Student of the year: The cream of the crop

Peter Brown and Martin Cullingford meet the finalists of this year's MBA Student of the Year
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The Independent Online

Glance at an MBA class and one thing is immediately obvious: there's no such thing as a typical MBA student. Different ages, different nationalities, different educational and career backgrounds; the only thing that unites them is a rigorous work ethic and a determination to succeed.

At least, that is, among the best of them – and what's the point of enrolling on an MBA course unless that's where you want to be? That makes choosing the four MBA Student of the Year finalists a tough decision.

Now in its tenth year the competition, run jointly by The Independent and the Association of MBAs (AMBA), is designed to highlight the value of the MBA, both to businesses and to individuals. It highlights the all-round contribution required of a MBA student. Academic achievement is, of course, vital, but as this year's finalists prove it's the vision and ability to add that elusive "extra" element to their exam results that really makes the difference.

The finalists are nominated from students at AMBA's accredited business schools and this year there were a record number of entries, says Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of AMBA. "The judges found it difficult enough to pick the shortlist of 10. Picking the four finalists was almost impossible. The standard was incredibly high.

The award is one of the ways AMBA advocates the benefits of the MBA and champions the achievements of accredited schools.

In some ways last year's MBA Student of the Year, Alem Muminovic, epitomises the modern global businessman. He certainly needs no lessons in adaptability. Muminovic, now 28, had worked in Bosnia, Sweden, Iceland and Holland, and took his MBA in Monaco.

In other ways, however, he is different. At the age of 13, he left war-torn Bosnia with his family. They settled first in Croatia, and then, in response to letters of appeal, were accepted as refugees in Sweden. "My friends call me the Gypsy," he says, "because with my background it's difficult to know where home is. If I've slept one night somewhere, I call it home. So it'll be a challenge for me to stay in one place a long time."

This time last year, having won the award, he was about to start a new life with his girlfriend Lorena Gutiérrez Fridman, a mergers and acquisitions consultant, in her native Guadalajara, Mexico. "I flew over on the Saturday and on the Monday I was in a language school learning Spanish."

With yet another language under his belt he found work with Nissan Renault Finance in Mexico City. But then the competition played another role in his life.

"I got a call from Bosnia. Someone had seen an article about my win." Now he is back in Europe, based in Wolfsburg, near Hanover, and working for a family-owned firm, Prevent, where the core business is car seat covers. They have 11,000 employees worldwide.

Alem is currently commuting between German, Split and Dubai and Lorena is waiting for a visa to join him. They plan to get married next year in Mexico. "Then we will give ourselves five years to do international business, while we have no children."

Has the prize made a difference? "My parents and family are very proud of me. For myself it gave me confidence and a kick. It made me realise I should really exploit my capabilities. I have maybe grasped the opportunities quicker. And, as you have seen, I have moved because of it."

This year's shortlisted candidates are no less internationally orientated.



Aimee Abbott Cocco

Aimee Abbott Cocco's CV reveals an impressively single-minded pursuit of a career in finance. As a teenager in the Dominican Republic she spent most summers working in financial institutions. As an economics undergraduate her courses spanned the theory and practice of management and finance, while outside the classroom she helped to create and operate her country's first credit bureau. "I learned the difficulty of setting up a company, but I also enjoyed the pride of being part of something that definitely changed credit history in my country," she says.

This was followed by a postgraduate degree in corporate finance. In 2000 she joined Banco Popular Dominicano – the country's largest commercial bank, on whose behalf she was managing multi-million dollar deals. They sponsored her through a six-month diploma in risk management before offering her paid leave to do an MBA at the Instituto de Empresa Business School in Madrid. It has been, she says, an invaluable experience.

"The MBA is giving me the tools and helping me develop the skills I need to handle complex business situations," says Cocco, who is 31 and married to a Dominican lawyer. "It has helped me understand the drivers of contemporary business, and furnished me with a solid working knowledge of marketing, sales, information systems, organisational behaviour and HR management."

Equally important, she adds, has been the opportunity to build up short-term and long-term relationships with other foreign students from diverse economic, social and professional backgrounds.

"I had been thinking about the MBA for a while but the fact that I had to leave my family behind made it very difficult for me. It helped me realise how much I meant to my partner, who was willing to put his professional life on pause to accompany me to Madrid, and how we take our families for granted sometimes. Finally, it has helped me open up a lot more and be less introverted."

