My MBA in the Age of Ambition

September 27th, 2019. Shanghai – Strolling through the tree-lined streets of Shanghai’s former French concession, China’s love affair with the smartphone and a desire to straddle the European and Chinese business worlds – these were just some of the intriguing themes to emerge when Jan-Peter Boeckstiegel sat down with MBA Admissions to share his CEIBS experience so far.

Discovering China at Harvard

Jan-Peter’s interest in China began during his college years, pursuing Social Studies at Harvard University. His early impressions of China and Chinese businesses were formulated following a memorable seminar on Chinese business history, which dove into cases from the 19th and 20th century. “Since that class I have continued to read a lot about China and the sheer transformation of Chinese business models compared to those that were featured in historical case studies at Harvard. Like many China watchers, I had a growing sense that there is so much going on here that will influence the future – I needed to be there on the ground to have my eyes opened,” says Jan-Peter. “As European culture and businesses are geared more towards the US though, despite what I read, I still wasn’t really sure what to expect when I first stepped off the plane at Pudong airport last year.”   

Visiting friends in Shanghai, Jan-Peter spent time walking the streets of the former French concession before setting off to explore the cultural highlights of Nanjing, Beijing and Hong Kong. What struck Jan-Peter most compared to other metropolitan centres in the US and Europe was both the sense of scale across China and how different the customer experience played out here. “When you take a train in Europe, you are out of the city and into the countryside quite quickly. As I took a train to Suzhou though, it felt like Shanghai stretched on forever,” he says. “The other striking feature is that as a consumer in China, the smart phone is king. I didn’t have a Chinese bank account at that time, so I couldn’t join in the fun, but I didn’t see a single person paying with credit cards or cash throughout my trip. As someone who has worked with banks in Europe on digital transformation projects, I know the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes, both internally at the incumbent and within the entire ecosystem to get digital payments off the ground. Compared to Europe, China has completely skipped the credit card stage and is leading the way in mobile payments.”

To accompany Jan-Peter on his travels in China was a book, recommend to him, called The Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos. “I like stories of upward social mobility, self-made men and women, and good business sense. In modern China, these three are very prevalent,” he says. “The one I liked most is about a girl born to peasants in Hunan province. She worked hard and earned high scores to go to a good school, but was set back by a bad accident. Yet, with her determination, she fought through school, worked in a TV factory and eventually went on to attend university in Shanghai. When she discovered how difficult it was back then for women with graduate degrees to find a husband (and vice versa), she started a simple dating website called Love21.cn. That was in 2003. By 2010, her website had amassed 65 million registered users. Then, the site’s name was changed to Jiayuan and the founder, Gong Haiyan – or Rose Gong – became very successful. It is this drive, this battle against the odds, and spirit of entrepreneurship that really impressed me about China.”

Why CEIBS for his MBA?

Now at CEIBS, Boeckstiegel is one month into adding further educational and cultural dimensions to his already impressive CV in the shape of studying for an MBA in China.

He returned to work following his trip eager to secure the support of McKinsey & Co. to do his MBA. At that time, his focus for the global consultancy was two-fold. First, he was working with incumbents to transform non-digital products into digital – for example, how to put the branch banking experience into an easy to navigate app or website. Second, for companies not ready to embrace digital transformation at their core, he would collaborate with them to build a new purely digital offshoot venture. Away from busying himself with coding cycles, product development and optimisation, Jan-Peter was thinking about exactly what he wanted to get out of an MBA experience. “Skills-wise, I decided I wanted develop my practical abilities both in accounting and Chinese, but also to develop an understanding of the infrastructure that supports China’s digital innovations beyond the apps. I looked into the Integrated China Strategy Project (ICSP) that CEIBS offers, which stood out as a great opportunity to apply skills developed within the classroom to a real-life business challenge in a China context.” says Jan-Peter. “At a deeper lever I wanted to develop a network in China, both in terms of my peers in the MBA programme, but also beyond the gates of campus, so that even if I return to Germany after graduation, I will take with me a strong sense of what is continuing to develop in China in my absence.”

As term one draws to a close, Jan-Peter and his batch mates are still fine tuning the balance between class preparation, networking and getting to know CEIBS’ resources. “One of the big reasons for me to come to CEIBS was the strength of the cohort and having Chinese classmates. It is interesting to hear their responses as we discuss case studies on some of China’s tech giants such as JD.com and xiaohongshu. So far, I have met bankers and brokers, advertisers and engineers, tech writers, sales professionals and neuroscience PhDs, people who have founded businesses and people who have not yet found the business that suits them,” says Jan-Peter. “Next term I plan to step up my efforts to build my network outside of school and also get to know some of the influential Chinese companies that my batch mates are waxing lyrical about during classes.”

Given his own successful career switch into consultancy, Jan-Peter has already been asked to share his experience in an info-session hosted by the MBA Consulting Club. He strongly encourages his batch mates to be mindful of their flexibility and the power of their own story in order to stand out during the interview process. “There are a lot of books out there on how to prepare for an interview, but I must say this is somewhat of a double-edged sword. Use them for information gathering sure, but if you absorb and memorise everything you read, you are going to come across as very rigid in your way of thinking. The real consulting world isn’t like that and you need to demonstrate a degree of flexibility,” he explains. “The second point is that analytical skills alone are not enough to stand out. Consulting is also about people, so you need to present a compelling story about yourself. I cannot say for certain, but I believe that some of the examples I shared at my interview from my own experience, helped to demonstrate my approach to solving challenging situations with people rather than financial models.”

As Jan-Peter sets off for his afternoon roster of classes, MBA Admissions is reminded of Jan-Peter’s closing words from his opening ceremony speech, which succinctly expresses his strategy for doing an MBA in the Age of Ambition:

“All of us should challenge each other with different perspectives, each of us question the way we ‘have done things’ so far, keep an open mind to learn and work together to progress towards our career aspirations. And don’t forget, business school is not only about business – it’s about sharing some Indian Othappm, Japanese sushi, German beer and Chinese mooncakes (to name but a few), building your network and making life-long friends.”