Ask any INSEADer what separates us from other schools, and I guarantee that every answer will mention international travel. In previous columns, I’ve spoken about my cross-continental excursions, but those vacations barely scratch the surface of what’s possible at INSEAD. With most students pursuing post-MBA jobs away from their home countries, the school has a long-standing tradition of organizing foreign career treks. These jaunts typically last a few days and give students a chance to explore the cultural or professional ecosystem of a city or country. Consider it a field trip, but with better activities and local beer.
ZIPPING THROUGH ZÜRICH
Just last month, I had the pleasure of attending a career trek to Zurich. Organized by three of my Swiss classmates, this trek highlighted job opportunities available to INSEAD students looking to relocate to Switzerland. In equal measure, the trip painted a holistic understanding of Zürich’s vibrant tech scene and the ways in which this decidedly non-EU country functions within the financial framework of a globalized economy.
Our first day began with a stimulating talk about entrepreneurship from Alan Frei, the co-founder of Amorana, a sex toy company that helped bring the category from niche to mainstream for Europeans. Alan spoke to us about starting a business and following your passion – whether that’s minimalism, private equity, or dildos. Some of his lessons were specific to the startup scene of Zürich. For instance, he told us that “the core strength of the Swiss market is the lack of bullshit… unlike some other cities, you won’t find a Zürich barista moonlighting as an entrepreneur.” Other lessons were broader and more philosophical. “You either have courage or you have money. The more money you have, the more risk-averse and cowardly you become,” he told us. When Alan made this point, there was plenty of nervous laughter and awkward squirming by some of the freshly-minted consultants in the room.
The next part of the trip came from Andreas, one of the organizing students of the trek. Andreas co-founded an AI Software and Machinery Manufacturing company called Sevensense. What I loved about hearing Andreas speak was the opportunity to see him inhabiting his pre- (and post-) MBA persona. So often during the academic experience, we get to hear snippets about our fellow students’ pre-MBA career. Seeing Andreas speak with a fatherly sense of pride about Sevensense’s newest autonomous robot was beyond cool and reminded me of how entrepreneurial our class is. INSEAD might have a strong reputation as a feeder for consulting, but over the past year I’ve been continually impressed by our school’s startup community. Most students have some level of expertise
Sevensense wasn’t the only tech company we visited during our stay. We also got the chance to meet with Nikos Kariotoglou, the co-founder of Seervision, an AI software company whose technology is automatizing cinematography. Seervision’s technology allows a camera to pan in and out and prioritize the different individuals in its line of vision – incredibly helpful for hybridized group conferences. Obviously, I loved hearing from Nikos, but the questions asked by my classmates added so much depth to the visit. For instance, Niccolo – a collegiate rugby player from South Africa – spoke to Nikos about the possibility of integrating Seervision’s technology to sporting events. Imagine if the camera could autonomously track specific athletes on the field. For instance, with Seervision’s AI-assisted camera, Manchester United could create a highlight reel of just Cristiano Ronaldo.
Outside the classroom, hearing my classmates talk about implementation possibilities and challenges reinforced the strength of INSEAD’s strategy curriculum. These student treks are only as good as their participants. Because our school brings in intellectually curious students from across the world, I always know there will be an insightful discussion at the end of each presentation.
We also had the chance to meet with Blue Horizon, a venture-capital firm that specializes in sustainable food technology. Our speaker was an INSEAD alum named Matteo Parenti, who shared with us the possibilities of plant-based and lab-grown proteins. Blue Horizon was an early investor in Impossible Meat and Beyond Meat and anticipates price, flavor, and texture parity for virtually all protein by 2035. Whether that means 3-D printing ribeye steaks or cultivating duck breast doppelgangers, this transformation of the food system in a profitable and sustainable way had everyone salivating. One of the biggest takeaways from Matteo’s talk was understanding the breadth of INSEAD’s global network. With almost 1,000 students graduating every year, there are alumni contacts in nearly every industry and every country.
As a sommelier and brand strategist who’s looking to do consulting or go in-house with a scale-up business after graduation, I feel confident that regardless of where I end up – be it Zurich, New York, London, or Singapore – there will be a support system to facilitate my career path.
A CUT ABOVE THE REST
Look, I know most schools have career treks. They aren’t uncommon events at top programs. What separates an INSEAD trek from those at other schools is the ambition of the students and the breadth of the geographic opportunities. Because INSEAD draws talent from every part of the world and from every industry, you can be confident that the ROI on these trips will be high.
I mentioned ambition: a handful of students looking to work for scale-ups in the USA have planned a trek to New York City. Singapore students organized a trip to Vietnam. At INSEAD, you’re surrounded by world travelers with proven track records for operational excellence. Everything is mapped out with precision – from the dinners at local restaurants to the meetings with the C-suite of the SAAS scaleup. Just in the past two months, my classmates have planned career treks to Amsterdam, London, and Paris. After two years of virtual treks, it feels amazing to create tactile connections to people and places. Cities are defined by a myriad of multisensory moments: smells, sights, and sounds.
