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MBA after 40 for former military (Indian Navy) officer and ISB grad

MBA after 40

Shyam Nambiar didn’t exactly fit the definition of the typical MBA applicant. However, what his profile lacked in terms of conventional attributes, he more than made up for it with his razor sharp career planning and dollops of confidence.

Shyam not only got into several top MBA programs in USA, Canada and India after 40, he also managed a complete career change at 43 (Is a mid-career MBA worth it?). Here’s his amazing story from the Navy to Amazon. (Career options and life after Military.)

How I got into ISB after 40 and managed a complete career change

by Shyam Nambiar

Shyam NambiarI joined the Indian Navy as a Cadet on my 18th birthday, and then spent close to a quarter of a century in whites, hanging up the uniform as a Commander in March 2016. While in the Navy, I completed my BTech and then a Post Grad at IIT Delhi.

I then worked for close to 16 years across ship building, ship Repair, in the Navy’s largest Warship Acquisition Project (Russia), two stints at Naval Headquarters and also did a year completing MSc in Defence & Strategic Studies at the multinational Defence Services Staff College at Wellington, near Ooty.

I am a complete extrovert, an outdoor guy and a ‘people person’, comfortable with diversity, languages and geographical locations. I have dabbled with 8 different adventure sports in water, land and air, including horse riding, SCUBA diving and para gliding, and completed my first half marathon when I was 38! I still run and swim long-distance and play football and volleyball.

Tackling the initial jitters

Most risk-averse people I met before I quit told me it was a risky thing to throw a secure, respected and well-paying job, to pursue my corporate dreams. But those who knew me well agreed with the decision; not that it impacted my call in any way!

In India, there was only one choice for a full-time MBA for me, and that was ISB. I wanted to, apart from the B-School learning, interact with the large, diverse and very young class, so that it would help me run organizations better in my post ISB jobs.

I had no doubt regarding being able to fit in, having always been comfortable with diversity and people and the only doubt was whether I could manage academic scores to my real satisfaction after 17 years of not having seen a real textbook.

Choosing the right business school

I took dedicated weekend classes for GMAT and managed a score of 710, which was well more than what I had targeted, and thus ticked one box of the application package beautifully.

I discussed with an ex-Navy colleague who had completed his MBA in a top business school and took his guidance to refine my application package. I applied to Schulich and UNC Kenan Flagler and got through both. Rotman offered me a seat in their Executive MBA with a scholarship but that did not interest me.

Then I got the ISB admission – so the decision was quite simple, based on the one year absence from work and pay, business school rankings, class diversity, availability of a dedicated Career Services department and best ROI.

I did not look at European B Schools due to the current market there and since an ISB MBA would get me better jobs in India than a European one, if I did not get a work visa post a European MBA (high possibility).

My interview for ISB was at Delhi and the interview was a breeze, after having myself recruited engineers for the Navy from IITs and other engineering colleges. It lasted about 30 minutes and was mostly to check if I would be able to fit in with the younger class and be open to group work with younger, inexperienced classmates.

Then there were a couple of situation reaction checks, to assess my overall negotiation and interpersonal skills, and how I dealt with conflict situations. I had no doubt that I would get the admit, post the interview, so I wasn’t really surprised when it finally came.

MBA placement process

I came to ISB with a clear goal of getting through the Pathways programme at Amazon, and had been tracking everything to do with the company since 2015. So my goal was clear and my research and depth on the company assured me that I would convert it.

Being elected by the largest ever B School class (620) to be their President further put a stamp on my resume that my leadership skills were transferable and equally effective outside the military environment.

During the course, I made sure to read the pre-reads and stay completely awake and alert in every class, as also not miss any classes. This got me a CGPA to be in top one third of the 908-strongclass at graduation.

Along with this, I attended industry workshop sessions, Pre-placement talks and deep dive interactions of all companies in my chosen sector(s).

I also refined my resume through almost 25 iterations and then prepared 3 different versions to suit different profiles that would be offered. This saved me a lot of time while applying, and I could send out applications in under an hour when jobs were posted.

I sent serious applications to one other company other than Amazon for Day 1 and got a direct interview with the founder of a major Logistics Start-up. However due to disagreements on the remuneration package, that did not go through.

I got placed on Day 1 at Amazon, and in the Pathways programme which I had targeted. In addition, I had a very brief interaction with the Chairman of one of the biggest IT MNCs who had come to ISB’s Leadership Summit. On his way out he made me an offer to join the company, but after several rounds of deliberations, that job (I was anyway not too keen on relocating to Delhi when my daughter would start her 10th and on a Sales job with the Military and other uniformed services) did not materialize (much to my family’s delight!).


Being the ISB Graduate Student Board (GSB) President, I was totally involved with getting the largest ever class placed and worked very closely with our CAS department and GSB President from Mohali towards that.

Closing thoughts

Adaptability, communication skills and confidence were, in my view, the biggest factors that got me where I am today and in accomplishing whatever I set out to (and more, since the GSB President thing was totally unintended when I walked into ISB, and completely courtesy my friends in class who had the confidence in me!).

