'It's all about being mindful and culturally sensitive'

MBA Student of the Year highlights role of soft skills, says Russ Thorne

Last week, the Association of MBAs (Amba) held its gala dinner in London, gathering representatives from its accredited schools worldwide. The organisation, currently celebrating its 45th anniversary, presented three annual awards on the night for innovation, entrepreneurship and individual achievement.

According to Amba chief operating officer Vanessa Harwood-Whitcher, the awards recognise schools and students who are using their MBAs to make a difference in the wider world. "These awards give Amba the opportunity to shine a light on the best demonstration of innovation, leadership and entrepreneurial spirit coming from MBA students, graduates and business schools," she says.

The MBA Student of the Year award (sponsored by The Independent) went to Husameldin Elnasri from Lancaster University Management School. Collecting his award, Elnasri – from Sudan – told the audience that he felt like an ambassador not just for his country, but for Africa and Amba as well. Joking that he is not "a numbers person," he described his relief on realising that an MBA isn't about focusing on numbers, but on people. "It is also about being mindful, culturally sensitive and emotionally intelligent," he said.

Originally a veterinary graduate, Elnasri gained a research Masters degree and has worked in both the not-for-profit and more recently corporate sectors. Describing himself as having "a keen interest in the role of business in societies", he taught part of the course on global responsibility and responsible management, bringing his experiences of implementing CSR strategies in Sudan to the classroom.

"Today's MBA programmes are helping students understand and appreciate diversity, exchange cultures and to rediscover their leadership potential," Elnasri says. "With organisations becoming increasingly global and diverse, the latter set of skills is particularly important for the managers of tomorrow."

Elnasri also believes that his own experiences of the MBA have equipped him with new skills, networks and hopefully lifelong friendships. "I can confidently say I have a better understanding of myself, my abilities and to some extent my potential," he says, but acknowledges there's always more to do. "The MBA has also made me realise my shortcomings and my enormous need to continue seeking knowledge and 'practical wisdom'."

The second award of the night, for innovation, went to Insead's sci-tech commercialiser programme. The initiative pairs MBA students with scientists working on a range of projects and uses workshops, bootcamps and bespoke training courses to uncover the commercial potential in new technological innovations.

Filipe Santos, Insead's associate professor of entrepreneurship, believes that it's vital for business schools to be at the forefront of innovation. "Given the pace of transformation in technologies and dramatic business challenges, business schools need to continue innovating to ensure a relevant and holistic education to MBA students and executives," he says. "I hope that all the students who go through the programme will gain a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, the process of commercialising technological innovations and creating value in society."

Cathal Brady, of Ultan Technologies, who won the Entrepreneurial Venture award after developing a viable software concept that met the needs of a niche market, also believes that embracing new outlooks is vital for small and large organisations alike. "The ones that encourage their workers to look for new ways to do things and to look for new lines of business are the ones that flourish."

For Brady, the MBA experience at UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School gave him knowledge and confidence in areas outside of his comfort zone and helped him to "spot opportunities that I would not otherwise have spotted". He recommends that students get the most from their studies by taking advantage of the exposure to different perspectives that an MBA provides. "It's amazing what you learn when you have people from outside your company and industry listen to and comment on your experiences."

Once students take their places in the global business community, Elnasri believes that they can make a huge difference. His message to the MBA community at large is that "you have the power to change the world: it is your responsibility to choose in which direction this change will go." And for those wondering whether or not to follow him down the MBA path? "Go for it – it will be one of the best decisions you ever made in your life."