Published on August 14, 2014

Shirley Liu was taking a quick break during the first day of classes at Kick-Off Week in Chicago in June. A member of the inaugural Hong Kong class and vice president of Shanghai private equity firm CDIB Capital International Corp., Liu remarked that many Chinese companies lag in technology, management expertise, and internal controls, which is one reason she enrolled at Booth. “Companies must raise these disciplines to international standards if they want to play in the international arena,” she said.

Liu is part of a new generation of students that will benefit from the relocation of the Executive MBA Program Asia to Hong Kong—and help give Booth a wider footprint in Asia. A ribbon cutting ceremony on August 18 welcomed the first group of Executive MBA students to the first week of classes. The Inaugural Ceremony, which includes a panel discussion “Which Capitalism for the 21st Century?” is scheduled for August 31.

For 14 years, the Singapore program had drawn future leaders from countries across Asia. Many of those students eventually would rise to positions of prominence, holding high-ranking positions at multinational companies, at central banks, and in government.

Singapore was immensely successful at drawing applicants from southeast countries, but was the mix of students and alumni as diverse as it could be? Only 5 percent, or four students, in the 2013 Executive MBA Program Asia (AXP-14) class were from Hong Kong; 6 percent, or five students, were from mainland China; and only 2 percent, or two students, were from South Korea. This posed a problem for a school that aspired to imprint its ideas on every business capital of the world. “You just can’t ignore China and be a global business school,” said Michael Gibbs, clinical professor of economics and faculty director of the Executive MBA Program. “Global economies are integrated,” he explained. “US companies are trying to become global, and foreign companies are trying to access US markets. We need our students to have that global understanding.”

The move to Hong Kong provides a golden opportunity to influence businesses in Hong Kong, mainland China and elsewhere in Asia, said Sanjay K. Dhar, James H. Lorie Professor of Marketing. “A school like ours can add a lot of value in China,” he said. “I think that might make business owners not waste resources by trial and error, but derive a very clear framework of how to think about things and how to apply the principles.”

China has a palpable hunger for management training. The first full-time MBA program in the country launched in 1994, trailing Booth by nearly 100 years. The number of business schools in China grew to 62 by 2013, serving a population of 1 billion. By comparison, the United States has 453 business schools for a population of 313 million. Booth leaders saw clear room to grow and a dearth of the Chicago Approach: data-driven, rigorous, and deeply rooted in an enduring set of values and principles.

Guillermo Del Nogal, ’08, a business development manager for Adidas in Shanghai, noted that the conversations at work aren’t as academic as he might like. “Most of my colleagues aren’t interested in talking about quantitative easing,” he said during Worldwide Booth Night in April, when alumni gather to reconnect in some 90 cities around the world. Del Nogal dropped in on the Hong Kong event at a chic gastropub in Central, Hong Kong’s financial district by day and party district by night. He noticed a difference in the kinds of conversations going on around him than what he had grown accustomed to in Shanghai. “Here, we’re talking about which way interest rates are going to go in the United States.” The sheer wonkiness of the conversation delighted him—it’s the sort of conversation he would like to have more often back in Shanghai.

The question of getting a more diverse geographic mix of students naturally led to a plan to relocate the program, with an expansion to the north that might build on Singapore’s success to the south and raise Booth’s presence along northern Asia’s heavily trafficked flight routes. Executives up north had balked at the prospect of a three-hour or longer connecting flight, usually through Hong Kong.

“What about the 40-year-olds who’ve got a family and a career,” said William Kooser, ’81, associate dean for global outreach. “They’ve got to do something that allows them to maintain the job, maintain the family ties, and hopefully get a Chicago education at the same time.”

It didn’t take long to narrow in on a city: Hong Kong, with its vibrant economic and central location offered the ideal solution.

Richard Johnson, managing director of the Executive MBA Program Asia, presided over the search for an interim space and his team settled on Cyperport, a complex of sleek, curvaceous office towers rising out of the southwestern slope of Hong Kong island. The location affords a hypnotic view of the harbor, bustling at all hours with freighters, tugboats, floating cranes, and antique junk boats, and is only 15 minutes from Central, the financial district of Hong Kong and the commercial heart of Asia.

After attending Kick-Off Week in Chicago, then circling to London in July, the inaugural class of 86 students headed back to Asia for the August opening ceremonies and the start of classes in Hong Kong. As in previous classes, the students came with lengthy resumes and a history of demonstrated success. But they differed from previous classes in one crucial respect. More than 20 percent of the class, or 18 students, hail from Hong Kong while 13 percent—or 11 students—are from cities in mainland China. Eight percent of the class, or seven students, are from South Korea. Yet the program remains a strong draw for students from Southeast Asia, with 30 percent of the class, or 26 students, traveling from Singapore.

Walking the tightrope

Now entering his 15th year as one of the Executive MBA Program’s frequent-flying faculty, professor Dhar knows what the students have in store for him—a lively, provocative grilling.

“I really don’t know when my class starts and when it ends because it’s so engaging and there’s so much discussion,” he says. “It’s almost like I’m in the middle of a kind of fire zone of questions.”

Executive MBA students bring a wealth of experience to the classroom. Their average age is 36, many occupy senior management roles, and all come to class acutely aware of the jobs that occupy a good portion of their time outside school. This leaves them itching for frameworks that can be applied to problems in the workplace.

“The faculty can’t get too far off on their geeky tangents,” Gibbs said. Neither can they leave their theoretical frameworks behind. Booth distinguishes itself from other MBA programs by offering a discipline-based education. That means students must understand the disciplines of finance, accounting, marketing, and economics that undergird and elucidate how business functions, how markets work, and how people make decisions. This creates an interesting tension in the classroom, a tug between theory and practice. Faculty members relish the walk along the tightrope.

“Students see these abstract models,” said Lars A. Stole, David W. Johnson Professor of Economics, who kicks off the Executive MBA Program with an introductory course in microeconomics. “They see these graphs, and at first they may think, ‘This doesn't describe my world.’ There’s a lot of incredulity about what we’re doing.”

The incredulity begins to fade, though, and the lesson snaps into focus. “As the micro course goes on, they suddenly see it,” Stole said. “You can see the penny drop. They suddenly understand that this is a way of thinking, a way of organizing your thoughts about problems. They see how powerful it is and they get excited.”—Dan Kedmey and Judith Crown 

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