MBA Student of the Year awards: Challengers in the face of adversity

This year's finalists in the MBA Student of the Year awards are all worthy ambassadors who have helped change lives
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The Independent Online

An MBA is often seen simply as a way of improving salaries; its function as a life-changer is less well publicised. Yet all four of the finalists shortlisted for this year's MBA Student of the Year award reshaped their own lives - and those of others - by taking the degree course.

This is the eighth year of the competition, run jointly by The Independent and the Association of MBAs (Amba). It is designed to highlight the value of the MBA to business and to individuals looking for ways of developing their careers. Academic achievement is a criterion but the short-listed students must also have made a higher than normal contribution to their course - helping foreign students with language problems, for example, or mentoring other students. They have to be good all-round players who can maintain morale: ambassadors for the MBA.

The finalists are nominated from students at Amba's 111 accredited business schools. This year the judges were looking for students who had taken on challenges in the face of adversity and had shown a flair for innovation (Amba's theme for 2005). They found both in the winner, Stephen Koepplinger, who has completed his three-year part-time MBA at Strathclyde and has set up a charity to improve after-school activities for children in socially deprived areas of Scotland. He received his award on November 10 at a gala dinner at Whitehall's historic banqueting hall.

"Stephen is a deserving winner," says Jeanette Purcell, Amba's chief executive. "The judges were impressed by his energy and entrepreneurial spirit. He has clearly used his experience, ideas and learning from the MBA towards the greater social good.

"I was impressed by the sheer determination of all the finalists to enhance their learning and improve themselves in the face of considerable odds."

Pauline Hobson, one of the short-listed candidates, has certainly done that. After leaving school at 15 she took a day-release ONC (BTec) in business administration and then an A-level in economics. By 1991 she was a qualified ACCA accountant. She is now business improvement and change programme director with Serco Home Affairs, part of the Serco Group in the UK.

At her MBA distance learning programme at Oxford Brookes University, which she started in July 2003, she won a distinction. The university says that Pauline, who is in her late 40s, made "an outstanding contribution" to her MBA. In particular she set up a learning network with London-based students, hosting social gatherings "so we could share our experiences, talk about issues and support one another".

The course, she says, gave her a greater awareness of her weaknesses as well as her strengths, and allowed her to stretch herself. "The MBA has given me the confidence to work outside my comfort zone. It has also enabled me to achieve academic excellence - something I never knew I was capable of."

Another candidate who has changed other people's lives is Dr John Farrell, whose Open University MBA allowed him to develop the people management, strategic management, marketing and creativity skills he needed as acting general manager for Pfizer in Ireland.

His tutors commented that throughout, the course he was an active participant, not just in tutorials and residential sessions, but also in the OU online community. Specifically they pointed to his ability to turn from his own multinational organization to the issues involved in the smaller businesses of some other students.

Since qualifying, Dr Farrell, 41, has mentored other Pfizer Ireland OU students taking their MBAs. All of this was achieved while working full-time, being part of the local Pfizer merger team when Pfizer merged with Pharmacia in 2003, moving home, being involved in charity events and finding time for his wife and three children.

He has expanded the medical department in Pfizer Ireland to include clinical research and regulatory groups and is currently working on a project to obtain free medicines for an orphanage in Kampala, Uganda.

The pressures of combing family life with work persuaded Michel Le Bars to take his MBA at HEC, the business school near Paris. As a manager with Total, the oil company, in charge of drilling operations on exploration projects offshore Brazil, he and his wife had lived as expatriates in three different countries for four years. They wanted to settle down for a while so that their young daughters could get to know their grandparents. She did a masters in HR & International Mobility while he joined HEC.

Through the college Le Bars, 34, met an HEC alumnus who came from his home village near Brest, in Brittany. Through him he found out about his present job at Alcan, where he is now design quality manager for the packaging beauty division (with 10,000 employees). His role encompasses responsibilities in terms of quality, cost and lead-time for all new product development over 34 sites worldwide.

"I consider the HEC MBA a winning experience," he says. "I feel fully comfortable today with my life. My salary package is about 40 per cent higher than my previous job, I obtained a welcome bonus that pays for half the tuition fees and I have promising job perspectives."

More than that, his children now also know their grandparents. In fact they were staying with them while Le Bars travelled to London to receive his award.

'Trying to overcome bureaucratic throttles'

At school in Ohio, in the US, Stephen Koepplinger suffered from a bad stammer. "I was in remedial English and people called me a retard. I did a little running after school but I told the local hardware store manager that I was going to give it up and work for him full-time. He said 'What? And work in a store for the rest of your life?'

"He kept me running and transformed my life. I got a running scholarship to go to university. I wasn't very good at it but the point about sport is that it gives you discipline and makes you feel confident about everything. School sport is vitally important to the educational process."

It was that conviction that persuaded him to give up his job as a WS Atkins senior engineer to become a maths teacher at a secondary school in a socially deprived area of Glasgow.

The disaffection he saw made him determined to set up a charity aimed at improving the social engagement of 12-14 year olds by involving them in sporting activities and widening their horizons. To help him learn how to do it he enrolled for a three-year part-time MBA at the University of Strathclyde Graduate School of Business (USGSB). And last week he became AMBA's Student of the Year.

In particular he found a one-week course at the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship inspirational. "They gave us three case studies a day about people who changed policies and made it happen."

With some seed money from Scotland Unltd, Koepplinger has set up a social initiative called ASAP (After School Activities Programme; which promotes extra-curricular activities and work with charitable organisations. His vision for it is to help young people who are trapped in vicious circles and guide them into virtuous ones. His ultimate aim is to roll out a national expansion programme.

"I'm trying to overcome the bureaucratic throttles involved in after-school activities. Teacher-coaches themselves are wonderful but there simply aren't enough of them. We also need people from the general community coming in and volunteering in the schools."

Last year he won a Winston Churchill Foundation travel scholarship to Australia and New Zealand to research sport in schools, a trip that gave him plenty of material for his MBA dissertation. Now he hopes to put everything he learnt on that trip intro practice.