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After Army And Creative Careers: MBAs Talk Business Jobs

MBAs from non-traditional and creative backgrounds are common at b-schools across the globe. We analyze how an MBA can help you switch to business - with students and top MBA recruiters.

By  Seb Murray

Sat Jan 18 2014

Non-traditional career paths are increasingly common on MBA programs across the globe. Top business schools like Wharton were once considered factories for investment bankers.

But while management consultancy and finance still top the MBA employment charts, more grads are trying their hand at diverse roles.

Entrepreneurship is a buzz word in the b-school community at the moment. Many MBA programs are adapting their curriculums to meet the needs of the modern entrepreneurial student.

EMLYON Business School, a top-ranking university in France, developed an International MBA with a strict focus on entrepreneurship and project-based learning. HEC Paris, another French-based b-school, offer an Entrepreneurship and Innovation major as part of their Executive MBA program.

In 2007, the UK’s Henley Business School opened a Centre for Entrepreneurship and in 2012 launched an MSc in Entrepreneurship and Management.

Other b-schools offer MBAs for specific, non-traditional industries. ESSEC Business School have an MBA in International Luxury Brand Management; MIP Politecnico di Milano, based in Spain, offers an MBA concentrating on Design & Luxury Management.

There are of course those b-schools that still champion traditional functions, such as the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance, which is considered one of the best finance MBA programs on the globe. And of course all MBA programs offer a rigorous curriculum covering all functions.

But this trend in diverse career paths reflects the diversity of students joining programs in the hope of switching to business.

MBAs from creative backgrounds are as commonplace on campus as international students. “I’m looking for the well-rounded student,” said Amanda Brown, the National Recruiting Manager for KPMG, the leading advisory firm.

“No matter what the task… I’m looking for someone who is willing to just jump in there and do whatever is needed. You can really do anything and everything that you want to do here.”

Chris Taylor, the Global Procurement and Talent Aquisition Manager at SABMiller, says they look for candidates with an interesting background. “We want someone with a bit of backstory and ideally someone who has demonstrated already that they can work internationally,” he told BusinessBecause.

“What we hope the individuals gain by completing an MBA is wider perspective, an insight to medium-term strategic thinking and an ability to connect the different moving parts of the business.”

At London Business School (LBS), which has the highest full-time MBA Ranking program in the UK, over 40 per cent of their 2012 MBA cohort came from sectors outside of finance and consulting. The third highest undergrad background that MBAs from IE Business School came from was Social Sciences and Humanities – ahead of the business staple, economics.

Wharton MBA Veronica Collins was able to switch from a career in the arts industry to business. After b-school, she landed a job with Bain & Company, the blue-chip management consultancy firm. “Being from such a non-traditional and creative background, I wanted to marry that with a strong background in maths and analytics to come out a better candidate,” she said of starting an MBA.

“At first it can seem daunting, but it’s become incredibly rewarding. An art-related background has been incredibly valuable; I can tailor my results for clients at Bain in exceptional ways – for better outcomes.”

At the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, MBAs from Government, military, non-profit and educational backgrounds made up almost as much of their 2013 cohort as those from some financial services (2 per cent behind).

Kevin Williams, a Tuck MBA that spent 11 years in the US Navy before switching to private equity, thinks b-school was essential to his transition. “You get put in front of banks, corporations and the consulting firms, and the connection to the alumni is great,” he said.

“Students' loyalty to Tuck is greater than their organization,” and Tuck alumni helped him land a job at 13D Research, an investment firm. Kevin’s transition from the military was seemingly smooth.

Other universities, such as Cranfield School of Management in the UK, offer scholarships for those from military backgrounds that want to begin new careers.

Doc McKerr, whom was an officer in the British Army for twelve years, took advantage of Cranfield’s Defence Scholarship, which offers successful MBA applicants with military backgrounds up to £12,500 to help finance their career transitions.

“It is difficult when you set your heart on joining the military form a young age. When you have spent the majority of your life focusing on a similar career, switching is quite challenging,” Doc told BusinessBecause.

“I was concerned that if I came straight to a job it would take a long time to find what I love to do in business. To help myself understand, I thought an MBA would be a good idea… to slide smoothly from one career to business.”

Manchester Business School offer full-time MBAs a Military Leaders Scholarship, ranging from £5,000 to £20,000. Cass Business School, based in London, offer a similar scholarship that is worth £10,000 for “outstanding candidates who have been employed in a full-time military role in their career so far”.

Mike Harley, whom was awarded LBS’s MBA Military Scholarship of £20,000, was able to make a successful transition from the British Army in 2011: “The MBA has given me the fundamental business concepts and academic tools that will enable me to succeed in a business environment,” he said.

Jack O’Toole, a graduate of Dartmouth Tuck, used an MBA to launch a technology start-up. He spent nine years in the United States Military – including the US Marines. “For me, an MBA was useful to help me understand what I didn’t know and fill in those gaps. My thought to start with was to be involved in entrepreneurship, going into a start-up or launching my own,” he said.

“Dozens of alumni have helped me set up this business and I have no idea how I would have done it without tuck.”

There are a number of other scholarships available for those from diverse backgrounds hoping to bank an MBA.

And although admissions stats to top programs are low, most b-schools offer non-traditional students the best chance of making a transition into a new business career.

The days of traditional-function dominance are long gone. As these MBAs have shown, even those from the most creative of backgrounds can succeed in business.