The UCLA-NUS EMBA Experience
I’m finishing the last module of my EMBA program in August, a joint program between UCLA and the National University of Singapore. I’ve had a few people reach out for info. Reflecting here on my decision and experience here, and hopefully it’s helpful.
UCLA NUS EMBA Journey on Instagram: "Taken in front of Royce Hall in August - did you know that…
UCLA NUS EMBA Journey shared a post on Instagram: "Taken in front of Royce Hall in August - did you know that elements…
Do I need an EMBA?
The imperfect analogy is you don’t need to learn to play hockey if you’re an athlete, but you need to know how to play hockey if you want to be a professional hockey player. Knowing how to play hockey probably makes you a better athlete overall.
Some career paths require the skills to understand different parts of business holistically that an EMBA education does well in teaching. An example is evaluating how a warranty program on millions of dollars of hardware in a different market can influence tax and accounting implications all the way to marketing decisions and customer satisfaction.
However, if the expectation is that this will suddenly make you better in the eyes of your peers, think again before you spend a lot of money and time. The thing that is odd is that it’s a generalist education for a narrow use case. It’s a personal choice based on your own plans and aspirations.
I think people who are specialists like engineers or doctors in this program are getting the most out of it because they are the least exposed to a wide range of topics, whereas someone who has had to work across more areas of business and might benefit less.
Also, I keep saying EMBA specifically. I’ve heard people say “this MBA type of thinking” pejoratively, and I don’t recognize what they’ve been talking about. Speaking to friends who did the traditional two-year program in their twenties, it’s a different beast. We don’t go nearly as in-depth, the education is more about helping us make better decisions across different areas. That makes sense for me at this stage, and honestly, I’m glad I didn’t spend time and money on entire semesters on topics that I don’t need such depth in.
UCLA NUS EMBA Journey on Instagram: "Happy International Women's Day to all the awesome women of…
UCLA NUS EMBA Journey shared a post on Instagram: "Happy International Women's Day to all the awesome women of Intake…
Why I Chose the EMBA
The two-year MBA didn’t make sense for me. The timing wasn’t right, and I couldn’t afford the tuition and time off work at that juncture. However, I recognized the benefit of a business education. I wanted to explore a variety of topics, quench a deep sense of curiosity, get more flexibility in my career, meet interesting people, and have differentiating experiences. At a certain life phase, the people you meet and the ideas you come across can become fixed by the industry you work in and your network of relationships. In those respects, the EMBA education is about getting out of my comfort zone and getting a broader network that benefits me for the rest of my working life.
I’m also doing this to derisk my identity a bit. In the West, Asian women and Women of Color generally aren’t seen as leaders and face ceilings. You can’t depend on White people liking you and building relationships in the same way. People of Color often aren’t in the right networks that are often important for opportunities. A degree can be a deciding factor for someone give an opportunity. It’s not a panacea, but you have to be better than your peers if you are a Woman of Color in the US or another Western Country. In Asia, I’m not from a connected or from a powerful family. Formal education matters more for someone like me than others.
By bolstering my qualifications, I can take more risks. The more you have to offer and the more people you know, the more you’re able to have more freedom in your life and live your values.
As a New Yorker, my choices naturally fell into looking at NYU, Columbia, and MIT. Given I had been working for a British company, I looked at Cambridge, Oxford, and INSEAD. The prestige factor did lure me, but I discovered the UCLA-NUS program and it just made sense. Most of the class is what I would call “Asian International,” almost all of us of having had formative backgrounds in Asia and international work experience. The UCLA-NUS admissions staff also struck me as the most professional staff when I met with their admissions officers, especially given the contrast.
I also had exposure to working in Singapore. I grew up in California and feel a strong tie to the UC system. Both schools are tech-oriented. As global power shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific and after years of working in European business, I felt like this was a choice calling me home and a natural fit of peers versus the City of London/Wall Street bros who are part of a fading culture and brand.
A lot of picking a business school is about curating your personal brand in association with the institution and what angle you want to learn from, eg. focus on APAC. An example, we have a lot more focus on talking about structural factors in those markets, eg. transportation products needed to focus on two-wheelers versus car culture in Western markets.
