One-on-one with Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou

One week after the Desautels MBA program was named best MBA program in Canada, Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, Dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management, talks about some of the keys to the Faculty's success.
Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, Dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management

On Monday, Jan. 29, the Desautels Faculty of Management MBA program was named the top MBA program in Canada by the 2018 Financial Times Global MBA Rankings. Desautels was one of only three Canadian schools to make the global Top 100 list, coming in at 78th.

“These results reflect some of the changes and investments we have made in our MBA in recent years, including the expansion of our professoriate, enhancement of our admissions criteria, improvement in career services, and increase in MBA student awards,” Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, Dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management, said at the time.

The Reporter caught up with Bajeux-Besnainou to talk about a variety of subjects, including the success of our MBA program, the brand-new Donald E. Armstrong Building, and the ways in which business schools have evolved over the course of her 25-year career.

Tell us about some of the ‘changes and investments’ that were made to the MBA program.

A big piece of it is Career Services. We’re improving our ability to secure jobs for our graduates, which is key for any MBA program.

Also, we have increased the percentage of people from other countries on our International Advisory Board. We actively sought out people from around the world and now the Board includes members from Europe, China, the U.S., etc.

This type of diversity must be very important in the global economy.

Absolutely. We have 21 countries represented in our incoming class of first-year MBAs. So, the program is highly international.

McGill is a very international university, but this is especially true in the Faculty of Management. At the undergraduate level we have 40 per cent international students. At the Master’s level, this percentage is even greater.

It is a great thing for the classroom because it enriches the experience for everybody.

Desautels also earned high marks in the Financial Times Rankings for increasing the percentage of women in the program. Was this intentional?

We’ve made a concerted effort to hire more female faculty. As a result, we have increased the percentage of female teachers, which is another important piece.

Our recruiters are working very hard to balance the class by bringing in top female students. It is a struggle for all MBA programs in general, and we’ve very proud that the new class that started last summer is at 45 per cent female, which is very good.

Why the push for a greater international presence and more females in the professoriate and the student body?

We aren’t doing this for the rankings. We want more diversity in the classroom. Diversity in terms of gender, background and country of origin.

We also look at a student’s work experience, because MBA students have, on average, 5.5 years of work experience before coming into the program. It is very important that students are coming to the program with varied experiences because they are not only learning from the professors, but also from the other students in the class.

What are the challenges that come with trying to increase the number of females in a field that traditionally has been dominated by men?

The most important thing to remember is that we never compromise on quality, ever. But it does require a particular effort on our part, whether it is in the recruitment of female professors or students.

In the long run, the effort pays off because the program benefits from a wide range of personal and professional experiences.

There are two key words for our MBA program – international and integrated. We want students not to learn the different business skills in silos. We want them to have the big picture for what business is, and to understand problem solving. Very applicable knowledge.

When the rankings were announced, you thanked the ‘Desautels family.’ People don’t often associate MBA programs with family. How does this set you apart?

Our MBA program is small compared to some other business schools, but it is extremely individualized. We really try to tailor ourselves to meet the needs of every student.

It is a very close community and it feels like a family. We want our MBA students to come to feel that they will be supported by the Desautels community, the Desautels family.

Part of having a smaller, more personalized program is that we can address students’ concerns as quickly as possible. We have very open communications with the students. I meet with the student leaders on a regular basis and I’m trying to have regular Town Halls with the MBA students, as well.

We have a wonderful team in the MBA office. Nothing can be done without a wonderful team, both at the leadership level and the staff level as well. The students feel like they have the support of everyone.

What is the best thing about having a small MBA program?

[Laughing] We know everyone’s name!

And the biggest challenge?

Many of the big recruiters don’t come to campus directly because they can’t see a large enough number of students. We have to be more proactive in bringing recruiters here as well as bringing our students to the recruiters.

Are alumni part of the Desautels family?

Of course! We have a very good program in which alumni come to the classroom to share their knowledge with students. It helps students understand the direct applicability of what they are learning in the classroom.

It helps in terms of sharing their experience and mentoring our students, but it also helps with job placement. One of the skills you learn in an MBA program is how to become proficient at networking.

This is being part of the Desautels family. We want these connections to be there, not only between students, but also with alumni.

Tell us about the new Donald E. Armstrong Building [formerly the McGill Bookstore].

It is fantastic, absolutely fantastic. We started moving people in December to be ready for the students in January and we opened for business at the start of the semester.

All of the upper floors are MBA and Master’s students. The concourse level is BCom. The added space was really welcome and the students and faculty love it.

Two-and-a-half years ago you came to McGill from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where you had spent 21 years as a professor of Finance. How have business schools changed over the course of your career?

We have more women now, but it is something business schools are still struggling with, especially in Finance. When I started at George Washington University, I was the only woman in the Finance Department. And when I started here, there was only one other woman in the Finance Area. We’re making progress, but it isn’t easy.

It is something we are working on, especially at the BCom level. We have a little more than 50 per cent women in BCom, but when it comes to Finance the percentage slips to 40 per cent in the concentration, right down to 25 per cent in Honours in Investment Management.

We have convened a task force to address the issue. We are bringing in role models to explain the kind of fantastic careers women can have in Finance. We’re talking to all of the students in their first year to make sure women understand there are a lot of opportunities for them in the field.

Related story:

Desautels MBA program ranked first in Canada