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Dutch MBA Program Places Happiness At Its Core

Rotterdam School of Management focuses on the human side of professional development. MBA director, Ann van Dam, says it’s all about making people happy


Mon Sep 10 2018

There’s plenty of myths around MBA programs. Graduate business school has been viewed as a retreat for white male bankers and consultants alone; a breeding ground for business leaders driven only by greed and senseless ambition.

But now, things have changed. Top-ranked MBA degrees are offered at business schools around the world—across the US, Europe, and Asia—with a conscientious generation of students focused on a variety of non-traditional career paths including sustainability, social impact, and entrepreneurship.

This shift in attitudes is first felt at admissions stage. Dartmouth Tuck School of Business in the US has just started assessing its prospective students on how ‘nice’ they are.

Human factors rather than just GPA or test scores have become increasingly important. Similarly, many business schools have evolved from job-finding factories to places where students can find self-fulfillment; happiness if you will.

On campus at Rotterdam School of Management (RSM) in the Netherlands, typically 97% of MBA students are international, representing almost 40 different countries. That diversity extends to cultures, genders, professional backgrounds, and ways of thinking, all combined with the wider society of a buzzing port city—Europe’s largest—and global hub for travel, entrepreneurship, and commerce.

Ann van Dam, director of the Financial Times top-40-ranked International Full-Time MBA program at RSM, says an MBA degree has become something anybody can aspire towards.


“We have people from every background. Traditionally, we have a lot of students from engineering backgrounds; we also have teachers; a Peace Corps volunteer.

“We bring the world to Rotterdam. We look for people who want to learn business in a growth context—and that can mean anything. We’re not married to the idea that everybody needs to go into consulting or finance after graduation.”

MBA admissions at RSM is driven by this humanistic approach. Alongside a bachelor’s degree and three years of work experience, Ann wants people who can engage with RSM’s flagship Personal Leadership Development program (PLD) which, she says, is about helping students better understand themselves and be happy with where they’re going in their careers.

This fits perfectly in line with wider Dutch culture—the Netherlands ranked the sixth happiest country in the world in the UN’s World Happiness Report in 2018.

“We interview every single person, in-person,” Ann explains. “To go through the PLD, you need to be open-minded and motivated to invest in yourself. Those are the two main factors we look for, and those often mean that a person is ‘nice’ too!”

From the get-go, the PLD sets MBA students at Rotterdam School of Management on the pursuit of happiness, through a series of workshops emphasizing self-reflection and identifying students’ strengths and motivations. MBA students go through three coaching trajectories—individual coaching, team-based coaching, and careers-specific coaching—to support their development throughout the year.

Ann, a former RSM MBA student herself, says you come out a different person to how you went in: “It helps you define what is important to you; what is your true value and what that means for you in life and in business.

“For instance, if integrity is something you value most, then you need to find a job that taps into that value. Having that clarity means you’ll find the job (or the career) that fits you best; that will make you more effective in your role and happier which, in the end, is all we all want.”

Outside the PLD, staff at RSM focus on keeping their students happy so they can enjoy the one-year MBA experience to the max. The majority international student body are helped with finding housing, registering with local doctors and city hall, getting visas and residence permits, as well as any personal issues they may have.

Once in class, the fruits of diversity come to bear. Latin American students learn from Chinese; Africans from Europeans, and vice versa. “It makes for a really cool dynamic; you not only learn about the topic, but the cultural context as well,” Ann notes.

There’s intra-student support. The MentorMe platform pairs students with other students and alumni for mentoring, while the women-specific MentorWe platform is focused specifically on women empowerment.

Alongside Arjen Mulder—a corporate finance professor voted students’ favorite at RSM—Ann highlights the work of Dianne Bevelander, executive director of the Erasmus Center for Women and Organizations (ECWO), who spends a day each year talking to MBA students about challenges for women in business, from both female and male perspectives.

Students on the RSM MBA are also encouraged to engage with the Netherlands’ wider entrepreneurial environment, with direct access to the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship at the Rotterdam Science Tower, home to over 50 startups. Ann says innovation and entrepreneurship will become even more prominent in the MBA program over the next two years.

From professors, to program directors, students, and alumni, business schools have become supportive communities preparing professionals for the next stage of their career, whatever that may be.

At RSM, Ann concludes, that community is one that’s diverse, supportive, and, most of all, happy.