In-Depth Profiles: Europe's Top B-Schools

In France, Spain, Italy, and beyond, Europe's top 10 MBA programs are supplying U.S. students with the international profile employers are demanding

SDA Bocconi

Established in 1971 in Milan, SDA Bocconi has grown to offer one of the most prestigious MBAs in Europe, and certainly the best in Italy, but the school has not been content to rest on its laurels. It has boosted the ratio of women among its 100 or so full-time students to 40% from 18% in the past three years, thanks in part to new women-only grants and recruiting events.

Next year the program will be shortened by six weeks, to 12 months, to get students into the job market earlier, and the Italian-language track will be discontinued.

Until now, Italian students, who make up nearly half the class, had no choice but to do their coursework in Italian and were thus segregated from the rest of their peers, says Valter Lazzari, director of the MBA program.

They began to complain: "Either place us in the English program or we'll consider another school," Lazzari says. He hopes the change will help increase the diversity of the student body, which already comprises about 30 different nationalities each year, to 65% non-Italians. About 10% of students hail from the U.S., 8% from India, and 4% from China, where the school plans to increase recruiting efforts in the coming years.

Nicole Baum, a 27-year-old MBA student from Chicago, had put down a deposit at NYU's Stern School of Business before receiving her acceptance to SDA Bocconi. Like many Americans who choose European MBA programs, Baum, whose mother is Italian, selected Bocconi for its "much more reasonably priced program with the same types of great career opportunities." Baum's tuition cost about $56,000, some 30% less than the $79,600 she would have spent at Stern. With five years of experience in branding in New York under her belt, Baum now aspires to make a career in Milan in the luxury consumer goods industry.

For prospective students looking to make the cut—the school accepts one in three applicants—Lazzari cautions that while book smarts are important, managerial skills are key. "Companies don't divide people who know from people who don't know," he says. "They divide people who know how to solve problems from people who don't."


Founded in 1958 by Catalan entrepreneurs, ESADE is a Jesuit institution with undergraduate and graduate programs in law and management on campuses in Barcelona, Madrid, and Buenos Aires. The school offers two full-time MBA programs at its main campus in Barcelona: an 18-month track geared for students with any undergraduate degree and at least two years of work experience, and a yearlong course for more mature students with backgrounds in economics, engineering, or business administration.

The school reviews its curriculum every three or four years, making sure students—and recruiters—get what they're looking for, says Olaya Garcia, director of ESADE's full-time MBA programs. Next year the school will offer weeklong intensive courses on topics such as downsizing, creating an offer, and mergers and acquisitions, and will have some classes team-taught by law, finance, and economics professors to show how the disciplines overlap.

ESADE offers more than 65 electives, including classes on marketing in emerging countries, social entrepreneurship, and corporate citizenship. The 18-month track has just 120 students split into two classes and the yearlong course has 30—a boon to students looking for individual attention from professors and recruiters. About 20% of students are American. They come in part for the class size (in comparison, Harvard Business School takes in about 900 MBA students each year) and to gain a global perspective that can boost their careers.

"Because so many countries [in Europe] are close together, there's a certain predisposition to cooperate," says Juan Vargas, 35, who graduated from the 18-month program on Mar. 14. Vargas, who was born in Columbia but moved to California as a child, had been a project manager at Yahoo! (YHOO) before enrolling at ESADE. He will soon begin a Citigroup (C) management development program that will place him on projects in four cities around the world in the next two years. A fellow graduate, Jason Hess, 29, from New York's Long Island, was recruited to a similar program at Barclays Bank (BCS).

Hess had been an "IT guy" at the payment processing company First Data before starting his MBA, but aspired to an international career. "Recruiters want people with an international profile, and you can't get that in the U.S.," he says.


Situated on a sprawling campus in Jouy-en-Josas 11 miles southwest of Paris, the HEC School of Management educates nearly 200 full-time MBA students every year who are drawn from more than 50 countries. Just 14% hail from France—down from 30% five years ago—with 40% from Asia and 15% from North America, making for one of the most diverse learning environments among France's grandes écoles.

The 16-month program, four months longer than most European MBA programs, allows for a variety of exchange opportunities with HEC's 45 partner schools around the world. Many students earn dual degrees—either a second MBA or an additional master's—from institutions including the London School of Economics, the Stern School of Business at NYU, and Tsinghua University in Beijing. Electives include courses on management buyouts, credit risk ratings, and business opportunities in crisis economies.

