The Last Round


John Henry Newman
is considered by many to be the most influential English-speaking religious thinker and educational writer since the Reformation.

john-henry-newman

Born in the City of London, Newman was a travelling scholar who studied and taught at Oxford University, was appointed rector of the Catholic University of Ireland and established the Oratory School in Birmingham, dubbed ‘The Catholic Eton’.

A man of intense spiritual and existential restlessness, he travelled extensively throughout Great Britain, Ireland, France and the Mediterranean and successively embraced Calvinist, Anglican and Catholic Christianity. His life was led by a passionate search for Truth that gained him the animosity of academic elite and ecclesiastic hierarchy, that costed him career and reputation, that severed friendships and family ties.

Cardinal Newman once wrote “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

In 2015, I entered a period of abrupt, profound change that put into question some of my strongest beliefs. What seemed at first a simple parenthesis in my professional career turned out to be one of the most significant steps in an ongoing transformational experience, a continuous quest for perfection, an open-ended search for Truth. This is the story.

Paradise Lost

The spring of 2015 was particularly benign in Nantes. The fertile Loire valley welcomed the arrival of the early warm Atlantic currents with blossoming chestnuts and bougainvillea while the cafés opened their summer terraces to the public.

This time of the year I increased the frequency of my morning runs along the Erdre River, just 5 minutes away from my apartment. Some days, in the early hours, the waters were so still that they resembled a gigantic silver mirror. It almost felt as if I could walk on them, jogging along the awakening ducks and swans.

Business was also good at Audencia. The International Office was on its way to meeting recruitment targets, the school was set to retain its prestigious ‘triple crown’ after satisfactory reaccreditation processes, and the faculty’s commitment with social and environmental sustainability had paid off in the consideration of Audencia as one of the ‘World Champions of CSR’ by the United Nations Global Compact.

dri-decembre2013-bd_fse4385Under the guidance of Ms. Desi Schmitt, skilled manager, inspirational leader and one of the kindest souls I have ever worked with the team had grown from a handful to fifteen strong professionals in less than five years. We were now recruiting over three hundred international students and organizing mobility for almost a thousand. The school had never witnessed such a level of diversity and big plans for transnational education and dual degrees were under way.

Life was sweet on all fronts.

I finished my travel schedule for the year in May. Back in the office, everyone was on an easy mood, looking forward to a long and relaxing summer break. Where will you go? They would ask me, and I would smile gently and come up with some formulaic response. Behind a laid-back façade, there was burgeoning questioning in my mind. I was torn apart by a burning desire to get ahead, to reach new heights, to prove my worth.

This beautiful city, this entrepreneurial business school, this multicultural team were my home, they were my family, thus my despair, was this not what I had always sought? Why couldn’t I settle for this fulfilling life? What caused this spiritual disquietude?

It was a Friday, last day of July, when I finally made up my mind. It all came to me in a flash. Almost simultaneously I accepted a job offer from St George’s, University of London and enrolled in the MBA in Higher Education Management at UCL Institute of Education. Audencia generously accepted an early termination to my contract and I started packing by bags.

Next stop: London.

The Fall

I took the long-range bus from Nantes to London in mid-September. The journey took 12 hours, and by the time we reached Victoria Station it was already dark, but the city was bustling with energy. I felt tremendous excitement. The electrifying vitality of the global capital captured me with its buzzing tentacles. People from all origins and walks of life continuously moving through a sprawling territory ten times the size of Nantes. ‘I was born to live here’, I thought.

Not a month had passed before my initial enthusiasm had given way to despair.

In Nantes I had made I name for myself, gaining the respect of colleagues and competitors alike after years of recruitment success, partnership building and carefully crafted internationalization. Resources were also abundant in the privileged world of the elite French Grande Ecoles. From international travel to digital technology or specialist training, senior management would go out of their way to make sure we competed under the best possible conditions.

I soon realized that the rules of the game were different in London.

img_2720I stepped in my new job on September 21st as the International Development Coordinator in a team of four. St George’s, a constituent college of the University of London, is the only university in the United Kingdom exclusively dedicated to health sciences.

Founded in the late XVIII century, its illustrious history has been built through the works of alumni such as John Hunter, early advocate of the scientific method in medicine and Edward Jenner, pioneer of the world’s first vaccine.

The marmoreal busts of these giants still guard the college from the main entry hall, observing the ups and downs of everyday business from ironic distance.