This feeling is echoed by my Moroccan classmate Maryam, who spent her spring break traveling to exotic locales with INSEAD. However, unlike the US spring break destinations like Miami or Cancun, INSEAD’s version of a sandy oasis was the UAE. Maryam got the chance to visit different VC companies, tech scale-ups, and consulting offices in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. During each of these office visits, she spoke with locals and expats who worked in the Middle East. “The INSEAD alumni community in the Middle East is very large and active, and everyone we spoke with was eager to help us better understand the region,” she told me.
For Maryam, this trek was especially important since she wanted to move to the region after INSEAD. “Going on this trek was integral to my job search, as it demonstrated to recruiters that I was serious about relocating. Participating in the trek showed my motivation and likely helped me get my job with BCG.”
The competition for jobs at top-tier firms is fierce, which is why having the support of over 64,000 INSEAD alumni around the world is so valuable. Most companies lack the recruitment capabilities to handle the massive inflow of applications, so it’s hard to get noticed without a referral. A hard lesson from the recruiting process is understanding that you can be an incredibly talented individual who fulfills every part of the job requirement and still not get the chance to interview. A strong network gives you that leg up over the other CVs in the stack. Like most things in life, you’re only as good as the people with whom you associate.
DISCOVER ISRAEL & EMBRACING CULTURAL COMPLEXITIES
Those trips to Switzerland and the UAE are just the tip of the iceberg. Beyond these career treks, there are also academic courses that include international tours, like the Israeli trek that took place in February. Organized by Ziv Carmon, INSEAD’s Chaired Professor of Marketing, this six-day class is titled “Discover Israel.” Ziv is one of the leading experts on Customer Insights; he began his career working with Nobel-laureate and bestselling author Daniel Kahneman on behavioral economic research. Since Ziv started leading this trip in 2011, the focus was on Israel’s strong startup culture. The itinerary centered around the key players of Startup Nation, a 2009 book about Israel’s entrepreneurial economy. A decade into leading the trek, Ziv makes sure that students speak with world leading innovators in a wide variety of domains such as agritech, digital health, fintech, and cybersecurity. While I didn’t go on the Israeli trip, my classmate Hughie (a former product manager at Google) told me that the diverse array of students made the visit particularly memorable.
“We have nine Israeli classmates, and four of them took part in the trek. Since Ziv is also Israeli, we felt like family from the moment we arrived. While meeting entrepreneurs was lovely, taking a day trip to one of the students’ family Kibbutz was unique to any other school-related activity I’ve done.”
Hughie’s point was echoed by other attendees, who assured me that the trek isn’t just about business. Ziv also makes sure students truly get the chance to discover the diverse cultural heritage that exists in the country. That includes floating on the dead sea, visiting baba ghanoush stands, touring a vineyard, and meeting with military strategists who can speak to political realities of the region. Some classmates took it upon themselves to independently visit Israeli settlements in Palestine, and for the students who subsequently traveled to Beirut with our Lebanese classmates, these tensions became far less abstract.
This political tension is something that I’ve thought about a lot over the past year. On our very first day at INSEAD, we got the chance to tell our fellow classmates why we chose INSEAD. One comment that still sticks with me is from Joachim, an Israeli student. He referenced our school’s founding, back in 1957, when the wounds of World War II were still fresh. “I see my classmates from Germany, France, and Italy living in harmony, and I think about my fellow students from the Middle East. I hope that through this experience, we are able to find ways to collaborate and make our countries more peaceful places.”
Now, I don’t think Joachim is convinced that a degree from INSEAD will bring world peace. But I believe he is onto something. I’m of Armenian descent, and in my cohort, we have 9 Israelis, 18 Lebanese, 3 Saudis, 5 Turks, and 2 Syrians. That doesn’t even include the westerners who have spent years living in the Middle East before coming to INSEAD. The constant proximity to people from other cultures requires empathy and understanding – listening first, talking second, and always keeping an open mind. This holds true for academic assignments, interview prep, and even party planning. When you choose an MBA, choose the school that will help you grow the most. Growth is more than just securing the right job post-grad. It’s about making meaningful relationships with your classmates and navigating the complexities of a globalized world by developing your interpersonal skills.
Chris Poldoian got his undergraduate degree at Tufts University in Economics & Spanish Literature with a minor in Creative Writing. Passionate about food and wine, Chris worked as a restaurant manager and sommelier in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, and Houston before pivoting into freelance beverage consulting during the pandemic. In his spare time, he enjoys running marathons around the world and hosting a wine podcast called By The Glass.
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