In 2005, HEC forged a partnership with Apple (AAPL) to supply iPods to all MBA students. They are now used in almost all courses to review lessons, publish student presentations, and give students on-demand feedback from professors. Foreign language skills are also a cornerstone of the program. French lessons are compulsory during the first four months of study, and students proficient enough can choose to take business courses in French. Students already fluent in French must learn another language during the program unless they are already trilingual.

Jonah Goldstein, a 28-year-old MBA student from Glen Rock, N.J., says his French has improved so much since he began the program that he recently switched into the bilingual track. A former marketing and sales specialist at several New York publishing houses, Goldstein aspires to merge his interests in financial and environmental research and launch a career in France. Indeed, 30% of graduates work in France after earning their MBAs and 75% start careers in Europe, says associate dean Valerie Gauthier. Although Goldstein admits HEC may not be as well known back home as, say, Harvard Business School or Wharton, neither would have given him sufficient means to begin a career abroad. "The only thing it's gonna do for me is open doors," he says of HEC.


IESE's 18-month MBA program is longer (and thus more expensive) than most in Europe, but that's partly what draws about 216 students to its Barcelona campus each year. Shorter programs leave time for little else than the acquisition of knowledge, whereas IESE offers a transformational experience, says Luis Palencia, associate dean of the full-time MBA.

That experience includes a Spanish immersion program intended to ready students to conduct business in Spanish-speaking countries. One-third of students begin the program in a bilingual section and take half their coursework in Spanish. Others who get their language skills up to snuff may take business classes in Spanish in their second year. Students who earn at least a B in two Spanish courses receive a bilingual MBA degree.

Naturally, IESE attracts many Latin Americans, who make up 14% of the class. Another 20% come from Spain, 15% from Asia, and 12% from North America, though that number is rising fast. The school recently opened an office in New York to raise its profile among U.S. recruiters and prospective students. Applications from the U.S. have increased 32% over last year, and next year's class should have about 35 Americans—a 60% jump over this year.

Anne Lee, a Chinese-American who had been working as an IT consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton in the Washington area before coming to IESE, chose the school in part because she wanted to become fluent in Spanish. While the MBA's €64,900 ($102,000) price tag—about $7,000 more than a Wharton degree—and the sinking dollar drove her to take out $55,000 in private loans, Lee says her experience at IESE has been worth the cost. Her year and a half in Spain has enabled Lee to immerse herself in Spanish culture and forego the more stressful path of completing an MBA in a year or less. And the interest rate on her loans has dropped from 9% to 6.25% as U.S. policymakers take steps to boost the economy at home.

With luck, Lee will be among the graduates earning an average starting salary of €84,400 ($133,000), which would lessen the blow when the time comes to repay her loans. But as president of IESE's responsible business club, she is weighing the merits of entering the nonprofit world. Whatever her ultimate choice, Lee says IESE has prepped her for perhaps another transformational experience: taking her career global.


Founded in 1990 in Lausanne through a merger of two Swiss business schools, IMD is famed for its rigorous leadership training programs. Each year a select group of 90 students enrolls in the full-time MBA program, which entails 11 months of intensive coursework on the school's campus on the shores of Lake Geneva and real-world consulting projects for companies around the globe.

Since 2002 each MBA class has traveled abroad for the annual 10-day "discovery expedition" in June to learn how business can help an economically fragile country turn around and grow. This year's class will meet with government representatives and business leaders in Tanzania. Previous destinations have included Bosnia-Herzegovina, Argentina, and most recently, South Africa. After last year's trip, students raised nearly $50,000 to sponsor a consulting project for the class of 2008 to work with a South African nonprofit that shelters abandoned and terminally ill children.

The school also offers 20 sessions with a psychologist as an elective to help students figure themselves out and become more empathetic leaders. The majority of students enroll and are often surprised by the insights they take away from the course, says Janet Shaner, the school's director of MBA marketing. The curriculum also includes courses on organizational behavior, stakeholder management and ethics, and entrepreneurship. During "ethics week," students are divided into groups and asked to resolve ethical dilemmas according to their national or religious values.

This year's students represent 44 nationalities and speak an average of four languages. About 33% hail from Western and Southern Europe, 22% from Asia, 15% from Africa and the Middle East, and 10% from North America. The overwhelming majority had lived or worked abroad at least six months before beginning the program. Of last year's class, 70% took jobs in Europe after graduation.

