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How times change

01 Oct 2014

Student life and business were very different in the early days of London Business School. Here alumni who attended the School soon after it opened discuss what’s changed with current students

How was/ is school life?

Tony Wheeler MSc05(1972): I rented a room in the building for about £4 a week in my first year.On the very first weekend various guys came back with their girlfriends and the porter locked them out. So there was a protest on the Monday and the rules were adjusted straight away so that you were allowed to bring back people of the opposite sex.

Rami Banna MBA2015: That’s one problem we don’t have these days! The whole accommodation issue was very well organised. At the beginning of the year there were flat-hunters pub crawls. You’re all colour-coded so you know who has a house and is looking for a room mate, or who doesn’t have a house and is looking for a room. It’s quite a neat way of getting to know people and getting your living circumstances sorted out. I think living with your course-mates is a vital part of the experience. We go to each other’s houses, have meals together and there’s a real sense of community on campus. That makes a fundamental contribution to the family feel.

Peggy Czyzak-Dannenbaum MSc09(1976): I took a room at the School and when my husband was in the UK to visit I had to sleep on a camp bed that had seen action in the Korean War. We had a crazy life, not much less crazy than our life is now.

Rami: When it comes to the classroom, I’ve been struck by how international the faculty are. We had a Turkish economics teacher, a Bulgarian macroeconomics teacher and a marketing teacher from New Zealand. The variety of the teaching Student life and business were very different in the early days of London Business School.

Peggy: Andrew Likierman, the present Dean, taught me accounting. He had his first day at the School on my first day. I remember one traumatic moment when I was sitting at the back of his class trying to figure out whether he’d given me an alpha or a delta on my paper! Happily it turned out to be an alpha.

Why did you choose LBS?

Tony: Of all the world’s capitals, London is the most international. I love New York but it’s still an American city, whereas London’s a world city and even more so now. And the School definitely plays on that. You get an MBA that has an international element to it.

Nisha Gheewalla MBA2015: There are other great schools but London Business School takes the ‘greatness’ to a different degree. I admittedly didn’t realise this when I applied, but what makes the School special is the benefit of the diversity in backgrounds and nationalities. It teaches you very quickly that the world isn’t black and white – there are tons of shades of grey, and the shades come up in every conversation you have.

Rami: I would say first and foremost there’s a quality aspect to London Business School. It’s known internationally for high quality education. If you’re going to travel for an MBA you really want to get into the top tier and the School is clearly in the top tier of MBA schools. London also appealed because of its location and its status as a gateway to Europe and the rest of the world. In the US you have the sense of being a little isolated and focused on America. The other thing is the diversity of the student population. We have 69 nationalities with an age range spanning 16 years. That’s just tremendous.

The value of such an international cohort really can’t be underestimated either. You don’t really appreciate it until you’re going through the process: the variety and diversity of people’s experiences, the cross-cultural interaction and the learning that happens as a result of that. It’s really unparalleled.

Peggy: When I arrived in London the course was £800 for foreign students. My husband was jobless at the time but he said, “If I can’t figure out how to earn £800 fast, we’re in deep trouble.” In fact, he went and did a lot of consulting for Boston Consulting Group and we were able to afford the fees.DO YOU HAVE ONE STAND-OUT MEMORY FROM YOUR TIME AT THE SCHOOL?

Tony: I met my wife Maureen on a park bench in Regent’s Park. I’d bought a car magazine and sat down to read it, and she sat down on the other end of the bench. We started talking and a year later we were married. We rented a flat together in Swiss Cottage and sometimes I used to drive to the School and park in an empty field at the back of the building. I had a sports car that I’d built myself and it would fit under the barrier.

Rami: I just came back from Silicon Valley. It’s not every day you visit Facebook in the morning, Pebble (wearable hardware startup) at lunch, and Tesla in the afternoon. And it wasn’t one day but a week of head-spinning visits to the Googleplex, Intel, LinkedIn and legendary venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufields, among others. What made it so memorable was getting inside these modern-day icons of technology, meeting the folks who make it all happen and learning what makes them tick. All the while sharing that discovery and wonderment with classmates. You wouldn’t get to meet them in any other context and getting toknow your course-mates in that context is tremendous.

What one piece of advice would you give a graduate?

Tony: My number one piece of advice is to do something you love. It’s not going to work unless you love it. If you’re lucky, the money follows, and, if you aren’t, then you will have had fun doing it.

Peggy: Great advice. Another thing that I highly recommend is to find a mentor. That’s really what my Chairman was to me. Men worry about mentoring women – is it sexual, is it favouritism?

But I think it’s really important and it’s how a lot of men learn the softer, more political aspects of business.

How do you see the role of women in business?

Peggy: There were about 66 of us in my class and fewer than ten were women.

Nisha: Well, that’s one thing that has definitely changed. The course is now 30% women and next year it will be even more. They’re really pushing.

Peggy: That’s really positive. When it comes to women in business, I think the problem is that, in order to get to a top position, you have to put in a lot of effort and a lot of hours. I had four boys and I worked very hard, but as an entrepreneur I could decide when to be at the factory and when to be at home. I could say, “I’m taking a day off to go to the boys’ sports game,” and nobody would question it. You can’t do that if you work in an investment bank.

Nisha: That’s true. I have an inspiring story about my mother, who worked for Air India.Women were forced to retire when they got married or turned 30, while the men could work till 58. She went all the way to the High Court to fight that discrimination and she eventually retired at 58, the same age as my father. I think for women today the strides have already been so large and now we need to eradicate some of the nuanced behaviours that are holding women back.

Peggy: There are a lot of statistics to show that women on boards have a positive effect on the bottom line, and I have no reason to disbelieve that.

But I think the problem is that if you have quotas for women, people will think you’re there because you’re filling a quota. Then you can be dismissed as “Oh well, she’s the woman.”

Nisha: I completely agree with Peggy. I don’t like the idea of quotas for women. With quotas, people often think, “Oh, you only got a seat at the table because you were filling a quota.” So women are then perceived differently. I don’t think that’s the right way to move the needle. I think of it as more organic. You need to change things by establishing equality across the board. I was fortunate enough to organise the School’s Women in Business Conference at the Bloomberg Auditorium this year. It is completely student driven. We started by finding speakers, basically by emailing very successful women who are good orators. We ended up with keynote speakers from a range of industries, who each gave a little bit of their life story and shared their experiences and expectations but spent most of the time tackling issues such as how you negotiate your salary when you first start. In the end we attracted 360 attendees, only 30% of whom were London Business School students so we really reached out into the professional community. I left at the end of the day knowing that I’d learned something and I was hoping that everyone else had too. I was so pleasantly surprised when I looked at the feedback: 80% of it was extremely glowing reviews.

What are you hope for the School's future?

Tony: I’m very aware I was enormously privileged to get this education, which was free at the time. After we left, my wife and I wanted to give something back to the School. I’m interested in entrepreneurship and we started off doing books about the developing world so we’ve always had an interest in those two areas. That’s why we’ve funded an entrepreneurship chair with an emphasis on the developing world. Rajesh Chandy has been in the post and he has a lot of really interesting ideas.

Peggy: This sort of initiative from Tony and Maureen is great for the School. The amount of money that supports universities in Europe is not enough to make them competitive with well-endowed American universities. So it’s no accident that the American universities often take the top spots. I think it’s very important to get the message across that, if you want a first-class world institution, it takes money and the more prestigious London Business School becomes, the more it reflects on alumni. I also have no doubt that education is the answer to every problem.

So to support the School is to support the world in a long, slow walk to improvement. I look forward to seeing the profound impact the School continues to have over the coming year.