Somewhere in Pakistan, a clump of CVs lands on a CEO's desk with a thump. Talha Khan, an MBA student based in China, is at the top of the pile. What makes him stand out? His heritage. “He never expected to see a Pakistani,” laughs Talha with an infectious chuckle. “I’m literally the second Pakistani alumnus from CEIBS.”
So my follow-up question is easy: why? The China Europe International Business School student points to the colonial attitude of countries once under British rule. The European influence still lingers.
“Colonial countries are still under the mindset that the only place to get the best education is in the US or Europe – and that still prevails,” says Talha. “It’s naïve of people. To get a unique experience, there are other places to go.”
Chief among them is China. Talha is not the only one to notice. While US schools have seen a slump in applicants to some full-time MBA programs, business education in Asia is on the rise. Prospective MBAs will have noticed data from QS which shows Singapore and China are now claiming a bigger slice of the pie – some 24% of all applicants.
But surely with a higher international standing, it is now less unique?
The Pakistani remains unmoved, and points to the MBA job he hopes to net after graduating this year. “When my resume landed on the desk of the CEO, he said CEIBS really stood out,” says Talha.
“Getting an MBA from CEIBS was not specifically for a career I was targeting. I realized the CEIBS experience would hone my personality. But how can I leverage that in my career? It was still a grey area for me.”
His strategy has been to soak up all the Asian exposure and develop himself on a personal level. He spent years working in technical functions but may now even, he hints, join a consulting firm.
There are echoes of his old career path etched into the conversation. Talha spent three years at Aircom International, the telecoms giant, before jetting into Shanghai. Before that, he worked as a technical support engineer at EnterpriseDB in Pakistan, where he was born and raised.
In that sense, his career path has been conventional. He graduated from a Pakistani university with an undergraduate degree in computer systems. His career had been tech-focused for several years. “My background is not just a little technical, it’s completely technical,” he laughs.
Yet he is now hoping to devise a strategy career. He wants to leverage that technical expertise with new MBA knowledge – but from outside of China.
When he joined CEIBS in 2012, he had an Asian ambition. But two years on and Talha reckons his knowledge of China can be best utilized from the outside-in. “Because outside, people want to know about China – because it’s still a black box,” he says. “So that’s what I’m targeting.”
They have a bevy of exchange opportunities with European business schools. Talha has spent time at London Business School, as part of the international exchange program.
All of which, he says, has prepared him to make an impact. Where they impact might be, however, is still unclear.
A tech company is not off the table – “right now I’m speaking to three technology companies about a decision” and it would be a fitting conclusion to his narrative.
When Talha left his home, Pakistan, for a job in the United Arab Emirates, he became the youngest ever solutions architect in Aircom’s history. “It was a huge jump in my career,” he says.
The soon-to-be MBA graduate seems in a hurry to make his mark. “When I landed the job I realized it’d be fun for me for another year, but then it would start getting monotonous,” he says, honestly. “I would start getting bored.”
Soon after arriving in 2009, he rose through Aircom’s ranks to essentially lead the entire Middle East and Africa region (MEA) – which accounts for 70% of the company's regional revenue. During less than two years with the telecoms business, Talha increased revenues by $3 million and grew the team from 25 to 40 employees in under 12 months.
He had the chance to study a Master’s degree, part of the European Union’s erasmus mundus program, but decided to stick with his tech team.
But even a company with two billion subscribers in more than 150 countries, which had revenues to the tune of $80 million at the time, couldn’t convince him to stay. Aircom has since been acquired by TEOCO, a communications company.
“I had two choices: to switch to another company in another position or role, or to do something else,” explains Talha. “I decided to go back to the opportunity that I had refused three years before – I went for the Master’s degree.”
For him, an MBA was the perfect fit with his management career. He had lived across the Western world and parts of Asia, but China was out of his comfort zone. “It turned out to be a really thrilling journey,” he enthuses.
Yet it was not an easy decision to leave his telecoms career behind. Talha had spent months convincing his regional manager to warm to his “manifesto”.
His biggest challenge was working under both a regional manager who was based in Dubai and a global boss based in the UK. He wanted to roll out the processes he had adopted in previous roles in the US. It proved difficult.
“I had to say that the stuff you guys have been doing – it’s not the right way. So I had to thread a thin line,” he says. “My regional manager was not in favor of my manifesto, so I had to influence her without challenging her. And get to a point where my mindset aligns with hers.”
He seemingly does not take no for an answer. “I was able to overcome that challenge – over three or four months – and then things became easy. We could roll out stuff really quickly,” says Talha.
Leaving at that point was difficult – “I felt like I was leaving home” – but he left at the peak of his career. “It was exciting,” he says.
Last year, he wrapped up a summer associate position with Hay Group, the management consultancy, in Shanghai. He developed a research report on enabling CEOs of multinational companies to maximize growth. The report was subsequently published in the Harvard Business Review China.
“So how big were these companies?” I ask.
“Well,” he replies, “I interviewed the CEO of Siemens and Phillips – 34 CEOs in total.” He feels he has learnt a lot from the top tech bosses. But the key message they all delivered to him was somewhat surprising.
“It’s not the products, it’s always the human resources,” says Talha. “When you look at the career perspective of an MBA, we are focused on the finance or strategy – the stuff that sounds sexy. But when you go to the top, the only thing on their mind is how they can motivate their employees.”
And how is he now motivated? He doesn’t reveal much about his career goals. But with graduation approaching, he does have a rough idea.
“I want to use my [technical] background to get into a role where I can create an impact,” says Talha. “Right now I’m speaking to three or four different companies about a perspective decision.”
And will he be following his technical roots? “One is a consulting company,” he says, “but the others are all tech.”