With campuses in Europe (France), Asia (Singapore) and Abu Dhabi, INSEAD business school may be the most diverse and international business school in the world. Recently ranked as the #1 Global MBA Programme by Financial Times, INSEAD should be on any Motherland Moguls list as a potential business school option.
We chatted with Kemi, Timi, Lakheni and Alvine, four Motherland Moguls and current INSEAD students about how they stood out in their applications, what they love most about business school and what you should do today to start your journey towards business school
Why did you think an MBA was the right step for you in your professional journey?
Kemi: I always refer to myself as being a ‘home-grown’ Nigerian; having lived, schooled and worked in Nigeria for all of my life, and being home-grown comes with its unique experience. After 8 years of experience across banking, telecoms and management consulting, I felt like an MBA (and an INSEAD MBA in particular) was the appropriate next step in my professional journey.
I truly believed that the MBA experience would be truly life-changing and would equip me with the knowledge, exposure, connections and confidence that I needed to become a true global leader. I was convinced that the exposure to people from 80 different nationalities, with diverse perspectives and opinions from different walks of life that the INSEAD MBA offered would definitely broaden my horizons and enlighten me profoundly.
Beyond the potential richness of the interactions, I also knew that the curriculum’s focus on entrepreneurship and the practical approach to teaching would prepare me for my role in supporting entrepreneurs and businesses in Africa.
Timi: I had been working for over six years in a commodities trading house in various functions and geographies, which eventually led to me being based in South Africa. After a number of years there, as I periodically do, I reviewed my short and long terms goals and assessed what my next steps should be.
With my passion for Africa and my experience in the energy industry, I realised that a combination of both is where I could do my part in my Africa development story. To achieve this, I concluded that an MBA would be a bridge between where I was and where I wanted to be. I wanted to work in the investment space for energy and infrastructure development on the continent, particularly Nigeria.
An MBA would be a start in closing my knowledge gap, whilst furnishing me with the necessary soft skills, and valuable network to begin actualising this dream.
Lakheni: I have always had a passion for entrepreneurship and for solving both my country and the continent’s challenges. After spending 8 years working in academia, government and the not-for-profit sectors I wanted to explore a career in social entrepreneurship.
I however felt that my limited industry experience exposed weaknesses in my business skills which I need to hone if I wanted to advance my career development. I choose the INSEAD MBA because I felt that it was best suited to provide me with a global business knowledge with a focus on social entrepreneurship and experiential learning required to ensure that I am a well-rounded professional.
I also knew that I would interact with a high calibre of professors and student body that would afford me the opportunity to gain insights about a plethora of countries, industries and cultures which would be invaluable to my pursuit of a global career.
Alvine: I am native from Cameroon and after 11 years of studying and working abroad, I felt the necessity to do something more meaningful for a living and focus on a place where my initiatives would have a real impact on people’s life. In my opinion, the way to achieve this goal was by becoming a serial entrepreneur in Africa.
However, to get there it seemed obvious that I needed to undertake an MBA in order to enlarge my scope of expertise and learn how to do business in this changing world.
And very honestly, the MBA INSEAD offers naturally appeared as the best option for me because it was a one year course and its entrepreneurial classes were reputed to be rich and insightful.
How did you stand out in your application and show the admissions committee what you could offer the school?
Kemi: It is important to know what attributes your target schools value, and ensure that these attributes shine through all aspects of your application. INSEAD places a premium on leadership experience and diversity, and these were the 2 main themes that I focused on across all aspects of my application – essays, recommendations, interviews, etc.
Based on feedback from alumni who reviewed my essays, I was able to highlight the diversity of my professional experience within emerging and developed markets and across different industries in both the private and public sector. I also shared my personal experiences of meeting and working with people of different nationalities, as well as my curiosity that led me to travel to numerous countries to learn about different world cultures.
Finally, I am sure being a woman also helped – everyone knows that it is impossible to win with only half of your team, and so a lot of business schools are actively bringing in more women into their programs.
Timi: I knew that INSEAD was a school that placed high value on diversity, and I endeavoured to showcase this in my application. When I say diversity, I mean diversity in all respects – gender, nationality, professional & personal experiences etc.
