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Education special: Management

MBA with a Difference

For all the wild stories, the Indian route to success has long been fixed. You got an engineering degree first, preferably from an IIT. And then you went to an IIM. You made a pit-stop at an IIM for two years and then roared past a chequered flag of a career of your choice. The MBA, as it was sold, wasn’t just a management degree. Sure, it did offer lessons on business achievement and problem solving. But more importantly, it plugged you to an elite

network of fellow and past MBAs and signalled to prospective employers how good you were, since you had been good enough to be accepted by a prestigious business school in the first place.

This was all true till a few years ago. The MBA dream has now undergone a radical transformation. It is now not just a programme that engineering students mostly get through. As business schools and industry recruiters look for more diversity, working professionals— from doctors and journalists to public relations professionals and their ilk—are being admitted to MBA programmes. The very model of the course is seeing changes. There isn’t just the traditional two-year-long programme where students are generalists in their first year, whilst specialising in their chosen fields in their second year. Business schools now offer one-year-long niche or specialist MBAs that cram the essentials of a two-year business curriculum into a single year. And the market and its ever-changing demands are throwing up diverse and hitherto unheard-of specialisations in India, from sports and luxury brand management to social entrepreneurship and rural management.

After working at IBM for over two years and at Citibank as a marketing executive for about a year, Mohit Verma, a Lucknow-born commerce graduate quit his job to prepare for the Common Admission Test (CAT), the tough entrance examination to get into an IIM. Verma’s aim was to get into any of India’s top-tier business schools, and use the business knowledge and networks he’d gain there to start a business of his own, although he was unsure about what business he wanted to pursue.

Verma failed to qualify for any of the IIMs. But during the course of his preparation, he came to learn of another management related course, something vastly different from any he’d heard of, a two-year course that taught business management and developed entrepreneurial skills but whose aim was not just the profitability of the venture but also the betterment of everyone involved in the business. Verma went to Mumbai, successfully appeared for an entrance examination and an interview, and joined Mumbai’s premier social sciences institute, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), which was offering this two-year MA in social entrepreneurship. “When I first heard about the course and looked up the details of its modules, it just spoke to me,” says Verma. “I knew this would be it.”

The course in social entrepreneurship, with its business school approach to problem solving and analytics, and its emphasis on entrepreneurship, blends the best of what an MBA teaches and applies it to the social sector. It was first started in 2007, when around 25 students applied for 14 seats. Today, TISS has 30 seats for the course and gets at least around 2,500 applications every year.

According to Professor Satyajit Majumdar, who is in charge of the course at the School of Management and Labour Studies, TISS, the course was established because they felt a need within the social sector for trained professionals that could set up successful businesses with social and environmental issues in mind. “There are many NGOs and institutes in this sector,” he says, “But what we felt was really lacking were trained professionals or change agents. Not people who deal with these issues in an emotional manner, but professionals who rationally consider the problems at hand and go about solving them.”

In the first few years, TISS arranged for campus placements where top companies and NGOs came to recruit students of the course. But this has now been stopped so that students are encouraged to establish their own startups. The course also has an incubation centre where some students are mentored and provided with seed money, ranging from Rs 50,000 to Rs 30 lakh annually, depending on the scale and need of the project, to start their own ventures. The startups of around 23 former students across the country are currently being supported by TISS, and the survival rate of these ventures is about 75 per cent, which is quite high in this sector, according to Professor Majumdar.

Since Verma’s graduation from the institute in 2013, he has been able to set up, with the help of the incubation centre, a small enterprise in Lucknow called Thread Craft India. Here, he employs women who do chikankari work, a form of embroidery done in Lucknow, and sells products on order to various design houses in cities like Mumbai and Delhi. “The whole course is geared towards understanding what you want to do and what business you want to establish. For field visits, we are taken to the most derelict of villages, and to places like Anandwan [a community rehabilitation centre for leprosy and disabled patients, established by the social activist Baba Amte in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district], so that we understand the problems that are around, and how we can come up with effective and economically sustainable activities to solve them,” Verma says. According to him, the chikankari industry is extremely dis- organised and its female artisans often make less than Rs 700 per month. “It is an industry with a lot of potential, and, with some application of mind, one can help artisans as well as create a successful and profitable business,” he says. “What I have done is removed the middlemen who made most of the money. And I have got artisans, whom I offer much higher wages, to come daily to a centre for work. I’ve been able to tie up with design houses in other bigger cities, and I’m currently trying to work out deals with design houses in the US.”

