Merchant navy officer, Akhil Nair, describes his experiences at HKUST – a top ranking MBA in Hong Kong.
Life during and after HKUST MBA as an international student
MBA in Hong Kong
by Akhil Nair
I would describe myself as a happy-go-lucky person, an extrovert with a few small inner circle of close friends, and a work hard/ party harder philosophy. Some of these qualities stem from the decade or so that I was associated with the Merchant Navy.
Having been selected for the prestigious Maersk Dual cadet program right after high school, I first went out to sea a few weeks after my 18th birthday. My career on the big blue allowed me to see the world, work with various meet various nationalities, while, developing an appreciation for a meritocratic work culture and learning to work in small, yet highly effective teams in dynamic and harsh environments.
While the Merchant Navy was a great platform to start off my career, once I got married and settled down, it quickly became clear to me that the 6 month away from home lifestyle would not be sustainable in the long run. Also, being someone who always plans ahead, I saw myself hitting a ceiling in my career down the road.
For any merchant naval officer, getting command of your own vessel is the ultimate dream, but one’s career often plateaus at that point. I still had a hunger to learn and develop my skill-set beyond the operational rigours of running a merchant ship.
This prompted me to begin planning my MBA application journey way back in 2013. While considering various exit options, I narrowed down on a general MBA, since I believed that it would provide me with the management skills required to make a successful transition into a corporate role, and provide me with the flexibility to identify the right industry and function.
My biggest concern surrounding my MBA plan was the transition itself from my life at sea to a corporate life. I was worried that given my unique work background, it could be challenging to communicate my past experience and convey my story to potential recruiters after the MBA.
I do remember coming across the MBA Crystal Ball blog during my MBA admission exploration phase. I remember reading some great articles, especially the comments and active community discussions which I believe add a lot of value. These shed more light on some of the schools that I was considering applying to.
My Application Experience
I wanted my first GMAT attempt to also be my best attempt. I was scoring in the 700-740 range during the practice tests and eventually got a 710 on the first attempt. I always realised that the GMAT was only a part of the application process and I did not see the value in re-taking the test for an extra 20-30 potential points.
I had 3 schools in my first bracket – INSEAD Singapore, HKUST and ISB. I applied to the latter two in the first round and to INSEAD in the second round. I selected these 3 schools in my first bracket to apply to based on a number of factors including MBA rankings, feedback from alumni, program structure and potential job markets and opportunities accessible post MBA.
With respect to US schools, there was and continues to be a lot of uncertainty for MBA graduates with regards to the H1B visa process. I wanted to stay in the Asian region considering this is where most of the growth in the global economy will continue to come from in the coming decades. This will require business leaders that have Asian experience and expertise with a global mindset.
What attracted me to HKUST was the focus on small class sizes lending to a more personal overall experience, as well as a conscious effort to maintain an Internationally diverse cohort each year.
Something that may not be known as obviously is HKUST’s reliance on business case studies to deliver a substantial part of the curriculum, which was attractive to me and my preferred mode of learning.
In addition, there is a strong focus on participation and excellence in business case competitions across the globe. The program and the faculty dedicate significant time and effort in creating an environment for case competition teams to thrive in- something that I feel really gives the HKUST MBA an extra edge over some of the other Asian programs.
I had two rounds of interviews. One was with a then current student of the MBA program, and the other one was with 2 members of the MBA admissions team. Both interviews lasted about half an hour to forty five minutes. The student interviewer focused more on my personal story and wanted to understand how I might be able to contribute to the MBA as a member of the new cohort.
The interview with the admissions team was definitely one of the friendliest MBA admission interviews. The interviewers were relaxed and immediately put me at ease. It was carried out like a normal conversation, with them trying to understand more about my background, ambitions and reasons for application. I believe that I was able to tell my story convincingly tying together my resume, my essays and my goals for the future.
I think the biggest hurdle initially for me was dealing with the change itself. Here, I was in a foreign country,having left my family back home, embarking upon something completely new and different after having a comfortable job in the merchant navy. I was not sure of what to expect and whether I would be able to make a successful career transition and have a meaningful experience during my time here.
However, I managed to deal with the initial hurdles through the constant love and support of my wife, my family and my friends.
I quickly realised that my MBA batchmates had varied backgrounds too, had taken time off from successful careers and made huge commitments of time and resources to be in the program. They all came from different walks of life and from all corners of the globe- there were lawyers, bankers, engineers, etc.,
Our almost month-long orientation program before the academic sessions officially started, gave us enough opportunities to bond with each other and break the ice.Also, participating in the MBA elections at the start of the year and being elected to be my class Vice President gave me a lot of confidence and helped me interact with a lot of my batch early on.
Like I mentioned earlier, the fact that a lot of the business concepts and classroom discussions are based around a case based approach truly appealed to me. This was very different from the book-centric knowledge delivery that we are used to in India.
In fact, I remember one of our professors mentioning early on that:
The MBA is not really an academic program at all. We do want you all to do well academically and build up your skillset during your time here. But, more importantly, we want you all to truly embrace and enjoy the experience with your classmates.
I remember these words immediately easing worries about my abilities in being able to meet the academic rigours of the program. In fact, during our first Management of Organizations class with Professor Stephen Nason, he shared with us a survey of employers in Hong Kong across various industries.
