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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: (in French),fr/ (in French)


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