Joe Zhang, principal at TNB Aura, was working as an engineer and project manager in the oil and gas industry when the oil price collapsed in 2014.
He was keen to change careers and move into the financial services sector, but when he started to apply for jobs, Zhang realised he lacked the knowledge he needed to make the switch.
As a result, he decided to do a Master of Business Administration (MBA) to fill the gaps.
The National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Business School programme stood out from other institutions for a number of reasons.
Not only did it have strong academic credentials, ranked as the top MBA programme in Singapore and the 15th best in the world in the Financial Times Global MBA rankings for 2020, but the programme’s strong focus on Asia also appealed.
In addition, Zhang says the NUS programme was better value than MBAs offered by business schools in the US and Europe, while at 17 months, it was also shorter, enabling him to get back into the workplace quicker.
He has never looked back. “I am currently working in a venture capital fund, which was a huge career switch. The MBA helped me to pick up the necessary financial knowledge and skills to make this happen,” he says.
The programme’s structure, with 10 core modules and seven electives in areas ranging from strategy, finance, consulting, innovation & entrepreneurship, analytics & operations to digital business and more, enables students to shape their learning around their own interests and career goals.
“The variety of the electives NUS offered allowed me to choose the ones that were most relevant to me, such as fund management and value investing. I also did one on entrepreneurship as I wanted to go into venture capital, so I needed to have a good understanding of what start-up founders were doing,” Zhang says.
NUS also prides itself on combining western business models with Asian perspectives, an aspect of the programme that Zhang found particularly helpful.
“The module on management strategy taught us about the classic models. But one thing we realised very quickly was that these models were derived largely from developed markets, such as the US and Europe, and the context was really quite different, making it difficult to apply to the local market in South East Asia.”
As a result, students were taught how to use local knowledge to adapt these models to Asia by identifying the critical factors in each local market.
Zhang says his learning was also enhanced by the strong international nature of the programme, with students from more than 30 nationalities across diverse backgrounds, and professors from all over the world.
“The professors were able to leverage on their experience in different markets to provide practical guidance beyond what can be found in a book. It was really interesting,” he says.
The programme offers a unique academic and experiential dual core, equipping students with a solid MBA knowledge foundation, while also helping them to build critical real-world skills. It does this through combining core academic modules, such as corporate strategy and financial management, with this learning reinforced through the hands-on experience offered through the MBA Consulting Project and the MBA Survival Kit, during which students identify and solve business problems and hone their presentation and pitching skills.
Zhang found the MBA Consulting Project, under which teams of three or four students work with a company on a complex business issue, gaining the opportunity to put some of the theory they have learned into practice, highly beneficial.
He remembers: “I was very lucky because I was selected with two other students to do a project for Goldman Sachs in their wealth management department. During that semester, I was also doing a module on fund management, where the lecturer was an ex-chairman of CFA Singapore. He was very experienced, so I was really learning all of the necessary knowledge from that class while I was doing the project.”
Alongside the focus on academic knowledge, the NUS MBA also places a high emphasis on building up students’ soft skills and experiential learning, making it a truly transformative experience.
Experiential electives include Lean Launchpad, a 10-week entrepreneurial learning programme during which students join a research project team and take inventive tech from the lab to the market. Other opportunities include TechLaunch, which sees students work in teams to conduct market research to help them derive maximum value creation from new ideas and technology, while the Singapore Biodesign Fellowship Programme offers intensive 10-month training in developing new medical device technologies for unmet clinical needs in Asia.
Students can further amplify their MBA through spending a semester at one of 60 partner universities worldwide through the Global Exchange Programme, or taking a week-long international study trip to visit local exchanges and business leaders as part of the Global Immersion Programme. There are also opportunities for industry learning and internships.
Zhang says: “I was quite introverted, and I couldn’t present myself well or communicate effectively, but during the MBA journey I built up confidence in myself. It has really helped me in personal development and my career now.”
In fact, the soft skills training started before classes even began with the five-day Launch Your Transformation bootcamp, during which students were taught how to communicate in different business scenarios and during difficult negotiations, working in small groups to role-play what they had learnt.
Zhang was also impressed by the high level of support he received in exploring new career options, with the business school helping him to set up internships through networking events and making referrals to its own contacts.
“It helped me to understand and venture into different industries, and actually opened the door for me to go into the venture capital industry eventually,” he says.
Even after graduating, Zhang continues to benefit from the business school’s strong alumni network of 38,000 graduates across the world.
“We have regular alumni events where I meet other graduates and explore whether there are any collaboration opportunities on a business level.”
He adds that some of the start-up opportunities he has explored were introduced to him by the alumni network.
To anyone thinking of taking the programme, Zhang says: “The NUS MBA is a transformative journey. Just open your mind, leave all your baggage behind and enjoy the experience. It will be very rewarding.”