It wasn’t long before my conceptions surrounding international education collapsed. There I was, tasked with implementing internationalization in one of the most multicultural corners of the Earth. A student body coming from 50 different nations and a local population built on successive layers of immigration from East Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia and Eastern Europe made up for a fascinating melting pot where peaceful coexistence and respect were the rule.

My first thought was, what can I truly bring to this institution? I quickly learned that years of successful work in practice-based business education did not ensure high performance in a research-orientated scientific environment. I was unable to realize where my language skills, digital abilities and commercial acumen would fit in this my new home. It was as if all the knowledge I had accumulated through ten years of experience in the industry was all of a sudden worthless.

For the first time in a long while, I was nothing but a rookie.

img_2589Every day I would walk through the main hospital entrance in Effort Street and try my best to adapt to this dynamic environment, and every day would be different from the day before.

I had to learn quickly about UK quality assurance constraints, ever-tightening immigration regulations and the complex interrelation of scientific and clinical learning. New terms such as the General Medical Council or the United States Medical Licensing Examination were thrown in at every committee meeting and my ignorance would become apparent.

In the cold winter nights, after 10 or 12 hours of intense work, I would sit to meditate silently in the darkness of my room, invaded by a deep sense of insignificance and unworthiness. The experience was one of humility. It took me months of intellectual struggle and personal effort to understand that, just like Cardinal Newman before me, I was entering a new path of growth.

Now it was time to embrace change.

The Tree of Knowledge

After years of travelling and meeting people from all trades I have come to realize that, beyond fate or chance, an individual’s destiny is guided by three fundamental qualities: will, skill and talent. In hindsight, I understand now that it was precisely an imbalance in the self-perception of the three attributes which made me jump into the unknown and seek enrolment in one of the world’s most prestigious universities.

At one point, my thirst for achievement run into a wall of insecurities. Years of action and reflection had taught me that I was certainly driven and that I could acquire the necessary abilities to face up any challenge. However, behind a mask of self-assurance, I kept serious doubts about my natural capacity to excel. I knew I had the strength and the science, it was the art in it that escaped me.

img_2621My first contact with the UCL Institute of Education (the Institute) occurred in October 2015. Months before I had accepted an offer to enroll in the MBA in Higher Education Management and I had since been reading extensively and intensively on the management of teaching and research in preparation for the first residential week.

The Institute has been classed top of the world in Education sciences for several years in a row, ahead of Harvard, Stanford or Cambridge. Through its corridors research stars like Claire Callender OBE, Vincent Carpentier or Gareth Williams mix with extraordinary practitioners such as William Locke, Sir Peter Scott and Michael Shattock.

The Institute’s reputation is a magnet for luminaries from around the world and visiting lecturers come from all four corners of the Earth to teach and research in an environment of free-flowing ideas.

Walking through the Bloomsbury campus in a clouded autumn morning on my first day of lectures I got the slightly unreal feeling of entering a temple of Wisdom. For the first time in my life I was being introduced to one of the great courts of intellectual prowess, a place where major thinkers, scientists and social reformers lived, loved and taught during the past two centuries.

Everyone from Jeremy Bentham to Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Virginia Woolf had at one point confronted established ideas in the green lawns of its squares or the busy corners of its cafés, and now I was sitting in the middle of it all, would I be up to the challenge?

The MBA turned out to be an extraordinary experience. Nearly 50 senior academics and administrators coming from Australia, Italy, Japan, Nigeria, Norway, Sweden, the USA and all corners of the UK gathered to learn state-of-the-art techniques in the management of strategy, finance, governance or student services.

Beyond technical improvement, the confluence of world-class researchers, experienced practitioners and participants coming from all horizons made for an explosively creative environment where all ideas were up for serious challenge. As the program advanced, my firmest assumptions crumbled against a background of critical thinking.

img_2599Acknowledging my own ignorance was the starting point of an intense learning experience. I quickly realized that despite years of practice in different settings I was only an amateur in the art and science of management.

Essential readings included revered figures of higher education studies from Burton Clark to Ron Barnett and renowned authors in the fields of internationalization, marketing, accounting and law.

Their ideas and analysis were discussed through a dynamic set of activities ranging from student-led seminars to syndicate group work where current higher education policy and practice were open for questioning.

For two long years I sacrificed holidays and weekends, rising at 6 a.m. every day to study for two hours before heading off to work and then staying for another two, three, four hours to move forward with my assignments.

