By the time he entered his first graduate program, aged 25, after completing two bachelors’ degrees and an MBA, Amadou had also accumulated almost twenty years of work experience, much of it full-time. No wonder he has been snapped up by every single company and boss he has served ever since. How did this happen? Coming from an “illiterate” family in Senegal, and being the oldest of nine brothers and sisters put a certain expectation on Amadou from the outset. His family was from a remote village, but his father had moved to Dakar in search of fortune. He ended up managing a Bata shoe store where Amadou came to work every day after school from the age of 6. “That is where I learnt sales!” While building the family’s future, he was still expected to do well in school and get the best grades possible.
Anabel says she had little experience in not-for-profit work, apart from a short project in Sierra Leone during her degree work in Human Sciences, as well as volunteer work in the U.K. with underprivileged children. She is perhaps too modest, as many of us have done far less than that. When Anabel says that purpose work “was not on her radar,” perhaps she means she did not see it as a legitimate way to make a living. She had spent ten years building a massive capacity as a leader and motivator of teams at world-class companies such as Virgin and Carphone Warehouse, and so had developed a taste for being challenged and stretched in this context.
Anand, a self-confessed “hobby teacher” by the age of eleven, definitely showed all the signs of ending up in academia early on, even though by now, he looks for balance in his work. During his college years, Anand was the president of the India Youth Brigade, where he worked with teachers and leaders to serve the underprivileged through education, while studying for a BSc in Physics and Maths. He then went on to gain a computer science certification, in the early eighties, becoming one of the early entrants into the nascent Indian IT boom. Several years began of highly prestigious national and international companies’ training schemes and rapid progress, mixing IT with strategy, marketing and account management, thus he became early on an accomplished “all-rounder”.
Growing up in a comfortable, Dutch white-collar family did not predispose André to become an entrepreneur. His first job as a Volkswagen intern in Germany introduced him to the rigid and old-fashioned side of corporate life. After six months, he left to join a small company as its seventh employee, enjoying a great deal of freedom to create and innovate. Unfortunately, this company went under. This led André to do an MBA at INSEAD, after which he took a job at an international consultancy, for both the range of work and the regular pay he needed as a new father. However, he disliked the perspective of most of his clients and soon recognized that he was more of a doer than an advisor.
Andrew, from the British ski team, had his first test of resilience at the age of 15 when he broke his back. The recovery period was long and trying for Andrew, who at that stage was competing at extremely high levels. The time out gave him the opportunity to reflect and he returned to the ski fields even more determined to push to ever greater levels. Shortly after this he was given the opportunity to go pro and, as he climbed the rankings, he started to make money from the sponsorships and product endorsements that went with his place on the U.K. team. In the build-up to the 2010 Olympics, Andrew’s qualities as a team player and a natural leader were called upon in a way he would never have expected.
While Anna was growing up, her love of horses – and, as she admitted, perhaps her natural authority – led to her dreaming of becoming a mounted police woman, and the dream persisted in her early years. Coming from a military family and moving around the world prepared her for what she would eventually do. But the way in which she came to it was unusual, to say the least. In her year “off” before university, Anna’s father had been posted to Tokyo, and she woke up every morning to amazing urban landscapes, including the large sign of the Swire Group on a neighboring building, which housed the company’s local headquarters. Not only did she get the visual cue, but she happened to become acquainted with some of the “house staff” or management trainees of the firm.
At age 10, Anne had to be pushed up the stairs to her ballet school, kicking and screaming, so resistant was she to being forced back into ballet classes. She had spent the previous years becoming the junior ice skating champion of Ivory Coast during her family’s expatriation there and did not appreciate being “dumped” in a dance school, just because there was no local ice rink. However, it took less than a year for her to become hooked, and the grit and determination she had developed on the ice in Abidjan paid its dividends. Her artistic talent motivated her teachers to send her to audition at the prestigious Paris National Conservatory. Her parents allowed her to take up the place on condition that she maintained excellent grades in her academic work.
Argyro had no intention of leaving her job as general manager of the Greek subsidiary of a major travel retail company, until she learned she was pregnant with her first child. This came at the same time that her company was being acquired. Her reluctance to be in the post-merger structure, as well as to sacrifice time with her baby led her to part ways amicably with her employer, but she was not planning a long break. However, another pregnancy prolonged the gap. She mulled starting over with a “second career”. This reflection showed her that what she most enjoyed was “creating beautiful teams of talented people and helping them grow”. So, she did a second degree, this time in Strategy and HR Management, while still pregnant for the second time.
