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A Singer, A Filmmaker, & An Art Historian: HEC Paris Opens Its Doors To ‘Non-Traditional’ MBAs

Non-traditional MBA backgrounds are sought-after by top-ranked MBA programs


By  Thomas Nugent

Mon Nov 19 2018

Before she became an MBA student at HEC Paris, Omonefe (Nefe) Etomi had spent most of her career in finance—as a chartered accountant working for Deutsche Bank.

However, what sounds like a traditional MBA story couldn’t be further from the truth. Nefe is also a recording artist, releasing her own R&B/Soul EP, Smile, in 2015. She has a mobile studio, so she can record on-the-go.

“Music is a passion and a career,” she says, “and it’s definitely something I hope to continue to improve while I’m doing an MBA. I’ve been using the marketing classes to learn how to push and develop my brand.”

So, how does someone balance a career and a passion and manage to release an EP all at the same time?

“Just don’t sleep!” Nefe laughs. “I had a very good support network, and for me it was important that the people that I told [about the EP] were those that really believed in me.”

Nefe explains that she’s been able to bring the skills from her non-traditional MBA background into the MBA classroom. They include discipline—a “huge” one, she admits—and of course, creativity.

When she was writing her first-ever song in a studio with her producer, manager, and vocal coach, she recalls them just asking her what she wanted to sing about. After some stream-of-consciousness exploration, the song came together.

“I started doing that at Deutsche Bank,” she adds. “When working on projects for clients I would pause, work out what I wanted to do and get out of this, and then write the key things down.”

Initially, she admits that her transferable skills weren’t obvious. But her advice to potential MBA applicants from similar backgrounds is to give themselves credit for their talents.

“You do things naturally and you just dismiss those things as part of your personality,” she says. “Definitely there are transferable skills, and my advice for people is to think about that when they’re selling themselves.”

A non-traditional background is clearly an added benefit in the MBA classroom then. Coming from a background other than engineering, finance or a similar “traditional” MBA career path is not a disadvantage in HEC Paris’ application process.

“Definitely there are transferable skills, and my advice for people is to think about that when they’re selling themselves”

Shauna Peterson (pictured below, right) is an MBA classmate of Nefe’s. She’s a lover of writing, argumentation, and research—all of which she combined during her master’s degree in Art History.

She has been an avid follower of the arts since attending the Boston Museum of Fine Arts when she was only seven. A summer of independent research on colonial Latin American art as an undergraduate inspired her to pursue graduate studies.


She explains that she was considering a PhD and teaching at university level before her shift towards business. “I have always been interested in having a career characterized by leadership, impact, and innovation,” she says.

“MBAs put discoveries in motion—by marketing cutting-edge products, securing funding for ventures, and leading companies into new markets—and that is the type of work with measurable impact that appeals to me.”

Shauna brings to the MBA classroom a strong analytical research and lateral thinking skillset, which will aid her in her career pursuits.

“I will leave the HEC Paris MBA having worked with a diverse set of leading professionals from engineering, science, and law, and this experience will invaluably inform my ability to lead post-MBA,” she adds.

Otavio Suriani (pictured below, right) also came into the HEC Paris MBA with an arts background—he has spent the bulk of his career in Brazil as an independent filmmaker, screenplay writer, director, cinematographer, and producer. Then, he completely changed tack.

He moved into marketing, then finance, and has gradually moved up the ranks. He says he chose the HEC Paris MBA to enhance his career and share a classroom with people who are highly intelligent and come from all around the world.


So, what does he bring to the classroom?

“Having been a filmmaker, I have hung out with very different people on film sets, and so this gave me the skills to know how to have fun and deal with environments where you have a lot of different and diverse people,” he says.

He also brings creativity, he explains. And, for him, creativity is by no means restricted to the arts.

“When you’re a screenwriter and you’re stuck on your screenplay, it’s similar to finding ways of funding your new business venture or development that you’re making.

“You have a problem and you have to use your resources to solve it.”

Otavio, who says he is thinking of remaining in Europe after graduating before heading back to Brazil to help develop his home country, has a golden nugget of advice for any HEC Paris MBAs coming in from a non-traditional background.

“If you manage to excel in your field, I think you’ll be more than fine within the MBA program,” he says. “If you are an artist for example, and manage to paint some incredible paintings, exhibit them, and travel around world with them, it’s the same set of skills you need to thrive in the MBA here.”

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