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2021 Graduation Season | Stevan Tao:Reflections on my FMBA journey 2019-2021

Stevan Tao 陶钧
Cornell-Tsinghua Dual Degree Finance MBA Class of 2019
 
If you are currently struggling to decide on whether or not to invest in an MBA, I can feel your pain. I was in a similar position three years ago. Choosing to study an MBA is never an easy decision - it is costly (time and money), mentally taxing (assignment due dates creeps up on you) and emotionally draining (what a rollercoaster it has been). As such, the MBA experience and potential return on investment are amongst the most common questions asked by friends. 
 
As I reflect on my two-year Finance MBA (FMBA) at Tsinghua and Cornell, a mixture of emotions rush into my mind. It was definitely a worthwhile experience, but not without its challenges. There were highs - non-stop 12hour study days in Cornell, VIP guest lecturers from both academia and industry, student knowledge sharing sessions and infinite social activities. We had our struggles – studying through the Covid-19 pandemic and endless Zoom classes (as I was stranded in Australia, I had the ‘luxury’ of almost a full year of Zoom based learning). So as I venture back into my memory, I want to provide you with a genuine snapshot of my experience and hope it makes your MBA decision easier.
 
So a little about me – I was born in China but grew up in Sydney, Australia. I have always had a keen interest in China influenced by my parents and more importantly, my high school Chinese teachers Mr Leu and Ms Lin, who were instrumental in shaping my life values and encouraged me to pursue a career in China. In particular, I was intrigued by the student life in China so I jumped at the Cornell-Tsinghua Dual Degree Finance MBA opportunity when it came up. I can still vividly remember the flurry of emotions during commencement day, when the Tsinghua PBC School of Finance (PBCSF) was compared to the esteemed Whampoa Military Academy for finance – training us to be the next generation of serviceable ‘contributors’. You may think I’m being over dramatic, but growing up constantly battling identity crisis issues, I immediately felt a sense of pride and belonging.
 
Why do you want it?
 
The first thing I recommend is being clear on the ‘why’ before starting the MBA journey. Why do you want an MBA? This is the most important question as it will motivate you through the endless study nights when you start to doubt. MBA is a huge commitment not only because of money (most expensive MBA program in China), but also the time sacrifice (you can kiss your public and accrued holidays good bye, not to mention time away from family) and emotional burden on your family and friends. Therefore, you want to define the success or value you want from the program, beyond just obtaining a shining degree. 
 
Traditional MBAs often attracts two type of applicants: those who know exactly what they want (a channel for promotion or to switch industries) and those who are looking for answers. The FMBA program allows less room for the latter. It is better suited for those pursuing a career in finance or at least finance related as lecturers and courses emphasize the finance discipline.  
 
However don’t be mistaken, one of the biggest misconception of this program is that it only caters to finance professionals or people with finance backgrounds. If that was the case, then I would have struggled from day one (I have a consulting background). The focus of the program (particularly the PBCSF side) is on financial intuition, rather than pure financial theory. This program is not a CFA course, you are not expected to stagnate on deriving the CAPM or Efficient Market Hypothesis formulas, in contrast, the professors focus on the rationale behind why companies made certain investment decisions and why policy makers adopt certain strategies to impact the market. This is the true value of the Cornell-Tsinghua Dual Degree Finance MBA program, we are not Master students merely seeking for theoretical knowledge or producing binary answers, we are being trained to analyze information (sometimes even contradicting) with a critical mindset to drive better decision making at work, or even in life. 
 
What to expect on a FMBA journey?
 
The most unique part of the program is experiencing the MBA life through two different schools and cultures. On one hand, you have Cornell, an Ivy League school with a long history of knowing ‘what is the right way to teach’. On the other hand, you have Tsinghua PBCSF, a former training school for People’s Bank of China elite cadets, emphasizing on ‘what works’ and practicality of knowledge. The cultural differences between the two school could not have been greater, but such contrast makes the learning experience one of a kind. 
 
