Bart Knols, 42, has learnt about malaria the hard way. He has suffered from it nine times. In Africa he almost lost his wife Inga to it. Having seen its effects as a young man, Knols dedicated himself to fighting the disease, and at 32, with a PhD in medical entomology, he was running a research station on the shores of Lake Victoria, with more than 100 staff. Slowly he came to realise that scientific knowledge on its own might not be enough. But it was while working for the United Nations in Vienna that he was introduced to the Open University's MBA course.
Three years later Knols has his Masters of Business Administration degree – and more. This month he was named the Association of MBAs' Student of the Year, an annual competition run in association with The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
"This is indeed a great honour for me," he told the assembly of students, faculty and business leaders at the association's gala dinner in London. "Even more so in the year that marks the association's 40th anniversary. There is a pressing need for management training to turn developing country scientists into global public health players."
The judges were looking for graduates not only with academic excellence but also with a commitment to their business school, who could enhance the value and worth of the MBA in the marketplace. In Knols they have found a worthy ambassador, but the competition was tight. In one way or another, all the finalists had looked beyond the balance sheet and applied their management tools to the wider problems of society.
The other three finalists were Aimee Abbott Cocco, Benjamin Haan and Bjorn Dudok van Heel.
Abbott Cocco, 31, grew up in the Dominican Republic, where she took degrees in economics and corporate finance, helping to set up her country's first credit bureau. The country's largest commercial bank, Banco Popular Dominicano, offered her paid leave to do an MBA at the Instituto de Empresa Business School in Madrid. The experience, she says, has helped her grow as a person. She has forged links between Empresa and her country, and is also a director of Fundació* San Miguel Arcángel, a non-profit organisation that provides loans to poor rural families, allowing them to invest in income-generating activities.
Haan, 29, spent seven years as a consultant at Accenture, specialising in business transformation consulting, before his two-year MBA at Australia's Monash University. He wanted to move into private equity, a step that recruitment companies were telling him was "impossible" given his background. He has just started working for Partners Group, a Swiss Alternative Investments company which, says Haan, specifically targeted MBA graduates. At Monash he provided support on the MBA student committee and led a winning team in an international entrepreneurial competition.
Finally, Dudok van Heel, 29, studied law with the Open University before taking his MBA at Rotterdam School of Management/Erasmus University, and now works at F. van Lanschot Bankers. He also sits on the board of the Peduli Anak Foundation, a global NGO which fights for the rights of street children. "The combination of business and development work will become the new trend in the 21st century," he says. "Every person has to contribute not only to nature as a whole, but also to the ones for whom prosperity is only an abstract term."
AMBA has broadened its scope considerably since its formation in 1967 by a group of eight UK graduates from Harvard and Wharton. Jeanette Purcell, chief executive, said the organisation had now accredited 139 programmes in 66 countries – and Sir Paul Judge, the president, added that the tally would shortly rise to 140 with the acceptance of a programme in Kuala Lumpur.
To mark the anniversary, 21 diverse businessmen and women have agreed to be patrons of the association. They include Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, Sir Ronald Cohen, Sir Donald Cruickshank, Will Hutton and Lord Sainsbury of Turville. Announcing a change to AMBA's constitution – from December business schools as well as alumni will be represented on the management board – Sir Paul said the MBA continued to be the most revered management qualification worldwide.
Phil Walker, chief operating officer of Capgemini Consulting, recalled his days as a boy with a "sawn-off peashooter" in Bridgetown, Barbados, but warned that the days of being able to rise to the top from the shop floor were over – at least in the West. "Take some risks," he advised newly qualified MBAs. "And remember that understanding is enhanced by interaction. That's why the wise man in the village always replies to your question with a riddle."
'The management of disease control poses the biggest hurdle'
Bart Knols from Holland, AMBA Student of the Year, is 42 and his success proves that the MBA can be life-changing at almost any age. He has spent almost 20 years in East and Southern Africa tackling insect-transmitted diseases.
"Malaria kills a child every 30 seconds," he says. "Once you see 10 African babies in a wooden box with needles stuck in their skull to deliver quinine, it brings drive one could not imagine. But it is not merely the drugs, the insecticides or maybe a vaccine... it is the management of disease control that poses the biggest hurdle."
Knols prepared for his MBA exams in the middle of the Sahara. His coursework on creativity and innovation led him to pioneer a method to control mosquitoes, using a fungus, which has attracted more than $2m in research funds. "At a time when most business schools are fighting for turf in India and China, there is a blue ocean waiting in Africa," he said. "My management education taught me that when everybody zigs, you zag."
Now he has challenged his own business school, the Open University, to help him develop a one-year management curriculum for young and talented African scientists.Reuse content