Monday, January 16, 2012

Beyond the MBA Hype

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an engineering graduate in possession of a software job must be in search of a ‘good MBA’.

In a free-wheeling interview, Sameer Kamat, founder of MBA Crystal Ball and author of ‘Beyond the MBA Hype’ shares his journey. And offers unbiased advice to those who are thinking of walking down that path.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I’m a computer engineer from VESIT (Mumbai) and after that I joind Citicorp. Worked in India and abroad on multiple assignments and then decided to move beyond pure technical work. So I joined PricewaterhouseCoopers in their management consulting division.

Why MBA?
In my consulting role, though the client, geography and technology changed with every project, essentially it was more of the same. That’s when I started researching options, and an international MBA seemed like a good way to change careers.

Did you focus only on top schools abroad?
My professional work involved a substantial amount of global travel. So I figured it would be logical to continue the international exposure by getting into a top bschool abroad where the class profile would be very diverse and international.

What was your GMAT score?
I’m not good at standardized tests. For someone from a tech/engineering/male background [considered to be the toughest applicant pool when it comes to global MBA applications] my GMAT score was quite low (below 700). So I knew that the rest of my application strategy had to be really strong.

How did you shortlist and decide where to apply?
This was the most confusing part. In India, the CAT score plays a significant role in getting interview calls from bschools. For international MBA programs, GMAT is important. But there are other aspects that are equally, if not more important.

Many of these are quite subjective, like the concept of ‘Fit’. It’s like a compatibility test where you need to convince the school that you are both made for each other. Plus there are factors such as post-MBA plans, professional background, number of years of work experience.

Considering all these, I felt I would not ‘fit’ into a 2-year program. A 1-year program in the UK would provide the RoI (Return on Investment) I was looking for.

Why Cambridge Judge and how was the experience?
My medium-to-long term plans were to get back to India. So I wanted a brand that was strong enough to get me a job abroad as well as in India. The University of Cambridge has been around for over 8 centuries and it’s a very well respected brand in India as well.

I was also drawn by the personality of the MBA program. Compared to the veterans in the MBA industry, this program is relatively young. It’s more collaborative than many others, and there’s a strong focus on experiential learning. Though you still have to be on your toes and compete with other extremely talented folks for grades, internships and jobs.

I got the opportunity to interact with entrepreneurs, I-bankers, scientists, management consultants, Olympic level sportsmen, iconic business leaders and Nobel prize winners. It was a fantastic experience.

How did you fund your education and how did you manage the EMI repayments?
I was lucky to have got 2 scholarships at Cambridge. That took care of a considerable chunk of the financing. Plus the bschool had a tie-up with a UK bank to provide education loans for accepted candidates.

Did you work in the UK or come back immediately?
After completing my MBA, I had a few options to stay back in the UK – with my former employer (but in a more business-focused role), with a strategy consulting firm (where I did my internship) and with a startup (that my team helped during the program). This was before the recession, so the job market was a little better. I had planned to work there for a few years, repay the GBP loan and then get back to India.

But due to a twist in the tale, I ended up accepting a job that brought me back to India immediately after graduation.

I was in India for a short vacation when I came across a team that was setting up a new office in India and they were looking for folks for their corporate finance work. The German Managing Director who interviewed me made the role sound interesting, so I decided to make a complete career change and start my post-MBA career directly in India. I worked in the area of Mergers & Acquisitions for 5 years after my MBA.

When did you start the website MBA Crystal Ball? Why do it?
When I was applying to bschools, I considered myself to be a dark horse. Most stats weren’t working in my favour (age, test scores, professional background). So I had put in extra efforts to ensure that my application was water-tight – right from thinking about the rationale for an MBA, the post-MBA career plans, explaining what made my profile unique while competing in the tough applicant pool.

After graduating, I started helping others who needed a helping hand in doing exactly what I had done for myself. I did it for free (it was more a passion than a business idea for me) and they started getting into the top schools.

The right mentoring can make a lot of difference when the competition is global and intense. Though Indian applicants are strong at cracking standardized tests, our education system doesn’t prepare us to tackle abstract and introspective questions that are part of the MBA application process.

The concept of MBA admissions consulting is relatively new in India and I felt maybe this was something where I can make a small difference.

How and when did you quit your job to focus on it full time?
Outside India, the premium admissions consulting model is well-established and attracts high-caliber talent (top MBA grads who’ve also done well in the business world). In India, it is mostly taken up as a part-time activity. That’s how I started off as well.

