The school has successfully created an environment where every individual’s lived experiences and cultural background has space to prosper.
Sugandha Mahajan

Sugandha Mahajan

Nationality/Passport: Indian Year of graduation: 2021 Current Role: Junior Engagement Manager, McKinsey & Company

Can you share with us your journey before joining the INSEAD MBA programme, including your experiences in turning around your family business and working in investment banking?

Before joining INSEAD, I had two different career trajectories. After studying Economics at Lady Shri Ram College, Asia’s #1 college for liberal arts, I started my career as an investment banker for Nomura where I advised the biggest companies in the EU to raise over $8 billion in equity markets. Investment banking not only honed my understanding of the investor markets, but also gave me a deep insight on company valuations and structuring. 

This is the toolkit I brought to my second career as an entrepreneur when I joined my 55+ year-old family-owned manufacturing and export house of safety footwear. Navigating two highly male-dominated careers in my 20s taught me the importance of creating alliances and backing up every decision with methodic facts and holistic strategies. This is how I designed and implemented a strategy to turn around my loss-making family business and eventually sold it at industry-leading multiples before making my way to INSEAD.

How did your time at INSEAD shape your career path, particularly in transitioning from your previous roles to consulting at McKinsey & Company in Sweden?

The ‘MBA on steroids’ at INSEAD was the practical education I could receive as an upcoming consultant. 

From learning fundamentals of strategy through the case study pedagogy to experiential learning with peers like Richard Choueifaty, Ikrame Bahar, and Johny Rmeily who were previously management consultants, I imagined myself doing similar high-stakes projects in consulting. As INSEAD is the biggest feeder school for the most prestigious consulting firms globally, I often had 1:1 catch-ups with consultants thanks to the hands-on support of our career development club and high-yield alum base. 

Additionally, even when choosing among my final job offers, peers like Sophia Richki and Valentine Ojogwu were my trusted and enabling sounding board. Finally, many of my peers like Hayley Moller and Laura McGinnis shared their learnings in sustainability and startups with me. This motivated me to select Sweden (the sustainability and innovation capital of the world) as my top choice, despite never having visited the country before – in hindsight an INSEAD ethos of take the plunge and run the race! 

As you can see from my experience, INSEAD as a school embodies the collaborative spirit where, we look out for each other through thick or thin.

What were some of the key skills or insights you gained from your time at INSEAD that have been instrumental in your current role as a consultant?

INSEADers always have their calendars fully booked with classes, travelling, extracurriculars and house parties. To this day, I use these lessons in managing priorities and living the Pareto Principle in my busy and dynamic schedule as a consultant. Lessons in Power & Politics by Prof. Kaisa Snellman and New Business Ventures by Prof. Henning Piezunka are handy in daily interactions with clients. 

Additionally, as an INSEADer, I have an active network in practically every corner of the world that I resort to in need of advice, a safe space to rant or insider information on the best speakeasy bars! Finally, INSEAD taught me the importance of swiftly navigating rejections (Freddy’s ding bell FTW!) and always choosing the bold option – instrumental factors in my selection of projects and geographies to work in as a consultant

You mentioned organising various pre-MBA peer learning webinars and meetups. How did these experiences contribute to your overall INSEAD experience, and what impact did they have on your professional development?

Because my class was one of the COVID classes, our cohort knew we were signing up for a year of uncertainty where the previously tested and tried ways of socialising wouldn’t be logistically possible. Hence, even before INSEAD started, along with Suki Bakshi and Utkarsh, I launched various modes of peer learning and socialising platforms. I organised informal meet-ups on Zoom and more formal peer-learning webinars where we discussed entrepreneurship and tech-related topics. 

We even launched some initiatives on our thriving social media platforms to get to know each other as a class! This pre-MBA buzz meant that we knew most of our classmates before the school had even started. In fact, that’s how I found my best friends Mario-Georges El Hoeyk, Vedika Dabriwal and Yagna Vij at the ‘Vet House’! 

As a recipient of the Hinrich Foundation scholarship, could you tell us how this scholarship supported your journey at INSEAD and beyond?

Receiving the Hinrich Foundation scholarship was a dream come true. I was not only the first Indian woman to receive the scholarship but also received validation for my previous work and potential in global trade. Aside from the hefty financial aid, the Foundation gave me several avenues of mentorship to navigate the European job market. 

One of my highlights was when Alex Boomer from the Foundation selected me to attend a fully funded Board leadership training that prepared me for the INSEAD Alumni Board member duties after graduation.

As a board member of the National Alumni Association in Sweden, how do you continue to stay connected with the INSEAD community, and how has this network benefited you post-MBA?

In a formal capacity, I stay in touch with the school as a board member of the National Alumni Association in Sweden and as a Young Alumni Ambassador for my cohort. Through these formal positions, I act as a bridge between the school and our alumni by organising events, and fundraisers and relaying the alumni voice to the school. I have also had the opportunity to organise INSEAD leadership events at McKinsey Sweden which not only creates visibility for the school but also helps me showcase my work as a management consultant. Informally, I often attend our cohort meet-ups and travels.

What do you believe sets INSEAD apart from other business schools, and how has it lived up to its reputation as the Business School for the world in your experience?

INSEAD is synonymous to diversity- the UN of business schools.  

The school has successfully created an environment where every individual’s lived experiences and cultural background have space to prosper while bringing home the message that our impact is multiplied when we stand together. At INSEAD, everyone is a minority. Additionally, INSEAD as an institution never relies on its past laurels and constantly evolves to match the changing times. The recent focus on translating sustainability and social impact to a business and innovation opportunity is a clear example of INSEAD not shying away from its motto of ‘business for good’. Finally, the alumni of INSEAD are leading businesses, financial institutions, civil societies, and social impact ventures of the world which creates an ever-reaching access and agency to bringing sustainable change.

Can you share a specific example of how your INSEAD education has enabled you to navigate challenges or seize opportunities in your professional life?

The INSEAD experience taught me that grit and an entrepreneurial spirit are the cornerstones of a fulfilling professional life. One such experience at McKinsey has been my drive to work in new challenging environments like Saudi Arabia. Normally at McKinsey, working in new countries happens through formal transfer programmes or when a sponsoring Partner takes you in their team in a new country. Instead, I networked my way to work in one of the most coveted and high-stakes projects with one of the biggest Saudi companies. Conducting effective coffee chats, pitching your USP, and a never-back-down mindset were ingrained in me at INSEAD. Additionally, when working in Saudi, I found solace in knowing cultural nuances thanks to my Arab classmates and lessons from Prof. Erin Myer’s Culture Map. As a result, my team’s work was greatly appreciated during the project and even led to a standing ovation from 40+ clients in a steerco meeting!

Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring MBA candidates considering INSEAD, based on your own transformative journey and experiences?

Bring out your most authentic self in your application and interview process. 

The application process can seem overwhelming, but it is also an opportunity to feel proud of everything you have learnt so far and independently reflect on where you want to go next. Additionally, I would encourage candidates to connect with INSEAD students and alums on LinkedIn because they offer the most honest and relatable window to what life at the school is like. Finally, when feeling demotivated during the process, I often watched videos or read blogs posted by INSEAD students. Imagining myself walking down Rue de France in Fontainebleau or attending a VR-enabled class at the school fueled my ambition to keep working on my application!

Finally, think about your career as a lifetime journey and not just your professional goals might have brought you inspiring accolades, but what were the life-transforming learnings you gained along the way? Those are the most interesting parts of any story.