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What I learned from my MBA

The universe will indeed conspire to help you achieve your dreams; Start dreaming and start believing in your dreams

This is a very long post but this is the best way I could share my experiences.

In May 2006, I got my MBA admission at the International University of Japan(IUJ). The reason why I applied to IUJ was because of three things A. I was too fond of Japan because of a world youth program sponsored by the Government of Japan that gave a global perspective for this small town Indian guy and also, it gave me my Srilankan wife B. I coudn’t relate to the job slashing management philosophy as narrated by Lee Iacocca in his ‘Talking Straight’ and was more inspired plus inclined to lead people through thick and thin as narrated by Akio Morita in his book ‘Made in Japan’ C. The School had many scholarship opportunities. But I had a few interesting challenges ahead of me — 1. I had recently quit my job 2. I had a 7-month-old baby, Midoari (meaning green in Japanese) and my wife was pregnant again. She was suffering from Deep Vein Thrombosis(DVT) during the first child c-section that required her to take Heparin shots every day for the last 120 days of this pregnancy 3. I didn’t have money. Life wasn’t easy.

I was doing relatively well for a young professional in the evolving animation industry in India— At 27, I had led a 120 member team for India’s first squash and stretch animation TV series ‘Pet Alien’ that won several awards. I was making a good salary for Indian standards and life was going fine— lots of work, weekend movies and outings with my young family in Mumbai.

I loved what I did but didn’t feel like continuing in that job as I felt there was something bigger than I could do. I was recalling my days as an Engineering student when every week, I would have helped a person in need of blood through my student network. Many friends advised me that it is not a wise decision to quit a job when you are married and that too with a kid in hand. My wife stood by me and she told ‘If you believe in it, go for it’. My father supported me as well and other than these two people, many friends suggested that I am making a big blunder in my life, not to discourage me but they were genuinely caring for my well being.They seemed to be right when I learned that my wife was pregnant again with our second child and my little savings fading in front of my eyes.

I didn’t take any job in the interim as I felt that all these pressures will put me back into my previous job routine and I was determined. I had never asked anyone for anything and I was very proud of my independence. I was also very stubborn and very righteous. I tried to get an educational loan from banks but since neither I nor my parents owned any assets, we didn’t have a collateral that can be offered to get loans for my education. There were some days when I wanted to go back to the industry because of mounting financial pressure and uncertainties. I decided to write to my ex-employer asking them whether they could sponsor my education and that I would come back and work for them for 3 years. My justification was that I will be leading the organization and not a project but the real reason was that I was yielding to the financial pressure. They said yes and just one month before my trip to Japan, they decided to sponsor my tuition and not my living expenses and that too with a condition that I have to work with them for 5 years. I had very little time left and no channel to secure my finances.

I called my friends and for the first time in my life, I asked for help, that too financial help. I felt awful but I didn’t know what else to do. My friends turned my world back in order. Venu Moola, my engineering classmate, asked me not to take my ex-employers’ offer. He gave me confidence not just in words but in deeds. Without him, I would not have got the confidence to take some important decisions. My generous father didn’t even think once to take the savings from his pension fund (he was about to retire the next year) and handed it over to me. With the help of Venu & two of my friends Vichu and Karthik and my father’s hard-earned pension money plus a basic loan that doesn’t require any collateral, I had paid my admission fees, the first semester tuition fees, bought a laptop plus things for survival, secured finances to survive the first three months in Japan, 120 heparin injections for my wife and some money for my wife’s medical expenses. I left my pregnant wife in the company of her 74-year-old father, a cardiac patient, and mother along with my 11-month-old daughter in Colombo to go to Japan to create a future that I didn’t know how it looked like. We were expecting our second child in the last week of Dec 2006. I had no idea how I am going to pay the tuition fees for the second semester and how I am going to come back to Colombo for my son’s delivery. My wife told me not to worry and that everything will be fine when everything suggested that her life was going to be miserable and that she (we) was going to be a burden to her struggling and ailing father.

