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Archive for October, 2008

Really?

A conversation I just had at the French consulate when trying to get my visa for January.  

-You are too early.  It would be better for me if you came back in late November or early December.  

-Sorry?  What do you mean it would be better for you?  Can you not do it today for some procedural reason?

-It would be better for me.  I cannot do it now.  Please come back.  

-Uhh… but my friend in DC got her visa for January back in like July.

-That is impossible.

WHAT. THE. SHIT.

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When I first moved to a city that would be my home for many many years, I would walk across this long bridge on my way to and from class every day.  The bridge had all sorts of graffiti on it, but one in particular, I loved seeing every day.  Written in fading two-foot-high Helvetica was, “You own this town!”  I would look up at the skyline along the river and nod my head:  “Yes.  Yes I do.  I own this town!”    

A few months later, someone had re-painted the words, and prepended something like “Flipper,” or “Otter” – one of those frathouse nicknames – to the front.  It now read, “Otter, you own this town!”  Turned out that it was graffiti that the brothers of SigEp down the street would paint on the bridge every year to honor their pledge trainer.  I was crushed.  

They say that you can’t step into the same water twice.  This weekend I went back to visit my town after a long absence.  Surprisingly enough, it did not cease to exist without me.  A five hour walk around town revealed that the price of a breakfast sandwich at my favorite bakery went up by another $1 since I had been gone, but everything else remained constant.    

Arriving at the bus station, I realized that for the first time that I wasn’t taking the metro home – to my Sorority House full of bitchy girls who didn’t know how to clean up after themselves or to my college dorm where I lived after I de-affiliated from the sisterhood or to my apartment in the Area 4 ghetto I shared with a cat named Ralph or to my other apartment with the nutso roommate I generously called the Troll or to my lovely condo I finally bought to rid myself of the Troll.  I would be taking the metro to my friends’ place to crash on their couch.  

Four zipcodes, six addresses, ten years.  This town is full of firsts and favorites.  I can’t walk down the street without recognizing a face or a pothole.  It’s also crawling with ex-boyfriends.  I have an opinion about its every brunch place and concert venue.  It’s the place where I grew up.  It’s also the place I had to leave in order to keep growing.  

During my 5 hour walk down memory lane someone stopped me to ask for directions.  As I sent him on his way, I thought, “I still own this town!”      

This coming year I will create a life for myself in Fontainebleau, I will make new friends, pick my favorite bakery, and get obsessed over an obscure beer that you can only get at one bar in town.  I will determine the best cappuccino in town through a lengthy vetting process, find a favorite jogging route through the forest, fall in love with the distant sound of the train on weekend mornings.  I will own that town.  And come December 09, I will pack up my life and move on.  Fontainebleau will continue to exist.  The classes after mine will carry on the traditions and the debauchery.  Another blogger will take up these reins.  Someone else will discover my favorite cappuccino joint or declare my favorite beer his favorite beer.

The tradeoff is that in leaving the places I’ve owned and loved, INSEAD will give me the opportunity to own many more.  The prospect of owning a London or a Cairo or a Tokyo is ahead!

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Let me preface this [rant] by saying that plenty of my ex-pat friends from China and India have given me absolutely no sympathy on this.  When I complain about Campus France, they roll their eyes and ask, “do you have any idea what it took to get into the US?”  

I’m at the moment on a bus that has internet.  Now, we may not have high speed rail in America, our bridges may be on the verge of collapse, our 60-year old crumbling interstate highways may be over capacity with all our 12mpg SUVs, but we have buses with internet.  That’s 21st century.  Take that, Europe!

I’m taking this bus to visit some dear friends but also to attempt to defraud the French visa process by applying at a less meticulous consulate than the one in my current city.  When applying for the Visa, it’s not enough that you have to fill out multiple applications, notarize statements that your parents will support to the tune of $600 per month (what does 400 EUR/month get you these days?  a baguette?), plus provide their bank statement, take copies of your college diploma in addition to copies of your INSEAD admission letter (that one, with the typo about the tuition amount).  Blah blah blah…

You also have to register with a delightful organization called Campus France.  They help you pick out a program to attend!  