I created a product (it’s called the MBA Mock Application Process or in short - MBA MAP). It simulates an application process for the top-100 schools and provides chances of getting into each. That got an encouraging response (cost: Rs 9000/ $ 250). It might be the only Indian product in the admissions consulting field to have been ‘exported’ to other countries. I realized that the only way I could do justice to it would be if I focused on it on a full-time basis. So I quit my M&A job about a year back to manage MBA Crystal Ball.

Does the site make money for you yet? What’s the kind of traffic you get?
I don’t use the site to make money. In fact, there was no website for a pretty long time. Most folks reached out to us (and our services) due to word-of-mouth publicity. When folks started asking for my website URL, rather than giving creative answers each time, I guessed an easier option would be to create a simple website. So I got a domain ( registered and launched the site.

We get several thousand hits from candidates who are seriously considering a career transformation or just curious about evaluating career growth options. So we use the site more as a platform to share broader ideas. On our blog you’ll find content that sometimes has absolutely nothing to do with the services we provide. We recently published about non-MBA careers, like social service, teaching jobs. You’ll also find a guest post by a Gladrags model on careers in the glamour business.

When did the idea of a book come?
I wrote ‘Beyond The MBA Hype’ in 2006 after I had completed my MBA. When I was applying to bschools, most of the articles I read in newspapers and websites were about how an MBA will have a magical effect on the candidate’s career, financial status and life. And I really wondered how much of that was true and how much was hype.

After having gone through the experience I thought somebody needed to also share aspects that never got talked about – the education, building new skills, internships, the career hunt from an Indian candidate’s perspective (most books on this topic are written by international authors).

The book was not created to promote MBA Crystal Ball (it didn’t exist, at the time). In fact, those who’ve read ‘Beyond The MBA Hype’ tell me I shouldn’t have got it published as it is detrimental to my business interests. Instead of pushing more prospective aspirants to apply blindly to the top schools (and fill our coffers), the book recommends exactly the opposite.

The basic message is to step back and evaluate simpler, easier and less risky options to reach their goals.

How easy (or difficult) was it, to get published?
‘Beyond The MBA Hype’ has taken over 5 years to get published. I initially tried to get it published in the US, thinking that’s where the MBA market is. Publishers and literary agents who liked the concept turned it down saying a first time author without a saleable name would be a tough sell.

So I changed focus to India, not knowing if there would be any takers, as the international MBA market is extremely small and niche.

Fortunately, I found a good literary agent who sold it to HarperCollins. For new authors struggling to get published and going through a similar roller coaster ride, I share tips on my personal site: (

Who is your core target audience?
- Professionals with 2-10 years work experience, who are thinking of ways to take their career to the next level.
- Recent graduates who’ve not been lucky with the Indian MBA entrance exams (CAT, plus all the variations) and are thinking of applying to international MBA programs.
- Anybody who’s stagnated (frustrated) in their current job and thinking that an overseas MBA might be an easy way out.

How has the book been received?
Considering the initial apprehensions, it’s done exceedingly well. The first print got sold out in under 3 months, the second print-run is out.

Given the weak economic situation globally, would you advise people to look at an MBA abroad?
The message in the book is more relevant today than it was when I wrote it. The global economic situation should force MBA applicants to really get their game-plan sorted out.

Having said that, an investment in quality education is the best one can make as you are investing in yourself. So there’s more incentive to see yourself being successful. A well-designed MBA plan with risk scenarios clearly identified and mitigated is the best way to approach it.

For MBA applicants, I’d say do your homework, choose your schools well, put a best-case and worst-case career plan in place and go for it only when you are really confident.

Do you recommend 2 year or 1 year programs?
Both have their pros and cons. The profile and the career aspirations of the candidate should influence the choice. Where you want to work will also play a big role in choosing the school. Managing transnational placements is becoming tougher. Consider the average class profile for each school you are applying to, see if/how you’d fit in.

Is it possible to get a job in the US or Europe for a fresh, non-citizen MBA?
Possible? Yes. Easy? No.

The recruiter has to have a strong reason to go the extra distance and sponsor the international candidate’s work-permit. For complete career changers, it’s become more difficult.

The good part is that a ‘fresh’ MBA in an international MBA program comes in with an average of 4-5 years work-ex. So pre-MBA experience and skills can be leveraged while job hunting.

If instead, you return to India does the global alumni network help in finding a job?
They can, but in a soft economy there are limitations to what they can do. So I’d say, don’t depend only on the alumni network. Reach out to anyone and everyone who can help.

What’s the typical profile of people who get into top 20 bschools internationally?
For 2 year US-format programs: Average age: 26-27, Average work-experience: 4-5 years, Nationality: 60-70% American, rest international, Gender Mix: 70% Male, Communication skills: Excellent, Body mass index: Varies

Any application tips for those who aim for such schools?
Start early. Find out how the application process works. Don’t over-focus on the GMAT. Spend time thinking about post-MBA goals. Research schools that will help you get there. Know what the school will and more importantly, will NOT do for you.