Many times I approached the point of breakdown, when the goal seemed unachievable and I would question the worthiness of the extreme effort. I also had to endure the incomprehension and recrimination of friends and family, who felt alienated by my lack of concern for leisure time. And yet I persevered.

For only measuring myself up against the best I would be able to reach new heights.

Lead, Kindly Light

There is no moral or conclusion to this ongoing story. The wretched conditions that I endured during the transition to London, St George’s and the MBA may be perceived by some as a downgrade in living or working standards. Far from that, they have triggered a spiritual renaissance of inconclusive features that is opening up a world of opportunities for the future.

Against a background of change in an uncertain world, the only possible response is to constantly reinvent oneself, no matter how much effort or sacrifice this requires. We must vigorously confront conformity, struggle against our own prejudice and pre-conceived ideas in order to pursue Truth.

4l5a3510John Henry Newman wrote that “Growth is the only evidence of life”, and he dedicated his to a search for what is intrinsically true, good and beautiful. Cardinal Newman died in 1890 and was buried under a memorial stone where it can be read Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem (“Out of shadows and phantasms into the truth”).

In October of 2008, his grave was opened with the intention of moving any remains to a tomb inside Birmingham Oratory. His wooden coffin was found to have disintegrated and no bones were found. A forensic expert from the University of Birmingham concluded that total disappearance of a body was unlikely over that timescale.

Some believe that he continued his journey beyond what senses can perceive. I like to think that in his need for change he followed a defined course, that in his travelling he was guided by an indefinable force, that in his spiritual pilgrimage, Cardinal Newman was led by Light.

“Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.”

Lead, Kindly Light. John Henry Newman. 1833.

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The Self-made Man

Franklin-Benjamin-LOCBenjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, is sometimes said to have created the concept of the self-made man. In his Autobiography, he describes his way from a poor, unknown son of a candle-maker to a very successful business man and highly acknowledged member of American society.

Mr. Franklin once wrote: “All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.”

Ten years ago I had the good fortune to meet one of those that move. This is the story.

Cergy 2004

The first time I visited Paris was in 2004. I had been granted a scholarship to spend a year in France studying law under the auspices of the Erasmus Programme. So I packed my bags and took a flight to Charles de Gaulle airport in early September. It was hot and humid that day. I arrived sweating and dragging my old twenty-kilo suitcase to the five-square meter room in the student hall “Les Chênes d’Or”.

640px-Bd_de_l'hautil_cergyThe University was located in Cergy-Pontoise, twenty kilometers away from Paris. It was one of a handful of institutions founded in the 1970s in the outskirts of France’s capital. Some say to bring college education closer to the newly established immigrant communities. Others say as a prophylactic measure after the May 1968 events.

The city of Cergy grew from a tiny fluvial port to merge with the historical town of Pontoise during the same period. The 70s functional architecture had not aged very well and the whole downtown area had somewhat of a deprived feeling, its labyrinthine walking pathways spread over avenues with empty sidewalks.

At dusk, groups of teenagers hanged out in public parks, listening to hip-hop and raï. Life seemed tough for these youngsters; it was difficult to get a good job coming from Cergy.

A Star is born

I met Miguel Ferrer a couple of days after my arrival. Our first encounter is still vivid in my memory: a tall, high-spirited young man coming down the hallway “¿Qué pasa chico?” he said, with a cheerful smile on his face.

Miguel was born in 1978 in Callosa del Segura, a small town in the southeasternmost point of Spain. He had gone through pains in his life. His mother passed away when he was a teenager and he had since been struggling with work and studies. But all this I knew much later.

At the time we were enjoying our newfound freedom. The Erasmus study abroad experience was a fresh start for most of us. We left behind our dull routines to experiment with life. Some of the experiences were good, some less so, but all of them were useful. They provided a colorful scenario for our coming of age and Cergy soon became our playground.

DSCF0307Miguel made a big name among the student community in a snapshot. He used to take any newcomer under his wing, offering shelter, food, guidance and a good laugh. He threw improvised parties where anyone could show up uninvited – he would get mad when we knocked at his door, simply saying “Why the hell do you knock? Come straight in!” –

He cheered and greeted everyone; he made as many friends among the exchange students as among the locals. At one point he was even elected representative of the student body in the residence.

He was charismatic, he was generous, he was talkative and fun and a little crazy too.

