When Louis Zheng and Lise Birikundavyi first thought of taking on MBAs in Shanghai, they did so from opposite sides of the globe.
Lise, a financier, was in Canada and Louis was busy managing trade fairs in China. Their backgrounds are vastly different and their career destinations even more so.
But what unites them is a passion for emerging economies. Their paths have crossed only in desire to study at an Asian business school, the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance, in what is becoming an increasingly international set of programs.
When SAIF first launched its MBA in 2009, home-grown business leaders would not have imagined the international repoire of candidates flying to Shanghai in search of careers in Asia.
While Louis and Lise began the MBA program in 2011 and 2012 respectively, they thought, as many MBAs do, that Shanghai was the best place to be for a finance career.
SAIF’s MBA is tailored to the industry and Shanghai, its base, is regarded as one of the financial hubs of China.
“While studying finance, I had to be in Shanghai. It’s a hub,” said Lise, who left a career with Innocap Investment Management, a hedge fund, behind in Canada.
“SAIF is financed by the Chinese Government and everything in China is dependent on Government decisions.
“I knew at SAIF I could create a very good finance network and when they initially contacted me, and gave me all that information, I knew I had to go.”
Lise had a wealth of experience in Europe, the United States and Latin America, but lacked exposure in the Asian markets. The economies of Asia remain significant economic powers and China in particular has experienced rapid growth over the past several years – despite a slight slump in 2013.
She wants to work with emerging markets and SAIF is her route to a dream MBA Job in Africa or South America.
Lise doesn’t rule out a career in China, where she has secured an internship with a venture philanthropy company, but is sure an Asian education will springboard her into a socially responsible finance career.
“An MBA in China shows the international exposure that you have,” she said. “It sets me apart and means I can bring something new to the table.”
Lise secured her internship at LGT Venture Philanthropy through an event at SAIF. A company supervisor gave a speech and they exchanged business cards. Lise has since been working with the firm for seven months alongisde her MBA.
“SAIF was definitely beneficial,” she said. “I’m passionate about impact investment and the private sector in emerging markets, and SAIF is trying to bring more awareness to other options in finance.
“It’s an incredible internship and this is the route I want to go down.”
While finance is an attractive option in China, some argue it is less developed than in some Western states. The sector is heavily regulated and under state control. But it is also trying to up its game.
A free-trade zone was launched in Shanghai in September, allowing the city to test long-awaited economic reforms. Restrictions on foreign investment were eased inside the area and interest rates have been set by markets.
China's heavily-regulated currency, the yuan, has also been allowed to be swapped freely for other currencies.
MBAs have been tempted by the prospect of business in Shanghai and some b-schools in China have reported 50 per cent of their international MBA students staying in the region after graduation.
Lise agrees that reforms are improving the situation: “The Government here is trying to step up their game and they need people who are dynamic enough to move up the careers ladder - and fast.
“Sometimes it is hard to work here because you’re not sure what you can or cannot do. Everything changes so fast. But that’s a benefit to the Chinese society.”
Shanghai may be Louis’s hometown, but he chose to gain an MBA at SAIF because it is "leading the finance sector” and sits high in some MBA Rankings.
Since graduating in 2013 he has secured jobs at Expotec and Rightway, which are both exhibition and trade fair companies. He says that the networking opportunities with international students in finance have been beneficial to his career.
MBAs across the globe treasure international exposure, and cohort diversity is a key element of any MBA program.
“I think shanghai could become even more internationalized,” Louis told BusinessBecause. “The international students enriched our development at SAIF and Chinese and Western cultures meeting can only be beneficial.”
Louis thinks the country’s strong economy makes SAIF a more attractive place to begin MBA programs. But he agrees that reform of the financial sector is made more difficult in Shanghai – although progress has recently been made.
“Reforming the finance market is hard in China,” he said. “Our culture and history means we can only make changes steadily. But we are slowly moving forward.
“The Chinese financial market is political, and highly influenced by Government policy. Any good news in the market helps the stock market soar, but equally any negative news has a huge negative impact.
“MBAs may need to adjust their expectations of the city’s free trade zone, because it has made slower changes that were expected.”
Overall the benefits far outweigh the negatives. Financial reform is slow in China, but the economy is still bustling.
Louis and Lise may be from different backgrounds, but studying at a top-ranking b-school in Asia has given them the same set of financial skills - and strong job prospects.
Shanghai remains one of the most important financial centres, and international students can only improve the region.