UCLA NUS EMBA Journey on Instagram: "Half-fish and half-lion, 💯 fun with this crew"
UCLA NUS EMBA Journey shared a post on Instagram: "Half-fish and half-lion, 💯 fun with this crew". Follow their…
Reviewing UCLA-NUS EMBA
Apart from that context, I’ll do the Great + Good, the Bad, and the Ugly review starting with the ugly to end on a positive note, because I am grateful and happy with my decision, but it’s not been without its warts.
At times, there was communication that was less than open to feedback. Some of it has to do with cultural nuances because in the Singapore case it’s less common for students to overtly question authority figures. Part of it feels like bad faith on the US side of stereotypes of Asians not willing to question authority as well, given the composition of the cohort. UCLA feels like it takes its brand a bit for granted versus customer satisfaction, which is odd considering Anderson alone is not that highly ranked, and there were a lot of moments we didn’t feel like highly valued customers.
It’s odd that our suggestions seemed surprising considering EMBA students are mostly a group of Type A personalities of executives in their 40s who really value their money. There’s also been a general culture shift where people are willing to explicitly question authority figures publicly. This will continue with the rise of Gen Z.
There’s so much in the curriculum about customer-centricity and partnering with clients, so we expect the same given the price of tuition. We work our tails off to balance school and work. Challenge us intellectually, but rude e-mails, telling us we need permission to turn off my camera off Zoom to go to the bathroom, or some particularly egregious examples below don’t reflect well:
- Had a professor say our degree was useless and the same professor said it was women’s own fault for not negotiating despite the fact women, unlike men, are often punished for negotiating instead of being rewarded.
- UCLA appeared to handpick only a few people in our program and scheduled a session for their academic senate review of the program at an inconvenient time for APAC. To their credit, they rectified this, but only after they were called out. They did listen to our feedback during their Academic Senate review and seemed to take it very seriously.
- The issue of China treating Taiwan as a part of its territory (Taiwan is an independent country that China regularly threatens to invade) was treated as a joke in class. This infuriates me as a Taiwanese citizen, especially given the unthinkable unfolding on eastern edges of NATO. To be told explicitly and implicitly threatened when I complained about the professor’s behavior that my “e-mail should be withdrawn” was totally unacceptable.
- An invasion of Taiwan by China has been mentioned casually so many times in class that I’d go numb to it except it’s not hyperbole to say I and the people I love most could literally be murdered.
There’s a quality gap between the leaders in their field and some professors who don’t have as much real world experience.
Coordination, communication, and professionalism could be improved. As some examples, our cohort was told at the last minute to do additional mandatory Title IX training, but most of the times were in the middle of the night for much of the cohort. One session started more than 15 minutes late because the trainer didn’t show up. A class session from another part of the business school ended up being 2:30am when our cohort was abroad, which I understand is difficult to change given things were influx due to COVID, but the lack of understanding and professionalism in response left a bit to be desired. We sent suggestions that were brushed off until we rabbled roused — a lot things we got in the end shouldn’t have been so difficult. We also lost a faculty advisor we had been working with on our graduation project for months last month without much explanation. It felt like we were not valued parts of these institutions at times. I went to a UC and serve on an Alumni Board, so I get how public institutions can be, but I’m didn’t pay either of those entities a $125k tuition.
Given they are both public institutions, the UCLA-NUS program staff have their hands tied being part of larger bureaucratic machines. I do think a lot of them tried their best in fairness.
UCLA NUS EMBA Journey on Instagram: "Dinner at the oldest restaurant in the world 🌎"
UCLA NUS EMBA Journey shared a post on Instagram: "Dinner at the oldest restaurant in the world 🌎". Follow their…
The Good and Amazingly Great
- Many of the professors are incredibly accomplished. They’ve imparted wisdom I will benefit from for the rest of the 30+ years left of my working life.
- Great faculty and staff, especially Angela Mughal at UCLA who coordinated an unforgettable segment in Spain. I came into first contact with the program through Sharon Quah at NUS, and that first conversation really nudged me into thinking this is the right program for me. Jaime Tan and Jolene Tan have been unsung heroes coordinating so many logistics in the background for our NUS segments during the especially difficult pandemic circumstances in the first half of the program.
