MBA experience: finding new drive
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
After university, I moved to Singapore thinking it would be a great place to build my career. I was born and bred in Indonesia and did my bachelor’s degree in Australia but I had finished high school in Singapore on a scholarship.
I found myself working on mergers and acquisitions for RHB Singapore and that is when I first started feeling burnt out. Then came the pandemic — I had never imagined that I would experience lockdowns in my life and have to work from home.
That’s when I thought: “OK, it’s time to stop my investment bank career because the hours are crazy and now the work lifestyle is crazy, too.”
I got lucky. I received a call from an Indonesian company called Shopee. It had reached out to me two years before, when I was still very comfortable in my M&A role, but now I was burnt out and I missed my family.
I moved to Jakarta, and while I had hoped that my mental health problems would get better, they got worse. I was at the peak of my career but I couldn’t leave my apartment at all. Mentally, I was spiralling.
That is when my husband, then my fiancé, moved to Düsseldorf in Germany. I knew that something about my life was not right at this point and I thought maybe I should stop thinking about having my own career, go back to university and focus on what I can do for our family flower business, back home in Indonesia.
I knew that, if I wanted to move to Germany, I had to think about what I could bring to the table. And if I wanted to continue our family business, I also had to bring something to that table. How would I convince our employees that I could be their future leader?
I had always wanted to do an MBA and, out of the schools in Germany, I chose WHU — Otto Beisheim School of Management because of its placing in the Financial Times’ ranking and its focus on entrepreneurship.
Another reason I picked WHU was its international module, which meant I would also get a chance to study at a US business school. It sounded like the best of all worlds — I could move to Germany to be with my partner, develop my leadership skills and spend some time studying in the US.
I had been earning money for seven years, so the idea of taking a career break scared me, but then I thought maybe this could be the moment when I finally launch my start-up. My partner, who I met in Indonesia, and I have now been running our start-up for about a year. The business is an ecommerce consultancy and we’ve grown from five to 50 people.
In the past year, I’ve attended classes in innovation management, family businesses and omnichannel marketing — they have been really useful both for the family business and the start-up. I had a class in entrepreneurial finance, which was helpful as we are trying to raise money and value the start-up accurately. We also had workshops on leadership communication and “the perfect pitch”, which were great.
I was given the opportunity to be one of 100 delegates to go to Milan for the MBA World Summit last year and met students from around the globe. That really got me thinking about how little I’ve seen of the world. I realised how this whole journey of leadership is just getting started.
I also became the head of marketing for WHU’s Women in Business Student Club, which introduced me to the whole concept of inclusive and holistic leadership that is so crucial to the world right now.
My thesis was about the digital transformation of my family businesses and I have since been telling my parents about all the things they can do. We have, for example, started thinking about introducing drones into our cultivation. But I have also been trying to focus more on myself — I started competing in World Amateur Match Race golf during the MBA. I didn’t make the final last year, but I managed to become a quarter finalist.
I do feel like I have something on the table, right now — I’m not where I was one year ago.