My INSEAD MBA Journey

Since I started writing- first on this blog, and then professionally- I’ve realized that I find gratification not from the process of writing, but more from the result of the writing- whether its inspiring others, or making a difference in their lives- like giving a reader the extra push they needed to book a holiday, or even just the realization that you don’t need to settle for the situation that you ended up with.

I’ve been quiet on the blog for the past year, for a few reasons. Firstly, I had limited time, and started off prioritizing paid writing as a semi- substitute for my salary. This quickly lost its novelty for me, and it became more of a chore than anything else. I enjoyed travelling without the burden of carrying a huge camera and notebook with me everywhere I went, the obligation of needing to write about the trip weighing heavy on my shoulders. This year has been so liberating, and along with liberating myself from debit orders and a job to go to, I let go of my self- imposed obligation to blog.

Since I documented the process of getting into the MBA and moving, I thought this series of posts would be incomplete if I didn’t write about the journey itself. Like most things, we only share the highlights reel of our experiences, but I hope to convey what it was really like – good and bad. I wrote about my time in Singapore and then in France, but it was really difficult to convey the depth of the experience.

Singapore CV photo taking days...
Singapore CV photo taking days…
Those French baguettes!
Those French baguettes!
Settling into France
Settling into France

I’m back in Joburg now and it has been… weird. I was really excited to be back, more to see my friends and family, but I feel like I’ve grown out of Joburg. For me, so much has changed in the past year, but things in Joburg seem pretty much the same. I’m going to be moving to London for work and while there’s lots I’ll miss about Joburg (the cost of living mostly), I am excited to live in a city that’s more of a global hub.

For about 18 months before I left South Africa, I was feeling increasingly stifled in Johannesburg. I spent 10 years getting to know the city- and through my writing, I explored every nook and cranny, from the depths of Roodepoort, to Soweto and Pretoria. After running out of things to do, I was desperate for a new city to live in. Similarly, after launching Jozilicious, which quickly expanded into my own page in the Sunday Independent, and successful reader networking events, the entrepreneur bug bit. I didn’t want to quit my job and do the blog fulltime, because while I don’t necessarily like hardcore finance, I do like the sophistication of working for a corporate. There were some parts of my job I liked, such as financial analysis, modeling, relationship management and negotiations, but I couldn’t care less about stuff like derivatives and economic releases.

I constantly felt like I had to put on an act, because of my academic background and the job I was in. I studied actuarial science- which is basically statistics and mathematics, yet every morning I’d log onto Daily Mail to read celeb news before begrudgingly looking at Bloomberg to see what happened in the economy the day before. I loved my team, and the work was interesting enough, but after 4 years I just couldn’t do it anymore. There’s no way that I would be better than people with the same technical skills that I had, but a whole lot more passion. I was earning comfortably, and could have easily carried on with this path, but I found it to be quite soul destroying and I wasn’t prepared to spend this life waiting for the weekend and not enjoying what I was doing for 5 out of 7 days a week.

A typical MBA amphi
A typical MBA amphi
First family dinner at ours in France
First family dinner at ours in France

I would say that is the biggest lesson I learnt during my MBA- how to distinguish between what I CAN do via my qualifications and experience, vs. what I actually WANT to do. I learnt that while I can do finance, I’m not that good at it. Nor am I good at discussing the economy or understanding it. What I am good at is coming up with new ideas, and using data to back up these ideas. I’m good at building and maintaining relationships. I’m a good communicator and listener, and am self- aware. There’s no shame in not being interested in the economy or politics- there’s a lot I am interested in, and it was up to me to find a job which exploits my strengths- because that it is the only way I’d stand out vs. my peers.

I started the MBA thinking that those 3 letters after my name from a school like INSEAD, which is one of the top 5 business schools in the world, would mean that employers would be falling over themselves to hire me. Ha. Rude awakening. After meeting my classmates, I realized that my work experience is nothing compared to theirs. Most of them have lived and worked all over the world, can speak multiple languages, have built and sold companies, can fly planes or were on national sports teams. I’m not even kidding. They’re hugely successful, but also so much fun. I would say that only about 5% of our class is the traditional study geek type. The rest were all up to making the most of this year, socially and academically. I feel extremely privileged to have spent the past year with people of this caliber. We shared deeply personal stories about ourselves and our families, coached eachother on areas that we were expert at, celebrated job offers and drowned our sorrows together over job rejections. We travelled through Southeast Asia and Europe together, making countless memories along the way. 300 of us made the effort to fly to Mykonos a few weeks ago for one last trip together. I have friends that I know I’ll be in contact with for the rest of my life- and even though we all come from completely different backgrounds, we still “get” each other 100%. Because I spent all my time with classmates over the past year, it’s a bit weird to not have that stimulating, dynamic energy around me socially anymore. I stopped sharing too much of what I was up to with friends, and on social media, because it was larger than life. Relaying day to day life felt like showing off or boasting because it was just that amazing. I went to 26 countries in the past year- how incredible is that!