- Learning from your peers from all over the world. You can learn a lot of the class content on Coursera, but you couldn’t learn from the collective wisdom of your classmates. This is what you go to business school for.
- I’ll say right here, you have no idea how small your world is, even working at a big global company and doing international stints, until you are in a group this diverse and accomplished.
- A curriculum tailored to help leaders make better decisions. They’ve thought about the right breadth and depth to teach in this format. It’s facilitating the difference between taking away a learning vs a factoid. You can tell the education was designed so we can apply learnings immediately towards many contexts.
- Understanding aspects of business I’m less familiar with, especially finance, accounting, and marketing. I feel a lot more confident in working with certain kinds of numbers, eg. accounting, business statistics, economic indicators, that I had less experience with but can see how it can be a game changer.
- I’ve had higher caliber job pitched to me on LinkedIn compared to before.
- Validated and strengthened my skills working in an international environment. These collaborative and cross-cultural skills often are overlooked when working in your home markets and something that fell by the wayside during the pandemic. It was great to sharpen those reflexes.
UCLA NUS EMBA Journey on Instagram: "What a day of immersive learning on innovation and digital…
UCLA NUS EMBA Journey shared a post on Instagram: "What a day of immersive learning on innovation and digital…
- Contextual leadership is the key to working in different environments, especially at this career stage. Learning how to work with different mindsets in terms of country background and industry background because more important at this phase than your subject matter expertise in many cases -> I have the quote written down that “Keener introspection facilitates greater external influence” and “learning to see things differently breeds opportunity.”
- In our careers being a T-shaped person is something I’ve admired mentors for being, the EMBA education is great for making people more flexible across fields.
- At 36 when I started the program I was on the younger side in the class. I personally feel lucky because I inadvertently now cultivated a big global group of mentors.
- Learning while doing. We’re all employed full time and, many people switched jobs, wrote books, and started companies during the program. I personally went from a big enterprise to start-up and felt like the classroom reflected my world and vice versa.
- A big cornerstone project for me was our Management Practicum project where we consulted for a company, Pterodynamics, for a GTM strategy. I learned a lot especially about the Defense industry, which I have a lot of interest in, how to research new verticals, met dozens of interesting industry experts, look at financial projections, and learned how to manage a consulting project, totally hands-on experience that would be difficult for me to encounter in my current career path.
- The people. The most important thing about picking a program is that they curate a group of peers of a caliber and commonality. Everyone in the program is exceptional. The international experience and multilingualism that characterize our cohort is such an important social glue. I could not have gone out and found 45 people like this in the real world despite my best efforts at networking. In some ways our experiences feel more connected to each other than peers in our home markets.
- Everyone in our cohort is invested in our mutual success. We’ve gone out-of-the-way to help each other out. I look forward to doing this for the rest of our lives. The ability to be able to call an expert who will take time for you is so valuable. Given the diverse professions of the cohort, this is such a life multiplier.
- A reality in life many people my age have noticed is that most many don’t want you to be successful and or find growth threatening or just have given up on dreams. Finding a group of people who are already so successful yet still driven to become better is a gift.
- Starting this program in the pandemic really softened us all. I’m a New Yorker who stayed behind in the pandemic during those dark days in 2020, and it had been so hard for everyone. Rediscovering a sense of community was healing for me. It really brought us closer.
- I’m sure I’ve made some lifelong friends and have bonds based on shared goals and values I couldn’t have found anywhere else. The West Coast culture with an APAC focus brought together the right people for an exceptional experience.
- The most important things I’d say I learned with my peers aren’t learning how to make better presentations or do better market analysis, but how to manage relationships, conflicts, and growing my capacity for compassion and empathy. It’s the last thing I quite frankly expected from this experience, but are the most valuable ones I’m walking away with.
Doing this program was one of the best choices I’ve ever made. I look forward to finishing and spending more time with my cohort in LA in August as blunt impacts of the pandemic recede. I’ll aim to provide an update to EMBA outcomes maybe some months or a year out.