In many ways, the cross-cultural element was perfectly suited for me. While most of my classmates longed for the Cornell experience, I was the opposite, whether out of sheer nostalgia or novelty, I treasured my experience with Tsinghua PBSCF. The teaching styles of the two schools were very different – Cornell focused on the traditional lecture style and case study based learning, emphasizing the ‘whats’ and ‘hows’, equips you with the foundational knowledge and tools necessary to grasp a better understanding of business issues, and student participation is greatly encouraged (actually, this is an understatement given the sheer number of cold calls by lecturers left us with no choice but to read the prescribed case studies repeatedly). 
 
In contrast, Tsinghua PBCSF focused more on ‘intuitive learning’ and the ‘whys’ behind theoretical frameworks, complemented by a selection of VIP level professors and guest lecturers (from industry and academia) sharing their past war stories and interpretations on current affairs in the investment and business world. The best analogy I can think of to describe the different teaching styles is akin to a military academy – Cornell provides you with a selection of different tools in ‘combat’; PBCSF teaches you on how and when to best use the tools under varying circumstances.
 
Growth Mindset

If there is one thing the program ‘preached’ heavily on, it is the practice of ‘growth mindset’. Such powerful words right? Much easier said than done. Admittedly, I was a little intimidated initially as I didn’t have the academic accolades nor the industry credentials or the finance knowledge my classmates possessed – after all, this was still a Finance MBA. At first, I was reserved in the finance and quantitative based courses, thinking that I didn’t have ‘much to contribute’. However, one of the key highlights in my journey have been overcoming the ‘fear’ of embarrassment in front of my more qualified classmates. 
 
Growth begins by acknowledging your own deficiency and believing that it is possible to change. Stepping outside of my comfort zone, I quickly realized that I was learning more from my classmates’ insightful sharing on a range of issues (both work and academic), particularly on more practical courses such as corporate finance and risk management. I actively tuned in every time a classmate shared their perspectives on a topic, sometimes I’d even follow up during breaks or after class. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed each of the lunch break student knowledge sharing sessions organized by the class student council (each speaker can pick a topic of choice or to their expertise and share it with rest of the class). 
 
I came to realize that finance is multi-dimensional and not constrained to the views from investment analysts and industry ‘players’, and having diverse classmates from various industries provided refreshing insights and invited different ways of thinking. I gradually recognized that learning from the wisdom of my classmates will have an exponential impact on my future problem solving and decision making ability. Additionally, I wasn’t alone on this ‘treasure hunt’ as gradually a group of classmates joined the party – identifying gems in classes from all walks of life. If there was a disappointment, it would have been not getting to know enough classmates in depth, however it is comforting to know that the friendships do not end at graduation. 
 
I often found myself learning invaluable contemporary insights from my fellow classmates, particularly on emerging industries. Thinking outside the box needs a catalyst - and here it is.
 
So…is MBA worth it?
 
I don’t have a definitive answer for you, because your answer should be based on ‘why’ you are investing in this journey. Sorry to have disappointed you with my answer, but a MBA is not a magic pill to fix all of your problems at work (expecting a direct promotion or switching industries, mostly to banking or consulting) or overcoming different challenges in life. The right expectation should be set from the beginning in order to avoid feeling disappointed at the end. Business school or a degree should not be the end goal, it is the network you build and the persistence of ‘striving to be your best’ that will accelerate and propel you forward, whether in your career or life.  
 
Finally, the MBA journey does not end on the day of graduation, but continues on in the form of friendships and bonds that will carry you further in life. MBA attracts high caliber talent, so in a room of talented people, you may not be special but you can be unique. The MBA allows you to highlight and explore that uniqueness – perhaps it is not only about overcoming your weaknesses or shortcomings but an exploration to further identify what you are truly good at. So if you do start your MBA journey, make sure to treasure every moment and most of all, enjoy the little things along the way. 
 
6am workouts during residential session in Cornell, Ithaca: one of my most memorable experiences (the workouts were often followed by another 12 hours of lectures and study sessions - definitely felt young again!)