Swan lake perfumed by these dashing men
Swan lake perfumed by these dashing men

 

We partied... like crazy
We partied… like crazy
GIrls' night out! Only 29% of the class is female, sadly
GIrls’ night out! Only 29% of the class is female, sadly
Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka
Maldives
Maldives
Champagne with the girls (in Champagne)
Champagne with the girls (in Champagne)

Where did I get the money for all of this? I got a student loan and a scholarship, cashed out some of my pension, sold my car and house, and cashed out all my savings and investments. I wasn’t earning a fortune- I was earning a salary relative to people with the same amount of experience as me after university. It’s doable. Trust me. I’m extremely frustrated by young professionals, who say that they’d love to do an MBA but don’t have the money. You do have the money- you just don’t want to spend it. To people who are already on a strong career trajectory, I can understand how an MBA seems like a waste of money. But the actual qualification is only a fraction of what you gain from the experience- you have a network of business contacts all over the world, you get a year of self reflection to figure out what you really want to do with this life, and you open up a world of possibilities for yourself. You get to be lectured by people who are the best in their field, globally. Having your salary double post- MBA and getting to live in a new city is just the cherry on top.

Before starting, I imagined that because we all wouldn’t be earning a salary, we would go back to our undergraduate days, eating noodles and baked beans and spending our time watching Netflix on our laptops. I didn’t even contemplate travelling during the MBA. However, once I started, holding onto an intangible bank balance got less and less important to me, and soon I joined my classmates in booking weekend getaways every week, and had countless group dinners and brunches. People not in this bubble think we all have loads of money, and of course there are people who are better off than others, but something happens to one’s mindset when you start an MBA- in that experiences matter more than things. When else are you going to have the time to travel the world, and have fun people to do it with? Money became like Monopoly money- numbers on a screen, offering no more comfort or benefit than a means to facilitate transactions.

Amsterdam!
Amsterdam!
Lisbon street party
Lisbon street party

It isn’t all fun though. The MBA year is extremely taxing on relationships with people outside the bubble- they find it hard to relate to, while the MBA student struggles to find the time to make it relatable to friends and family living afar. I’ve seen so many relationships break down over this year, and even my own relationship took strain- despite Rishav and I being in the unique situation we were, in that we were both doing the MBA together. It’s hard to be anything but self absorbed during this year, firstly because you have so much going on between course work, and secondly because you are so concerned about your own life and future, that it’s hard to think about anyone else.

I was initially blasé about the academic aspect of the course, thinking that I’d just do the minimum and immerse myself in other aspects that were more fun. However, I ended up learning so much- both in class from the discussions we had, as well as from the course content itself. The first 4 months of the MBA required us to do core courses like accounting, marketing and strategy, which were a bit of a drag, but the latter 6 months gave us the opportunity to pick 11 out of 75 electives, ranging across the spectrum. I focused my MBA electives around entrepreneurship, marketing and media- I went on a digital and social media field trip to New York, worked on a project with Google Travel as a client, and built a startup offering weekend trips in Asia, called My Asia Getaway. None of this felt like work to me. The new pace of life I adopted was insane, particularly the beginning. I would be at campus from 8:30am until 10pm most days, going to lectures and French lessons, working with my group on assignments, and attending networking events or talks in the evening. “Time flew, but so did we.” People ask me if it was difficult- not at all. The difficult part was managing time and juggling various commitments. Everyone passed- it’s pretty much impossible to fail. I don’t think you need a business background to pass, but because I already had a finance background I probably had to work a bit less than those who didn’t, because finance is trickier to grasp than marketing or strategy.

Sleep No More in New York
Sleep No More in New York

The MBA opened a world of possibilities for me- I have an offer to work at a brand strategy consulting company in London, that would never have been accessible to me had I not done the MBA. However, it definitely wasn’t easy. I had no less than 40 interviews across a dozen companies, and got rejected multiple times- most of us did. As much as it was stressful, it was also humbling. I learnt to sell myself in a way that was honest, without feeling like I was faking it.

I would spend this money a hundred times over, and I know I’ll always look back on this year as the best of my life. Never will I settle on doing anything less than something I’m 100% passionate about, because the MBA taught me that I don’t need to. I had several non- negotiables (600 thread count linen, minimum… I wouldn’t stay in anything less than a 4 star hotel.. I refused to use anything except the Body Shop products.. My nails always had to be done), and all of that has gone out the window. My apartment was a tiny studio with IKEA linen and I use whatever beauty products are cheapest. My relationship with money is so different- I don’t care about the size of my house or what car I drive, I care about how I’m spending every day, am I making the most of this life? Everything else is just a distraction if you’re not happy at the core of who you are. When we got back home, I went to our storage unit and was horrified at how much STUFF I have. A huge box of makeup and fragrances from press events, tons of clothes, and then so much junk that I can’t throw away but don’t really need like chargers, old photo albums and every appliance under the sun, from a donut maker to a blender. We really tend to bulk up our lives, but I far prefer the living light approach. My friends tell me I’ll soon slip back into how I was before once I start earning money, but I don’t think I will. My fundamental belief system has changed- for good.

Graduation day
Graduation day

While I’m obviously biased towards INSEAD because it was my school, I have no doubt that other global schools will be just as good. The 10 months did feel a bit rushed to me, but at the same time, I would have definitely run out of money had I done a 2 year MBA. I also got the opportunity to study in Singapore and France, which was really cool. It was a whirlwind, and I can’t believe it’s over already.

If you’re even considering doing an MBA, do the GMAT, apply, and figure the rest out if you get in- it is the best thing you can do for yourself and your future.

I freelanced for 10 Minutes With throughout my MBA year, so if you’re keen to read more of my ramblings, head over here.

xxx

H