At this point, I would like to stress that INSEAD is very keen on increasing the female student population, which currently stands at 30%. So, I would urge you apply to business schools and you will be surprised at how strong and valuable your profile is.
Also, I got a lot of support from friends and family through the application process including GMAT emotional support (!), and essay brainstorming/review sessions.
Lakheni: Throughout my professional career, I have worked in non-traditional MBA industries. I have worked in the public sector, not-for-profit sector and for a trade union.
Since INSEAD strongly values diversity, I knew that my unique professional background would be valued by the institution because it enabled me to bring a different perspective to business problems which would enrich classroom experiences and consequently enhance both the professors’ and my classmates’ MBA experience.
That is really what I tried to communicate in my application.
Alvine: I think I stood out in my application by showing to the committee that I would be able to share my dual experience as a financial engineer in a bank in Paris and as an entrepreneur in Cameroon.
My guess is that the committee realized that this dual experience of mine would be very insightful for my classmates at INSEAD.
What area of your application did you spend the most time on and what was your strategy?
Kemi: Overall, I spent a great deal of time on my GMAT. To be honest, I had to write it twice (so you know this journey wasn’t all rosy). It turns out my test-taking skills were not as good as I thought and so my first attempt was not great. I eventually realized that the GMAT is not a measure of how smart you are, it is only a measure of how good you are at taking the GMAT.
Once I realised this, I spent time mastering the tips and techniques of understanding all the core concepts across all the GMAT sections. I studied every single page of my Manhattan books and did every available practice question and test. Practice! Practice!! Practice!!!
My second attempt was much better, even though I wrote it in the middle of a difficult project, compared to my first attempt which I wrote while on a 5-week study leave.
Timi: The GMAT! I spent a few months prepping and I could have done with more! The key to this is to study smart, i.e. not just (re)learning the concepts, but also mastering techniques to improve your speed through the test.
Of course, your essays are just as important as they allow the schools to discover who you are. Spending a significant amount of time brainstorming, writing and improving them through various iterations will make for a stronger application.
Lakheni: Like most MBA applicants, I spent most of my time on my essays and ‘managing’ my referees. Regarding my essays, I spend about a month with a notebook jotting down any stories and phrases that I wanted to include in my essays.
I find writing on the spot difficult and instead ideas come to me at random times. Once I had collected enough material for my essays I then began writing them. I then asked family, friends and colleagues to review them and give me feedback. I went through this review process several times until I was finally happy with my essays.
I also paid great attention to whom I selected as my referees. It is tempting to ask the most senior person in your organisation to write your reference letters however I decided to pick people that I had worked with extensively because they could provide anecdotes in their reference letters which are far more important to the selection committee than the seniority of the person who writes the reference.
Once I decided whom I wanted to be my referees I spent a significant amount of time talking to them about my application, sending follow-up emails and reminders and then ensuring that I thanked them for committing their time to my application.
Alvine: The area of my application I spent the most time on was writing the essays. To finally complete those I decided to write naturally and to be sincere about my past and my aspirations.
What resources/websites/programs were helpful for you during your application process?
- Business school (especially INSEAD) Alumni – I found several alumni extremely helpful during the course of my application. From advising me on what round to apply in, to guiding me to sources of funding, reviewing my essays, and doing mock interviews with me, these people were truly invaluable resources that contributed to the success of my application process.
- MBA.com – Beyond being the official registration site for the GMAT, MBA.com is a useful one-stop resource for researching different schools, getting access to high quality study materials, and connecting with other potential applicants who can help you on your journey.
- Last and not least, my personal support system of friends and family were pillars of support throughout the entire process. Their encouragement helped me deal with the disappointment of my poor performance on my first GMAT, and kept me going when I felt like giving up. They continued to cheer me on through the application marathon and ensured I finished strong. Do not underestimate how stressful the process can be, and how important it is to have supporters and believers urging you on.
Timi: The number one resource for me was business school alums – speaking to them to gather their insights, getting advice on how to navigate the application process (GMAT, essays, interviews), what to expect during the program etc was incredibly valuable to me.
They were great in alleviating the fears and concerns which I had through the process, and consequently being fountains of encouragement. If you had asked me two years ago if I would consider going to business school, my response would have been no. They turned my perspective around.
