Winner with a wide world view

Kathy Harvey discovers that academic excellence and imagination are the keys to being the very best
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The Independent Online

The finalists for this year's prestigious Independent MBA Student of the Year Award are proof that the qualification - increasingly a "must have" for aspiring British managers - now has global appeal. The winner of the award - run jointly by the newspaper and the Association of MBAs (AMBA) - is a Russian who studied part-time to acquire the qualification. The three runners-up are from China, Italy and India and all studied in continental Europe.

"All 82 of our accredited schools in the UK and around the world had a chance to nominate someone," says Peter Calladine, AMBA's accreditation services manager and a member of the judging panel. "This is the first time a candidate from Eastern Europe has won the competition and the first time none of the finalists was British."

Academic excellence is not enough to win the competition. The ability to work well with other students and act as an ambassador for the MBA are also important. "What distinguished the winner and runners-up was an inner strength and a sense of determination," says Judith Bufton, management development manager at Dairy Crest and a member of the judging panel.

The winner, 31-year-old Natalia Buchstaber, impressed the judges with her ability to look beyond her own achievements. "She had a wider, world view of things," says Judith Bufton. "She believed that business education had a role to play in helping Russians improve their economy."

While Natalia studied in her home country, two of the runners-up chose to go abroad for their MBA. Ye Ping, who graduated from Madrid's Instituto de Empresa, had been working in China for a consultancy helping Spanish companies to do business in China. "The MBA is becoming increasingly popular in China," she says. "I wanted to have a formal business education behind me before going further in my career; I thought it was important to go for a prestigious course in a globally recognised school."

Sarbani Bhattacharya came to Holland when her husband relocated with an international company and - despite having two young children to look after - opted to do a full-time MBA at the NIMBAS Graduate School of Management. She played a big role in helping other students with problems, getting involved in a company founded by colleagues to help others network. The third runner-up, Italian aerospace engineer Nicola Redi, was nominated by SDA Bocconi in Milan. Nicola shone academically, while throwing himself into the extra-curricular life of the MBA programme - organising an entrepreneurship club and a programme of international weeks focusing on business and cultural events.

Natalia Buchstaber, a physicist who originally trained as a maths teacher, saw her MBA dissertation on financial risk published in a Russian academic journal, but also developed a research model to help Russian bankers assess lending risk. She is now working for Russia's Central Bank.

"This award has done a great deal to highlight individual achievement," says Jon Dear, AMBA's business development co-ordinator. "But it also brings prestige to the business schools." This is the sixth year that The Independent has sponsored the award. Previous winners have come from the private and public sectors, and included part-time students who have often made personal sacrifices in order to achieve their goal.

Lawrie Procter, commercial director at The Independent, who presented the inaugural Best Practice in Marketing Award to Janet Shaner of IMD, Switzerland, says the Student of the Year Award has helped to raise the profile of the high quality accredited programmes. "We are proud to sponsor the award, which has recognised the qualities of some highly talented people."

'We can learn a lot from the experience of others'

Natalia Buchstaber already had some experience of the risks of running a business when she embarked on her MBA programme.

In 1998, she was helping to run a small consultancy specialising in organising scientific events and educational trips in Moscow. Suddenly, the Russian economy plunged into crisis. "Many people lost their money. We had huge plans for the autumn, then suddenly there was nothing," she says. When the dust cleared, she decided to investigate the possibility of doing an MBA. "I felt I had picked up bits of business knowledge, but needed more structured education." Now married with a baby daughter, she felt part-time study in Moscow was the only practical option.

"I wanted to do an internationally accredited course, but there are not many of these in Russia at the moment. I was very fortunate to be accepted onto such a good programme." She opted for the Russian Academy of National Economy, because its programme is run by Kingston University, with British lecturers travelling to Moscow to work alongside Russian colleagues. Students then graduate with an MBA from both institutions.

"She has managed to translate academic ideas into practical tools in a very non-threatening way," says Professor Robin Matthews, who nominated Natalia for the award.

Although she had never worked in banking, Natalia chose this sector for her dissertation and developed software to allow non-specialists to compare risk exposures at Russian banks. The project helped her land a job with Russia's Central Bank and - according to Professor Matthews - her reputation has attracted other students from the finance sector to the Kingston programme in Moscow.

Despite her prestigious new job, Natalia has returned to teach new MBA students and is evangelical about the need to bring business education to Russian managers. "This doesn't mean we should do everything the same way as the British or the Americans. We have our own ideas, but we can learn a lot from the experience of others. People think that if it's made in Russia the standards must be lower. But the programme I completed is sowing the seeds of understanding."