Miguel was a star.

During that year, students from over twenty nationalities gathered together at school. Most of us keep fond memories of that time, when we were young and innocent and full of life. Nevertheless, it was just a gap year; we all went back to our ordinary lives the moment we stepped out of the return flight. That is, all but Miguel.

Growing pains

I have never quite understood what brought Miguel to stay in France after our academic period was over. Maybe he was hiding from painful memories, or maybe he had something to prove to himself. In either case, the path he chose was certainly not the easiest.

He found a job replacing a waiter in a pizza chain restaurant in Paris. Working conditions were tough, and commuting two hours a day didn’t help. With rudimentary French and robust discipline, he kept the job and progressed in the difficult and ingrate milieu of the Parisian hospitality industry.

DSCF0210Famously, he would wander around in Paris at night between late evening and early morning shifts, not sleeping at all, just to make sure that he would make it on time to work. He was large on dedication and short on complaints, and so he got more than his share of cover-ups and extra work when colleagues did not show up.

More than a year had passed when I heard back from Miguel through a mutual friend. He had changed homes three or four times. “One day” he said “I showed up in his latest known address.” “I found Miguel in wretched conditions, weakened and sick with high fever. I told him we should go and see a doctor”

Miguel was diagnosed with “purpura”, an autoimmune condition likely triggered by high levels of stress.

He had kept working through pain, hiding his condition, refusing any help.

After having taken his body and spirit to the limit, Miguel stepped back. He flew to his hometown in Spain, where the milder climate and better living conditions helped him fully recover from illness.

He had won the fight. He had proved his worth. Now it was time to settle down, wasn’t it?

Second chance

Just one year later, Miguel announced that he was flying back to Paris. And so everyone thought he had lost his mind.

After all, why did he reject a comfortable life under the Mediterranean sun? Why was he willing to risk everything for an uncertain outcome? Why was he different from the rest of us?

The truth is that he was a mirror that reflected back our own deformed images. Because he was brave, we were cowards, because he was pure, we were unworthy, because he was generous and kind, we were mean.

IMG_1014Miguel went back to the same pizza restaurant where it had all begun in 2004, only he was a smarter and hardened person this time. He progressively polished his French, improved his skills and developed his network.

Although he did not have any formal training apart from life itself, he had something way more valuable: curiosity, open-mindedness and an unbreakable willpower.

Miguel knew instinctively that the world is full of opportunities and that when you embrace human experience with open arms, sooner or later it will embrace back.

In times of economic crisis, corrupt politics and unprecedented inequalities, many of us are afraid of the future. This may lead us to give up our dreams, or worse, to hand them over to populist leaders, rejecting all that is different and new.

Every time I feel such temptation, I think of our times in Cergy, when we were fresh and poor and happy. I think of those evenings in our five-square meter rooms, nationalists and socialists, blacks and whites piled up in front of a computer watching a movie or a soccer game.

I think of Miguel and how he gave a helping hand to all, expecting nothing in return.

Happy ending

The next time I met Miguel was in 2010. I had just moved to Paris in search of a new life, and as usual he was the angel on my shoulder. He offered shelter and advice, and most of all he believed in me through difficult times. I will be forever grateful to him.

Today Miguel has climbed up the ladder and has become the team supervisor for catering at a top-end restaurant multinational headquartered in Paris. He is highly regarded in his job and life smiles at him.

IMG_1033He has met his soul mate in Mathilde, a young economist from Western France who is, like him, an immigrant to Paris. They are the perfect couple; she brings realism and practicality to quixotic Miguel, without ever compromising his idealism and freedom of spirit.

After a few years living together, they bought a flat just outside of Paris and decided to tie the knot. I was one of the lucky attendants to the wedding, which took place in a magnificent Chateau south of Nantes. We drank and ate and sang and danced, in that order. It was a lot of fun.

Conclusion

After only two years of formal education, Benjamin Franklin went on to become a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, diplomat and one of the greatest figures in American and World History.

In his time, the Second Industrial Revolution was in full swing in the United States. New inventions quickly made men rich and famous, and factories sprung from the ground, seemingly overnight. For a young man who was willing to work hard and get ahead, the world seemed to offer innumerable opportunities.

Born in aging Europe, struggling through the worst economic crisis since 1929, Miguel did not have such luck. He nevertheless made the best of himself with the tools that life gave him. His life is a lesson of courage and dignity facing adversity, and I am sure that the future will bring him the recognition that he deserves.