It was 17 Sep 2006 and I was waiting at the Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo to board my Srilankan Airlines flight at 21:50 to Tokyo.I was feeling guilty and there was this heaviness that I was feeling in the throat. Life had turned upside down within 6 months and it was taking me somewhere. I wasn’t sure when I can come back to see my family, how I am going to come home for my son’s delivery and whether there is anyone left who I can ask for support as all my friends and family had supported me enough. I had this uncomfortable feeling that cannot be explained. Just 15 minutes before boarding the plane, I noticed a couple of Srilankan Airlines officials talking to the passengers and as they came closer to the passengers near me, I could hear them — “We have an elderly Japanese person who needs to fly to Tokyo because of a medical emergency and this is the only flight that flies direct from Colombo to Tokyo. The flight is overbooked and if you can offer your seat, we’ll give a Colombo- Tokyo — Colombo free ticket.” I wanted them to come to me and they were talking to the passengers seated close to me. My heart was beating fast and I wanted them to come to me with that request. Luckily, nobody found that offer attractive and unlike me, none of them might have any such pressures. They came to me and whether I would be interested in that offer. I told them that I have to be in Tokyo on Sep 18 evening so that I can reach my university on Sep 19 morning for the admission and if they can ensure that timing then I would be willing to offer my seat. They went back to check and came back to me — “Sir, We have a Singapore Airlines flight that leaves at 1:30 am and there is a 3 hour stop over in Singapore but the flight will reach Tokyo around 6 pm”. I was fine and they took my bags, put me in a business class lounge with free massages and gave me a free ticket coupon. I called my wife from the airport and told her that I will be coming for my son’s delivery in December and told what happened. She couldn’t believe what I told her. I couldn’t either.

I joined the MBA program and our School was in a beautiful setting, a 10 min bus ride from the Urasa Station near Muikamachi town in the Niigata Prefecture. The school is situated in a valley surrounded by rice fields and snow-capped mountains. I realized everything was super expensive and to go to the nearby supermarket, I had to rely on the shuttle bus which had services every one hour. The Shokudo or the school cafeteria served meals for 500–600 yen per meal and it was way too expensive for me. I went to the supermarket to realize that the money that I thought of using for 3 months might dry up within a month. I woke up every morning with a heaviness in my chest and before I go to bed, I used to remember the wonderful times in Bombay with my wife and kid. The tall Hakkai-san mountain and the tiny village in far along with the massive snow made me feel very lonely. I had to cook in the Kitchen for which there will be a queue which consumed a lot of time and also, I had to find a way to balance the hectic workload between MBA and Japanese language program. I didn’t buy any books during that semester as I wanted to tighten every loose string in my wallet. The library had one textbook and the person who takes the book at the last hour got to keep the book until 8 am next morning. I had to fight for this book. The only time that I got to study was from midnight to 7 am. Since my wife was pregnant as well as taking care of an infant, ‘skyping’ wasn’t easy either with the 3.5 hour time difference. When she wanted to talk, it was too late for me and when I wanted to talk, she was occupied by my daughter.

Photo Courtesy: www.iuj.ac.jp

The school announced the elections for the Graduate Student Organization(GSO) and many of my friends started canvassing for their candidature. I had no idea of competing for this election but at the last minute decided to contest for the experience of it. There was a panel and each candidate had to make a pitch for 2 mins followed by a Q&A from the panel. I made my pitch with conflict resolution as my key proposition and the panel asked ‘Why do you think you can manage conflicts?’. I said ‘Because I am married’. Everyone laughed and when the results came, I got the second maximum number of votes (61) and was one of the 5 elected members of the GSO. At that time, little did I realize the value this position could bring to me.

Oct 25, 2006, was my daughter’s 1st birthday. I bought a ‘cheap’ dress in a ‘sale’ and sent home. The postal charge was more than the cost of the dress. When my wife sent the birthday pictures, I know how much I cried looking at the jaded look in her beautiful face and her helplessness living with her old parents giving them so much trouble.

Most of the days, I had the following meal routine — 3 bread slices with a coffee in the morning, cup noodles for lunch and cup noodles for dinner. Almost all my classmates either had good scholarships or a good financial background and they will be spending time together in the cafeteria or go to Japanese onsens or go out for dinners but I had no option but to stay in the campus with no such options. The only ‘incentive’ I gave for myself was the 100 yen burgers at McD every Saturday (when the school bus took the students to the nearby town) which I will buy for lunch and dinner. The waiter at the counter might have been very familiar with my face as I was the only one who bought that 100 yen burger every time.

In the second month, there was a Jasso Scholarship announcement. This scholarship helped students to cover the living expenses. Luckily, anyone who is a GSO member and in need was given preference. I got the scholarship. I was now getting a way to barely take care of my living expenses. My GPA was around 3.5 but since there was only one textbook in the library, I started reading more books to get the gist of the textbook. This habit stayed with me till now.

In December, I was able to return back home with the free ticket to be there with my wife for my son’s delivery. My beautiful little boy, Nitin, would not have realized that his father had nothing to offer him and that he himself was struggling to manage his life leave alone taking care of his wife and two kids. For the next semester, another Engineering classmate Arun Prasad paid the tuition fees and with the Jasso scholarships, I could manage until April. In between, there were the financial demands from home that I had to cater to but full credits to my in-laws and wife, I was able to do what I was doing in a far away country.

