Amba Student Of The Year Award: Finalists show why 'the nerds don't win'

'I'm looking for the chance to start my own business'

Three months ago, like a good MBA student, Alem Muminovic identified his priorities - and bought a one-way ticket to Mexico. The most important thing in his life, he had decided, was to be with his girlfriend Lorena Gutiérrez in her native Guadalajara.

This month, however, Muminovic was back in Europe, and for the best of reasons. He was chosen as the Association of MBAs' Student of the Year, an annual competition run in association with The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. "This is a great honour for me," he told the assembly of students, faculty and business leaders at the association's gala dinner in London. "People will see me as a role model."

The judges certainly hope so. It was a close contest, but in Muminovic they found the best match for their criteria. They were looking for graduates not only with academic excellence but also with a commitment to their business school, who could enhance the value of the MBA in the marketplace and who had contributed to the internationalism of their course - helping others to integrate, for example.

Lucy Hodges, education features editor of The Independent, who presented the awards, put it succinctly: "The nerds don't win."

The other short-listed candidates - Madhav Bellamkonda, Eunice Lim and Simon Wright - are representative of the internationalism of today's MBA.

Bellamkonda, 36, from Bangalore, was a business development director in India before taking an MBA at Strathclyde Graduate School of Business, where he founded a business forum to forge links between local industries and students. It also helped in team-building.

His belief in an individual's capacity for change springs from personal experience. As a Hindu teenager he was running into trouble, but "a dramatic encounter" led him to the Assemblies of God, he says. An ordained pastor and trained counsellor, he has been helping at advice centres for young people in Strathclyde.

Originally from Singapore, Lim is currently on a work placement as an analyst after finishing her MBA in international business at the ENPC School of International Management in Paris. The citation from her college pointed to her "positive and constructive class spirit".

She has worked in three continents and speaks five languages and two Chinese dialects, so she has been good at helping other international students to integrate into the course and adapt to French life. She also created a non-profit association to help poor Asian women with Parisian bureaucracy.

Finally, Wright, 41, is an Englishman who emigrated to Sydney, Australia. Two years ago, after a career in the media and IT sectors, he became national manager of corporate partnerships for the Smith Family, a social enterprise in Australia. He then won a scholarship to take an MBA in corporate social responsibility at Nottingham University Business School.

As MBA social secretary he has organised social activities including an international food festival, sporting and social events and excursions, and the MBA soccer programme. He has also been mentoring the long-term unemployed.

The AMBA audience heard a forthright defence of the MBA against its various critics from Paul Danos, Dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, one of America's top schools. Criticism of the degree, he said, has become fashionable.

"A few years ago applications were down and critics said deficiencies in our programmes were the cause. Today, we know that their reports of our demise were grossly exaggerated."

According to Danos, the detractors said the research was irrelevant, that the material was outdated or that the MBA did not teach students to be managers. Some even said they weren't teaching management and lamented the influence of economic theories on management research.

In reply, Danos pointed out that at the top schools, full-time students were in their late twenties or early thirties, with a wealth of management experience already under their collective belts. Critics of research, he suggested, read too many popular books and not enough peer-reviewed papers.

"Business people know that research published in our top journals is very important. Our researchers deal with real data and real businesses, with very practical topics.

"At Tuck, the average student triples his salary and the average international student has a five-fold increase. So to say that there is no value to the MBA is factually wrong. Many of the critics are just making rhetorical points; just being provocative. The MBA is changing people's lives. I don't think the critics understand that."

Reinforcing the point, Jeanette Purcell, AMBA's chief executive, said the association was going from strength to strength. "We now have 120 accredited business schools and demand for accreditation grows from year to year."

Next year, AMBA will mark its 40th birthday with a special gala in Moscow.

Alem Muminovic, 27, AMBA'S Student of the Year, is anything but a nerd. He completed his MBA this year, graduating with honours from the International University of Monaco. Analytically minded and a strategic thinker, he is an experienced entrepreneur in the medical device industry and worked for Össur HF in Iceland and Holland as global product manager until 2005.

At the age of 13, he left his native Bosnia with his family, settling first in Croatia, then in Sweden. Altogether he has lived in eight countries and speaks English, German, Swedish and Bosnian, to which he can now add Spanish, learnt this year.

"With my background it's difficult to know where home is," he says. "If I've slept one night somewhere, I call it home." But he can now see himself settling in his girlfriend's native Mexico.

He chose Monaco for his MBA because he wanted an international career. He knew the ways of Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and Britain, but not the Latin culture. The MBA, he says, was hard work but also seemed like a vacation in a safe environment.

Now Muminovic is starting a new life in Mexico. He has been exploring his options. "I'm looking for the chance to start my own business, but I also have two job opportunities - teaching at a university or working for a system integration company," he says.

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