Is it worth attending a 2nd or 3rd rung bschool abroad or should one drop the idea altogether?
Bschool rankings have their own yardstick to judge schools. A candidate’s yardstick may be very different. So, whether a school is rung 2 or 3 is a very subjective viewpoint. There are many excellent schools in India that might not figure on the top rankings. I went to a local ( ‘unhyped’) engineering college that doesn’t feature in any domestic or global rankings. But it gave me a good education and I did pretty well for myself career wise.

Extending that logic, I’d say don’t shortlist or discard Bschools purely on the basis of rankings or location. In the book, I use the term ‘good’ Bschools, without really defining it in absolute terms. Go to schools that are ‘good’ from your perspective.

For instance, Harvard is a great school. But is it great for everyone? For me it wasn’t even on the radar, as my secret desire was to quit the corporate world before I was 40 and start something entrepreneurial of my own (mission accomplished!). The theoretical idea of pumping close to a crore into an MBA program would make my heart miss a few beats.

Any advice for those in ‘decent’ jobs eg today but who still have the itch for MBA? Should they hold on to their jobs or invest 2 years in an MBA (India or abroad).
A top MBA is designed to take those in ‘decent’ and ‘good’ jobs and get them ‘better’ jobs. So for the high-potential ones who’ve weighed the pros and cons, it can be a great tool. But I’d recommend not looking at the MBA as an end in itself. Think about what it’ll help you achieve.

Going back to your analogy, my recommendation would be to evaluate the reason for the itch, and think if going abroad to buy a Rs 50 lakh itch relief powder is the only solution. Or would a warm neem-water bath at home cure it…

Only you can decide...And Sameer's book, might help you do that.

Rashmi adds: I first met Sameer Kamat around 3 years ago, in my neighbourhood park. He was working with Siemens at the time, and also writing a book. I gave him some advice on how to get it published.

We’d meet off and on and I would get status updates.

Publisher mil gaya hai – But they want rewrites – Date of release decided – Date of release delayed. Finally, one day Sameer asked if he could come over to my house - to give me a signed copy.

I’m happy for Sameer. I think he’s a guy who set a goal and then persevered, to achieve it. He has clarity and focus, which is what we all need. Whether we all need an MBA - is another matter altogether :)

What I like is that Sameer charges the student upfront, for unbiased advice. Unlike most admission consultants who take a 'cut' from universities. I wish his business model and his book the very best.

And yes, I hope to bump into him one of these days - walking fast and purposefully - in the sector 17 park :)

Friday, January 06, 2012

Top books of 2011 (in India)

Sharing a piece of news published in the Hindustan Times, the list of top 10 fiction and non-fiction titles in India last year, as per A C Nielsen retail bookscan. My books did pretty well... "I Have a Dream" (# 1), "Stay Hungry Stay Foolish"(# 3) and "Connect the Dots" (no 7).

So it feels good but I know I must keep working... And yes there will be at least two more titles from me for your reading pleasure, this year.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

R.I.P. Amit Saigal

Amit Saigal, founder of the iconic Rock Street Journal passed away earlier today. I think he was in his early 40s.

"Saigal started Rock Street Journal in January 1993 in Allahabad with Shena Gamat Saigal after they realised the lack of support system for Indian rock musicians."

That's what wikipedia says. What it doesn't say is how crazy an idea that was.

Apparently the first issue of RSJ was a compilation of Amit’s own articles and published at the family printing press. Legend has it that of the 2500 copies printed he managed to sell only six at the college festivals of LSR, BITS Pilani etc. The rest were distributed free of cost among a close circle of people who were interested in rock music.

Rock has always been a small niche but one with a fanatical following. I think Amit knew it would never ever be a highly profitable venture. As he said in an interview given in 2006:

If you really do what you want to do, or get inspired to do, then you don’t think about “mass appeal” or success or failure. You just follow a mad inner urge and do your thing.

And that’s what he did. RSJ had its die-hard fans but never the numbers (except in the Northeast). The magazine was more influential and visible in the 1990s, of late I don’t even think it was being published on a monthly frequency (the last issue displayed on the website).

A more commercial mind would have realized that the niche occupied by rock was not growing in India. But RSJ stuck to its guns and never diluted its brand. Instead, RSJ went into events like the Great Indian Rock Festival and pub rock festivals (which I hope made money for them :)

Coz you cannot bring out magazines on passion alone.

