Interview with Marco De Novellis, editor at BusinessBecause [Show Summary]
In today’s podcast, we hear from Marco De Novellis, the editor of BusinessBecause, a company that takes seriously the approaching of being a “champion of applicants,” educating them about everything they need to know about the MBA application process and how to approach it. Marco shares his unique insights into the state of MBA education outside the U.S., as well as his feelings about rankings. Along the way he shares tips on how to present yourself as an applicant and the trends happening in business education.
BusinessBecause: Free information and advice for b-school applicants [Show Notes]
We have today a keen observer of the bschool scene since our guest, Marco De Novellis, is the editor of BusinessBecause. After graduating from the University of Leeds, Marco joined BusinessBecause as a Journalist and Community Manager in 2015, where he has worked ever since. Since 2017 he has been the Editor at BusinessBecause and more recently the host of The Business School Question podcast. Along the way he also wrote a book about alumni of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing and wrote for QS, TopMBA.com and AACSB.
Marco, how did you get your start on the bschool beat? [1:57]
I sort of fell into it. I studied history so writing has always been a passion of mine. In university I wrote for the school paper and then did freelance. When I graduated I interviewed with a small startup in Central London and I was lucky enough to get the job. It was quite a small business when I started, having begun in 2009. There were 4-5 people when I joined and now it is 15 of us. It has been great to be on this journey which has developed my career, as I am now the editor. I grew into the role and got to know the business school industry from there. We are dedicated to graduate management education, so writing content for anybody looking at business school. There are loads of options for stories to cover, since practically everything links back to business education.
You have also written extensively about China, specifically a book about alumni at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB) in Beijing. How did that book come about? [5:03]
CKGSB is China’s leading business school (the founder of Alibaba is an alum), but not many people know about it outside of China. I saw a statistic that graduates collectively lead 1/5 of China’s biggest brands. They really wanted to do more than the standard brochure to show the benefits of studying in China for international students. They approached me and asked me to write it which was an honor but also a big task. I interviewed about 25 alums from the school and some I met in person, delving into their personal stories, why they decided to go to China, and what they learned from it.
What are some of the challenges that Chinese business schools face that European or U.S. business schools don’t face? [8:12]
The biggest one is the struggle to attract internationals. The U.S. is experiencing that now to a certain extent with the current political climate, but this is a constant issue for Chinese schools. In some cases it is as simple as a communications issue, as they have never had to market internationally with such a huge base already in China. They now need people to be pioneers to take the step to study there. The idea of government intervention is a bit of an issue as well – there has been a clamp down on EMBA programs recently. There was this idea that EMBA programs were elite networking clubs for members of the communist party so there was a law put in place that students had to pass national entrance exams to attend. Bottom line, they have huge opportunities, with more candidates showing a preference towards Asia, and China overall becoming more international and developed. It’s also an exciting market for entrepreneurship – in China they have a special startup visa for anyone who registers their own company.
What are some of the most interesting trends you see in biz ed today? [11:40]
There is a lot going on! There is disruption in any industry, but what I see is more programs going online, and then the disruption outside the sector, like Amazon and Alibaba getting involved in learning. There is also a shift away from MBAs to more specialized masters. One trend that really interests me is the changing market. 10-15 years ago the FT rankings were dominated by U.S. schools, but now you are seeing more Asian and European programs. While numbers of people applying are pretty consistent (about 290K), the data shows that there is a long term shift away from the U.S. This has been exacerbated by the political situation, but has been brewing for a while, with it being more difficult to find jobs in the U.S., and long term visa problems. Also there is increasing sophistication outside the U.S. – you are seeing the Chinese economy develop with a growing middle class with spending power and so many businesses booming. Another trend is how the industry is shifting towards responsible management. More people want to make an impact, start their own businesses, and that is starting to be reflected in terms of how they are teaching students and what they work on. Some accreditations are rewarding schools on sustainability and impact which is new, but a long time coming.
