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Exploring China’s Spirit of Entrepreneurship

With years of consulting experience to his name, Tommaso Tomoli was already used to thinking flexibly yet pragmatically before coming to CEIBS for his MBA. However, it was here that he went – in his own words – from having a highly Eurocentric view of the business world to developing a much more global outlook.

Key to that transition was his discovery of just how strongly entrepreneurship factors into the Chinese attitude towards both work and study.

Tommaso with his new class mates at the Opening Ceremony for MBA 2016

Choosing CEIBS

With almost three years of consulting experience with Ernst & Young, Tommaso quickly cultivated a range of exciting prospects for his MBA. Ultimately, CEIBS appealed most to his sense of adventure, as it represented a chance to unlock a whole new way of thinking by placing him at the heart of Asia’s rapidly evolving future.

“While I had briefly worked in places like Spain and Indonesia, I had mostly lived and worked in Italy,” he says. “I thought the MBA was a great opportunity to launch into something far removed from what I already knew, and Asia seemed like the best region to explore for that purpose.”

Acclimatising to CEIBS, Shanghai and China

By his own admission, language skills are not Tommaso’s strong suit! However, this initial shortcoming quickly proved to be the catalyst that pushed him come to grips with everything his new surroundings had to offer.

“I’m really bad with languages, so the one-month full immersion Chinese language course at the beginning of my MBA was incredibly useful, and I absolutely loved it,” he recalls. “It was a big part of what made the acclimatisation process feel fun, rather than just something to get through.”

Learning Mandarin was only one aspect of the settling-in phase, as Tommaso quickly saw that he could learn as much from his peers philosophically as he could linguistically. Of all the differences he noted between the European and Chinese approaches to business studies, the entrepreneurial spirit of the student body stood out the most.

Learning Chinese as part of the MBA Pre-Course

“I remember feeling pleasantly shocked by how many people genuinely wanted to be entrepreneurs. During my time there, CEIBS had something of a dual soul, a roughly equal split between Chinese and international students, which was a big plus point for me,” he says. “It struck me that if you went to a European university, there would be only a couple of prospective entrepreneurs, but there was a much stronger spirit at CEIBS. It was clear to me how my Chinese classmates were generally ahead of their European counterparts in terms of having the instinctive vision and the passion to develop their own business concepts – so I knew there was a lot to be learned.”

Tommaso adds that he believes that diving head first into a language and culture that are broadly unfamiliar to you is excellent preparation for anyone hoping to be effective in an international business environment. It is simply a reflection of the business world we now face that you cannot always speak the primary language of the people you want to do business with as well as you would like. Accordingly, you need to get used to that feeling and discover your own methods to better communicate your viewpoint to clients and colleagues as you get to know them.

“Double Happiness”

Making the most of what’s on offer

“What I struggled with most was trying to fit everything in! It’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed by the opportunities on hand,” Tommaso admits. “The people I admired most at CEIBS were those who saw exactly what they wanted to do and knew how they would get the most out of it. That’s a good skill for anyone to acquire.”

Tommaso learned to juggle course material with his linguistic studies while enjoying the more social elements of campus life as well as exploring the vibrancy of Shanghai itself.

“Like any school, it’s not for everyone. Coming to grips with the language is tough, but if you’re interested in this part of the world, CEIBS is a great place to connect with it,” he says. “The sense of community is fantastic because being set back from the centre of the city makes it very campus-centric.”

Despite the busy schedule, he also found time to get involved with the school’s Entrepreneurship Club. This was a chance to further explore the feeling he had noticed on arrival that there was more to learn from his peers’ attitude towards business.

Bonding over extra-curricular activities  

“One of my classmates from my first term at CEIBS was the President of the Entrepreneurship Club, and he asked me to be the treasurer. I was happy to agree because not only did I want to tackle something entirely new and different, I thought it would be a good chance to gain new perspective,” he says. “All the other members were Chinese, and I was able to learn so much about their approach to entrepreneurship, the ambitions they had and how they planned to make them into reality. Through them, and the fantastic speakers we managed to attract to our events, I got a much better sense of what it actually means to be an entrepreneur.”

Taking the next step: From China to Singapore

After graduating from CEIBS with an MBA, Tommaso made the move to Singapore where he spent the next few years working for consulting firms Parthenon-EY and then LEK. While consulting was already familiar ground for him, his studies reinforced his knowledge and at times suggested new ways of problem solving.

Graduating from CEIBS ahead of his move to Singapore

“Consulting is a popular transition for MBA graduates and CEIBS prepares you very well for it. There’s a similar skillset at play, because in both cases you have to take a pragmatic approach to figuring out what the client needs and how best to provide it,” he says. “The courses and assignments at CEIBS go beyond basic theory and put you in situations where you need to apply that knowledge in a practical context, which is excellent preparation for the real thing.”

From consulting, Tommaso launched into a very different business prospect – becoming the Head of Global Operations at Green School International. With its origins in Bali, this start-up-like enterprise is dedicated to pursuing a radically different approach to progressive education, with sustainability and values-based learning at the heart of their model.

Tommaso says that he currently “wears two hats” in his role. The first he wears when assessing market entry strategies for the group’s planned new locations, allowing him to dive deep into the realities of the education market across not just different countries, but also continents. The second hat is much more operations focused, and is worn whenever he help existing schools in Indonesia and New Zealand drive better business outcomes while remaining true to the group’s philosophy.

Looking ahead, it seems that he will be kept happily busy. Green School International is currently in the process of opening new locations in South Africa in January 2021 and then Mexico shortly thereafter, with plenty of further prospects in the pipeline.

The opening of Green School New Zealand in February 2020

Considering CEIBS: Lessons learned and applied

Looking back nearly five years, Tommaso says that his time at CEIBS plays a significant role in the way he works today. Hard skills and hard-won knowledge combined with soft skills and more general insights have broadened his perspective. They have also given him specific tools to adapt to a very different business environment from his early consulting days.

“I think the main thing I learned from CEIBS was how to make better decisions quickly. Consulting often requires a highly structured approach with plenty of time to consider everything. In a more directly entrepreneurial setup, like a start-up, you frequently have to think beyond the ‘ideal’ situation and do the best with the time and resources you have,” he says. “The MBA was great for encouraging flexibility of thinking, and that’s something you always need in today’s business world.”