When employers were asked to list the specific skills that they looked for when hiring MBAs, it turned out, quite unsurprisingly, that every industry had specific needs and was looking for different things. However, certain common things that every single industry wanted in their MBA hires were communication, presentation,problem solving, and influencing skills. Much to everyone’s surprise the least important on almost every list were specific hard skills.
The most enjoyable part of the experience was the opportunity to work with my classmates from various backgrounds and nationalities in different teams throughout the year. This taught me more about myself as an individual and as a team player, while broadening my understanding of cultural diversity.
Having spoken to alumni and members of the career team, I learnt that I would need to spend considerable time and effort working and polishing my networking, personal branding and communication skills if I were to be successful in my job search in the region.
Also, having almost no exposure to Linkedin before my MBA journey began, I identified this online platform as an effective and efficient tool that could be used to identify key people to reach out to and help get your message across to a broader audience.
In terms of improvement opportunities, I think everyone realizes that no MBA program in the world is perfect and there will always be room for further improvement.
Having said that, I think the program would provide even greater value if it offered a wider selection of elective options, especially in the fields of marketing and entrepreneurship.
The school traditionally was very finance-centric a decade or more ago, and that continues to remain a key strength of the program. However, the MBA office is aware that the business landscape is constantly evolving and there is a greater interest in fintech and entrepreneurship among incoming students.
The program is in the process of revamping elective options to reflect some of these shifts. In addition, I believe that the way the career centre engages and supports the entire student community is something that has received renewed attention and focus in recent years with changes being made to that system as well.
All of these moves point to a young, dynamic and agile program that is competing to stay ahead of an great field of world class MBA programs in Asia, as reflected by the recent FT 2019 rankings.
Internships and Placement at HKUST
The job hunting process is quite unique for each student. It depends on industries targeted and personal priorities.
For example, the finance roles and leadership programs typically have their application deadlines within the fall period, within the first few months of classes starting.We started having introduction sessions with the career team soon after beginning the program.
Through these sessions, they were able to set expectations for the year and give us a brief overview of the existing job market. They typically encouraged us to create a target list based on the usual employers that recruit from the program every year.
They also provided us with access to online resources such as the ‘MBA exchange’ which allowed us to track and understand timelines for various applications through the year. We were also allowed to set up personal meetings with members of the career team as well as external coaches, to help guide and develop a robust job search and application strategy.
Through the year, I had about 10 job interviews. Most of them focused on understanding my career plan, specifically as to How I had leveraged the MBA to be able to make a successful shift to a corporate role given my previous background.
The HK government makes it very easy to obtain a work permit after post-graduate studies here. Successful graduates get an IANG visa which allows them to stay and work in HK for up to a year after graduation, with further extensions being granted based on employment status at the time of renewal. This is quite different from what we see in a lot of other countries around the world today, with MBA graduates under pressure to accept offers with looming immigration deadlines.
Life after HKUST MBA
I am currently working with Methanex Corporation, a Canadian chemicals MNC, at their regional headquarters here in Hong Kong. I am the regional Supply Chain Manager across the Asia Pacific region, which means I am in charge of the supply chain management and procurement function for the 9 markets that we serve in this region. It is exciting for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the role comes with a high level of visibility and responsibility and directly affects the bottom line for our largest global marketing region. Also, in this role I get to work and interact with various country teams and other regional functions such as marketing, sales, customer service and logistics.
Looking back now, I believe Professor Nason was right on the money when he spoke about those common skills that are required no matter the industry one ends up in post MBA.
The skills helping me most in my current role are my communication, problem solving and influencing skills. The specific hard skills and industry knowledge I have been gaining on the job, and I feel lucky to be working with an employer and have a supervisor that provide me with the time and freedom to getup to speed with these aspects of my job.
Given my previous profession, I cannot really say that I have ever ‘worked in India’. The work culture I feel truly depends on the organisation that one works for.
However, what I can comment on is the pace of life and standard of living. Having moved here from Mumbai, it does feel like I am playing in the big leagues now.
Living and working in a global city like Hong Kong, one cannot help but feel like it is aking to being on an economic, financial, and information super highway,with any opportunity in the world within grasp. The standard of living is also much better than in India, but so is the cost of living in comparison to India.
What people don’t realise about Hong Kong is that besides the hustle bustle and tall skyscrapers, there are a lot of outdoor options on the weekends for residents to explore. During the MBA, I got interested in hiking outdoors. Also being a total foodie myself, I can never run out of new bars and restaurants to check out in this megalopolis.
Lessons from the MBA experience
My biggest learning from the MBA experience was that it can truly be life-changing if you commit to it a 100% and back yourself throughout. I have made memories that will last me a lifetime and friends that will last even longer. Looking back now, I do not think I would have done anything differently (except maybe pay a little more attention in my finance classes).
The MBA was an adventure of a lifetime, but I don’t rue that it is over as I feel it lasted just the right amount of time. It gave me enough opportunity to begin writing this new chapter in my life while leaving enough room to add some more stories in the coming years.
My advice to any international student targeting Asian B-Schools would be that you are absolutely making the right decision by wanting to be part of the Asian century. With the global shift in power from West to East, any professional today with a long term view would want to be associated with businesses in Asia at some point in their careers.
The schools here may be younger than others in the west, but that makes them hungrier for success and never resting on their laurels. They are growing and improving in leaps and bounds and catching up with competitors several decades their seniors.
As Anthony Robbins once put it, “The only impossible journey is the one you never begin”. So get started and think about your journeys today.