Throughout her studies, Cocco has sought to forge links between Instituto de Impresa and her country. She has offered to liaise between Spanish residents and the Dominican Republic. She's also a member of the board of directors of Fundació* San Miguel Arcángel, a non-profit organisation that provides loans to poor rural families to enable them to invest in income-generating activities, raising the quality of life of both themselves and their communities.



Benjamin Haan

Many people choosing to take an MBA recognise that the qualification is vital in making a change of career direction. Benjamin Haan, 29, had spent seven years as a consultant at Accenture, specialising in business transformation consulting, working on projects as geographically separated as Sweden and India and including clients as diverse as Unilever and the Australian Tax Office. But he wanted to move into private equity, a step that recruitment companies were telling him was impossible given his background.

A two-year full-time MBA from Australia's Monash University later, and he's now on the road to exactly where he wants to be. "Quite simply I wouldn't have been able to get the job I have just commenced without my MBA," he says. He's just started working for Partners Group, a Swiss Alternative Investments company which, says Haan, specifically targeted MBA graduates for its Associate Programme, its internal training scheme for new investment professionals.

Haan also demonstrates the advantage of keeping a specific goal in mind from the very beginning of the MBA. He rearranged his course the better to fit his ambitions, focusing exclusively on entrepreneurship and finance (something other students have subsequently chosen to do), and undertook a Private Equity research paper to provide him with exposure to the industry. He graduated in the top 5 per cent of the University's results.

But it's the extras on his CV which have helped make the difference. He successfully led the winning team in the 2006 Monash New Enterprise Challenge, an entrepreneurial competition run out of Monash University; the team then went on to win a national competition before representing Australia in the global Moot Corp entrepreneurial competition in Texas, for which they were given an award for Outstanding Product.

Monash University also praised Haan for serving on the MBA student committee, where he was said to provide tremendous support for his fellow students and for MBA management.

Another catalyst in Haan's success is his wife Belinda, whom he married last month. "Bel has always encouraged me to get out of consulting and into finance where my interest lies and has been a great support for me over the last 18 months." Haan is now looking forward to seeing money coming in rather than going out, he says.



Bjorn Dudok van Heel

As many of the entrants show, it is not enough today for an MBA student to be a mere master of the balance sheet or a shrewd board room operator. Business is inextricably linked with society on both a local and international scale, and the corporate leaders of tomorrow are expected to show they have the vision to see how this can be a force for good. It's all about looking outwards, not inwards.

Bjorn Dudok van Heel, born in 1978 and a graduate of Rotterdam School of Management / Erasmus University MBA course, and now working at F. van Lanschot Bankers, exemplifies this. He sits on the board of the Peduli Anak Foundation, which describes itself as a global NGO that fights for the rights of street children who suffer due to lack of upbringing, education and medical support.

His role there includes developing long term global strategic plans and taking responsibility for the social and ethical representation of the Foundation. It sounds noble, but van Heel believes this will simply become the new norm. "The combination of 'business and development work' will become the new trend in the 21st century" he says.

It's an attitude that has grown out of his work experience so far, which began not in the boardroom but in a barracks when he followed the family tradition and joined the Dutch Army, serving in the former Yugoslavia. This, and further travels, led him to the view that "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."



Bart Knols

Bart Knols from Holland is, at 42, the oldest of the short-listed finalists, but one with a remarkable story to tell. He visited Kenya aged 19 to study sleeping sickness, and vowed to devote his life to tackling insect-transmitted diseases: malaria kills a child every 30 seconds. Knols lived and worked in East Africa until, at the age of 32 and having completed a PhD in medical entomology, he was appointed director of a large research station, with a team of 35 scientists.

It was in 2003, while working in Vienna for the International Atomic Energy Agency, part of the UN, that Knols decided to start an MBA with the Open University. He may be the only MBA student to have prepared for his exams in the middle of the Sahara. His coursework on creativity and innovation led him to pioneer a new method to control mosquitoes, using a fungus, which since 2006 has attracted more than $2m (£1m) in research funds, with projects in Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.

He also used the skills learned on the MBA to help re-organise the IAEA, earning him a Special Service Award. The qualification also gave him the skills to launch, together with his wife Inga, a consultancy firm which offers management skills training to scientists and provides information on malaria to 2,300 people worldwide.

Where does he get his drive? "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.

"As a scientist I could do a lot, but now I can achieve change on a much larger scale and make a real difference. This, no doubt, would have been much more difficult without a top-class MBA", he says. "And let's be honest," he adds, "if it wasn't for the MBA I would not have been able to get a nice salary increase..."

The winner will be announced at a gala dinner in London on November 8

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