Why MBA: Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance (SAIF)

CEIBS is just cross town, but Shanghai-native Maggie chose not to swop her corporate career for some big name

Maggie Yan knew her finance undergraduate degree is far from enough in the highly competitive world of Shanghai international banking, but she also feared going back to school full-time would harm the promising career start she’s just made.

“I felt uncomfortable leaving the real [financial] market to take full-time business courses,” says Yan, who is the Shanghai deputy representative at Isbank, Turkey's front leader in international banking.

Yan seriously considered Shanghai’s China Europe International Business School (CEIBS). However the CEIBS MBA, even though it is Asia’s second-best program and the ranked 22nd in the world by the FT, would “contradict” her professional life because of the 18-month full-time classroom commitment required.

So Yan, who completed her first degree at East China Normal University, settled for a part-time MBA from the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance – also known as SAIF. This way she can get her MBA while carrying on her role at Isbank.

Though a relatively new name, SAIF has set itself the tall order of developing top talent for the financial world and to generate cutting-edge knowledge in finance theory and applications. The institute was founded by the Shanghai Municipal Government, and is part of the elite Shanghai Jiaotong University.

Yan says SAIF will benefit her career in a long run, though compared to CEIBS, a one-hour drive from the SAIF campus, the new Financial MBA program lacks international perspectives.

“If we had more students from overseas, of course there would have been more variety in terms of ideas, opinions and values,” she says of her class, which now enrols 61 Chinese students, one Singaporean and two Chinese graduates who previously studied aboard.

But having a Chinese-dominated group can help elsewhere. Yan says: “SAIF tries to find candidates at intermediate level from the financial industry. Most of us are junior managers - the school is trying to get us together.

“In ten years’ time, you will find senior managers at major banks are your former classmates.”

About 60 per cent of her classmates are from the financial sector, while the class has an average of six years’ work experience, says Yan. The 28-year-old is the youngest in her class.

The part-time MBA at SAIF is a two-year program, in which students are taught in Chinese in the first year, followed by an all-English education the next year.

Yan says it makes sense because most of her classmates are Mandarin-speaking, and the students’ English level can be quite different.

But language isn’t a concern for her, given Yan once acted as General Motors Chairman Rick Wagoner’s interpreter at a press conference. Yan holds an Advanced English Interpretation certificate and was at Sweden’s Lund University for exchange during her undergrad years.     

So, while continuing her daily job at Isbank, Yan now spends ten hours at school every week: “It works perfect for me,” she says.

But by no means is the SAIF MBA an easy ride. Each month, Yan and classmates face an exam to test their knowledge of a single subject, and the next month another exam follows.

“Luckily, I came from a financial background and some of the course content was familiar to me,” she says. “But, it [the curriculum] can be quite intense sometimes.” 

Yan is hopeful of being given “more responsibilities” when she graduates: “I’d like to expand my role in my bank and get more opportunities to promote it,” she says.

And she is happy with her experience at SAIF so far, especially given that she made the effort to stick with her full-time job: “Keeping my job is the best way to reflect on what I learn in class.  And it’s proved to be the case with SAIF so far,” she says.

In the future, she looks forward to seeing more international students graduating from SAIF, where she is due to complete her MBA in 2012.

But what should be the first order of business for foreign grads in China?

“Unlike in Western societies where business always comes first, in China you’ve got to befriend first, then business opportunities will follow,” Yan says.  

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