Background domain makes no difference if one is willing to work hard, learn, adapt and quickly deliver, I would say.

If I could do it at 43, anybody can at an age lesser than that – age is just a random number that the world sticks to the back of your head!

For those looking at a career change, it is vital to write down (yes!) what your goals are (not the application variety, but your real and personal ones) and how the MBA fits in and facilitates the change and boost. If you find real utility, then invest in the MBA. And if you are looking at a one year (Tier 1) MBA, there is really no alternative than ISB in India.

While making the big decision to make a career switch, one book that really showed me the picture, albeit in a humorous light, was “Beyond The MBA Hype” – a must read for anyone contemplating whether or not to invest in an MBA. I did, and the rest, as they say, is (my) history!

Good Luck and Go Conquer, but stay grounded! 

– Shyam Nambiar

Read these related articles:
MBA after 35 in Canada with Scholarship despite low GMAT score
MBA in Hong Kong: Mariner heads back to school
Career guidance after Navy for Masters program
MBA after 30: Too old for a full-time MBA?
MBA after 30 in India
Second MBA abroad with scholarship from Sloan Fellows
ISB Admission with scholarship in third attempt
Chartered Accountant gets into ISB with full scholarship (100% tuition waiver)

Image credits: Shyam Nambiar

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Sameer Kamat
About Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Follow me on: Instagram | Linkedin | Youtube

12 thoughts on “MBA after 40 for former military (Indian Navy) officer and ISB grad”

  1. Good Day .
    I am sailing as electrical officer from last 16yrs. and ex-navy . Now I want to switch over to shore job .
    Kindly advise me how to go about. and which MBA program will be better for me.

  2. Dear Sameer,

    This was a nice article about a successful veteran. I too am one having hung my uniform about 5 years ago. There is a need to widen the horizons and take risk to strive for bigger goals.

    I did have a splendid start but could not sustain the momentum. But, I have not given up and giving it another shot !!!

    Wish me luck

    Rajive Sinha

  3. Hi,I am a marine chief Engr 36yrs old with 6yrs as chief engr.I wish to pursue an MBA 1year program from isb or insead…Have prepared and am writing the Gmat soon.Ihave got a chance to join shore offices of my company as technical manager.Dont you think it would serve me well if I have a 1to 2 yrs of shore based manager experience before joining isb.They have a uniquely blended and diversified class wherein different experiences are invited.can join MBA by 38 since a corporate exp after sea would be bringing me back to the business world.Thanks so much

  4. Dear Sir,

    I am presently sailing in the rank of first engineer in the merchant navy and have a chief engineers license.I want to go for my further studies, that is an MBA from Australia. Need your guidance as to which is the best suited MBA for marine engineer with Chief’s license.I am 36 yrs of age and a B.E Mechanical. Which is the best university and programme that suits my qualification. I have eight years of sailing experience.
    Thanks in advance.

  5. Dear Shyam Sir – Congratulations on the transition and wish you all the best. A very well written article and nothing less is expected.

  6. Very interesting. Must confess, I could relate to each and every word that has been written.
    Am sure, Amazon is the net gainer for having hired you.
    Cheers and best of luck.

  7. Quite an impressive read, You must be a true leader and a smart guy. Proud of you and our Navy who produced officer like you.

  8. This story continues to create ripples, after all these months.

    When we re-promoted this article on LinkedIn, it got a comment from a former admissions officer, Donna Bauman.

    Donna spent spent 15+ years in the admissions team at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and has interacted with thousands of candidates from across the world.

    In her comment, she said she still remembers Shyam from his UNC MBA interview, when she was the Assistant Director of Admissions.

    I wanted to learn more about the X factor that tilts the scales in unusual profiles. So I asked Donna what it was about Shyam that made such an impact that she still remembers him after all these years, even though he joined a different bschool.

    Here’s her response.

    “It’s just as he says in the article – he had exceptional charisma and unusual work with Navy. He stays in my mind as the poster child example that test scores are not the only thing that counts.

    He made an impression on Dr. B at a recruiting event in India. That helped him get on the radar. I remember him from interview because he had something special and I don’t forget things like that!

    His story should give all inspiration that there are many ways to stand out – with different work experience, strong leadership and strong interpersonal skills! When you make a truly positive impression on adcom, they won’t forget… even after many years!!”

    And Shyam’s modest response when I shared Donna’s views with him: “An honour to read such words. Perhaps being genuinely oneself in interactions is what works best – seems it did for me.”

    Thanks Shyam, for continuing to inspire many.

    – One of your many fans

  9. Hi , I would like to know if there would be a good career after MBA for me am 40, did MBBS in 2004, tbereafter I did government job in a hospital, then post graduation (MD) in nuclear medicine, (2013_2015). However I m thinking of a career change , and wondering if MBA would be a good option and in what specialty considering my medical background.

    Dr Nitin Sood


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