For all this, Miguel Ferrer is at least as important to my own little private history as Benjamin Franklin is to United States history.

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Spain Revisited

The press coined the term PIGS in 2008 as an acronym of the countries in the periphery of the Eurozone, nations that shared some economic and cultural traits perceived as harmful or inefficient: high fiscal deficits, low productivity, traditional catholic or orthodox faith and a tendency to corrupt management practices.

In the past two weeks I have been visiting several areas of one of these countries, one that I know all too well: Spain.

IMG_0554The Kingdom of Spain, 47 Million inhabitants, was founded in the XV century as the compound of several smaller Iberian kingdoms. Spain has a rich history made of hazardous times that carried the country from being the most powerful colonial empire of its time to fighting a bloody civil war that preceded in time and form World War II.

At the end of the XX century Spain gained a democratically elected government and with it, the civil rights and liberties long deserved by its citizens. I was born in February 1979, exactly two months after the voting and approval of the Constitution, so I can proudly say that I was raised in a liberal regime that shaped my thinking and living.

So how is Spain looking thirty-five years later?

Amidst the corruption scandals, bank bailouts and weakened economy, I dare say that Spain is looking good. Wishful thinking? Optimistic romanticism? I don’t think so.

When the press launched the term PIGS, analysts were thinking in lazy workers, inefficient administrators and corrupt officials. They were thinking in countries that deserved the austerity measures imposed by multilateral institutions to correct the excesses of an era of easy credit and inflated economies. In one sentence: they were thinking in populations that had been living beyond their means.

Today Spain has a 25% unemployment rate,  a public debt of 100% its GDP and an economic growth of minus 1%, such figures would indicate underdevelopment or plain all social revolt in most developed countries, how does Spain manage to get away relatively unscathed with such macroeconomic indicators? Let’s take a closer look.

I can trace back my origins to my great-grandparents in both branches of my family. They were working people in a nearly medieval Spain at the dawn of the XX century. Shepherds, blacksmiths and peasants who worked in harsh conditions in a country that reluctantly entered the industrial era. Spain lacked coal and mineral resources, and the technical progress arrived almost invariably late to the mostly rural nation.

Much has been written about the factors that prevented Spain from absorbing the ideals of the Enlightenment, and little about the values that made Spain jump from a late feudal country to a modern democracy and economic power in less than a century.

IMG_0558Spain is not a country of lazy people, or unproductive management techniques, Spain leads in renewable energies, water treatment, and biotechnology solutions, it hosts some of the world’s biggest banks and best known textile companies, and one third of the world’s air traffic is managed under a system developed in Spain.

Not only hard work and creativity are embedded in the Spanish ethos, if there is one value above any other in which Spaniards lead the game that is solidarity. I am not writing about vociferous patriotism or glitzy charity events; far from that, solidarity is the silent savior of the Spanish people.

Spain has the highest organ donation rate in the world and some of the best intergenerational solidarity indicators in Europe. From retired women lending a hand in community kitchens to employees lending money to unlucky laid-off colleagues, Spain enjoys a strongly tied social structure that will survive to face future challenges.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwbyXTz7Uto

In Spain there is an old saying that goes: “Taken from the pig, even the way they walk”, making reference to the importance of the animal for human survival. It is unlikely that the press were aware of this saying when they assigned the term PIGS to Spain. I am sure that the industrious, creative and supportive character of the Spanish people will very soon be acknowledged again.

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Living in the European Green Capital

Like most Europeans, I grew up in an urban environment. In the last 30 years, 60 to 75 % of the population in Europe has lived in densely populated urban areas, so I assumed as fact that I would be spending the rest of my days in the kind of town rich in concrete and poor in vegetation that I had known in the past.

Fortunately I was wrong.

ImageI got a crush on Nantes from the moment I met her. I remember my first trip on the tramway that connects the city center to Audencia Nantes School of Management. I felt the silent, efficient, polution-free machinery moving smoothly along the Erdre river. I must haved looked stupid staring up through the window at the high treetops crowded with birds, perfectly embedded among four-story buildings with slate roofs.

“Something is not quite right” I thought. According to Wikipedia, the city had over 600,000 inhabitants, the sixth largest in France, so where were the traffic jams? the overcrowded streets? the smoke and the claxons and the hassle? No tricks here, Nantes was genuinely a drop of green life in an ocean of grey cold stone. However, the city had not always been like that. What now seemed natural was the result of well-planned policies developed over a 30-year period.