In addition, GMAT study resources such as Manhattan GMAT were very useful. I did not take classes but I do think that if it is within your means, you should definitely take them.
Lakheni: Unlike most MBA applications who write the GMAT as part of the application process, I wrote the GRE. I downloaded the GRE vocabulary flashcards and math prep material by Magoosh onto my phone to review during my free time.
I was able to cram a lot of studying into every minute of my day because I had the material within easy reach on my cell phone.
Alvine: During my application, INSEAD’s website was obviously very helpful. Besides I use the MBA.com website to prepare for the GMAT.
What’s your most memorable experience in business school?
Kemi: Business school has definitely met my expectations! I have a whole repository of beautiful experiences and memories that I have collected in the last 7 months at INSEAD (which is currently the #1 business school in the world). I am consistently inspired by my awesome classmates and amazing professors and both academic and social interactions are always an experience to remember.
My best experiences have been from connecting with people and getting to know them at a deeper level (beyond group work), and I am amazed at how the stereotypes I had about different countries/cultures are being torn down every day. I also really enjoy all the travelling we do and my current ‘most memorable’ experience has to be my recent trip to Japan with a group of classmates.
I am sure I will also have more memorable experiences in the next 3 months before graduation!
Timi: At the risk of sounding like I am exaggerating, every moment for me at INSEAD has been memorable, be it the inspiring, educational, fun and sometimes stressful times on the programme. This is an intensive 10-month programme, which means that time becomes a precious commodity, and forces us to value even more how we spend it.
I have had great memories making new lifelong friends, who I have learnt from in class, particularly through their diverse experiences and perspectives, had fun with, travelled to numerous destinations with (some of which I would not have imagined going to), and all-in-all been inspired by.
It is hard choosing my most memorable experience so far but if I had to choose one, it would be from a class I just completed. One where we spent the entire class focused on Africa cases, from conglomerates to entrepreneurs. We learnt about business model innovations, dissecting and appraising them and overall reaffirming in my mind that the possibilities to have an impact are endless.
Building on learnings from other classes, this class stoked the fire in me to carry on on my drive to play a part in positively shaping the future of Africa.
Lakheni: Every year INSEAD hosts 6 National Weeks, where students from the same country, region or continent showcase its culture, cuisine and customs. I love being able to experience and learn from the amazing events that students put together and the amazing delicacies that they prepare.
It is an amazing way to learn about other parts of the world without spending a lot of money to travel.
Alvine: I think the whole experience here at INSEAD is memorable. In fact, at INSEAD, I was impressed by the different classes proposed throughout the program.
The core courses are well chosen to give us some knowledge in very practical disciplines such as strategy, finance, economics and organisational behaviour. And the electives are very well assorted so that people can choose to build more on subjects they are passionate about.
Besides, I have had a wonderful time with people here at INSEAD, people are so diverse and are more than happy to share their experience.
It was very nice and I am pretty sure I just made some friends here for life.
What advice would you give to other young African women who are trying to figure out which business school is right for them?
Kemi: Research! Research!! And even more research!!! Beyond doing online searches, find ways to connect with alumni of your target schools– alumni are the best way to really get to know a school for real.
Join MBA interest groups and forums so you have access to information about MBA events in your city and ensure you attend them to get meet representatives of the schools and have all your questions answered face-to-face (this is more effective than emails).
Good luck with your applications and never underestimate yourself!
Timi: I would say conduct as much research as possible. In addition to attending open days and welcome events in your city, alumni are a great resource – speaking to as many as you can connect with will give you a good sense of the culture and personality of each school.
You begin to get a sense of which school best fits the environment where you will flourish and get the best out of the MBA experience. Also, never underestimate the strength of your profile!
Lakheni: It is extremely important to know what you want to get from the MBA experience and how you expect the experience to help you to achieve your long term goal.
Every school has a different focus and culture and speaking to alumni will help you to gauge if the business school that you are interested in is the right fit for you.
INSEAD for example is well-known for having a diverse student body and since I love travelling and learning about different cultures, it was important for me that I be in a school that embraced diversity.
Alvine: I will advise the other young African women out there to choose the school which will fit them and helps them fulfil their dreams.
They first have to understand which direction they want to take after their MBA and based on that they will be able to choose which Business School will facilitate their journey and take them to the right destination.