Meet Ivan Kerbel, Founder of the Practice MBA Program
If you are considering an Investment Banking career, you are probably interested in also pursuing an MBA sometime in your future. If you are a professional living outside the United States and thinking about going to a top-5 school here, you may find this article particularly insightful. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Ivan Kerbel, the founder of the Practice MBA program, a unique pre-MBA experience designed to give rising international MBA students a jump-start to the hyper-competitive recruiting atmosphere they will have to learn to navigate–sink-or-swim-style–once school starts. Ivan and Practice MBA has been featured on Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and Poets & Quants. I am excited to share the conversation I had with him below:
Please tell us about your company, Practice MBA. What is it, and what do you do?
Our firm helps rising MBAs make the best use of their time during the months between their admission to business school and the first day of classes. We work with students one-on-one, and via an immersive pre-MBA summer program, to hone students’ career vision and MBA job search strategy, to build critical knowledge and skills relevant to their academic performance, and to give those who participate in our in-person programs a chance to meet interesting fellow students as well as MBA alumni and employers.
This past year, we offered a series of outdoor travel and wilderness skills-building courses in the Pacific Northwest in conjunction with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) … a great way for students to recharge before the start of school and to further hone leadership qualities they will utilize in business school and beyond.
What inspired you to launch this venture?
In past professional roles in both higher education and the private sector, and as a Wharton MBA alumnus, I’ve had a chance experience first-hand and to work with students who are, to one extent or another, bridging a gap between their pre-MBA experiences and the performance demands that await them in business school.
In particular, I noticed that the burden of performing well in business school – the rigor, workload, and complexity of the challenges and opportunities that students encounter as MBAs – tends to fall disproportionately on international students, especially those who have never lived or worked in their new host country, and on ‘non-traditional’ MBA candidates, a category that includes high-achieving students with pre-MBA backgrounds ranging from the creative arts, teaching, medicine, and law, to military service, nonprofit management, and professional sports, for example.
Whereas students with undergrad degrees in business and economics, and/or work backgrounds in investment banking or management consulting, tend to breeze through their MBA homework assignments, professional networking tasks, and so on, international and non-traditional students often find themselves in something akin to “survival mode” as they adapt to a new academic, professional, and social environment and try to overcome a steep learning curve to achieve the same level of ‘MBA readiness’ as their more traditional MBA peers.
Practice MBA is simply an effort to offer those students a more comprehensive set of tools and training prior to the start of school … to give them a greater chance, therefore, to achieve their most ambitious goals and to take maximum advantage of the unique resources and relationships that await them in business school.
Almost every MBA alum I know wishes that he or she had taken extra time prior to the start of school to acquire critical skills and knowledge that would have given them a greater edge, especially during the crucial first year of business school, and focusing our program on the period of time after the point of admission but prior to the start of school gives students a chance to accomplish that learning in a risk-free environment and at a point in time when opportunity costs are low.
What has been the impact of your program on future MBA students?
The most immediate outcome is that the students we’ve worked with have had an opportunity to develop a “game plan” and strategy for what they want to achieve as professionals, as students, and as members of a new business school community. For each student, this has involved a mixture of academic prep, career self-assessment and planning, and the creation of a vision for how to invest additional effort and time in the extracurricular realm to become a truly well-rounded MBA.
This up-front effort has led to some great internship offers, for example, for the members of the class of 2015 at schools such as Columbia, Harvard, and Chicago Booth. It has also led to great outcomes such as the recent election of one of our former students to serve as President of the student government association at Michigan Ross, a great achievement and one that happened as a result of a great deal of forethought, planning, and effort on his part.
What do you believe is the greatest benefit of a pre-MBA program?
Quite simply, that the months prior the start of school afford students the chance to reflect, to absorb new information, and to create a strategic plan for success in business school … without having to cope with the performance demands of business school at the same time. This is a golden moment in which students’ eagerness and anticipation of starting business school are at their peak, yet it’s also a time during which most business school administrators (from admissions to student/academic services, to career services), tend to be focused on the current, matriculated students and on the new MBA graduates who are still job-seeking, rather than on the students who are a few months away from arriving on campus.
