From India to Octopus' Garden

A creative puppetry assignment seemed childish at first to this international student, but it proved to be an enlightening experience

So it's that time of the year when those of you interested in applying to B-school must be working furiously trying to put together your application package. Early birds have already applied, some may still be grappling with questions wondering where to start, while most are somewhere in between. Ideally, you should have put your GMAT behind you—but those of you who have had an unforeseen "disaster" the first time may be scheduling a retake, throwing all your plans out of gear.

Don't sweat! Applying to a B-school—as I came to realize—is a great roller-coaster ride. The sooner one learns to relax and flow along with it, the sooner one can begin to enjoy it, and thereby, do better justice to it. Otherwise it can prove to be stressful. I once came across someone who mentioned he didn't apply to Stanford because he couldn't figure out what mattered most to him! (For those of you who aren't aware, this was one of only two questions a Stanford MBA applicant had to answer.)

My research into which B-schools to apply to suggested, amongst others, the following key factors to look out for. In no particular order:

(1) Class size—big vs. small.

(2) Specialization—finance, general management, entrepreneurship, etc.

(3) Teaching method—case-based, lectures, fieldwork, or a combination.

(4) Location and setting—urban or rural; with campus or without.

(5) The first-year curriculum—core vs. electives.

(6) Type of companies recruiting its graduates—are they the ones I would want to work with?

(7) Average age and work experience. and of course:

(8) The average GMAT score.

Picture That

But before that I also listed the core values that were important to a school. The first page of a B-school's prospective students' Web site, or the introduction to the MBA section, or the dean's welcome note takes special pains to articulate what they're looking for in their ideal candidate.

To start with, I made a comparison table listing all these attributes. Accordingly, I ensured that I structured my application portfolio in order to address individual aspects specific and important to the particular school I was applying to.

I also wrote to and requested the printed versions of MBA brochures from all the schools I was even remotely interested in. Besides being informative, they have a high motivational value. When I was tired from spending long hours preparing for my GMAT or writing my essays, and needed a break, I would flip through the brochures.

Seeing those lovely campus pictures, I would imagine myself being there. It had a positive effect on my psyche, helping me to ride over those low moments, which all of us encounter from time to time, especially when the journey is long and winding.

Answered Prayers

Incidentally, as I reflect, I realize that the toughest part in getting admitted to a U.S. B-school was not the application process—the GMAT, the essays, the recommendations, or the interview. These were relatively easy.

The toughest part was in making the decision that I wanted an international education from a reputed world-class B-school. For a lot of us international candidates, the thought of an educational expense well over $100,000 is itself enough to make us simply discount this possibility.

And in this, both the world at large and the individual are the losers. God only knows how many brilliant people will never get to realize their potential just because they were afraid to explore beyond their self-imposed limitations.

When I made this decision, I had no clue where the money would come from. In fact, a lot of my friends discouraged me from going ahead because they felt, given my obligations, it was impractical on my part to even have such "grand" plans. But I had this faith in myself that once I had an admit, the question of money would somehow be answered.

Eventually, it was. I took the maximum educational loan that I could from a bank in India. But I was still falling short. So one of the first things I did after reaching here was to get in touch with the student financial services office. And they assured me no one that they were aware of has been unable to complete his/her education because of financial constraints.

That in itself was a big relief! I know it's only a matter of time before this money that I have spent on my education repays itself.

Group Expression

How has been my experience so far? Well…I left the Indian Army on July 12, and by July 19 I was in Boston—family and baggage in tow.

The orientation program was still a month away. But I felt coming early would help me settle down faster. And it sure did. Besides, it helped to know that Boston summer temperatures were well below what New Delhi was experiencing.

Our first year is divided into four modules. All courses are core. The first module, Creative Management in Dynamic Organizations, has a creative component to it that's unique to Babson. The entire class is divided into seven randomly assigned creative streams (puppetry, poetry, drawing, sculpture, movement, music, and improv), each under an expert in his/her relevant field.

Throughout the module, these teams have to work towards creating a final presentation that will be viewed by the entire college. In each stream, the challenge is to use the assigned form of expression (drawing, sculpture, etc.), interpreting it in our own way, creating a story around it, and then coming up with a final product that has to be presented before an audience.

The teams are free to choose outdoor locations for their final presentation, if they so desire, or they're randomly assigned different indoor locations—which could range from the college auditorium to a lobby to an athletics center.

Strings Attached

I was part of the puppetry group, and we made our final presentation in the entrepreneurship center building lobby, which has a circular stairway going all around it. Our team performed from this stairway, while the audience was in the lobby all looking up.

Initially, I wasn't all that keen, since I had this prejudice about puppetry—thinking it to be childish. I had never liked it. But as days progressed, I began to appreciate it from an altogether different viewpoint.

We made the audience believe they were all underwater watching marine life. Towards the end, we sang the famous Beatles number Octopus' Garden—"I want to be, under the sea…"—and made everyone join in. The whole atmosphere was festive.

The response was tremendous. One of our professors, Anne Donnellon, said: "In my 14 years of viewing creativity presentations, I have never been so overwhelmed by the quality of both the presentations and the student commentary about the process as I was this year…. You have learned so much about entrepreneurship, risk-taking, cultural variation and value, community, leadership, and teamwork that it was breathtaking. I can only say most humbly 'thank you,' and wish you most heartily to find a way to keep this spirit alive in each other."

What a marvelous response!

Tears in His Eyes

And my response to her was: "Thanks for these wonderful words. Yes, it was indeed an extremely enriching experience for all of us. I thoroughly enjoyed it. As a result, my respect and indeed admiration for my fellow classmates has multiplied manifolds.

"From what appeared to be nearly impossible in the beginning to putting together one of the best possible demonstrations of creativity at its peak in the end, it's been a great journey. I'm glad that I chose to attend this MBA program—especially since this component was one of the primary reasons for me choosing Babson.

"I'd like to share one of the feedbacks that I received from a classmate on our puppetry presentation. Balaji said that he has never in his life seen anything like this before…that he never ever could visualize such an immersive experience could be created using puppets—an artform he typically associated with a totally different and very limited manner.

"He felt he was reborn. He further mentioned that every time he thought of it, he would get tears in his eyes. Even when he talked, I could see him fighting hard to hold back his emotions.

"While we were anticipating audience involvement, I had never imagined that we could evoke such strong and almost overwhelming reactions. When I narrated this feedback to Terry, the manager of the two-year program, she remarked that she was getting goose bumps just listening to me (she wasn't able to attend our show). Even accounting professor Bob Turner mentioned that he was simply overwhelmed by the whole experience.

"It has been a wonderful month so far, and I do hope we carry it forward drawing from it to nourish and enrich our lives further. And thanks for being so supportive."

Coming Soon

Who would imagine we were talking about an MBA program activity here! Yet I believe this experience has brought all of us much closer to each other.

I now see my classmates from a perspective of not what they are but what they are capable of. And this change in my perception has completely altered the dynamics of our interaction. Also even those of us who were reserved and often uncomfortable when required to face an audience now appear to be thoroughbred pros at it. What an amazing transformation!

But even before all this started…two weeks into our module we had this enlightening and enjoyable team process day. But I'll reserve it for my next post—I have already exceeded my word limit. Got to go and prepare for tomorrow's class….

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.