In his five years with a top finance-focused communications firm in Toronto, Nick Anstett had a close-up view of major business deals, including the merger of Tim Hortons and Burger King.
A life sciences undergraduate from Queen's University in Kingston, with a master of international/intercultural communication from Royal Roads University in Victoria, Mr. Anstett says he loved his job but started mulling a graduate business degree in 2014.
"I was tired of being close to key decision makers but on the periphery of the real content and substance of those decisions," says the Exeter, Ont., native. "I wanted to better understand what was going on."
With wide-ranging interests in public policy, diplomacy and business – and an itch to travel – he set his sights on a master of business administration degree outside Canada. "I wanted that global experience and I wanted the adventure," he says.
That desire to see the world, develop global networks and, possibly, work abroad after graduation fuels the decision by some Canadian students to pursue top-ranked MBA programs outside the country. In turn, foreign business schools are eager for strong candidates from Canada because, like the country cliché, they are seen as open to working with others from different backgrounds.
Two years ago, Madrid-based IE Business School became the first European school to set up a Toronto office, one of 25 IE global outposts to recruit students, support alumni and work with local businesses.
"When you look at the values of Canada as a whole, being highly diverse, open-minded and inclusive, these are the same values as IE," says Aliya Somani, the school's Canadian director. Currently, 22 students from Canada are enrolled in IE's MBA program.
Her assessment is echoed by Virginie Fougea, director of MBA recruitment and admissions at INSEAD, the Paris-based business school whose MBA program has topped the Financial Times's global ranking for the past two years.
"The mindset of the Canadian professionals matches a school like ours – people who are willing to travel, work with different cultures," she says. "Canadians, in general, are people who are the stereotype of [being] welcoming, who travel and who have interests in what happens globally rather than just locally."
Of 54,794 INSEAD alumni from 170 countries who have taken the school's 10-month program, 839 are from Canada, including federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
In Mr. Anstett's case, he applied to five business schools – two in the United States, two in Britain and one in France. He was accepted by three, including his top choice of Said Business School at the University of Oxford in England.
Mr. Anstett, who played on Said's Oxford's varsity hockey team and graduated top of his class in 2016, says he was attracted to the depth of the school's academic programming and its broad connections to the rest of the university.
For example, all Oxford students are affiliated with one of the university's 38 colleges, ensuring a diverse cohort dines together and participates in sports, cultural and other college-sponsored activities.
As well, Said students receive a lifetime membership in the Oxford Union, the university's prestigious debating society. In a recent offering, MBA candidates can add an extra year of study in a non-business discipline of their choice.
Meanwhile, every year the business school poses a global business problem to the incoming class – water scarcity in Mr. Anstett's year – with classes taught by professors across multiple disciplines and tutorials led, potentially, by a theologian, environmentalist, scientist or other specialist.
Exposure to diverse points of view is essential for future business leaders, says Peter Tufano, the dean at Said. "If you only surround yourself with people who think like you then we know that is an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do," he says. "Our students are surrounded by people who study other things, care about other things and in some cases don't understand business or will be cynical or critical about business."
Typically, about 6 per cent of Said's 335-member MBA class comes from Canada. Tuition is approximately $93,000 for the one-year program.
Algerian-born Canadian Sakina Mehenni, a member of this year's class at Said, worked at Target and L'Oréal in Canada before heading abroad for an MBA.
She chose Said (where she receives some scholarship aid) after a whirlwind extended weekend visit to three MBA schools in Britain and Spain's IE.
"Pursuing an international MBA is the first way to prove that you are willing to pursue an international career," says Ms. Mehenni, whose classmates come from 60 countries. "It [the MBA] was a way to get worldwide experience from one institution."
She hopes to land a job in management consulting in England after graduation next year.
For some, studying abroad leads to an unexpected career change.
In 2014, with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and a master of biomedical engineering, Ryan Howard was in no rush to leave his job with Husky Energy Inc. in Calgary. "I liked my job, I liked the city, the mountains and had a great life in Calgary," he says. But he also wanted an international experience and an opportunity for further studies.
He applied to four schools in Britain and Europe, accepting an offer from HEC Paris. "It was the best fit for what I was looking for," says Mr. Howard, whose studies led him into commerce. "I wanted a class that came from broad backgrounds and that I could learn from people with experience."
This year, in a typical ratio, Canadians account for eight of the incoming class of 198 students at the school.
"These are candidates who had an excellent primary and secondary education in Canada, and an excellent education at university," says Andrea Masini, associate dean of HEC Paris's full-time MBA program. "They [Canadian students] are open to diversity, are often themselves multicultural and open to innovation."
A career pivot like Mr. Howard's is typical, says Mr. Masini, with 65 per cent of school graduates changing their job function, industry or geographic location.
As in Canada, European business schools promote diversity.
"Students have to learn to take decisions in an environment that is highly complex and diverse and that reflects the challenges you have in an international organization," says Mr.cct Masini.
For example, about 93 per cent of the HEC Paris class comes from outside France. For the 16-month English-language program, students are expected to be fluent in two languages when they arrive and to add a basic grasp of a third language by graduation. INSEAD has a similar language stipulation.
At HEC Paris, Mr. Howard took advantage of the program's off-campus components, including a semester academic exchange at ESADE in Barcelona, Spain, and another semester spent in a work internship with Amazon.com Inc. in Britain.
"I went in [to HEC Paris] thinking I was going to come out as an oil and gas exploration engineer in Europe," he says. Poised to accept an internship with a major French energy company, he switched industries when Amazon came to campus.
As soon as the internship wrapped up with Amazon, the company offered Mr. Howard a full–time position in London as an operations manager with its high-speed Prime Now delivery service.
He always planned to stay abroad after graduation but says an overseas MBA still helps those returning home. "You are going to learn things that are going to make you better at what you do in Canada," he says.
Given their focus on an international experience, some Canadian students choose not to apply to schools at home.
That was the case for Samantha Chung, who graduates next month from IE's one-year program.
"I never considered a Canadian MBA program given my international imperative," says Ms. Chung, who received a scholarship for part of her $103,000 tuition. "I didn't think they would give me the international stuff I wanted."
A travel enthusiast, Ms. Chung spent six years with Nike Canada and decided she wanted to study at a top-ranked school (IE ranked eighth on the Financial Times 2017 full-time MBA list) with a global network. "Nike is a global brand," she says. "And with the MBA I wanted another global brand."
As for Mr. Anstett, his Said experience led to a full-time position in Washington as a director of Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm chaired by former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former U.S. secretary of commerce Carlos Gutierrez.
Potential MBA applicants, he says, should stay in touch with their Canadian contacts and let them know about their overseas study plans to assist in a smooth re-entry home. But he also urges Canadian students who go abroad to cultivate new relationships.
"The MBA is still about building that network," he says. In his case, he says, "I didn't stay overseas but I came back to this idea that my mind is very much on a global scale."