I believe that a comprehensive pre-MBA program, whether online, blended, or in-person and immersive, can provide robust ‘onboarding’ for new MBAs and serve as a great augmentation of existing MBA orientation programs … not least, because a pre-MBA program can be much more finely tuned to an individual’s needs, rather than having to accommodate the global orientation needs of an entire incoming class.
Tell us about your background. Where did you go to school and what was your career path?
I’ve had an opportunity to work in fields as disparate as litigation and legal policy, molecular medicine publishing, and software services prior to attending business school at Wharton. (I was a History major as an undergraduate at Yale, and also completed Master’s degree programs at the University of Auckland and at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC).
After completing my MBA, I worked as a management consultant in New York City, and had an opportunity subsequently to serve as part of Wharton’s MBA Career Management team, and as Director of the Career Development Office at The Yale School of Management, leading a team of a dozen staff members and managing Yale’s MBA employer relationships, recruiting efforts, and career development programs.
What is the greatest value that you see in an MBA degree?
The greatest advantage of earning an MBA, in my opinion, is its almost universal applicability to any and all industries and functions. My experience has been that many business school students who come from non-traditional backgrounds often return to those “fields of origin” in the long-run (perhaps after a stint of working in consulting, banking, or general management at a Fortune 500 company), thereby applying a powerful skill-set and management knowledge and tools that may be relatively novel in that field.
From education technology, to cleantech and renewables, to digital media, to social impact investing, the extent to which practitioners in those fields have detoured to obtain a business degree and then returned to assume leadership roles and to drive change and innovation in those fields is impressive. Likewise, international students who have traveled abroad to acquire an elite business education often return, in the long-run, to their home countries and help to introduce new concepts and best practices across a range of industries and functions that help their economies grow and diversify in the process.
Business schools have a truly broad social mandate to train leaders for all sectors of the economy, and across the globe, and I believe it’s important to do everything possible to support and sustain this educational mission and to serve students who may be coming to business school from overseas or who may be crossing significant boundaries in terms of academic disciplines or professional pursuits to undertake a business degree.
What should international candidates think about before applying to business school in the U.S.?
I think the expectation for any international student should be that business school in a new host country academic, social, and professional environment will not only offer a great opportunity for personal and professional growth, but will almost necessarily prove to be challenging in ways both great or small. International students face a steeper learning curve, especially with respect to the soft skills and nuances of navigating a foreign culture, and these hurdles can be difficult to overcome rapidly, no matter how well-prepared a student is academically and professionally for the start of business school.
With regard to the MBA recruiting, international students must also often pursue two parallel-track job search processes, one that is focused on their business school host country and one focused on their country of origin, a reality that requires a considerable investment of additional effort and time.
International students do best, I believe, when they avoid the temptation of thinking that merely being accepted to and attending a great MBA program will be their ticket to success and an opportunity to remain and work in their new host country, if they choose. Those who have a healthy respect for the magnitude of the task in front of them (and who realize they will likely need to work harder than their domestic peers to achieve the same goals) tend to experience a smoother, more successful transition to business school, as well as better overall outcomes.
What do you see as the future of your company?
I’d love to expand the number of students we work with as well as the range of schools they are attending, and to offer even more custom-tailored programs to universities that are seeking to expand their services to students from the point of admission forward and up until the time that students arrive on campus. I’m also excited to maintain the student relationships we’ve established in the pre-MBA context and to explore the possibility of offering executive coaching to MBA graduates at some point in the future.
Finally, if you were going for an MBA today, what career path would you choose and why?
I’m confident that I would choose consulting again as a post-MBA career path. It’s simply the best way to experience the broadest range of business challenges faced by one’s clients, to utilize the full set of skills learned in business school, and, equally important to me, to meet professionals and executives in industries as disparate as insurance, pharmaceuticals, and mobile telephony in their office locations around the world. It was an invaluable experience and a great way to expand upon and round out my MBA education.