Arup comes from a family of philanthropists, his uncle having worked alongside Mahatma Gandhi, so it was no surprise to find him volunteering with Mother Teresa as a high school student in his native Calcutta. While he worked with “Mother”, as he calls her, his strength of character and resolve emerged, as he raised the idea of schooling children, in addition to feeding them. She actually resisted quite strongly before agreeing to let Arup set up a system to get children considered “low-caste” into local public schools, despite their “untouchable” status in India. From this initiative the Tomorrow’s Foundation emerged, an NGO committed to improving children’s welfare, and exists to this day, though at the outset Arup’s role was chiefly that of instigator and financier.
Barbara has recently undertaken what she calls her “fourth transition”, confidently having become an expert over the years in reflecting on what changes of context are appropriate for her at any given moment. Having dropped out of university with literally no idea of what she wanted to do, she entered the advertising industry via the secretarial route, and fought hard to climb up. She worked for a few years in a variety of independent agencies, progressing in a series of account management roles, and then decided to pursue an MBA. During a lecture on intangible assets, she had an “Aha!” moment, concluding that the next big business issue would be people, so she signed up for the HR route.
Can started his professional life in a prominent holding company in his native Turkey, as a promising young graduate trainee. He moved in and out of various specialist sales and marketing roles and built a privileged link with BMW in Germany. Becoming known for his very specific expertise, Can was relied on as a valuable asset in the company. There was one significant drawback to this situation: Can became impossible to promote or develop, as nobody wanted to lose access to their expert. After a few years, Can realized he wanted to progress beyond what he could achieve at the company, and he left with his family to seek new opportunities in Canada. On exit, Can was careful to be clear in his dialogue, stating his frustration, but keeping things friendly and warm.
Celia has moved in and out of medicine since she began her career. She was always planning to be either a doctor or a vet, and eventually decided to opt for caring for humans, based on advice she received and found persuasive while attending a careers fair. She was supported through university medicine studies by the Royal Army Medical Corps, and thus her first house job was in a military hospital. Months more of such postings would have ensued, but the Gulf War broke out and army establishments became off limits to civilians, and she then transferred to a non-military role. This switch allowed her to reflect on her experience, and to recognize that her natural preference might not be for treating otherwise healthy young men, and that her talents in care could probably lead her in other directions, especially when it came to building rapport and more holistic approaches.
Growing up in Brazil, Celso liked to dismantle game consoles to see how they worked. He came to the United States as an exchange student during his senior year of high school and never left. Though he was originally enrolled in a computer sciences programme at university, he switched to business after less than a year. After he graduated, J.P. Morgan soon head hunted him as a treasury expert. Since online banking was taking off at the time, his interest in IT was valuable and he went on to work for Disney and Wells Fargo. While he earned a very generous salary, he felt “miserable” doing “mind-numbing” work. When Wells Fargo imploded around 2016, Celso decided to take a leave of absence for some breathing space.
Chris, the chief executive of Whale and Dolphin Conservation praises the power of the “trisector” area. Formerly of the Royal Air Force and Grey Advertising, he advocates for more ventures across sectors, leveraging skills to create opportunities for all. He believes those who can collaborate across the private, public and social sectors will increasingly be valued.
Christina, a 22-year veteran of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) underwent a huge shift in career when she joined one of the largest family-owned companies in Europe. As a partner, with many high-powered clients, and some fascinating internal roles, Christina never expected to leave consulting, though she had occasionally considered the option. She enjoyed the intellectual stimulation, rarefied atmosphere and the interaction with significant leaders across industries and cultures. After a chance encounter with the chairman of this company, she was offered a C-level position and took the lead of the automobile unit of the company, about which she knew little.
Constança did not plan to teach professionally at all, even though, from the very first moment that she can remember she was someone who loved learning and was extremely curious about everything from agriculture through building furniture, to tackling traffic jams. Having grown up in a middle-class Portuguese family with a teacher mother and a naval officer father, she became deeply interested early in politics, namely in the Marxist philosophy, in striking contrast to her family background. Naturally enough she studied economics and aspired to creating a fairer system. Constança was always studying, even on the beach, and choosing to help support and teach her fellow students, not so much to earn money or kudos, but so she could learn more and create a win-win situation.
A self-confessed “under-performer” in high school, Dan had obtained a degree in engineering, through extra hard work and credits on a course that had started out being limited to geology. After some painful, unenjoyable years working in Canada’s oilfields, where money and being able to pay off student loans made up for the discomfort, the career Dan has carved out seems blissfully free of over-planning or trauma, and packed with serendipity. When the oilfield work dried up, he found a role, via the local unemployment office in Toronto, working on clean tech issues for the city. He then became responsible for waste management in the city of Guelph, and rapidly dug into projects including a recycling program and a sustainable retail store.