Apart from social entrepreneurship, there are several other specialised management courses that are coming up, most of them market-driven. The likes of telecom, healthcare, and real estate have become especially popular, given how these sectors are booming in India. Entrepreneurship in itself has become another favourite. There are also niche management courses like luxury brand management, offered by FAD International in Pune, a popular fashion and design school, and courses like that of supply-chain management, a programme that is designed specific- ally for companies that have complex distribution systems.

At Kolkata’s Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management (IISWBM), considered India’s first business school, set up initially by the British government for qualified labour officers in the pre-Independence era and re-established in 1953 as a business school, this focus on emerging market demands has led the institute to offer perhaps the country’s first course in sports manage- ment. The course, a post-graduate diploma in sports management affiliated to Calcutta University, was first established in 2003—at a time, its lecturers claim, when the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) was becoming a more corporatised body. “Today this sector is exploding with potential,” says Madhab Milan Ghosh, a faculty member. “There is a lot of money being invested in a number of league tournaments of different sporting events. There are sports bodies like the BCCI and All India Football Federation, coaching institutes, sporting clubs, etcetera. And increasingly, they are looking at people who understand and are passionate about the sport while being trained professionals to manage the affairs.”

Currently the course has around 30 seats, and its faculty members range from people who have worked at international sports management bodies like IMG (International Management Group) and been part of sports bodies like All India Football Federation (AIFF) and Asian Rowing Federation (ARF), to even a First Class umpire affiliated to the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB). Students are made to do internships at various sports bodies and clubs. Ankan Banerjee, an assistant professor at the IISWBM, says, “As markets mature, and different needs emerge, management institutes will have to fashion themselves around them to stay relevant.” “Sport bodies aren’t particularly well organised now,” he adds. “And the demand for trained professionals is gradual. But as a boom takes place, which looks likely in a few years, we will be around with our graduates for it.” Students who have graduated from the institute are currently working with sport bodies like the International Cricket Council (ICC), BCCI, and AIFF, apart from sports academies and clubs.

According to Manish Gupta, a former IIT student and alumnus of the Indian School of Business (ISB), and currently a consultant at MBA Crystall Ball, an MBA admissions consulting firm, the field of MBA education in India changed in the early part of the 2000s with the successful emergence of the Indian School of Business. “ISB based its admission on the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), unlike the IIM’s preference for CAT. It also began to offer, unlike the IIMs, a one-year specialised MBA course, which was particularly attractive to mid- level working professionals, who could take a year-long hiatus from work for the course. Soon other institutes, including some of the IIMs began to follow with courses for such working professionals,” Gupta says. “In fact, even when the recession hit the Indian market, these top tier schools didn’t do too badly. Many working professionals decided to take a break from their work during the slowdown so that they could invest in themselves by pursuing an MBA degree.”

There is also now much more industry participation with business schools, both at the funding and research levels. One such collaboration is the unique tie-up between two giants in their respective fields, Bharti Telecom and IIT Delhi, coming together to offer courses in the field of telecommunications. The School currently offers an MTech in Telecom Technology and Management, and an MBA in Telecom System Management, apart from a PhD programme. “When we started in 2000, we realised the boom Indian telecom was experiencing. And we felt that by collaborating with Bharti, we could bring out telecom specialists, people who could lead the field in the years to come,” says Professor Shankar Prakriya, the coordinator of the course. “The courses were formulated with a lot of participation from the industry. Thus, it has evolved into one of the most focused and industry-relevant courses taught anywhere in the country.”

Another interesting trend within management education is the increasing number of graduates who choose not to take up high-paying corporate jobs, but instead decide to start a venture of their own. Institutes now offer more help, with seed money and mentoring, and students, looking at the number of successful companies that have established over the last few years, want to utilise their education and network of friends to establish their own businesses. Gupta says, “You walk into any MBA classroom and many of its students will say they want to become entrepreneurs, something you hardly saw a few years ago.”

Varun Kumar, a former TV news anchor with a national channel, enrolled himself for ISB’s one-year-long MBA programme in Marketing and Strategy in 2013. He was selected, he believes, because the institute was looking for students with diverse back- grounds. “Apart from engineers and commerce graduates,” he says, “I was surprised to find there were fashion designers, doctors, PR professionals, and a newspaper journalist.” As part of his project, Kumar worked with a leading TV channel to come up with a plan to monetise content that has already been telecast. By the end of the project, he had an attractive job offer, and by the end of the course, another offer by an infotech company. But he declined both of them to start his own venture, knowledgeXP, which offers what it calls experiential learning for school students. “I know I can become the typical MBA degree holder and take a high-paying corporate job,” he says. “But what I really wanted was something of my own."