Mason Fellow at Harvard. The programs attract leaders that have significantly impacted their community. As such, it provided me with a unique opportunity meet with leaders that have had a first hand experience trying to solve most of the issues that are challenging our societies globally.
Finally, from an intellectual point of view, I have learned more than I would have had anywhere else. I have been exposed to a series of tools and concepts that I did not anticipate to be exposed to. At the Kennedy School, I have literally watched some of the brightest minds in the world come up with new ideas to challenge previously accepted standards and that will have an impact on our understanding of our own society.
How do your educational plans strengthen your resolve to return to Africa?
When making decisions concerning my education, I wanted to be able to access professional opportunities anywhere in the world I wished. The education plan that I designed was aimed at providing me with different emphases, developing both a unique breadth and a competitive profile to tackle complex economic issues both at the corporate and social levels. My belief is that these skills will be instrumental in problem solving not only in the DR Congo, but also throughout the continent. The strength of the programs I have attended is that they provide internationally accepted credentials and help secure a solid network of alumni.
Besides, Africa is an extremely diverse place, a continent that is going through enormous changes and where continuous transformations are taking place at different paces throughout. Being part of such a crucial time is extremely exciting. While a person averse to risk should definitely stay away from the continent, anyone ready to take a properly assessed risk has the potential of achieving great rewards. In such a setting, those who can manage to rationally “leverage the binding constraints that paralyze those economies” may take advantage of the inefficiencies of those nascent economies, presumably strengthening development opportunities in the long turn. Remember that a discrepancy is an opportunity for arbitrage... and value creation.
Business leadership has tremendously grown in DR Congo. This business leadership could efficiently be brought to maturity by continuously identifying new talents and training and updating senior managers with a strategic vision…
Newly minted MBAs are a great opportunity to feed in the progressively growing economies. Therefore, I intend to bring more expertise to help shape the economic policy of DR Congo by establishing a better business environment… There, the GDP per capita is $ 300 U.S. with a population of 62 million, and the country itself spans 2.5 million square kilometers (like traveling from London to Warsaw). Africans play an increasingly stronger role in defending their own interests and setting up new businesses.
What potential do you hope to develop in the future, both in yourself and in Africa?
I intend to be a skilled player from an economic standpoint. Honing my professional skills in the best institutions possible is a means of preparing for such a role in the near future.
As it is the case for many other young Congolese both in DR Congo and abroad, I intend to contribute to making DR Congo a better and more attractive place every day and for everyone.
The river Congo is the third largest in the world; with the appropriate investment level in its facilities, the river should provide enough electricity to service the needs of the whole continent. DR Congo is devising a 50 billion dollar program to develop the appropriate infrastructure through a syndicate including many other countries and diverse international organizations. Commodities and related industries would flourish in the appropriate economic environment that is still to be strengthened in Congo. Local entrepreneurs continuously discover new opportunities that can bring up significant returns on investment.
Providing support to those organizations both from the governmental perspective as well as from the private sector/investor point of view would be extremely exciting.
What made you decide to pursue your MBA at this point in time?
The MBA itself. The degree is, for me, one of the best ways to develop my potential. And it’s a great opportunity to have as much exposure as possible to people from different cultures. I needed to broaden my perspective and get a chance to learn from that to keep developing my own approach from a professional standpoint.
Which of your past experiences would you say prepared you most for Chicago GSB?
A few experiences can be part of my individual preparation. A brief professional experience with a mining firm from the DR Congo, long conversations with government officials, advocacy for some governmental projects fostered by their agencies, my role as a consultant in a vibrant industry are certainly to be included in that list…
Did you find the application process difficult as compared to that of the master’s program?
It was not a matter of difficulty. Both application processes were challenging and somehow demanding in their own ways. Each, in its own way, requested that I came up with a clear cut response to defining questions about my personal story as well as my vision. The programs I have considered and attended in each of those schools provided an answer to a specific aspect of my vision. Obviously, besides the test results, the essays and the culture of each school lays the emphasis on different elements.
Harvard has a long tradition of leadership and excellence. Through each of its schools, Harvard nurtures and develops leaders that will impact their communities. On the other hand, the University of Chicago is home to top-tier researchers in economics and finance. Many of the innovative concepts and products that define Wall Street today had their source here…
As I said, each application was unique and presented distinctive expectations from each program.
How long did it take you to write your MBA application?
I started a year before actually applying. Applying to any MBA program is not just about filling in the application material. During that year, I talked to as many alumni and current students as possible and attended MBA classes whenever I could to complement the information that I gathered through events and by browsing the websites.