Did you know that Nantes was the first city in Europe to re-introduce the tramway in 1985? It was a revolutionary project that reversed the trend of tramway closures that had been going on since the middle of the 20th century and started a wave of tramways built from scratch in Europe. The tram assures reliable, confortable and clean transportation, and the lines are still expanding.

The bicicle is the other preferred vehicle in Nantes. A network of bike-lanes traverses the city north to south and east to west, it rarely takes more than 30 minutes to get anywhere in town using a bike. What is more, the Town Hall launched the Bicloo service, which is a self-service bicycle network at over 100 locations offering nearly 1000 bicicles, so even if you do not have space to store a bike, it’s easy to use one.

ImageThis innovation would not have been possible without strong citizen support. Associative life is one of the defining points in the city. There are plenty of initiatives from recycling and composting to pre-paid food baskets supporting local producers to c-to-c barter shops. The wide array of bottom-up options complements perfectly the public policies implemented by the local government.

Of course, this is not an end-of-history city. There are still traffic problems in the surrounding loop, people living in deteriorated areas and a rising unemployment rate. A medium-sized city with limited means, Nantes is nevertheless the closest it gets to a harmonious living environment for families. My experiences here reafirm my belief that communities well integrated in the natural surroundings and with strong neighborly ties should prevail. Only this way we will build a more humane world for generations to come.

As I write these lines the last warm days of the summer go by. Any day I like to take my lunch and walk to the border of the Cens river, just 3 minutes away from the school. And there I eat my sandwich and feed the ducks and moorhens with crumbs. Some days even the beavers come to ask me for food from the distance. And I feel lucky and grateful to live here.

“Nantes is a green wonder of western France”. With these words, the European Commission granted Nantes the European Green Capital award, year 2013. It is only the fourth city to have obtained this award, created in 2010 to recognise the important role that local authorities play in improving the environment.

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A foreigner in the Middle Kingdom

The great writer and traveler Robert Louis Stevenson said once that “there are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” Lately in the course of my work, I have had the opportunity to visit exotic and distant countries… or such they appeared to my eyes. This is the story.

IMG_0028During the fall 2011 I was sent to the Far East as part of a team to represent Audencia Nantes School of Management. Our mission was to participate in various events of international education and presentations to students, with the aim of attracting them to our school. I visited Beijing, Guangzhou, Taipei and Shanghai, and here are my impressions on this humble adventure.

The Chinese are a great people. They are very much aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and their mix of old-civilization’s wisdom and upcomer’s audacity makes them absolutely fascinating. I arrived in Beijing on a sunny and cool October day. Staying in the inner loop, I soon received the first boost of energy. There I was, in the middle of the rising superpower, post-Olympic Beijing, skyscrapers, businessmen, faster, higher, stronger. Nothing like I had imagined before.

“The Capital of the North” is a bustling city. Embassies, international organisations, financial institutions, every major player in world politics has set its foot on Beijing’s ground. The city itself is over a thousand years old, and the rests of former dynasties pop up at every corner, from Tiananmen Square to Tianning temple, however, the most impressive signs of power come from the new emperor: money.

As the political capital of China, Beijing is more majestic and elegant than other Chinese hubs. Here is where political decisions of the highest importance are made, from the parity of the currency to the buying of sovereign debt. In today’s globalised economy, these decisions have a high impact everywhere in the world.

I had the opportunity to meet dozens of students and many university representatives in Beijing. They impressed me with their cultured demeanor, their deep knowledge of history, their skill in languages, and their will to succeed. They are accustomed to competition, very respectful of their seniors and conscientious of the historical role that their culture is set to play in the coming centuries.

IMG_0107I tried my best to absorb as much as I could from them, respecting hierarchies, showing interest for the other, being humble or learning to listen to their silence. It was a very interesting process, I had to adapt from the more direct and aggressive western communication style to tactful eastern metaphoric language.

From Beijing I flew to Guangzhou. Strategically located in the delta of the Pearl River, it was already a provincial capital two thousand years ago and today is the most important transportation hub in China. I arrived in the midst of the famous Canton fair, a major import-export event in China, when visitors from all over the world gather together in this fast-paced place.