That’s great, you say, but I already have a program to attend.  

Oh, in that case, we’ll just take your money.  In fact, we’ll double the amount.  

As far as I can tell, Campus France is geared toward high school and college kids who are going on a year abroad.  This organization asks you to list all of your grades (since high school), list your awards and write essays about why you want to study abroad in France.  It wouldn’t be quite so painful, if the forms you had to fill out didn’t require another 5 page document just to decipher it and all the error messages didn’t come up in French.  “Next click on icon of pencil,”  then “click on paperclip”  Do you remember what internet used to be like back in the days when we had all-numeric addresses? 104621.1250@compuserve.com?  Well, that form may have been created by the same genius designers writing code for Compuserve.  And the best part, is that after you write essays about your future aspirations in a sort of omniscient future tense, you get to send Campus France a money order for $120 and wait two weeks to get a response.  A money order?  I thought money orders were for people who bought things on late-night QVC.  

It’s not the expense of it.  When spending 50K EUR on tuition, I’m not really worried about $120 for Campus France here, $700 for medical insurance there, some $2K for business attire and accessories.  The fee is small change.   It’s the principle of it all – an organization created with no other purpose than to take money without providing a single service.

I’m done ranting.  All better now.

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When the INSEAD Dog and Pony show came to my town last winter, a very perky cheerleader-type spent about an hour telling a room full of men how hard INSEAD is working to recruit women.  The current class has somewhere just south of 30% women in the class, a several point improvement over the previous year.  The message wasn’t exactly on point for the audience (though having more ladies in the class is not bad for anyone – no one wants sausage only parties at the chateaux), and the cheerleader kept talking about why SHE (who was working for INSEAD rather than attending it or hoping to attend it) loved INSEAD and thought it was the best place for HER.  But, I did some mental math and thought that as a woman, I probably had a better chance of getting into INSEAD than any man who applies.  That’s fine.  I’ll take the leg-up, thankyouverymuch.  

Sometime last spring I also had an informational phone interview with IESE prior to submitting my application.  What I didn’t realize was that I was going to be walking someone through my resume at 7:30 AM.  When it was finally my turn to ask questions, I wanted to know whether the school was doing anything to increase the number of women in the class – currently at 27%.  Note here that it’s not so much that I’m worried about the disparity.  I’ve been in the 27% most of my student and professional life.  I was mostly just making conversation and trying to feel out the IESE attitude given how adamant INSEAD was about recruiting women.  

The director of admissions started by correcting me: “Well, it’s actually 30%” – yes, how could I have made that 3% error?  That’s like a difference of 10 women in a class 300.  “It’s a reality of the workforce,” she continued. “And, the US schools have like 45% women.”  A couple of things bothered me about her response.  First, that she didn’t answer my question.  If she had said, “IESE thinks that 30% women in the class is acceptable as it reflects the status quo,” I would have found that to be a legitimate, if lame, answer.  Second, that she corrected me by using faulty logic.  Following this discussion, I placed my IESE materials in the trash… err… recycling bin.  Really, I had already been looking for an excuse not to apply to more than 1 school.  

For one of the scholarship applications I had to write an essay about why there aren’t more women in upper management, what should be done about the situation, and how my “own ambitions will be fulfilled in respect to my potential.”  The why is relatively straight-forward.  Women tend to be less aggressive and less assertive than men.  Women take maternity leave in the critical years that men use to promote their careers.  Women leave the workforce to raise their children, and reenter years later, having lost valuable time and skills.  Women are less likely to ask for promotions and raises.  Women tend to be more loyal to their employer, and don’t tend to move up by switching jobs. Women who negotiate are viewed negatively by their male AND, sadly, by their female counterparts.  (If this were a term paper, I’d actually provide citations.  Since it is not, I ask you to take everything I say as self-evident truth).