Daniel is a natural networker who spent the entirety of his “first act” career at Kaufman & Broad, a real estate developer. At the age of 58, Daniel decided to move on. The exact timing was influenced by the fact that his company—previously a large, paternalistic family business–had been bought by a venture capital fund. He allotted a couple of years to manage the transition, and to decide exactly what he wanted to do. Fortunately, Daniel’s stock options were worth a small fortune. He’d passed them on to the foundation that he set up. Daniel’s attention was drawn to a project in Togo and Benin, and thus the first money from the Foundation was allocated.
David joined Coca-Cola in the hope of working overseas. After an initial period in France, he was thrilled to be sent to the U.S.A., where he worked as an expert on an SAP project. Despite voicing his preference for operational roles, he was not granted the opportunity so, not surprisingly, when a headhunter called on him about the position of HR Director for Starbucks, which was setting up in France, he seized the opportunity. It was not an easy choice as David was close to all his Coca-Cola colleagues, and he still describes the day he told his boss that he would be leaving as “the most difficult moment in all my professional life”.
Dek was “given an opportunity to grab” when she joined Swire and Maclaine, which was the buying agency business of the Swire Group, not long after she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in business. How she reached the point at which she could seize it is another story. Having grown up poor, with parents who believed fervently in the power of education to transform, Dek was pushed into a degree in Economics, even though she felt no intrinsic attraction in this direction. Ever since she could remember, she had wanted to work in retail or trading, dealing in the shoes, handbags, jewelry and “pretty, girly stuff” of her dreams. As a child, she used to sneak out of her house in the evenings, to go walking through one of the three malls in Manila, so she could admire and covet these frivolous items again and again. The Philippines of the 1970’s did not offer many opportunities in the retail industry, so Dek struggled to find work in her target area.
As one of three brothers in an Indian “army family”, Devendra, now CEO of a French multinational, was destined to go into the military. After graduating from the military academy with top honors, he began a thriving career encompassing both combat roles and UN peacekeeping missions in Africa. In 2004, as a young colonel, Devendra was asked to raise a new unit, which he now compares to a start-up business with venture capital funding. Unlike most of his colleagues, who aimed to spend their entire careers in the army, Devendra started to crave a new challenge once he had served the obligatory 20 years. For him, the critical question was “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” When he realized it had been so long that memory failed him, he decided to reinvent himself as a business leader.
Having done “incredibly well” in the private equity field, and reached a “plateau that was less interesting and exciting than the climb up”, Diana found herself CEO of a very prominent firm before 40. She felt that the second half of her working life should be a kind of “setting to rights” to make up for all her success in the first half. To this end, Diana went back to school (Oxford) for a year, hoping to figure out her new destiny, and strongly believing she could not fit into the nonprofit world. But when a friend asked if he could introduce her to the head of the Clinton Foundation, she was intrigued, given the stature of the man. Within twenty minutes, she was hooked on the fact that this was a world of mostly private sector people, solving global problems with a market-driven outlook.
Five years ago, Dondi – whose background in traditional business in the Philippines – decided “it was time to tackle the causes of poverty, as opposed to band-aid solutions”. He abhors corruption and poor governance, which contribute directly to the poverty of the Philippines. The decision to weigh in was not at all difficult, although he knew that he would be putting himself at odds with politicians and “pseudo-leaders”. It took about a year to settle into his new “calling” but almost five years to learn to “engage for change” rather than to “just battle away”.
Eric, an Olympic equestrian from the U.S. Virgin Islands, set himself a clear agenda after leaving school. He identified high targets, specified time frames and focused exclusively on meeting them. His progression was spectacular, and he joined the team for the Pan-American Games in 1987, followed by the 1988 Olympics. However, with a 35th place at the Olympics, it was strikingly clear that he had not reached the threshold he had hoped for. At this point, he says, he recognized he was “good but not extraordinary” and it was time to act on his agenda and leave his sporting career behind him.
Erik was confident and persuasive from the very beginning, and had his fingers in multiple pies early on. In high school he was the soccer star and the lead in musical theatre while also excelling academically, and his social circle was just as eclectic as his interests. Continuing the same approach, he went to university with a plan to study economics on a Navy ROTC scholarship that would have prepared him to become a naval officer, but pursued studies in acting and singing in-stead. In the summer after his junior year Erik attended a training program for opera singers that fueled his passion for the art, and his decision upon graduation was to pursue a master’s degree in opera singing.
