How INSEAD Compares to Life in Start-ups

Kevin Diehn

Coming from a background in science and start-ups, many of my MBA programme options felt like a strong departure from the unfamiliar mind-expanding experiences, on-the-job learning, and team-building challenges of start-ups into a world of conservatism, risk management, and generally-accepted best practices—except for INSEAD.

As I looked at various schools and began to talk to alumni, my conversations with INSEAD alumni continually revealed the same themes—diversity at a level that you’ve never seen, intense experiential learning to push you to your limits, and life-long friendships across the world with the people who have grown alongside you. These conversations inspired me throughout the application process as I pulled together my essays and recommenders last fall, anxiously waited for my admissions decision, and jumped out of my seat when I finally received the call from the +33 French country code to find out I was headed to Fontainebleau.

Reflecting back on the two months of P1, I’m amazed at the way the programme mirrors life working on a start-up in the context of shaping me into a leader who can thrive in a fast-moving and complex global business environment:

1) New and unfamiliar experiences expand the world we thought we knew. Building a start-up often feels like peeking behind the curtain at the machinery that underlies the world around you. Conversations with customers, B2B partners, suppliers, etc. give you a different perspective on the problem you’re trying to solve and a different set of parameters to design for as you build your product or company.

In our INSEAD class, students are of 70 different nationalities with dozens of languages and every industry or function you can think of.

This widespread diversity lets you peek into corners of the world you didn’t know existed. In these first two months, I’ve learned to cook from a classically trained chef classmate, received hands-on lessons in rugby and boxing, and enjoyed traditional French, Lebanese, and Japanese dinners guided in each by French, Lebanese, and Japanese classmates. 

2) Intense experiential learning pushes us past our limits and reveals areas for growth. In the start-up world, if you do not have the expertise to solve a problem, the simplest solution is to ask an expert. However, more often the solution is to make yourself enough of an expert to be able to solve the problem. This adaptability to new concepts and environments is the most important trait across successful entrepreneurs (in addition to extreme persistence and resilience).

At INSEAD, from the first few days of the programme, we are thrown into intentionally diverse groups to solve open-ended problems on extremely tight deadlines from community service projects with 80-person teams to overhauling corporate strategy for a real-life company’s founders in under 24 hours.

Through intense experiences combined with a culture of reflection and self-awareness, two months of “INSEAD time” feels more like four months of time in our previous careers.

3) Shared values and unique experiences with our classmates provide the foundation for relationships for life. Given the diverse nature of challenges in start-ups, start-up teams are usually comprised of people from a diverse set of skills or backgrounds brought together by the common goal of taking on the unknown to create valuable new products or services. Through the highs-and-lows, late nights and long weekends, and an ever-changing set of customer needs, the team forms bonds over both these unique experiences and the shared values used to overcome challenges.

Similarly, during P1 at INSEAD, we work on diverse teams to overcome demanding, open-ended projects on tight deadlines on a nearly daily basis. For example, the members of my study group (with whom we work during all of our classes) come from six different countries across four continents from entirely different functions and industries. Though this team composition could be a source of friction in many organisations, INSEAD pushes us to turn this diversity into a strength. Over time, it becomes clear that though fellow students do come from a variety of cultures, have worked in different industries, and speak several different languages, the unique and demanding programme we face together and the rich cultural experiences we enjoy together reveal our common values.

Having made it through the gauntlet of P1, I am amazed that my experience at INSEAD has rivalled and in many cases, surpassed the opportunities for growth that inspired me about the start-up world. Without a doubt, the diversity of INSEAD is the programme’s unparalleled advantage in the MBA community and the activities of the programme are keenly orchestrated around it.

In one year at INSEAD, you will expand your knowledge of the world around you, you will be pushed up to and beyond your limits to grow, and you will share the experience along the way with world-class people who share your values. As we move into P2, I look forward to the new ways in which INSEAD and its diverse culture will push me to grow in ways I never could have expected.