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Why MBA: Skolkovo

Brazilian banker bets on BRIC-to-BRIC opportunity

By  Maria Ahmed

Mon Sep 21 2009

“Everyone talks about emerging markets,” says Nicholas Wiszler from the Moscow hotel room where he’s staying till the new Skolkovo accommodation is complete. “But there aren’t many of them who are actually willing to come and live here. They prefer to stay home.”

Understanding the inner workings of the Russian business world is one reason why Wiszler is embarking on an untested MBA program far from home this week.

“They’re wasting an opportunity. The axis [of the world economy] is moving drastically. What are they waiting for?”

As a native of another so-called BRIC economy, Wiszler knows how easy it is for otherwise savvy Western investors to “get lost” when they don’t know the culture. Many foreign venture capitalists and private equity managers landed in Brazil as the country’s financial markets became more sophisticated in the run-up to 2008, but they didn’t always have an easy ride- something Wiszler experienced firsthand as a young banker.

He first heard of the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo from an MBA admissions consultant a year ago. The president of the bank where he was working, who was himself doing an executive MBA at a US school, advised Wiszler that the schools topping the Business Week rankings wouldn’t necessarily be the best match for him, and introduced him to the consultant. 

Wiszler, 27, scored 680 in his GMAT and was considering well-known schools including Insead, London Business School, IMD and Spain’s IESE. But the admissions consultant in Sao Paulo, who had strong contacts among MIT alumni, had heard about Skolkovo – a partner school of MIT – and urged Wiszler to “consider Russia”.

Initially Wiszler thought there was no harm in applying, but at the first stage of the process he became intrigued: Skolkovo was the only school that didn’t require a written application, but rather a video one. He figured the school’s claims to be different were more than just marketing spiel.

When he visited the school for interviews in April and had the chance to question faculty and administrators, he was convinced. Skolkovo’s program includes a series of internships that last almost a year: he wouldn’t get the same emerging markets know-how and hands-on experience anywhere else.

“What I've learned about MBAs is that you gain a lot of knowledge and information, but it’s like school. You study business cases. Personally, I prefer to work – I believe in learning by doing.”

Wiszler has been doing just that since college, when he started trading foreign exchange while he was still a freshman studying business administration at FAAP University in Sao Paolo. He was then asked to work on a six-month project for Banco Sofisa, developing corporate clients in the loans and funding business – the first intern to be given this responsibility - but ended up being promoted to sales manager at the age of 21. He stayed for almost six years.

More recently he worked on a one-year project developing middle market business for BBM, another bank. When that ended he decided the time was right for an MBA, as he hadn’t paid much attention to his first degree.

“Because I was promoted so young I felt I’d been worrying constantly about commission targets and clients,” he says. “I needed more substance.”

One week into the program, it’s too early to say exactly what he will do when he graduates, but Wiszler is sure he wants to stay in Russia. “It wouldn’t be intelligent for any foreign student here to go back,” he says. “It takes at least two years to develop a network here.” Without having accomplished that, Wiszler would feel the opportunity had been wasted.

He has a business idea to do with forex trading but isn’t going to “rush in”. He’s convinced that in Russia, as everywhere, if you have a good idea and know how to implement it and sell it, all you need are good connections. Granted these connections aren’t easy for a foreigner to make, but he hopes Skolkovo will give him a head start with its impressive roster of speakers and faculty from the Russian finance elite.

Wiszler says he admires Russian businessmen “in a general sense” for making the transition from communism to an open market. “The situation was against them,” he says. “You have to take your hat off and acknowledge how much they’ve achieved.”

Among Brazilian businessmen, Wiszler admires Andres Esteves, who started as an intern at investment bank Pactual, eventually rising to the top and selling it to UBS in 2006 for almost six times book value. He became Brazil’s youngest billionaire in the process. Esteves then founded a Brazil-based global trading firm, BTG, and recently bought Pactual back from UBS at a big discount. “He has great timing,” says Wiszler.

In the meantime, in preparation for a career in BRIC-market financial innovation, Wiszler is enjoying partying with his new Russian classmates, who he describes as “very, very friendly.”

The food in Moscow is also “as good as you’ll find in any metropolis,” contrary to its reputation. “I won’t die because I’m hungry,” he says.

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