Guangzhou is a cosmopolitan city. I met many students who, for the most part were tri or quatri-lingual (speaking Mandarin, Cantonese, English and/or French) and had a strong interest in logistics and supply chain. Young people in Guangzhou are very much aware of the booming economy that surrounds them, and their entrepreneurial spirit is encompassing: nearly everyone wants to set up a business in the area after their study abroad period.

My third step got me away from mainland China, giving way to Taipei. Underneath the political issues that have haunted the area for the last half century lies a fierce sense of independence shared by most insular cultures, from Great Britain to Cuba.

ChengchiI had the opportunity of visiting National Chengchi University College of Commerce, a cluster of excellence in business education in the Asia region that attracts students from all over the world. We rendered a brand new double degree agreement with Chengchi’s MBA and were invited to a business lunch by the MBA Director, Dr. Chen.

Taiwanese’s people hospitality is –true to the word– legendary and I felt very much closer to home than ever during that visit. My hosts were extremely cultivated, fluent in several languages including English, proud of their ancient culture and keen on sharing it with foreigners. They showed me their Campus just outside of Taipei, beautifully located on a valley surrounded by green hills where tea crops are still grown today.

My last stop was the showpiece of China’s modernity: Shanghai. What had been a fishing port in the Yangtze River Delta has become the symbol of greatness of the Empire: home to the 2010 World Expo and a masterpiece blending Eastern and Western architectural styles.

Nowhere as in Shanghai has one got the vibrant impression of witnessing the wake of a giant. A simple walk through the Bund, looking West admiring the collection of Art-Deco French style buildings, and East through the river to the impressive skyline of Pudong financial district, I felt that there is a way of cohabitation, of enrichment and mutual understanding that can only prevail over disputes and differences.

I came back to Europe in the first days of November, happy and exhausted, knowing that this first contact will not be the last, for I strangely felt that, as Robert Louis Stevenson would say, the Middle Kingdom was no longer a foreign land.

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Introducing Audencia

The Time Paradox

Doctor Philip George Zimbardo, an American psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, sustains in “The Time Paradox” that there are at least six different ways in which people perceive time. Think of those periods when time loses its normal pace, when the intensity of the events takes the lead and you feel transported by the momentum.

It has been over four months since I entered one of these periods. Life is taking me to new, unexplored fields, and let me tell you, it feels good.

Ideally located in the confluence of three rivers, Nantes is as green and livable as one could imagine. Once the commercial capital of Brittany, in Western France, what sets Nantes apart from any other town today is its student life. The Venice of the West is a campus on its own: one out of every ten inhabitants is a higher education student and more than fifteen universities and schools give sense to the words “knowledge transfer”.

IMG_0257Last February, I was lucky enough to catch the attention of the Director of International Relations at Audencia Nantes School of Management, during a period of change at the School. Audencia is a business school that receives about 2,500 carefully selected students from all over the world and belongs to the exclusive “club” of the schools crowned with the triple accreditation: AACSB, EQUIS and AMBA.

I remember walking into Audencia’s main building in a sunny day of February, ready for my first day of work. Then entering the Office of International Relations in the fourth floor, I felt immediately energized, there was something electrifying in the air. One small team of eight people coming from five different countries, speaking seven languages, had gathered together in this corner of the French Atlantic coast to try something different, something new.

Desi Schmitt, the Director, is a Chilean woman of German ancestry who speaks five languages and has an encompassing knowledge of the world of international education. I wondered how she had managed to build the most impressively international team in this particular place. Desi’s secret is her daring personality, she is not afraid to take risks. She weights carefully the inner potential of each employee, but once on board, she gives us freedom to unleash our creativity, and the best qualities arise out of a team of passionate oddballs.

IMG_0251I had been appointed International Relations Manager, in charge of recruitment for international programs under the firm guidance of my partner
Benjamin Rethmel, an open-minded globetrotter from Ohio. Ben is a fighter in
every sense of the word. Trained in taekwondo and always in perfect shape, he is not one to give up easily. Imagine the kind of guy you want to have on your corner when things turn ugly, that is Ben.

The School is in the midst of rapid strategical change, it has recently merged with two smaller sized, specialized schools (EAC and SciencesCom) and a new CEO is in command. The programs are being redesigned to appeal to a broader, more international audience and research and entrepreneurship are being given a big push.

But what appeals the most to me, there where I see unlimited possibilities is in the Institute for Global Responsibility.