What are the implications of those trends for applicants? [16:24]
It is positive for applicants because there is so much choice and so many programs out there, but that is also confusing, too. Choosing the right school is more challenging. Individual career goals are (or should be) more important as opposed to the best named business school. If you want to work in China, do an MBA in China. Schools nowadays are really having to push themselves to market themselves to applicants. Business schools used to select applicants, but now applicants are selecting the schools, to a certain extent.
How has the acquisition of BB by GMAC just about one year ago changed BB? [18:45]
It has been really positive for us. The core of what we do as a publisher hasn’t changed. We are independent and still operate as a startup. Having GMAC behind us is great – it is expanding our coverage, and we are always expanding our team and recruiting. Our content sits on MBA.com and the visibility is amazing. I am excited about working more with GMAC on the data. Later this year we’ll be looking at doing a report on the most popular countries for applicants, looking at shifts and trends and about candidate preferences. On the more business school side we do content marketing campaigns for some of the top schools which is great for exposure.
What is BB’s distinctive niche in the graduate management educational scene? [21:34]
Our content is very people-focused. We think of ourselves as storytellers. The China book, for example, shared individual stories of alumni to inspire others to apply. We are also truly global in terms of our audience, covering the world. We are also not a news site. We take more of a helicopter view. For example, INSEAD is starting a masters in management, and rather than report on just that we had an interview with the director of the program. We take a “champion of applicants” approach, supporting them on their journey to business school.
MBA-dom is filled with rankings. What are the strengths and weaknesses of rankings as a whole and the specific rankings you report on? [24:18]
They are incredibly useful in terms of the data, but the obvious limitation is you can’t just look at a ranking and take it as gospel. These are journalistic models designed to be different so one publication stands out from another. You have to look into the methodology, which shows the flaws of the process. Starting with Financial Times, which gives huge weight to an alumni survey, how can you trust data from the alumni of a school – they wouldn’t want to damage their own brand by saying the school they went to was awful, being left with something less than ideal on their CV. I will say with FT they do send in an audit team to make sure the information is correct, which is heartening. The more general point is the overwhelming focus on salary data. Across school rankings the emphasis is on jobs data with a lot of weight put on that, which is a problem in terms of a country where the wages are lower. This could also detract from recruiting women as they are paid less in certain industries, so it’s all pretty murky. Business school students are also not as focused on earning high salaries as they have been in the past. Many people are interested in non-profits rather than getting jobs at finance or consulting firms. Changes are coming with regards to that, and you can see how rankings can really be exploited or misguided with scandals, with schools sometimes being kicked out of rankings. Also, how can you trust a ranking with big name schools not taking part in it – there needs to be a big disclaimer on those rankings. The report at World Economic Forum this year for the first time really criticized the focus on salary data. FT has introduced CSR in rankings this year, and may possibly be changing methodology overall for the first time, so it will be interesting to see what happens there.
Can you tell us about your podcast The Bschool Question? [35:28]
In each episode we discuss one industry question with an expert or panel for each episode, like: Is an MBA worth it? Should you go to the U.S. for your MBA? Do women work harder than men? The content is directed at prospective students.
Do you have any last minute words of wisdom for applicants? [37:43]
I’d like to come back to the point that applicants get very worked up about the application process and often try to paint a picture of themselves that they think business schools might like to hear – that they received all As, they are a type A personality, scored 800 on the GMAT, etc., when in reality business schools want diverse profiles and people with interesting things in their background. The notion there is a school for everyone is really true. What makes you unique as an applicant is much more important than the highest GMAT score. Telling your true story is the most important. The admissions committee are real people, too, and if they can’t get a sense of your personality, it is more difficult for them to relate to you.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [41:41]
I wondered if you would ask if I was considering an MBA. If anyone wants to finance mine I’d be happy to do it. Writing so much about the industry and seeing the benefits certainly piques my interest. I’ve said so much about it I feel like I should do one by now. It can do so much for you, but cost is an issue, and I like my job. From a liberal arts background it is sometimes hard to see how it can fit, but as you progress in your career you can see how those skills become much more important.
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