Victor Lee director of trade and investment Asia Pacific for the Alberta government in Calgary, Alberta, September 27, 2019. Photograph by Todd Korol
Stepping stone: Victor Lee took an EMBA spread over seven cities to pursue a more global role © Todd Korol

A global perspective is vital to Victor Lee. As a director of trade and investment for the provincial government of Alberta, Canada, he drums up business opportunities in Asia-Pacific for energy companies from the western Canadian province. “They need to know about new trends and technologies around the world to stay innovative and competitive,” says the Korean-Canadian.

Keen for an even more global role, possibly in trade and investment, Lee started an executive MBA that spans four continents and seven cities. The global executive MBA (GEMBA), launched this year, is run by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and SDA Bocconi School of Management in Milan. Graduates earn two degrees: a Rotman MBA and a global EMBA from SDA Bocconi.

Each module of the 18-month programme is taught in a different city, starting in Toronto and Milan, followed by Mumbai, San Francisco, Copenhagen, Shanghai and São Paulo. “I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and have real business experience in different markets,” says Lee.

This motivation is common among EMBA students, says Brian Golden, Rotman’s vice-dean of MBA programmes. Business is borderless, so most executives value a global perspective, even if their jobs do not involve extensive travel, he says. This explains why many of the top EMBAs in the FT’s ranking are international alliances, he adds.

Global travel is more than just a jolly for students. The insights and networks they build on trips create job opportunities in new countries. Students on the GEMBA visit companies, such as luxury carmaker Maserati in Italy, on each module to tap into such opportunities. Golden predicts a quarter of students will relocate after the course.

Networking is crucial for tapping the “hidden job market” for executive appointments, says Arnold Longboy, executive director of leadership programmes at London Business School (LBS). Companies tend to hire EMBA students informally, he says, using executive search firms and personal recommendations, noting that students on joint EMBAs have the added advantage of accessing all the partner schools’ alumni networks.

The EMBA-Global Asia — a programme from LBS, New York’s Columbia Business School and the University of Hong Kong — was Sue Huey Chuah’s ticket to a job abroad. Based mainly in Singapore, she enrolled in 2015 to strengthen her knowledge of global business. She says studying with people of 24 different nationalities improved her ability to communicate across cultures. She believes this, along with her corporate finance classes, helped her land a job at EY in London advising the consultancy’s clients on cross-border merger and acquisition transactions.

Chuah often contacts fellow alumni for advice and insights to support her deals. “They have helped me to understand cultural subtleties,” she says. “For instance, in certain markets it is better to be more direct, whereas in others you have to tone down your communication style.”

But as multiple business schools operate across the globe to teach one course, there is a risk that programmes become disjointed and students get lost between schools. Most EMBA students are globetrotting senior executives, so the risk of them falling between the cracks is low, says Oliver Gottschalg, academic dean of Trium Global EMBA.

Still, the Trium partner schools — HEC Paris, the London School of Economics and New York University’s Stern School of Business — try to make campus transitions seamless. For example, modules are taught by the professor who is most knowledgeable on the subject, with faculty expected to travel if the class is not where they are based. Gottschalg says this ensures consistent teaching quality across campuses and creates a shared sense of identity among teaching staff. “I’m technically a professor at HEC, but I don’t think like this. We are Trium professors,” he says.

This eliminates the potential for competition between partner schools that may want to recruit students for further study or alumni donations. “Otherwise, if something goes wrong during the programme, they could start pointing fingers at each other. That does not give the students a good experience,” says Gottschalg.

Partnerships also help schools create a varied curriculum as each partner brings its own expertise: geopolitics at LSE, finance at Stern and luxury marketing at HEC Paris. This helps address the needs of students from diverse backgrounds, from banking to social enterprise, says Gottschalg.

Travel to different schools can take its toll on students trying to balance a career and family. As Shannon Goh, a chief financial officer who works in Singapore, says: “When I look at my workload, I cringe.” She started on the Tsinghua-Insead EMBA in 2018. The programme takes place at Tsinghua University’s Beijing campus and Insead’s three bases in Fontainebleau (France), Singapore and Abu Dhabi. Starting from 2021, the class will also do a module on Tsinghua’s Shenzhen campus.

Another challenge for EMBA students is the cost of travel on top of tuition fees. The EMBA-Global Asia’s fees are $189,600, which covers accommodation for the first year but not the second, nor any travel outlays. Longboy at LBS, pointing to the gender pay gap, suggests the financial barrier may be one reason for the drop in female students on the EMBA-Global Asia programme, from 34 per cent in 2018 to 21 per cent this year. Another factor is the underrepresentation of women in the top ranks of business.

He says LBS wants 51 per cent female representation on all its degree programmes, and is offering more women-only scholarships to reach that goal. “We want to make sure cost is not a reason for women not to do an EMBA.”

Chuah received a $15,000 scholarship from the EMBA-Global Asia partner schools. On top of tuition fees, she says her travel and living costs were up to $30,000 as she moved from Singapore to study in Hong Kong, London, New York, Shanghai, Dubai and Santiago. But she says the course’s benefits outweigh the costs. For example, alumni can take two of Columbia’s elective courses for free each semester, indefinitely, if there is space and the professor agrees. “The EMBA is valuable for a lifetime,” says Chuah.

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