An Interview with Poets & Quants : A New B-School Startup From MIT Sloan Reinvents The MBA Experience

by John A. Byrne, Poets & Quants

MBA curriculum reviews are a dime a dozen. Every few years, just about every business school forms a faculty committee, convenes focus groups of students, alumni and employers, and then rolls out a series of changes with some fanfare. The result: Some minor tweaks that improve a program but are more likely to be incremental to the MBA experience and are rarely radical.

Not so for long-time MIT Professor Charles Fine, who was asked to lead an unusual business school startup in Kuala Lumpur three years ago. Fine, president and dean of the newly created Asia School of Business, a partnership with Bank Negara Malaysia, the country’s central bank, literally took a blank sheet of paper and, with no legacy or politics, crafted the shape of what he believes is an ideal MBA program for the times.

Roughly a third of the 20-month MBA curriculum is composed of required experiential learning. Every MBA candidate has four team-based projects, one each semester, plus an individual project in the summer. That’s five major projects in five different countries with five different companies.


President and Dean of ASB, Professor Charles Fine


Long-time MIT Sloan Professor Charles Fine is the founding President and Dean of the Asia School of Business

“We felt that action learning, clinical work and interaction with companies, was central to where business education was going,” says Fine. “And the Sloan School does a lot of action learning projects. but by being able to take a clean sheet of paper, we were able to design a curriculum around action learning right from the start. So we built our curriculum around MIT courses and projects with companies in Southeast Asia every semester.”

For the school’s inaugural class, which entered last fall, there was an assignment for a clothing factory in Vietnam, a retailer in Thailand, a telecom company in Malaysia, a marketing strategy brief for a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary in Thailand, and several product development projects in Myanmar for Procter & Gamble. Each project, moreover, involves working on site with the company for four to five weeks over the course of a 14-week term. And all that experiential learning doesn’t even include the full week the entire class spent in a Boeing plant in Malaysia, working side by side with teams of Boeing employees, for a manufactring course, or a six-week immersion in the U.S. in Silicon Valley, Washington, D.C., New York, and Sloan’s campus in Cambridge.

While more schools are putting greater focus on experiential learning, it’s often built into elective offerings and not required. More importantly, such project work tends to remain a peripheral part of the typical MBA experience. In MIT Sloan’s curriculum in Cambridge, for example, students can sign up for action learning courses in three of four semesters, spending two weeks on site for each project, or a total of six weeks, if an MBA candidate took full advantage of those electives.


That radical redo of the MBA experience, along with extremely generous scholarship money, has allowed Asia Business School to attract an exceptional inaugural class of 47 students from 26 industries, six continents and 12 countries, including 10 from the U.S., seven from India, five from Africa, three each from Europe, Latin America and Russia, and a pair of students from Australia. That kind of international diversity is extremely rare for Asian business schools which have found it difficult, if not impossible to draw students from outside their regions or home countries.

The first class includes a U.S. Marine captain, professional musicians and athletes, a spiritual advisor, community volunteers, successful entrepreneurs and PhDs in computer science and physics. The students entered the program speaking more than 20 languages. “The class is highly multi-cultural and part of the education is working with other students from all over the world and learning about how business and cultures work around the world,” adds Fine. “It’s a very different education than being in a school where everyone is from the same culture.”

In creating the school from scratch, Fine had a unique advantage. He was able to dip into the stellar MBA applicant pool of the Sloan School to recruit candidates who just missed an admit from Sloan for its MBA program in the U.S. Some 40% of the students already had master’s degrees before coming to the school. Roughly 40% are women and the average age of an entering student was 25.5 years.


“We marketed to risk takers and risk seekers,” says Fine. “We said we are going to be about change. We are going to change you and teach you to be a change maker. A certain kind of risk-seeking student took us up on that. Our students are savvy, with high emotional intelligence. A lot of them are extroverts. They want to talk, they want to get involved, they want to produce, and they are fun to be with.”

Fine’s fellow professors at Sloan have been uniformly impressed with the first cohort. “The overall intelligence and leadership potential is among the best I have seen in my 30 years of teaching MBA students in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world,” says S. P. Kothari, an MIT Sloan finance professor. Nabil El-Hage, a former senior associate dean at Harvard Business School, goes so far as to say that he believes at least five of the inaugural class of 47 students would easily earn Baker Scholar recognition at Harvard. Only the top 5% of the HBS graduates are awarded Baker Scholar distinction.

The curriculum is meaningfully different in another way: The entire class is also given an all-expenses paid immersion to the United States during the program. The six-week stint features a week in Silicon Valley, a week in Washington, D.C., and New York City, and four weeks on the MIT campus in Cambridge. “So they get some exposure to the MIT entrepreneurship eco-system and the MIT culture first hand while they are in the U.S.,” adds Fine.


Our students at the San Francisco bridge 


Moreover, most of the fundamental coursework in such business basics as accounting, finance and marketing, is done in intense one- or two-week modules to make it easier for visiting MIT professors to fly into Malaysia, teach and then return to the U.S. And the emphasis on project learning—together with a six-week trip to the U.S.—has meant there is no room for electives at all.

“We had to design it that way but it gives us a huge amount of flexibility to build in a lot of project and academic work,” Fine explains. “For the next few years, we will maintain that model. As we add more faculty locally, we will have more capacity to teach over the course of a semester and over time we will probably ramp down the Sloan faculty involvement.”

So far, just under two dozen Sloan faculty have been involved with the school, and Fine has hired nine professors from eight countries across four continents to the school’s permanent and local faculty. His hiring strategy is to focus on newly minted graduates from prestige PhD programs. Among the school’s early recruits are PhDs from Stanford, Harvard, MIT and Columbia.  “They are all young faculty, but we think they are people with high potential and they will grow with us,” says Fine.


