Why Asia’s elite is signing up for American MBAs

March 29, 2013, 3:31 PM UTC
UNC’s Kenan Flagler Business School

(Poets&Quants) — Why would Ning Zhai fly more than 7,300 miles to Chapel Hill, North Carolina for business classes? The 37-year-old already has an MBA and a successful career as the general manager for EasyWay Electronics, a high-tech manufacturer in Shanghai.

But Zhai, who also goes by Amy, recognized that Asia’s business climate was changing. She believes she needs fresh knowledge about manufacturing, global supply chains, and international markets to stay competitive. So she enrolled in the Global Supply Chain Leaders Program, a dual-degree executive MBA program at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina and Tsinghua University in Beijing.

“I was young when I got my first MBA,” she says, “but after working, I felt this program would improve me professionally. It would help improve my thinking from an international viewpoint.”

Zhai isn’t the first Chinese executive to turn westward for an executive education. The demand for advanced business degrees is growing among Asia’s professional set, and American and European business schools are partnering with institutions in the East to offer executive MBA and other programs. China’s rapid economic development has sparked a series of growing pains, including a shortage of managerial talent. Asia’s business class is eager to fill that void and enrolling in EMBA programs.

The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University teamed up with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology to offer an executive MBA program that has snagged the top spot in the Financial Times’ EMBA rankings for four years in a row. The business schools at University of Maryland and Arizona State University are among a handful of other American institutions that have established ties with China to offer EMBA programs. B-schools in other countries have also embraced the trend. INSEAD and the University of Western Ontario in Canada offer Chinese executives the opportunity to grab an international EMBA.

The UNC-Tsinghua program welcomed its first class of 24 Chinese executives, including four women, in October 2012. Similar to Zhai, the majority of students are experienced professionals — they have an average of 21 years of work experience. For one-third of the program, students attend class in Beijing once a month from Friday to Sunday. The remaining portion is taught through global residencies and two 16-day sessions in Chapel Hill.

The program will set executives back $60,000, not including residency costs. But the sticker price didn’t dissuade Dong Ren, 42, a manager at CITIC International Logistics. “It’s a dream for me,” he says. “I don’t think it’s too large of an investment.” Ren is paying his own way through the program and aims to start a private company.

Demand for programs like the one at UNC partly stems from China’s growing status as an economic heavyweight. As companies expand into new markets, executives are opting to acquire skills to take their businesses to the next level. In Zhai’s case, her company is eyeing international expansion, particularly in the U.S. Her employer is paying for her degree so she’ll be able to bring global supply chain expertise to bear on the company’s growth plans.

Another UNC-Tsinghua student, Tiejun Liu, 39, saw value in broadening his global perspective. As the chief representative at Hong Kong Quam Securities, Liu has a wealth of experience in Asia’s financial industry, but he wanted a better understanding of business theory. “It’s a different way of thinking,” he says. U.S. professors walk you through business cases, and their analyses offer a different viewpoint, he adds. The global residencies, which include trips to Dubai and Seattle, also provided opportunities to learn about different cultures and expand his worldview, Liu says.

The UNC-Tsinghua EMBA program is rather unique in that it offers a dual emphasis on business and engineering, says to Jayashankar M. Swaminathan, associate dean of the program. Graduates walk away with a master of business administration from UNC and a master of engineering management from Tsinghua.

The program initially focused on attracting students with a technical or manufacturing background who had assumed leaderships positions in business. But Swaminathan discovered that students with investment, finance, and marketing backgrounds were also signing up. “I think the program is going to be much broader than we initially thought,” he says.

The students are also a bit older than many of their American or European counterparts. The average student age at the UNC-Tsinghua program is 41. By comparison, the average age of American EMBA students in 2010 was 37.1, according to Executive MBA Council data.  Swaminathan says that many students in China lacked access to cutting-edge management education after graduating from college. “Many of these people are not looking to make a career switch. They’re looking to enrich their current careers even further.”

But the program has faced some hiccups. “Anytime you’re talking about collaboration across continents, it’s challenging,” Swaminathan says. “UNC is the oldest public university and so we have processes in place that we must adhere to. On the other hand, Tsinghua has its own set of regulations and policies, so coming up with a process and program that works at both ends was extremely challenging.”

Fortunately, the students seem to be adjusting just fine. Zhai says one of the highlights of the program has been the UNC campus and the cuisine. “I like the food better than in China,” she says with a laugh.

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