Ferdinand is of Filipino ethnicity but was actually born and raised in the US, his parents having immigrated during the 1950’s. They refused to teach him Tagalog, due to fears of racism and discrimination. As he advanced into more senior roles in training and offshoring within large corporations, he became known as the “Philippines expert”, as his familiarity with the culture was high–but he is nevertheless, despite appearances, a foreigner. He has now been in the country for several years, building an ambitious company, Doctourz, which aims to offer greater choice in medical services.
Gabriel’s father pushed him to take Chinese lessons when he started engineering school. He obeyed, somewhat unenthusiastically, but nevertheless, this opened his eyes to other opportunities. When a friend of a friend mentioned an internship in a Peugeot Citroën joint venture in China, he sent his CV, realizing that his study of Chinese, while not a job requirement, just might convince the potential employer. At this point, he had no specific agenda, but was attracted by doing “something different”. Gabriel’s transition to working life in Wuhan was bumpy. He found it deeply depressing not to be able to communicate in a language he thought he’d mastered. He found himself working out of a dark, unheated basement, with little support.
Gayle started her career in IT sales. Her mother was a lifetime IBM-er, and Gayle grew up intending to avoid the same fate. However, after studying mathematics and computer science at UCSB in California, she accepted a job with HP. She moved her way up rapidly, becoming a manager at 25, and joining the pioneering consulting arm of the company shortly thereafter. Global responsibilities came along, and she was extremely happy with her progress. Eventually, rapid changes at HP left her gradually more frustrated by the resulting culture. So when Gayle was offered a “phased” retirement at the age of 56, she accepted the offer. In her mind, however, her career was most definitely not over.
George, a San Francisco native, gave no early indication that he would become a developer. After graduation, he joined an asset management firm. Despite enjoying the intellectual challenge, he disliked the culture and soon left. He then embarked on a “journeyman’s career”, including theatrical marketing in Hollywood and corporate finance for a visual effects studio. He even used his basic coding skills to help his brother’s textile business in Mexico. As George looked to Europe for a challenge, he signed up for an MBA in France. He visited Berlin during a break, fell in love with the place and decided to become a Berliner. He joined a large advertising agency as a digital marketer for start-up clients. To meet deadlines, he often had to work out his own technical solutions.
Graham, a British former general practitioner turned influential change guru in the UK’s health policy, fell into consulting by accident. Although he had done an MBA, he had done so in search of self-development and happiness. He had not looked with any seriousness at the possibility of becoming a strategy consultant as so many of his friends at INSEAD had. Graham spent a short period managing a team in a healthcare reform think tank in the U.S. during the Clinton administration, gaining early experience in significant research and paper-writing, after which he followed his wife to Boston, where she was to study and he wished to find work. What better employer than the Boston Consulting Group?
Greg certainly found that the personal relationships and “clan” at a well-known East Coast business school were a constant link, as he wove back and forth, in and out of this great school. His description of his path is quite different to that of some of the others here, as what he mentions most is how there was a lot of serendipity involved in his long career, that “just happens” to include multiple moves in and out of the school. As a young MBA in 1975, Greg’s first job was on the MBA Admissions Committee for his university. He had chosen this role not least because he just could not see himself taking a more traditional MBA route like consulting at McKinsey or trading options on Wall Street.
With a background in law, risk and compliance, Helen obtained her first non-executive director role in Australia three years ago via her networks. According to her, networking is the best way to get into board membership, as well as a skill that remains critical through an entire boardroom career. What drew Helen in was recognizing that she simply loved building strong businesses. As she says, non-executive roles are “the ultimate backstop of an organisation”. She finds the challenge fascinating and energizing, but adds that the liabilities that sit with non-executive directors are significant and can make one pause for breath. Helen recalls her first board meeting: “It was terrifying! I was very conscious I was the youngest person in the room, and the only female. I felt that I had insufficient experience compared to the others at the table.”
Based in the United States, Henna had already left the corporate environment several years earlier and had just published a highly successful book, so the demands on her time were high. However, she agreed to meet the chairman of the board during his business visit to the U.S. She summarized the meeting’s outcome in this way: “I arrived curious, and went away inspired, and wanting to do it!” She was fascinated by the vision of the chairman. He aimed to be the very best employer in Pakistan and to grow world-class talent. Henna felt that, by agreeing to take on the role, she was “doing the right thing for her birth country”.
Ike, a serial entrepreneur and seller of highly successful businesses, was born in Nigeria into a diplomatic family. He spent his nomadic childhood building his very first companies – selling popcorn to his friends at movie nights in Zimbabwe, and cold drinks to his neighbors in Nigeria. This childhood prepared him for a lifestyle of frequent travel and entrepreneurship. Ike states repeatedly that he believes he was dealt “an incredibly lucky set of cards in life”, with a Silicon Valley education, an engineering qualification and a taste for business. This was the magic combination for success in a series of start-up companies.