Bryan Hassin, a 28-year-old student, had worked nearly seven years at Houston-based technology consulting firm R7 Solutions, including three years as its chief executive, before coming across IMD in BusinessWeek's rankings. "Between its dominant focus on leadership development, incredibly experienced and internationally diverse students, and use of international consulting projects for real-world learning, I was hooked," he says. He is now seriously considering a career in Europe, calling Switzerland, with its international vibe and cultural offerings, a "refreshing" change of pace from Texas.

"Global perspective is a great buzzword but it isn't something that can be learned in a book or weekend seminar," Hassin says. "It must be won through experience."


With campuses in both Singapore and Fontainebleau, France, about 40 miles southeast of Paris, INSEAD attracts a diverse mix of students to its full-time MBA programs. In September and January of each year, about 450 students from more than 70 countries enroll at INSEAD—and they are typically recruited to more than 60 countries after 10 months of study.

One-third of the class starts out in Singapore and 70% study on both campuses; some also take electives at the Wharton School in Pennsylvania.

The school has a third campus in the online 3-D universe of Second Life, created last March to enable students and professors from around the world to interact. The virtual campus, which was constructed for about €10,000 ($15,800), includes a research lab, amphitheater, and lounge areas. An MBA class on entrepreneurship enables students to test their business plans in Second Life before striking out in the riskier real world.

Entrepreneurship is in fact one of INSEAD's largest academic areas, with more than 15 electives from which to choose—more than in any other specialization. The school runs entrepreneurship and private equity clubs and since 2000 has hosted business venture competitions twice a year on both campuses in which teams of students compete for €10,000 to start a business. More than 40% of graduates start a company at some point in their careers.

Colin McKee, an MBA student from Chicago who completed a master's in international relations in 2006 through a dual program with Johns Hopkins, said he chose INSEAD because he aspired to move to Europe and couldn't afford a two-year program. With his interest in clean-energy finance, McKee, 30, is one of a growing number of MBA students planning to pursue social justice through business. The school has been expanding course offerings in the social innovation arena, says Dean Frank Brown. For a couple of years now, classes based on fieldwork with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have taken students to Ghana, Cameroon, and South Africa, among other African countries.

The key to success, Brown says, is an understanding that business is "not just about doing good, but doing well." With graduates continually recruited to top positions around the globe at Google (GOOG), McKinsey, and other elite institutions, INSEAD ensures they'll do just that.

Instituto de Empresa

Instituto de Empresa Business School, otherwise known as IE, trains about 280 full-time MBA students each year at its campus in Madrid. The 13-month program, with its dual degree programs with Tufts and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, collaborative projects with Wharton students, and electives such as business-Spanish, sports marketing, and eco-intelligent management, draws nearly six applications for every available spot in the class. Ninety percent of students come from outside Spain—40% from Latin America, 35% from Europe, and 8% from the U.S.—and this year students represent a total of 57 countries.

The school's extensive course offerings in entrepreneurship as well as its Entrepreneurship Center, which hosts seminars and training programs, have made IE a magnet for applicants aspiring to become their own bosses. About 10% of graduates start their own businesses immediately after completing the program, and about 25% start a business at some point in their lives.

In recent years students have expressed a growing interest in "careers with an explicit social or environmental component such as social entrepreneurship, renewable energy, or even biotechnology," says David Bach, associate dean of IE's MBA programs. In 2004, the school founded the Center for Eco-Intelligent Management to promote sustainable and planet-friendly business practices.

Mark Armen, 27, a student from California, said IE's social and environmental focus and strong commitment to entrepreneurship made the school his one and only choice out of the many MBA programs he researched. A former high school teacher and AmeriCorps volunteer, Armen had been handling business development for a small beverage company before enrolling at IE. He is now developing a business that integrates his interests in technology and the environment.

The experience of being a minority—something he wouldn't have had as a white American male at a U.S. school—has forced Armen to consider problems from many angles, a skill he says will be invaluable to his professional and personal development. "Internationalism adds a dynamic atmosphere both inside and outside class that is much more needed in this world," he says. "There are subtle differences that will make me a more complete manager, professional, and human being."

Judge Business School, University of Cambridge

The University of Cambridge's Judge Business School prides itself on offering not your average MBA course. Located in the heart of one of Britain's oldest universities, the school, named after English businessman Sir Paul Judge, is a relatively recent addition to Cambridge. Founded in 1995, the MBA program combines small size—a mere 150 students in 2007—with an international flair. In this year's class there are 47 nationalities represented and students speak an average of three languages.

