“A Malaysian, a Kenyan, an Indian, and an American were inserted into the middle of a 130-million-year-old rainforest.” It reads as the start of a bad joke, but is in fact Kevin Gitau’s first experience of Action Learning projects at Asia School of Business in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Four weeks into the two-year MBA, Kevin and his teammates headed to a rural aboriginal community in northern Malaysia, tasked with “identifying a sustainable source of income for the community that lived in that village,” he explains.
“It’s a really remote village, with no access to technology, with tigers roaming free,” Kevin adds.
The Action Learning project was just one piece of a transformative experience for Kevin which has landed him a role at multinational pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk straight after graduation.
Choosing Asia School of Business
For Kevin, the experience of moving halfway around the world to Malaysia for an MBA was already nerve-wracking, even without the threat of wild tigers. Hailing from Nairobi, Kenya, this was Kevin’s first time outside his home country.
“My background is in IT,” Kevin explains, “and soon after I graduated I got employed by the top technology university in Kenya.”
Hired to lead part of a project providing tech like laptops and tablets to schools around Africa, Kevin was thrown in the deep end of project management, for which he felt he may not have been fully equipped.
Kevin realised that business was his calling, and set his sights on an MBA. Kevin attended a recruitment event in Nairobi, and his interest was piqued by one school, a joint venture between MIT Sloan School of Management and the Malaysian Central Bank: Asia School of Business.
“I get the academic rigour of MIT and I get to experience this vibrant economy from an emerging market region which is similar to where I’m from,” he says. “For me, it was a no-brainer.”
Kevin during his semester at MIT Sloan
The importance of resilience
Kevin started his MBA journey in 2018, little knowing that in his graduation year a global pandemic would hit.
“It was quite a rollercoaster ride,” Kevin says. “I remember a bunch of us MBAs talking and thinking ‘wow we drew the short straw, just our luck, we are going to be the same MBAs that graduated in 2009.’”
“One of the things we learned throughout our period at Asia School of Business was resilience and adapting to the situation,” Kevin explains. “ASB taught us to look at every day as day one, as having its own new challenges.”
Most of this learning, Kevin says, was gained through the intensive Action Learning projects on the MBA. Throughout the MBA, students spend almost a third of their time working on these immersive projects, with partners throughout Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.
“When you work on an Action Learning project at a company, you have almost unfettered access to top-level management in that company,” Kevin asserts. “You're able to interact with them, gain insights from them, and show what value you can add.”
For Kevin, being involved in projects with a societal impact was important, and ASB assisted him in tailoring projects to this interest.
While Kevin’s first project took him to the rainforests of Malaysia, further projects saw him travel to Jakarta to work with a VC firm; to Singapore to assist a medical device startup; and to Bali, where he found a mentor in the CEO of an eco-friendly resort.
Kevin credits these experiences with not only providing helpful business experience, but also boosting bonds with classmates and helping him face his fears.
“Through all these Action Learning journeys, I decided to challenge myself—for example, I’ve always been afraid of large bodies of water, but I seized the opportunity in Bali to learn how to free-dive,” Kevin reminisces.
These diverse experiences went a long way toward preparing him for the unexpected—a useful thing when a global pandemic interrupts your job hunt.
Graduating in a pandemic
Kevin harnessed the “resilience and adaptability” drilled into him from his Action Learning projects at ASB. He approached job hunting in terms of “how would Coronavirus impact this, what are the types of skills that are required right now, and how do you position yourself to do that.”
Kevin’s resilience paid off, when he eventually received an offer from healthcare firm Novo Nordisk for their graduate program. But the process wasn’t without its trying times.
“I remember this particularly hairy moment in my recruitment,” he recalls, “I got a notification that I was through to the final round, to go for an in-person interview in Copenhagen.
“But four days before I was scheduled to fly to Copenhagen, I received an email that Denmark was closing its borders, and we would not be able to do the recruitment conference there.”
In the end, Kevin participated in the recruitment conference entirely online, a three day event where Kevin’s timezone meant “I sat for the event from 7pm through to 1am,” he describes.
As Malaysia followed suit in closing its borders, Kevin boarded a flight back to Kenya, and as luck would have it, received a text from a recruiter at Novo Nordisk just as he was getting off the plane in Nairobi. “You can imagine how nervous I was going through customs!”
In the end, Kevin received the coveted graduate position, which he calls “a welcome home gift— a godsend. After that, it was also just beautiful hearing stories from my classmates that slowly positions were beginning to open up, and they were starting to get job offers.”
The process was tough but a valuable experience, and one which has taught him lessons that will stay with him for the rest of his career.
“At ASB, we don’t look at things as how they’ve always been—there’s a constant challenge to be innovative,” he explains. “With that mindset, in whatever our new post-COVID normal is going to be, or is turning out to be, I believe we're well equipped for that.”