Iona encountered fewer obstacles on her journey. Raised in the Scottish Highlands, she frequently travelled with her family, developing an appreciation for local cultures and languages. An exchange year in France and a gap year in Australia later convinced her that she needed to make a lot of money to finance her wanderlust. So she decided on a career in investment banking in London. She first took a junior role on the trading floor at Goldman Sachs, before joining another bank, selling European equities. She loved the constant travel, the glamorous clients and the bright people around her. However, after seven years, the finance world started shifting. As the environment became far less pleasant, she reconsidered her options.
Neither his background – a comfortable French professional family – nor his education in a classical French elite engineering school predestined Jean-Frédéric to a life as a winemaker. After six years in the aerospace and defence industry, he earned an MBA at INSEAD. This was followed by an international management career that took him to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Switzerland, among other places, working for the likes of Philips, Quantum and Seagate. After enduring many restructurings, Jean-Frédéric started considering an entrepreneurial life. With his wife, he nearly bought a hotel and restaurant business in a ski resort. This opportunity was set aside when he was offered a key role in a healthcare company developing a breakthrough innovation.
The transitions Jenna has made in and out of the law profession are impressive, and her story is possibly more one of a missed calling elsewhere, combined with exceptionally tough non-controllable events. A brilliant scholar at Cambridge, Jenna graduated in Natural Sciences. She possessed a passion for numbers and analysis, but she ended up prepared for a career in law. After training, she worked in structured finance in an investment bank and did extremely well, being lucky to be in the boom of the early ‘90s. But when her first daughter was born, she had just changed companies, and had no rights accrued to maternity leave or a proper return. This started a pattern of what might be called “odds stacked against her”.
By the time John went to Cambridge University, he was already a national champion rower at schoolboy level, and had experienced different racing conditions all over Europe. By his second year at Cambridge, he was a member of the British team. His rise was swift and he says it was this momentum which helped him grasp at every new opportunity. John went on to combine a career, first in the city for a merchant bank and then in the civil service while training full-time for the national squad.
Jonathan stumbled into the medical field from a young age through brilliant scientific academic performance in high school along with social pressure.This is how he found himself studying medicine to Cambridge and “hating it”. Curiously, once he began the phase of his training in which he spent time on wards dealing with people, leading teams as well as counseling with patients, he realized he enjoyed this part. This motivated him to work hard and to aspire to what is perceived to be one of the most challenging aspect of medicine: surgery. Early on, he realized that he would never be a “great” surgeon, and did not want to settle for being only average. What is more, he observed that he had never met a happy senior surgeon, and chose not to pursue this path for much longer.
Kavitha was a four times Canadian junior tennis champion before “going pro”. After completing an MBA at INSEAD she went to work for Coca-Cola where the discipline, equanimity and global adaptability developed during her years on the tennis circuit, were put to good use. One potential liability she noted, however, was the difficulty some sports stars have in modifying their competitive nature. Fostering a team environment that is conducive to success is not necessarily compatible with an athlete’s desire to win at all costs.
Hailing from the Philippines, Laila was always a foodie. But in her comfortable family environment, only maids cooked for a living. So she became a successful banker, first at JP Morgan, then Deutsche Bank. Eventually she was offered a finance position in Dubai. She travelled often and frequently took solace in the food joints on her trips. Soon she wondered why she did not just go into the food industry. She took a year off, reckoning that she was still young and could always go back to finance. During that time, Laila visited Europe, hatching a strategy and saving as much money as she could. Settling on the city of San Sebastián in Spain, she began knocking on doors in search of an apprenticeship.
During 2011-2012, on the INSEAD campus nestled in the forest of Fontainebleau, Lee went through a most intense and challenging year. Her time spent as an MBA student there was fraught with the realities of running two successful hostels in Barcelona at the same time as studying a demanding program. And yet, prior to that, she had walked the “good girl” path of going to Wharton to do a degree in Finance and International Business, and interned and worked at Goldman Sachs for several years. What induced her to make that drastic change? And to do it so young? Some clues lie way back. As a child living in the US, Lee had admired her businessman father, and watched her mother emerge from “just teaching” into becoming an educational entrepreneur.
Lily’s move to the U.K. just before finishing high school in China was not her own choice, though her family situation no doubt predisposed her to this kind of development. Her father had been an expatriate manager of a Chinese multinational since she was a young girl, so she had frequently visited him in France and the U.K. with her mother. Her parents directed that she complete her secondary education at Oxford, to spare her the terrors of the notorious Chinese university entrance exams. Lily’s move to Oxford went smoothly, and she describes the two years she spent living with a host family as the happiest in her life.