The “what to do about it” question gives me pause.  Do women really, truly benefit from becoming upper management?  I can see clearly how enterprises can gain by having women in leadership roles.   Countless research studies have shown that women are better consensus builders, better at resolving tension, better able to relate to and sympathize with their coworkers.  But does the financial gain of upper management and the ego-gratifying role of executive decider make up for the physical and emotional stress associated with those positions?  For some, the answer may be yes.  I have a suspicion that my own Type A personality might be well-suited for and well-rewarded by a more cut-throat environment of an i-bank than by the touchy-feely one of my old job.  (I probably won’t go there, but it’s good to know yourself.) But, maybe it’s okay if only 30% of a business school class or 30% of suits in a board room are women.   

What’s not okay is that women’s salaries are still behind men’s.  What’s not okay is that McCain selects Sarah Palin as running mate based on gender alone and not based on her intellect or her accomplishments.  What’s not okay is that I still haven’t heard back about the scholarship.

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In the same cheery e-mail that informed me of my acceptance at INSEAD, I also learned that the non-sponsored students (those like me whose company is not about to foot the bill) would be paying a tuition of 50,000 EUR.  Actually, that’s not quite right.  The extra special nice touch is that the original e-mail contained a typo, saying the tuition was actually 48,000 EUR (which is what it was last year).  And, no one actually bothered to rescind that mistake until yesterday when I e-mailed to ask why the numbers on the payment schedule and the letter of admission did not match up.  Unprofessional.  I got admitted in late May, when the Euro to Dollar rate offered by my bank was at 1.65.  Making that first 5,000 EUR deposit was an ugly thing.  

After sending in the deposit to secure your spot, you gain access to an intranet with information on loans, visa process, renting an apartment, renting a car and an absolutely impossible-to-search message board full of inside jokes of the current class.  Mostly, the message you get is this: you’re an adult, figure it out yourself.  I was kinda hoping someone could hold my hand a little.  

On the financing side, it turns out that as a French national, you’re entitled to loans at interest rates as low as 2.4% plus some insurance.  Those who have a French relative or a close family friend willing to guarantee the loan are also eligible for those rates (given that the friend is wealthy enough to qualify for the amount you seek).  Those without can try to obtain a guarantee from a bank in their home country.  The rest are left to seek loans from their home country.  INSEAD used to have some sort of an agreementwith ABN/Amro, but that might have been as far back as 2001 when tuition was 35,000 EUR.

Try as I might, I quickly reached a dead-end seeking a guarantee from a US bank.  If you’re reading this, save yourself the agony.  Basically the French bank wants to assume zero risk when making loans to others and the US banks have no incentive to guarantee a loan at a lower rate than a loan that they would give you themselves.  Banks from other countries may not give you a loan for 75,000 EUR, in which case this guarantee actually makes sense.  

All are then encouraged to apply for scholarships.  I wrote essays to the tune of why aren’t there more women in upper management (is that a bad thing for women?), why my background is diverse from others, or why I deserve a scholarship based on my nationality.  Dinged on three, with responses coming in a month late, without so much as an excuse or a note of apology.  So, a Chinese national may qualify for a scholarship based on need although a French friend of the family may help them obtain a 3% loan, while someone from the US who is looking at LIBOR + 4% variable loans is likely to get squat and be left to beating up middle school kids for lunch money as a way of funding their MBA.  

I’m wondering about how this disparity is going to play out in our class.  Stay tuned.

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Some years ago my friend Leonard and I were browsing through some racks at American Apparel.  Leonard is a fashion whore.  Every 2 months or so he’s talking about needing  a new suit.  Because to say that you want a new suit is less legitimate than to say you need one.  Leonard has needs, not wants.      

“I think I need a new fleece,” I thought out loud.

“Oh, right.  You wear fleece,” said Leonard.  

After this, hoping to blend in among the fashionably competent, I’ve limited wearing my fleece around town.  But seriously, dressing better than the crowd was not hard to do in a college town where sweatpants from Victoria’s Secret with UGG boots are acceptable Sunday brunch wear.  Paris, I fear, will be another story.  Isn’t it adorable how I keep deluding myself that I’ll actually be living in Paris (not 45 minutes away by train and sans time or money to actually go to Paris)?