“Make social and environmental commitment an economic asset”

After the crisis of 2008, when businessmen and bankers have fallen from public grace and the moral principles of capitalism are shaken once more, every business school wants to
add a social edge to its portfolio. But not long before, there was a day when easy
credit and subprime mortgages ruled. Back then, Professor Andre Sobczak and his
team were already building the Institute for Global Responsibility to promote a
globally responsible management through social and environmental commitment.

The Institute for Global Responsibility was founded in 2003 as a think tank capable of transforming society at the local level, for a global impact. It carried Audencia through three historical steps, being the first French institution so sign the UN Global Compact agreement, participating in the definition of the UN Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME) and signing a groundbreaking agreement with the environmental organization WWF.

Today, the Institute has succeeded in incorporating Global Responsibility to every subject taught at the School, from management of diversity to sustainable supply chain. Students are confronted with the social and environmental consequences of their decisions, and encouraged to find alternative solutions in innovative and efficient ways.

The Institute’s raison d’etre is the concept that social and environmental commitment are far from opposite to economic performance, they are complementary. A wonderful Socratic Intellectualism revisited, with firm scientific roots, which brings moral value to my everyday work.

According to Doctor Philip George Zimbardo there are at least six different ways in which people perceive time. It has only taken four months for the Institute to raise awareness in me of the unlimited possibilities of responsible management. Will it be enough to
make a lasting change in the corporate world? I firmly believe it is only a matter of time.

http://www.responsabiliteglobale.com/

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My particular quest

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said once: “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” I found myself purposely unemployed on November 2010, probably not the best time in history to be such. I am not one to be idle for long, so I knew from the start that my new job was… looking for work, there began my particular quest.

IMG_0051I set my feet on French soil on the 1st of December with a twenty-kilo suitcase and a few euros in my pocket. I was optimistic enough to expect to welcome the New Year somewhere in France, having found an interesting new job. As it turned out, I had to make some minor adjustments to my plan.

By December the 11th, I was living comfortably in a nice 25 square-feet apartment near the Tour Eiffel. I had all the time in the world to find work before Christmas, and I laid my pack of tools: a detailed CV, a carefully written lettre de motivation and three appraising reference letters. However, when Christmas arrived, I was hoping for Santa Claus to bring me one single phone call from a potential employer.

What was going on? The internet was working, there seemed to be demand for trilingual professionals and I was subscribed to every job browser ever existent in the cyberspace. I should have done something wrong, but what was it? My experience was too specific? My studies too generic? My hair too curly?

After New Year ’s Eve, I booked an interview with a Pôle-emploi assistant. Pôle-emploi is the French national employment service. Unemployed citizens can resort to it to look for job opportunities and receive subsidies in the interim. My only hope was that the assistant would help me re-orientate my quest. I went out from my appointment with renovated optimism. I had obviously been walking the wrong path, wearing the wrong boots.

To begin with, my CV was not marketable at all. It was well suited for a pre-internet, academic environment, but for an era of fast-flowing information, it was démodé. It lacked a catching title, had no “skills” paragraph and the experiences were too detailed and showed no coherence. It took me three days to redesign my CV, but I was satisfied with the results. I also redid my cover letter to adapt it to my new, fresher look.

IMG_0015Then, there was the searching strategy. Until my revealing interview, I had been shooting CVs to every flying bird in sight. No matter if the company suited my interests, I would sure enough suit hers. Industrial equipment, endoscopic materials, luxury cosmetic brands… I was their man, I sincerely thought so. The problem was that they thought differently, and they were right.

I am an expert in cultural industries, with a specific preparation in the education business. This does not mean that I will not ever be able to change the course of my career, but it is obvious that, in a highly specialized world, my skills can be of better use in a business school that in a toilet tile polishing company.

I did my market research, looking more to fill gaps in my field of expertise and less to respond to job offers out of desperation. It took another week, but I must say that the results were immediate: I booked eight interviews, and the phone kept ringing.

What do I get from this quest? As far as it may sound strange, selling oneself is like selling any other product: it is all about matching the right product with the right customer. A product has to be attractive, appealing to one’s ideals and values. Then it is a matter of finding your niche, where the characteristics of the product will be appreciated.

If you, dear reader, are in search of a job right now, I sincerely hope this experience can be of any help. Anyway, take it as a learning process, come out stronger and smarter, and remember Dr. King’s words “all labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance”, in the long term, this is all that matters.

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