After an early start in practice as an MD, and a move from Florida to the North East, Louise decided to take on a clinical role in research and development at a large pharmaceutical company, with people and a culture she loved. After a subsequent merger, the research pipeline diminished in her area of expertise. As she wanted to continue to work in this particular area, she left, on excellent terms, having been courted by a biotech startup working on an exciting and more relevant development. A series of very happy biotech roles followed, over several years, though she remained in touch with her colleagues from the old company. During that period, she considered returning a number of times, changing her mind for a variety of reasons. Finally, she was offered something she found too good to resist and returned to the pharmaceutical giant in an operational, rather than clinical, post.
A true global cosmopolitan, Marie grew up on a farm in France. She completed her PhD in chemical biology in Singapore, before going to China to study its language and culture. She started her career with GE, as the first member of a new R&D team in China. Based in the U.S., her boss essentially told her: “You can do it – just go and figure it out”. In many ways, it was a lot like working in a start-up. When Marie eventually transferred to the Boston office, a colleague commented that she was “way too entrepreneurial to be working at GE”, which was true to a large extent. As she was contemplating leaving, serendipity stepped in: Her division was sold and in 2011, GE and Marie parted ways.
Marieke, a legal, strategy and finance Dutch executive, hadn’t considered board membership until she got a phone call twelve years ago. A headhunter asked her if she would be interested in joining a workers’ council, a common path to board work in the Netherlands. At the same time, a close friend began lobbying for her, as well as other women, to join more boards. With an overabundance of energy for taking on new challenges, Marieke found herself sitting on a museum’s audit committee alongside the Audit Chair of Heineken. In her first board meeting ever, Marieke realized that there were many unwritten rules.
Marta, a native Peruvian who is now the Founder and CEO of Wasi Organics, left her home country for study in Spain after high school. Later, she took increasingly senior marketing roles at major companies across Europe and the USA. Along the way, she completed an MBA at INSEAD, which further broadened her already very global outlook. The trigger for Marta’s return to Peru was an invitation from a headhunter in London to take a CEO position. Intrigued that she was now perceived as a potential CEO, she started to think hard about what she really wanted to do. Swiftly, she concluded that she wanted her own business and to give back in some way to Peru. This was Marta’s twentieth year in Europe and at that point, eight years ago, she returned home.
Mary’s practical disposition gave her a balanced start in her acting career, and allowed her to build her craft carefully. She had been painfully shy in childhood, but took advantage of a move to a new neighborhood and high school to let her theatrical juices flow, getting involved in all aspects of drama, and moving on to a Theater major in university. By this time she was hooked, but she felt a need for a plan B, dipping her toes into various linked areas such as broadcast journalism and psychology. None of the alternatives felt quite right, however, though she did realize that they were all somehow linked to a “connection with people”. She auditioned for graduate school, did well, and made the inevitable move to New York city in 1990.
Growing up in a military family, Michael moved more than 30 times around the world and the U.S. After getting a degree in economics and an MBA, he worked for many years as a marketer at Kraft Foods. He even did a stint as a professional rock musician, gaining local fame in New York, while keeping his day job. Marriage to a screenwriter brought Michael to the West Coast, where he first worked for Mattel. Later he was the global marketing lead of The Sims franchise at Electronic Arts. Living in San Francisco, he inevitably heard the call of the start-up and became CMO of a fledgling robotics firm, then the co-founder of a mobile app start-up. That was when he realised the importance of proper coding skills. In fundraising meetings, investors kept asking, “Can you code?”
Shortly after 9/11, Mui Gek, a Singaporean national with a successful career in retail leasing, and her French husband decided to move together to his native country. She aimed to use her experience to enter the French luxury goods industry, starting out by studying the language and earning an MBA in a local business school. It was a mammoth task for Mui Gek to find a job in a tough market, as a visibly and audibly very foreign person in a provincial French city.
As a child, Mutaz dreamt about inventing extraordinary machines. His life has turned out, so far, to be full of reinvention. Raised in Saudi Arabia by his accountant father, a Sudanese no longer welcome in his own country, Mutaz held on to his dreams all through high school. However, the first obstacle he encountered was Saudi universities refused admission to foreign students. So he went to Sudan to study architectural engineering. In 2009, after graduation, Mutaz returned to Saudi Arabia. His first job was as an architect in a firm that was planning a new city, 700 km north of Riyadh. For almost a decade, he progressed in seniority, making astute moves from one firm to another, until he was running large projects for both local and multinational companies.