"We like to think of ourselves as a new business school at an 800-year-old institution," says Karen Siegfried, Judge's MBA executive director. "No one nationality makes up more than 10% to 15% of the class, so we truly are international."

That cosmopolitan view lies at the heart of this one-year course. Taking students from such varied sectors as medicine, financial services, and telecom, the MBA program mixes classic business school coursework, such as marketing and finance, with on-the-job training. Students undertake two separate projects with Cambridge-based and global firms during the fall and spring terms to put what they've learned into practice.

By helping students hone their entrepreneurial skills, the Judge faculty ensures graduates are exposed to more career paths than the tried-and-true routes of finance and consulting. While these sectors still represent the top two destinations for graduates, Cathy Butler, Judge's career director, says students are now looking for different options. "Even in the finance sector, we don't churn out investment bankers. Students also have gone into commercial banking, hedge funds, and private equity," she says.

This search for alternative career paths is certainly paying off. According to Cambridge's statistics, MBA student salaries rise almost 70% after they finish the course, to an average income of £55,029 ($110,000). The program's international focus also helped 44% of the 2007 class switch countries after graduation while 60% of students changed industries.

No wonder Judge Business School is garnering international attention. U.S. applications for the 2008 academic year are expected to rise 70% over last year's figures, illustrating how this MBA program at one of Britain's most-hallowed academic institutions is truly coming into its own.

London Business School

Lying at the heart of the world's top financial center, the London Business School offers MBA students first-rate networking opportunities with global heavy-hitters. The school's campus, located just off leafy Regent's Park, also provides the perfect setting to mix hard-nosed business education with the best that Britain's cosmopolitan capital has to offer.

Not that it's all fun and games at this leading business school. Approximately 2,000 applicants from more than 60 countries vied for the 315 places in the 2007 MBA class, making London Business School one of the most competitive in Europe. According to a spokesman, the admissions process isn't slanted toward a particular type of student: The key to securing a place is to offer an original perspective on the business world.

Such diversity means LBS graduates are in high demand. The school says 97% of students land a full-time job within three months of graduation and 99% of this year's MBA class found a summer internship or project. According to a spokesman, the average salary for 2007 graduates was £59,982 ($119,600). About 46% of students found work in the financial-services sector.

With London's investment banks and hedge funds at their doorstep, it's no wonder students are attracted to finance. Yet a further 31% of last year's graduates took jobs with some of the world's largest retail and tech companies such as Google (GOOG), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), and Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.A). Another 5% of graduates forgo the trappings of the corporate world to start their own businesses.

This combination of abundant job prospects and London's international flair has caught the eye of U.S. students, despite rising tuition costs due to the weakening of the dollar against the pound. The 15- to 21-month flexible program costs £44,490 ($88,700) and currently boasts 53 U.S. students in the 2008 graduating class.

Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

Known as the oldest university in the English-speaking world, the University of Oxford has garnered a reputation for its internationally focused MBA program that has proved a particular hit with students looking for careers in the financial-services sector. Established in 1996, the Saïd Business School, named after Saudi Arabian businessman Wafic Saïd, boasts a smaller class size (220 for 2007) than most of its U.S. counterparts and draws applicants from more than 40 countries.

According to Simon Tankard, Saïd's head of careers services, 94% of the 2007 class was international students, with North Americans constituting 26% of the overall intake. "A lot of the overseas students end up staying in the U.K.," he says. "We start working with them three months before they arrive in Oxford to help with the recruitment process."

That attention to detail definitely pays off. More than 90% of MBA graduates looking for jobs receive at least one offer within three months of completing the program. The top spot for students is the financial-services industry, which absorbed 38% of the 2007 class, while 12% of graduates end up in consulting. The average post-MBA annual salary is currently £65,000 ($130,000), with 48% of students relocating to different countries after graduation.

Anna Farrus, Saïd's admissions manager, reckons a lot of this success comes from the diverse range of electives offered during the one-year course. Ranging from more traditional courses, such as private equity and financial risk management, to more progressive classes, such as social entrepreneurship and online media strategies, students can tailor their MBAs to specific interests. "Such diversity [of interests] allows them to learn a lot from each other," she says.

It also helps to be part of an almost 1,000-year-old academic institution that has educated Stephan Hawking, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Bill Clinton. Combined with Saïd's well-earned standing as a leading European b-school, this heritage gives students an all-around experience while they complete their business education.

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