What was your single biggest takeaway from the MBA experience? A simple question asked by MBA prospects all over the world, hoping that b-school alumni are able to sum-up and articulate their transformational experiences into one concise message.
It is a big question and one that demands a big answer, but for CEIBS MBA 2018 alumna Akshara Ajith, her takeaway was bigger than most; an entire company in fact, as she returned to India after doing her MBA with Mobike.
Akshara shares her journey from India to China and back. Also, she offers valuable advice for young professionals eyeing Shanghai as the ideal location to pursue an MBA.
Akshara and Mobike
Akshara lives and breathes Mobike. Her loyalty and passion for the bike sharing app stretches back to her first days in Shanghai when she was encouraged to download the smartphone app as a simple and fun way to explore the city.
Mobike, like many of its Chinese counterparts, is on a mission to go global. Akshara joined the company first as an intern during her MBA time and was then given a return offer to support their development on the ground in India.
“At CEIBS, you very quickly learn to find your feet in Shanghai by relying on 4-5 key apps that make life extremely comfortable. One of these was Mobike, an app that allows you to scan, unlock, and ride smart bicycles throughout the city,” reflects Akshara.
“It wasn’t only me that had an affinity with the app — my classmates and I feel like we witnessed the birth of the shared economy business model during our time in China and would therefore become extremely excited whenever we saw a Mobike when travelling overseas.”
Akshara was working as a Solution Delivery Consultant at Deloitte when she applied to do her MBA at CEIBS. “I came to China to see for myself what all the fuss was about. Outside of China we are hearing and reading a lot about the country and its development, but for me I wanted to see how I could play my part in ‘the next big thing’,” Akshara says.
“Before I came to CEIBS, I had never been to China, so I can identify with many young professionals who are looking at the country with interest as a possible destination for their MBA degree. I speak to a lot of prospects and tell them that, when deciding if China is right or not for you, your mind-set is crucial! You need to be open, but also to hold onto your main purpose for coming to China. There are lots of options to explore and experience in China – sometimes I think too many – but it comes down to what you see as your own drive to do an MBA. If you see a logical thread between that and China and you’re up for an adventure, then book your ticket and go!”
Akshara’s main drive to do an MBA wasn’t a target industry or function, but rather to understand China itself. She cites the Integrated China Strategy Project (ICSP) and ‘China within the World’ Module as two elements of the curriculum that really aided her understanding of the economy.
“For ICSP, we formed a team to help a multinational [company] to develop deeper roots in China,” Akshara recalls. “Being a bridge between the company and the market really helped me to experiment with market development strategies, but also to learn how my Chinese classmates would approach and work through the challenges we faced. It’s a great experience and one that concludes with a deliverables presentation to the client company in which we had to justify our chosen strategy.”
Taking the Plunge
The experiential curriculum and student body at CEIBS also helped Akshara to transition to a Chinese company, but for many, moving from a global giant like Deloitte to a start-up can also be a steep learning curve on its own. In order to tackle this, and especially in a shared economy business model, Akshara needed to firmly believe in what she was doing.
At Deloitte, she was one of many who benefited from sharing sessions during ‘lean-in-circles’, a movement that also inspired her to the presidency of the Women’s Leadership Network at CEIBS. On a similar note, having genuinely resonated with Mobike as a consumer first, her belief in the vision of the company has helped her weather challenges along the way.
“There are many long weeks and uncertainties on the horizon, which is why it takes a certain amount of steel and belief in the company’s vision to keep you on track,” Akshara says. “A lesson from CEIBS Professor of International Strategy and Entrepreneurship Shameen Prashantham about success factors in start-ups also stuck in my mind. He said that the difference between life and death for start-ups is their ability to execute. Anyone can have a good idea, and there are a million good ideas out there, but without the ability to execute, a good idea will always be just that – an idea.”
As an intern on the international expansion team for Mobike in Shanghai, Akshara was expected to wear many hats. Working on the ‘Go to Market’ strategy for India required her to jump from supply chain issues on one day to product localisation questions on another – as well as everything in between.
“Part of the conversation back then was about which city to launch Mobike in in India. We settled for Pune, affectionately referred to as the ‘Oxford of the East’ given the sheer number of students attracted by the several academic institutions there,” Akshara explains. “Now that I’m in Pune handling business development and institutional partnerships for Mobike, I still get a thrill out of seeing how the decisions, meeting topics, and difficult conversations we had in Shanghai have paid off and come to life in India.”
The unpredictable nature of life in a start-up was very much part of the appeal for Akshara. Part of the preparation for the ‘Go to Market’ strategy for India was to run user case scenarios of what typical Mobike users in India would look like. Being confident that there will be a healthy demand for bicycles from the student population is one thing, but Akshara is now discovering that there will always be unexpected developments along the way.
“I was quite touched the other day to receive an email from an elderly gentleman who thanked me (Mobike) for bringing bicycles back to Pune. As much as in enjoyed my time at Deloitte, I can’t say I received any similar emails nor had such an impact on the community,” Akshara says.
“Surprises like these really keep me on my toes. One initiative I run every Sunday for example is the Mobike community ride. Working at a start-up, I was expecting my weekends and free time to take a hit, but I can’t think of a better way to keep healthy whilst staying close, sometimes quite literally, to our user base than by cycling with them and asking for direct feedback about Mobike. I didn’t imagine when I was learning about marketing strategy at CEIBS that I would be gathering user experience data on the go on two wheels after graduation, but there you go.”
Having launched in India in May 2018, Akshara and Mobike have only just set out on their expansion in India. Akshara knows she is in for a bumpy ride ahead, but compared to being one of thousands at Deloitte, she is safe in her belief that the exposure she receives at Mobike, her ownership of market development, and a healthy dose of ‘pedal power’ will help propel her career forwards.