Nick, a former cost-cutting and re-organisation expert in the strategy consulting field, experienced an innovative approach to remuneration while he was working as a “partner” of Save the Children. The Boston Consulting Group worked with Save the Children to send consultants on missions across the world, with a dual contribution to a reasonable (but reduced) salary. This meant that there were few if any barriers to a consultant going off on this adventure. When Nick joined Cancer Research UK as director of strategy, he soon discovered that he had hundreds of different stakeholders to get to know and to “take with him on a journey”. He notes the challenge of bringing people on board in the consensus-driven culture that prevails at nonprofits.
Olivier, an engineering graduate was seeking a career in industry, and joined the French global telecommunications company, Alcatel-Lucent hoping to be offered an expatriate post. A year later he found himself working in the U.S. While the work was fascinating, and he liked the culture, after seven years he felt the “itch” to move on, and left the giant for a small internet-based start-up. Two years on, the company failed, and although Olivier had a Green Card, he chose to return to France where he joined the French public finance institution, “Caisse des Dépôts”. The work was enjoyable enough but after six years he realized he preferred industry and application over theory and advice, so when offered the chance to return to Alcatel he had no hesitation in accepting.
Priya’s five-year military stint kicked off with a posting to Leh, a remote station in the Himalayas. At age 21, she was not only the youngest person there by nearly 25 years but also the only female. She earned the respect of her colleagues by proving she could match them physically, while providing a mix of feminine empathy and supportiveness, to weave relationships of trust and confidence. Her time in the mountains continues to inform her experience in the business world. In fact, she says HR in the hospitality sector shares several key characteristics with her army life: grass-roots activities, largely untrained staff, and hectic unpredictability. The strongest wisdom Priya has covers her whole career: “It all boils down to how you treat people. You mentor others, so that you are free to develop yourself. Success breeds success.”
Rahaf began her university degree in business just one year before war broke out in Syria. Hardworking and not easily frightened, she kept up her studies, despite the nearby shelling and the constant blackouts. Wrapped in warm blankets in the unheated lecture theatres, she witnessed her fellow students being arrested. After graduation, her first job was in a Danish NGO’s procurement department. She started as a volunteer, soon proved her worth, and began to earn a salary. A few years later, Rahaf looked to continue her career beyond the frontiers of Syria. She came across an international NGO in Turkey, where she thought she could add value while living more safely and freely. A young man called Tamim reviewed her CV and was utterly impressed by her accomplishments and determination.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Ramon emigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was five years old. While starting at university, Ramon noticed that there were “not many brown or black faces” around him, and he started to question what kind of system could have brought this about. During the first week at his first job after graduation, fate struck to underline Ramon’s feelings. As the Twin Towers fell, he asked himself if he was truly doing what he should be doing – he had heard Steve Jobs’s legendary commencement speech earlier, and it had marked him. Ramon found makeshift ways over the next four to five years to contribute more, but the real shift occurred while at business school in Spain, where he met a group of like-minded people.
More than 25 years in increasingly senior roles in multinationals based in the United States gave Ricardo ample financial security. The downside was a general anxiety and malaise linked to the heavy responsibilities he bore in a cutthroat corporate environment, where he felt the rug could be pulled from under him at any time. At first, he enjoyed the glamour of international travel, but grew tired of spending his life on a plane. He also discovered that his global network largely failed him in his home country, Spain, as local head hunters never thought of him. Eventually, an executive programme rekindled his dormant interest in entrepreneurship. Ricardo soon turned to friends and an increasingly broad network in search of the idea.
When Ricardo’s parents required him to return to his home country to obtain his Spanish degree on top of his European “grande école” qualification in business, they probably did not realize that they were changing his professional path completely. He left Paris with two enviable offers from consumer companies in hand to complete his Spanish diploma. By the time he returned to France, a year later, economic conditions had changed and he was no longer welcome in the same area. So he returned to Spain, in the hope of being able to play on his multilingual strengths as well as his experience and academics to date.
Richard, a 55-year-old C-suite executive, is without any doubt a poster-boy expat, who has not looked back. He grew up in small-town New Zealand, and nothing particularly predisposed him to an international career. His family expectations were that he get a good education and seek out a sound career path. But Richard knew early on that he wanted to explore the wider world. It was perhaps this desire to “get out” that drew him towards French in high school. He proved to be gifted in the language, which would later become critical to his success. At university, Richard studied engineering, in the hope that it would take him “out to where the action is”. During his penultimate year, he landed an internship with oil services company Schlumberger in Borneo, and he was, as he says, “hooked”.