I used that time to understand the distinctive characteristics of each program and could find out which were the most relevant to my plans. Writing the essays and addressing the questions accurately is a significant part of the process. That step probably took most of my time. Interestingly enough, the whole process was intriguing as anyone taking it seriously would learn a lot about their real motivation and about how an MBA makes sense in a well thought career plan.
Devoting up to a year is fair, especially if the applicant is already in a demanding career. Finally, I can add that both programs’ applications took fairly the same amount of time.
What are your professional plans for after the MBA?
In the short term, I cannot be very detailed about it, but I am thinking of a career in Finance with a real interest for commodities and industrial investment and emerging markets. In a few months I promise to be more specific!
What advice would you give to someone who wants an MBA?
I can only speak based on my individual experience and this should not be considered as the only truth. Many people have been effective in their own ways and should be heard as well…
Deciding to apply and actually doing an MBA is an investment of time, energy and money, as we all know. After the decision has been made to pursue such a plan, it is worth planning and thinking it over well in order to be successful in the long run.
I believe that receiving some form of guidance or support can be extremely helpful, be it in a formal way or not; it can be extremely helpful to stay on track and understand what makes sense and what does not in that process. Taking a few days to come up with initial drafts of your essays will be an excellent basis. I was helped in this process as I wrote my essays from the ground up using a couple of “pillars” that defined both my background and interests. To me, the themes of Africa and Technology were among the important pillars that provided the groundwork.
Update February 2008
Read other interviews with Eric Mboma:
Academic Rigor, Human Touch and New Curriculum at Stanford
Christophe Pennetier, admitted to Stanford, INSEAD, UCLA and Tuck
by Brian Henry, PhD (Trinity College, Dublin)
When Christophe Pennetier, an organizational consultant, started thinking about doing an MBA, he was not sure about a lot of things. He had never taken a GMAT before, much less any college entrance exam. He had also never written any in-depth essays required by business schools. In short, the MBA application process was a completely new experience for him, but given his extensive background and the coaching he received at the MBA Center Paris, it was easy for him to prepare for the admissions process. In the end, he applied for and was admitted to INSEAD, UCLA, Tuck and Stanford, where he has decided to attend.
Could you start by telling us a little about yourself?
Throughout the years, my taste for effort has pushed me to climb mountains in all areas, pacing myself over the distance to achieve personal and professional challenges, such as designing jets for the NASA, running the 400-meter race in 51 seconds or writing short story collections. During my year-long employment at NASA, I was a systems engineer and manager of cost modeling, analyzing the financial feasibility of new technologies on missions to collect rock samples on Mars, the Moon, Venus and Mercury. I was also a project director and designer for the technology mass sensitivity project, developing models to estimate the effects of technology improvements on spacecraft total mass. With each accomplishment, I learned that hard work was in fact the key to being creative. Indeed, I found that mastery of basic concepts, techniques and forms was the best way to free myself in any discipline and to reach new levels of inspiration and true originality. In everything that I do, I look for this almost miraculous moment where the conscious effort to learn disappears and the mind is liberated to build something new. This quest for creative mastery is what matters the most to me. I want to live many lives, to be an endless discoverer and explorer.
Why did you choose to do an MBA at this point in your career?
My goals are realistic and I have quite a few assets to succeed at them. First and foremost, I am truly passionate about what I do and about constantly getting better at it – this determination is at the heart of who I am, and it was the fuel for my decision to undertake an MBA education. Furthermore, I want to develop my existing skills in organizational behavior, finance and high-level negotiations. Finally, I want to develop more advanced leadership skills and have a better awareness of cross-cultural environments, key assets that all MBA graduates must strive for.
Why did you choose Stanford?
Joining the Stanford Graduate School of Business is undoubtedly the best way for me to meet my goals. Only Stanford, especially as it adopts its new curriculum model, will let me meet these learning objectives. In addition to its academic cutting-edge, the school keeps a human size and encourages small-group interactions between students and faculty members. The new curriculum model promises to pay even more attention to this human-touch dimension. It is totally tailored to train global leaders. All the Stanford alumni that I have talked to recalled having lunch with their former professors, and in some cases even getting invited for dinner parties at their homes. The combination of intellectual rigor and interpersonal availability is exactly what I need. Stanford has an environment that will positively respond to my proactive involvement in the learning process.
What advice do you have for other MBA applicants?
Find a good GMAT coach! I give a lot of credit to my coach at the MBA Center Paris, who developed a great technique to improve my reading comprehension. I saw a big difference between my first two GMAT scores on the verbal part. I earned a GMAT score of 720 on the second sitting and a 680 on the first. Thanks to a good coach, I improved my scores significantly.