For the past few weeks I’ve been searching for a skirt suit to wear to the tens of rounds of interviews that are a favorite pastime of any INSEAD student, and I’m going slightly nuts.  I’ve now exhausted the options of everything below $500.  From Theory (slutty) to Banana Republic (hideousness) to Sisley (awful quality).  And it’s not even that I have a weird body type or hang-ups about my body image!  I’m perfectly proportional for my height.  Unfortunately for my wallet, everything at Anthropologie was made with me in mind.   

I stopped by Barney’s outlet store to find the men’s side chock full of suits, and the women’s side full of frivolous, frilly suits for walking poodles on the Upper East Side but nothing for interviews or board meetings.  Next door, Kaspar offered hideously colorful suits for middle-aged secretaries and real estate agents in size 8 and up.  How is it that after 60 years since women entered the work force in numbers, major labels like Boss still don’t design suits for women?  Oh, right, women don’t get to play in the boardroom.  I think I wrote something about that for my scholarship applications.  Speaking of… the INSEAD scholarship selection committee is about a month late getting back with the response.  But that’s another rant.  

The other day I stopped by a store in town center where my father has bought some of his suits.  The only options for women were bespoke suits for around $1700.  The sales associate there tried shifting the attention away from his ignorance of differences between European and American styles by rebuking me for worrying about fashion and buying a suit with an expiration date of 1.5 years.  

When I tried on a model of one of the styles, he said, “that’s a great Hillary Clinton look.”  WHAT?  Now, I admire and respect Hillary Clinton, and resent the fact that the media found her pantsuits worthy of more attention than her healthcare proposals.  And I’ll be lucky to look that good in bright orange when I’m 65, but that’s like 35 years from now!  

I put on my fleece and left in a huff.

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The long road to INSEAD

I know.  It’s over 2 months before I move into my villa (read: French for college dorm), start my classes, drunkenly stumble into a fountain at a chateau party, hit a boar while driving home, but I’m already joining the throngs of bloggers who write about their experiences.

Already bored in my pre-tirement, I’m looking to put off the delightful pre-reading (“Essentials of Accounting” and some such) and blogging provides a cheap, self-flattering means of expression.  And, I already have a lot to say about the process of getting to INSEAD.  I need a place to vent my frustrations with the visa process, the scholarship allocation, the useless INSEAD intranet, and the state of women’s fashion. 

But first, things that you should know about me:  I’m a girl.  I still call myself that despite the recent troubling trend of store clerks and bank tellers calling me M’am.  Just because I occasionally wear clogs and put my hair in a bun…

Depending on how the election goes, next month I either [will/will not] be proud to call myself an American.  

I’ve never been to France.  In fact, I’m pretty intimidated by the idea of living in France.  I’m already having dreams about mis-pronouncing something on a menu.  I am, however, pleased that I’ll be living in a country where it’s not sexist to call someone mademoiselle instead of madam.  I’m also super excited about all the charcuterie and offal and bread and cheese and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.    

I’m getting my MBA because I got bored at my job, of living in the same city for way too long, and wanted to live abroad.  The MBA seemed like the intellectually lazy way of doing the next thing while ensuring a doubling of my salary on the back end.  That’s the cynical view anyways.  The less cynical one is that eventually I hope to start my own company and will actually learn the things that are useful to that end while at INSEAD, while also partying a great deal.  

While I wrote very convincing essays about “why INSEAD” and not some other business school, the real reason has more to do with the timing and the costs of the damn applications – somewhere upwards of 200 EUR a pop.  I applied first round to INSEAD, whereas at the time, other schools like IESE, LBS, etc., were already on their third round of applicants.  While some schools tell you that your chances are equal in all three rounds, I don’t actually believe that.  So, INSEAD it was.   

I might not be giving enough credit to how hard INSEAD is going to be.  You’ll have to ask me in two months.  Based on this assumption, I’ve opted out of attending the Business Foundations Course (1500 EUR).  Someone described it on the message boards as “an expensive way to start socializing early,” which sealed the deal for me.  I also consider myself pretty math-capable, though I’m told my Mac does not have the capability of doing regression calculations in Excel.  Yes, but it looks really cool.  

But, I’m rambling.

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