I never knew Amit personally, nor did I ever meet him. But I felt a sense of kinship, at some level. In the very early days of JAM we did collaborate a little, two small niche magazines – his even more niche than mine.

And I always admired the consistency and focus of RSJ (though I could not relate to the content). JAM also carried a beautiful interview with him a few years ago which you can read here or here.

It is indeed sad that Amit Saigal is no longer with us. But though short, his life was driven by passion and created impact. That is more than can be said for most of us...


Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Street treat

My daughter was two years old when she pointed to a glowsign and said, “Barista”.

By the time she was four, there was the shiny new Center One mall next door.

‘Outings’ followed a predictable routine: an hour in the kiddie play area, some ogling at the new Barbie collection and finally, a treat at McDonald’s or Pizza Hut.

More retail madness followed and today, there are five malls in and around our home (although two of them can be classified as doob chuke like the 'Titanic' )

At age 12, going to the mall is no longer a very exciting activity. Unless it’s an unsupervised outing, with friends.

So, on the second day of this New Year, I decided to initiate her into an age-old Indian tradition – the art of picking up raste ka maal.

Three hours at Hill Road in Bandra yielded 3 tops, 1 t-shirt, 1 bag and 3 hairbands – and we spent just 1100 bucks.

“Wow, this is great!” she grinned from ear to ear. “At In Orbit we would have got like, one or maybe two tops, that’s all.”

The highlight of her day was the Angry Birds t-shirt. They’re the new rage and of course, ‘Made in Thailand’. But not (yet) as cheap or as common as ‘Being Human’.

Another brand which is not yet available in India, but is selling at Hill Road is the funky Spanish label ‘Desigual’. This stock is export-reject maal from factories in Tirupur which is great. That’s how bazaars like Fashion Street sprung up in India, in the first place.

The only problem is, the really cool stuff is no longer selling either at Fashion Street, or Hill Road. To buy that, you gotta be in Goa, or Hampi, or any other backpacker paradise.

There is an entire store full of amazing Desigual merchandise in McLeodganj, run by a charming Kashmiri guy.

“I have special contacts with their suppliers in India,” he whispers.

God bless you, but please, ask them to send some maal to Mumbai also.

Real fashion is on the street, and from the street. A generation over-fed on malls and brands will turn to these streets to rediscover what it means to create a wardrobe.

And not just buy one with daddy’s credit card.

Monday, January 02, 2012

'Fat but happy' - my foot!

Every January millions of people around the world make the same old resolution: "I will lose weight.”

So it’s not surprising that bookshops too have a bunch of new releases on that very subject. Only this year, it’s not dieticians writing – it’s the dieters.

Ek taraf there is Yana Gupta with ‘How to love your body and get the body you love’. On the other, there is ‘Confessions of a Serial Dieter’ by Kalli Purie. And that’s the book I want to talk about today.

Because we all know supermodels do sad and desperate things to maintain their weight. It’s Kalli’s story I find more interesting, and more ‘real’.

Kalli’s confessions span the 3 years and 43 diets it took her to slim down from a peak of 103 kilos to 59 kgs. And it is not pretty. She recounts in grim and gross detail the effect of each diet, physically and emotionally.

What it is like to retire to your room every night with just a thermos of green tea (no dinner).

Survive for days on papaya and dahi (a miracle diet which also clears your stomach and skin).

Exactly where to place your fingers so you can puke out what you have eaten (a one week experiment with bilumia)

Honesty drips from every page and that is the chief selling point of the book.

But, while many of us struggle with weight issues, few of us get so obsessed. The determination to fit into a particular dress to attend a particular wedding is commendable, but is it really necessary?

If you drop from 100 kgs to 68 kgs, do you still need to go on a ‘champagne diet’ to cover the last mile to ‘size perfect’ ? The fashion police and the social police say so. And the media perpetuates the idea.

Silk may flaunt tummy tyres in the ‘Dirty Picture’ but don’t miss Ekta Kapoor giving interviews in a new, slim avatar.

Or the fact that Nigella Lawson herself has given up butter to go the bikini way. (Et tu Nigella... what are mere mortals to do?)

In an ideal world, Kalli Purie uses her media empire to change mindsets. In the real world, she just puts herself through hell and joins the gang of skinnies.

Kalli’s book is not a how-to manual. Because every body is unique and what worked for her, may or may not work for you. But you certainly can get motivated by her zeal.

Kind of like ‘it’s hard, but if I want it badly enough, I can do it too’.

My takeaway is that each of us must face our own demons and conquer them. For someone, weight loss may be the biggest challenge in life, for another it may be a financial goal, or finding the right career.

So spend this year tracking your demon down and beating it to death... Who knows, you just might be able to spin a book out of the experience!

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