During January, they announce the Monbukagakhusho scholarship from the Ministry of Education (MEXT) of Japan. The scholarship covered tuition fees till the end of the program, approximately USD2000 per month stipend and a return air ticket back home. I applied and was one of the six who got shortlisted for the interview with the Dean, Philip Sugai. In the interview, he asked why I needed a Scholarship. I told him my whole story and told him that I will make him proud if he offered me the scholarship. He said, “Vijay, I was in your situation when I was in NYU Stern School of Business and I can very much understand how difficult it is to pursue education with a family but we’ll have to choose the candidates based on Merit. All the best!”. When the results came, I was the one who was nominated from my university and each university nominates students from different schools to MEXT. After a month or so, I was sitting in the library one day and I decided to go for a long walk around the beautiful campus. I walked very long, saw the village nearby, some kids playing, the houses around and was thinking to myself how beautiful it would be to have my family here. I come back to the library, open my computer and there was this email congratulating me for getting the Monbukagakhusho Scholarship from MEXT. I went to Prof.Sugai’s room and touched his feet as a gesture of the highest respect an Indian can give to another person.

Within a few weeks, I got an opportunity to work with our Marketing Professor Ozcan Kerimcan on an ethnographic study and he signed me up for 60 hours. I finished the work in less than 20 hours but the generous Professor paid me for my full 60 hours as per his initial commitment. In the Spring, the internship interviews started and I got a lot of rejections but finally was selected for a consulting project with the Chief Strategist of Sony Corporation. With the money that I got for research, I bought a used car, flight tickets for my family, paid advance for an apartment and brought my little kids (1.5 years old and 8 months) and wife to Japan.

I was also doing all kinds of odd jobs from being an assistant in the Library to helping Professors on research projects to generate additional income to support my family but a student can work only for a stipulated period of time in a week which put a break. We stayed in an old-style Japanese apartment in a village which was a 15 min drive near our campus and it wasn’t easy with two infants. The snowfall was extreme in the valley and we used to sleep on the floor with some mattress. Also, we had to use a kerosene heater in the apartment since the village apartments didn’t have any kind of central heating systems. One day, when my wife was driving the kids to the school, the car skid and got stuck in the heavy snow with 2 kids inside. Luckily, she managed to find her way out of trouble with the help of an elderly Japanese couple after struggling for more than an hour alone in a heavy snowfall. There were times when I didn’t have 1 yen in my account and as a result, we didn’t buy anything for a few days. The Scholarship helped us to live a ‘basic’ life but life was so beautiful with all its imperfections.

During the second year Fall, We had this course called ‘Innovation & New Business Development’ taught by Prof.Wakayama. We had three textbooks — Innovators Dilemma, Innovators Solution, and Blue Ocean Strategy. I was so fascinated by Innovators Solution by Clay Christensen. The ‘dilemma’ resonated powerfully with me and I remembered an example of an obsolete mill in front of the animation studio where I worked in Mumbai to understand ‘Disruptive Innovation’. This course was what I was looking for in the whole program and I was also fascinated by ‘The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid’. I didn’t buy books even though I could afford them now and instead, focused on reading as many good books as possible. I focused on courses where I got value and didn’t take any effort to do assignments, quizzes or improve my GPA. I believed I was doing the right thing and I was leveraging our Library policy of getting 3 books that each student can recommend the library to buy, by using the quota of most of my classmates. I had read more than 100 books by now and I was reading at least 2 new books every week.

My family had its demands — My wife used to get cramps in the cold weather because of her DVT problem. Luckily, this health issue helped us to get a medical certificate that enabled us to get the student housing ( I had lost the lottery for the student housing earlier) inside the campus which helped me to pay less rent, avoid the kerosene heaters and most importantly, lot of people around for my wife and kids. We had our other moments too when my son met with an accident at home and we had to rush him to the hospital nearby. But we were slowly and steadily getting back on track.

In the fall semester, I focused only on Clay Christensen’s work. I read anything and everything that he wrote. The more I read him, the more I was inclined to his writings. I wrote a blog ‘Gandhi-The disruptive Innovator’ (http://vgthinks.blogspot.ch/2007/12/gandhi-disruptive-innovator.html) using ‘non-violence’ as a disruptive innovation. My friends liked it and Wakayama-sensei liked it. I thought to myself and asked ‘Why don’t I send this to Clay Christensen?’ I found his email address on the HBS website and sent him an email. My passion for this topic led me to learn about his consulting firm, Innosight and I sent an application expressing interest to work for Innosight. In the meanwhile, I was getting some campus interviews with Lehman Brothers, some IT company etc but in 2008, the market was getting worse. After some time, I received a mail from Hari Nair who was launching a business incubator/VC fund for Clay Christensen’s consulting firm in India. The firm was focused on building disruptive businesses at the BoP. I interviewed with Hari and Hari asked me to develop a business case for a new disruptive innovation and asked me how much time I would need. I said ‘one month’. He was surprised with my timeline but I told him that I have two kids and that I would need the extra time. I was extremely confident about the subject as I had read everything that Clay had written and I even went to the footnotes in his book to understand every concept in great detail. In the meanwhile, to my surprise, Clay Christensen sent a long email appreciating my insights on how non-violence can engage people and that the world leaders needed to think like this by giving some examples from his own experience. I started worshiping him now and I was on cloud nine.

