Before Tommy Mercier enrolled in the HEC-Paris MBA program in the fall of 2010, he was an automobile designer and engineer at a French design consulting firm called Twin. The job took him to Korea for three years while working on a project with Renault Samsung Motors (RNO). Mercier liked the work but couldn’t imagine doing it for 35 years. “I didn’t see much room left for interesting evolution, especially in the context of the 2008-09 slowdown in the automotive industry,” he says.
On entering B-school, Mercier quickly realized the value of his unique background in the classroom, as he approached business problems from a different vantage point than his classmates. “Having worked in the melting pots of design studios for several years, and more generally in the car industry, it gave me references and examples in virtually any academic field that, in my opinion, added value,” he says.
His school agrees. At HEC, 20 percent of MBAs are from nontraditional backgrounds like Mercier’s, according to Philippe Oster, communication, development, and admissions director at the school. Recent examples include an American wilderness instructor working in Australia, a SWAT team commanding officer, and a French teacher who was working in Japan. “We always hear from our students that they learn as much from their classmates as they do their professors,” Oster says. “Those students with atypical backgrounds enhance the learning.”
HEC is also one of the European programs drawing on the unique experiences of their students by placing them in decidedly nontraditional business environments.
In early April, the school’s MBA class traveled to Saint-Cyr Coëtquidan, the foremost military academy in France, and participated in training exercises with members of the French Army to develop leadership and critical thinking skills. In the two-and-half-day seminar, students took on such challenges as building a raft and bridge to get a team of 10 across a river, walking on a rope 50 meters above the ground over the walls of a military fort, and navigating underground tunnels.
Similarly, in December, MBAs at Warwick Business School in the U.K. took part in a two-week creative thinking “Shakespeare boot camp” that included an on-site case study with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, a Hamlet workshop, and a performance of Twelfth Night. “Traditionally, team management is done in isolation from the [business] pitch and your team-building in isolation from the business training,” says Jonothan Neelands, a professor of creative education at Warwick, where 16 percent of students come from nontraditional backgrounds. “We combined it all together in a real-world task.”
In addition to the boot camp, the school offers a one-week course called “Leadership and the Art of Judgment,” which uses classic works of literature, film, philosophy, and theater—Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and Death of a Salesman, among others—to look at the complex nature of decision-making and various leadership dilemmas.
Elsewhere, administrators at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands felt so strongly about the importance of cultural diversity and how it was used in the classroom that they shut down their MBA program entirely for nearly a year to overhaul the curriculum.
Today, the Nyenrode MBA relies heavily on personal development and experiential learning. It also boasts an ultra-diverse makeup: 40 students, some with traditional MBA backgrounds in such areas as finance and marketing, but others with experience in medicine, IT, even the arts. “You name it, it’s in the class,” says Désirée van Gorp, professor of international business strategy and associate dean of degree programs at Nyenrode, a school whose campus is a 13th century castle and the surrounding 123-acre estate north of Utrecht.
There is also a nearly even split of male and female students in the class—a rarity in business schools—and 19 nationalities represented. “This diversity isn’t something you can learn from theories in books,” van Gorp says. “We always make it part of how we look at business. It makes for a unique and valuable MBA experience.”