Sloan Dean David Schmittlein first approached Fine in 2014 about the opportunity to create the school three years ago. Fine seemed an unusual choice then because he had limited administrative experience, though he had been on the faculty for 35 years and has been a consultant to many companies. Besides, he had never even been to Malaysia.

Initially, says Fine, he thought it was a crazy idea. But then he ventured over on his first trip in October of 2014. He left highly impressed by Dr. Zeti Aziz, now the former governor of the Central Bank of Malaysia and the founder of the school. It was her dream to create and scale a premier business school in Malaysia with an Asian focus yet global in its students, faculty and staff as well as its outreach and impact. Fine says he also was impressed by the enthusiam for the school from local business leaders.

He accepted the job in December of 2014, started in June of 2015, and 18 months later, in September, the school’s first students showed up on campus. “My arm really didn’t get twisted,” laughs Fine, who is effectively commuting 26 hours over a dozen time zones for the job, spending an average one week a month in the U.S. with three weeks abroad.


But the central bank and local business leaders have thrown their support behind the school. The first three or four intakes of students have use of the central bank’s training facilities as well as a private upscale hotel where students reside. A permanent home for the school, as well as a residence center that will accommodate 700 students and 200 faculty, is expected to be completed by 2019.

Just getting to where he is now—with one class enrolled, another on the way and a staff of some 50 people—has not been without difficulty or endless hours of work. “The first year was like running a marathon at the pace of a spring,” says Loredana Padurean, the associate dean of the program. “It felt like we were in the woods with machetes to find our way. Now at least we have 50 in the woods with 50 machetes. We are not out of the woods yet, but we have 50 people hacking through the jungle.”

Fine admits his biggest challenge so far is “balancing the pieces.” “We have to simultaneously find students, faculty and a set of employers willing to hire our students. Juggling those pieces and getting the balance is one of the challenges. Another has been getting our staff from 12 countries to work in a multi-cultural environment. For every step forward, there is a half step back. It’s been an adventure. It’s been stressful but fun. I am juggling a lot of pieces and I want it to work out. I am sure there are many startups where things don’t go so well, and you feel a lot of frustrations. But we are not a scrappy little startup. We have two very successful parents, and they have helped us a lot.”


Putting together a higher education startup in another country, of course, has had its moments. One Sloan professor missed his course in Malaysia because he broke his shoulder three days before his departure. And Fine has sometimes found himself in the middle of MIT’s entrepreneurial approach and Malysia’s more rule-driven culture. “MIT is a very egalitarian place, and we are trying to build a pocket of MIT culture in a place where it is a very foreign culture. They don’t see the world the same way but we have to work together to build a common vision of what we need to accomplish. Malaysia is more rules- driven. At MIT, we’ve got to make our own rules and here we are inventing as we go.

“A colleague of mine at Sloan says that culture is invisible and therefore you trip over it many times,” concedes Fine. “I personally have tripped over the culture many, many times. All you can say is, ‘I am sorry. I didn’t understand. I’m learning.’ Sometimes they forgive you, and sometimes they may think not so well of you. But we are learning from each other and learning how to be effective in interacting with people from different cultures. So it’s a very enriching experience.”

Even though the school was able to tap into the Sloan applicant pool, it also has had to change the rules on MBA admissions to some extent. Unlike established business school programs, ASB has what it calls a dual-track admissions process in which so-called unconventional candidates can apply for admissions without a standardized test score. In the first class, fully a third of the students went that route by persuading the school they have a high IQ to make it through a personal interview, a video, and recommendation letters.

AL on-site 2 in act - P&G

Our students on-site at their Action Learning Project at Myanmar


“If you take the unconventional track, you have to convince us you are capable of doing the work, and you are someone we would want in the program. For the first couple of years, we have a large number of our students on full scholarship. We want to attract the best students we can so we are giving a high number of full scholarships.”

The admissions season for the school opens with a first round deadline in October and concludes with a round three cutoff in March. Applications for the next intake will open in August.

The official tuition for the full program is only $85,000, a total that includes all the travel and accommodation for the action learning projects and the U.S. immersion, along with accommodations at the exclusive Lanai Kijang residential complex, an easy five-to-ten minute walk from the academic campus. The complex is more like a five-star resort than a dorm, with a modern gymnasium, expansive swimming pool and retreat spots under swaying palm trees. In fact, this program may well offer the best MBA value for money on the market today, given the scholarship aid and the extras that come with the sticker price fee.


Where the school’s graduates will end up is anyone’s guess. The first class to graduate from the Asia Business School won’t occur until next year. But the amount of project work in the program will give them plenty to talk about in their job interviews. “They are getting work experience that is meaningful and transformational,” says Padurean. “It would be hard to transform someone in a short-form MBA but if you put them through a 20-moth, very intense environment, they will be transformed through those five major projects.”

Fine only recently hired a head of career development, a former McKinsey consultant with an MBA from Cornell who is Malaysian. He believes some of the students in the inaugural class will become entrepreneurs. Others will go into traditional MBA jobs in finance and consulting. Quite a few want to stay in Southeast Asia. “Part of being a startup is you learn as you go,” he says. “I can tell you how we did admissions but not placement because we haven’t done that yet.”

In ten years, Fine imagines that the Asia Business School will be a vibrant intellectual community turning out exceptional global business leaders for the region on a regular basis. “I hope it will be a vibrant center of business thinking,” he muses. “To some extent, we are attracting students who want to do good in the world. I hope we build a reputation of having students who want to do something better for the world.”