During that one month, Tomoya Nakamura-sensei, an ex HBS grad, and my leadership professor gave me a lot of confidence. He knew that I was preparing for an interview and he exempted me from assignments as he felt that my classroom contribution was excellent. He also assured me that I was on par with an MBA student from anywhere. After a month, I presented my business case which is about a disruptive air cooler and Hari was impressed. I had put my heart and soul into developing the case. I was asked to fly to India for the final round of interviews with the India team — John Boddie and Dheeraj Batra. On Apr 2, my birthday, Hari gave me the offer to join their India efforts at the Chola Sheraton in Chennai.He even gave me his phone to call my wife and share the good news. I will never forget this day in my life. I was so so happy. It was my dream job. Hari, John, and Dheeraj are families to me today. I had one more semester to go, the last semester.

It was during this time the recession hit very badly and we could see the after-effects of the recession. No company came to the campus and All the companies who came earlier had stopped their recruitment. I was one of the very few who got a job, that too my dream job, when the market was at its worst. I got a signing bonus which I used for traveling around Japan with my family in the fancy trains and life had come a full circle. I was the teaching assistant for the Strategic management class and I got more money than I needed now. I won an elevator pitch contest at the MoMo Asia pacific peer awards in Tokyo. We went to Onsens every week, traveled around, went to restaurants and enjoyed our last months in Japan. I finally graduated with an MBA degree with 2 kids in my arms.

The first two semesters were the most difficult period in my life and the last two semesters were one of the most pleasant moments of my life. It was very pleasant because of all the difficulties that I had gone through for the 18 months or so. More than me, my wife went through extreme difficulties to make all this happen. So what did I learn from my MBA?

The following two quotes sum up what I learnt

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

How on earth did the free ticket come to me? How did I get elected to the GSO that led me to the Jasso Scholarship? How did I get a Monbukagakhusho scholarship in the face of such stiff competition? How did I land my dream job when the world was going through one of its biggest recession?

“I don’t believe in taking right decisions. I take decisions and make them right” — Ratan Tata.

The animation industry in India has crumbled in recent years and many professionals lost their jobs. When I left the industry, it was doing very well. many thought it wasn’t a great decision at that point of time to leave a good job but today, it was one of the best decisions of my life.

In addition, from my personal reflection

  1. The journey is as important as the destination. The journey will reveal new destinations and the destination will lead to new journeys.
  2. The journey starts with a small step. Stopping the urge to go back, confronting the fear and getting up every time we fall is key to sustaining the journey.
  3. People help if you ask for help. We assume that people know our troubles and expect them to help. Seeking and sharing cleanse our selves from ego.
  4. MBA is not about MBA. It is about you and what you want. Where you study doesn’t matter. What you learn and how you learn matters.
  5. Go to the source of anything. Go beyond the definitions, go beyond the structure, go beyond the routine, go beyond the classrooms and confront everything. The learning will be powerful. Unlearning is the biggest learning.

We cannot always control life. Sometimes we will have to surrender to Life. Life is a combination of operating in domains that we know and domains that we don’t know. It is a combination of control and surrender which will come through experience only through trial and error. Since what we don’t know is bigger than what we know, a choice around what we don’t know usually will enhance the ‘what we know’ pie. My righteousness had gone out of me, my ego collapsed and I have become more empathetic. My outlook on life changed dramatically. I would like to take inspiration from one of my favorite Clay Christensen article ‘Why I belong? Why I believe?’ and say ‘I learned to believe, I learned to belong’.

To conclude, I learned to stay in gratitude forever because this MBA is not mine. It was gifted to me by so many people — My wife, kids, parents, in-laws, Venu, Vichu, Arun, Karthik, GSO, Sugai sensei, Wakayama sensei, Nakamura sensei, Shantanu and my MBA classmates, Stephen Sir, MEXT, Jasso, the people of Japan, the universe that helped me……… Everyone went beyond their ‘comfort zones’ to help me and they guided me as I was navigating around the edges. I can never give back what they gave me and their help can’t be quantified. But I will definitely give back to the world!

Originally published at www.linkedin.com

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