Richard was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 12 in 1946. He readily says “I do not know of many diabetics who developed the illness around that time who are still alive”. The story of how he has beaten those odds is a modern-day battle of David and Goliath, but it has brought better health to many thousands of those enlightened enough to follow his methods. During his childhood, Richard used the techniques of the time, including sterilizing his needles and syringes by boiling them and sharpening the needles on abrasive stone. Every night his parents would go to sleep, nervous that he would not wake up in morning, due to one of the crashing low blood sugar that he regularly suffered from, given the inaccuracy of insulin dosing at that time. By the time he was 25, and working as an engineer, Richard was already suffering many of the side-effects such as frozen shoulders, deformed feet, and kidney disease. While his doctor told him that this was normal, he could see clearly that if he continued on this path he would not live to see his young children grow up.
Frenchman Romain has already adapted to more than five cultures and languages in just under 30 years of life. He grew up in a fortunate environment, in which his family perceived travel and exploration as important and had the means to live out these values. He was educated bilingually in the international section of the lycée near his home in Toulouse, and his vacation jobs included managing a resort in Greece for a local travel company. So, it was hardly a surprise that he chose to take a semester during his business studies in Paris, to experience campus life in China. He aimed to have a career in Asia, at whatever cost.
Rupert’s transition out of consulting was an easy one. An Australian, in consulting “for the usual reasons, of variety, experience and interesting colleagues”, he had always wanted to make something for himself. The thrill of creating was attractive to him, and he took the time he spent doing his MBA at INSEAD to reflect on his wish to create capital value. After a few more years of consulting in London, Rupert had become highly aware of the damaging lifestyle involved in his profession, and talks with candor about those colleagues “on their third wives, and traveling endlessly”. With ten years of consulting behind him, he decided to buy some time and money by accepting a role at HSBC, so as to be able to create a company of his own within a few years.
Steve looks very much like the classic case of an encore actor. He had spent his entire career in the advertising industry, mostly in New York, where he eventually led media departments. He lapped up the glamour, the rush and the pressure of his industry. However, when he and his wife decided to seek out a calmer place in which to raise a family, he took a role as account director in a large Chicago firm. Three firms and hectic roles later, when their twins were born, Steve decided to go part-time in order to help out on the home front. He was, as he admits, starting to feel burnout anyway. It was clear to him that spending more time with family was a greater priority than selling more advertising.
After his parents’ divorce, Tey moved to Lebanon with his Syrian father. Growing up in a warzone, Tey remembers a childhood punctuated with the frequent sound of jets and rockets overhead and no toys to play with other than rocks. After studying at a top Lebanese university, Tey became a consultant for the city of Beirut. The 2005 assassination of the country’s former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri had a profound effect on him and Tey decided to move to Dubai. However, in Dubai, his experience counted for nothing and his Syrian passport was a hindrance. Reduced to folding jeans in a boutique, he often cried himself to sleep.
Thomas was a junior consultant at McKinsey, aged 30, having already operated as sales director, finance director and even member of the executive committee, in a French steel company for Northern Europe. This was a time when McKinsey was moving towards more work in implementation of strategy, and so Thomas was of great interest to them, having a strategic brain and a top MBA, as well as deep experience of a significant industry. As clients got to know of his existence, they started demanding to work with him, as he was the one who had real experience, as opposed to most of the other career consultants. He found it intellectually stimulating but he realized that it is easy to tell such leaders what to do, but far harder to make it happen. He was missing the implementation!
Tim made a choice to value parenting over corporate life, though in a very different way and order than most others. One evening, he came home from a long business trip to Africa, to find a little note on his bed from his nine-year-old daughter, asking that he attend a “meeting” with her ASAP. The next day, she explained, “Daddy, how can I love you if I never see you?” Tim resigned only ten days after this bombshell, fortunately in the knowledge that his wife had been offered an opportunity to take a role in the European headquarters of P&G.
Tom received his education in institutions known for being the best, building his academic capacities before deciding to join the British Army. Having been in the military cadet corps at school, and undertaken obligations while at Cambridge University, Tom decided to follow his instincts on graduation, and not allow himself to be distracted by a corporate career for which he was not yet ready. He did not like the idea of “spending his twenties behind a desk”, and sought the military alternative, a more outdoors life, as well as adventure and a chance to travel. He got this, and more.
Yang has only been back in his native China since the spring of this year. He is still in the “honeymoon” period of his return, wide-eyed at the noisy market in his street, where he can “buy breakfast of any kind whenever he wants”, and disoriented in the perpetually changing mega-city that is Shanghai. Nothing indicated that Yang would have a taste for travel and exploration. His parents were both in the Chinese military and forbidden to travel abroad; thus it was surprising that he chose to study English at university – less so when one discovers that he simply chose the subject he found most difficult, as a special challenge to himself.