Foreign investment

  • Scions of business families prefer MBAs abroad for many reasons

Aditya Vikram Birla overcame his father's concerns about the Beatles and flower power, a bout of measles, the American accent and the Boston weather to earn a chemical engineering degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says business historian Gita Piramal in her book, Business Maharajas. With all that behind him, Birla was once asked if his technical background influenced his group's choice of projects. He replied that if he had used too much of his expertise, the group would have gone bust. “One great advantage of my technical background is that no one can bluff me,” he said. “I certainly know what's happening.”

That, however, is not the only reason business families today send their scions to study business management in foreign institutions. “They want some honest international exposure and an independent lifestyle, which they may not get back home. Before they enter their work life, they want some independence and experience of how to deal with that independence and take responsibility,” says Dr Uday Salunkhe, group director, WeSchool, Mumbai.

One-year postgraduate programmes offered by B-schools in the UK and Australia are the most preferred by them, as these countries allow students to stay back for a while and work after the course. Courses in the US universities are also popular. There aren't many who do not have a foreign degree in most of the big business families in India. In fact, an academic stint abroad has become an essential part of their learning process. “When you are the owner of a business in India, you normally tend to meet people who agree with you. We are still a hierarchy-heavy nation,” says Salunkhe. That exactly was the reason Ameera Shah, managing director and chief executive officer of Metropolis Healthcare, chose University of Texas, Austin. “I studied in a privileged school in south Bombay and wanted to go to a public school, so I could get better exposure to people of different income levels and backgrounds because I believed that this will make me more grounded and well-rounded,” she says. After returning home, she transformed her father Dr Sushil Shah's one-lab pathology business into a chain of laboratories across India and some other emerging-market economies.

Another reason is the networking opportunity that such an education offers. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of business families last year, 68 per cent of family businesses globally are engaged in exports, and overseas sales constituted about a quarter of the turnover for all survey respondents.

The demand-supply mismatch in high-quality management education in India also makes studying abroad an obvious choice for wealthy children. In the west, there are fewer applicants for more seats. Also, institutes abroad provide a more diverse range of specialisations than Indian ones, allowing a student to pursue a course designed for a chosen industry. So the question why, as Salunkhe says, becomes “Why not?”

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