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Roundtable: Five UK alumni share their secrets of success

These five international graduates are now blazing a trail in the worlds of business, charity, finance and fashion, but they all have one thing in common: they credit their success to the skills and contacts they gained in the UK.

We asked why they chose to study in the UK, what they learned, and their top piece of advice for new students...

Kevin Hartz from the USA, co-founder and CEO of Eventbrite, the ticketing website that now handles £1.8 billion in global ticket sales.

‘I came to University College, Oxford in 1991 for a Master’s degree in British history. British history was my passion at Stanford University, where I did my Bachelor’s degree – and where better to study it than Britain’s oldest university?’

Nevin Xiao from China, chief operating officer at the UCF Group. Nevin has also worked at global giants JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley, after studying applied linguistics and education management at the University of Reading.

'When the interviewer found out I had a UK Master's degree, he immediately gave me a better package. Being local but able to work in a Western way made you very valuable.’

Bryan Baum from the USA, entrepreneur and founder of social enterprises Prizeo and Represent.com. Now aged 25, he was named one of Forbes magazine’s ‘30 Under 30’ social entrepreneurs of the year.

‘I was at the University of Oxford from 2009 to 2010, studying politics, philosophy and economics. It opened my eyes both academically and intellectually.’

Chris Liu from China, fashion designer. After studying in China and working in New Zealand, Chris gained his Master’s degree at the London College of Fashion in 2002, then launched his own luxury accessories business.

‘It became clear that the number one city for fashion education was London. It has such a reputation and a lot of designers I met, and whose work I really liked, had studied in London.’

Dr Mukund G Rajan from India, chief ethics officer and brand custodian at the Tata group. Mukund studied International Relations at the University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. He now holds various senior positions including Chairman of the Tata Council for Community Initiatives.

‘It was such a refreshing change... You really felt you were in an environment which valued deep thought and reflection on important issues.’

The learning experience

Studying in the UK was an enriching experience, they agree, but it wasn’t easy. ‘The learning methodology was very different from what I was used to,’ Nevin says. ‘Teaching was based on discussion; you had to listen, participate, and raise questions. That methodology is the most important thing I learnt from the UK, and it has been helpful in my analytical work, throughout my career.’

For Bryan, it was the system of one-to-one tutorials that made a difference – by teaching him how to argue. ‘I was familiar with going to classes and taking exams, but I had never had the opportunity to argue with a professor face-to-face about the books they had written… I had to learn how to think on my feet – and that has helped me as an entrepreneur. I have learned how to defend my case.’

‘I was attracted to the depth of study and the tutorial system, with its individualised learning,’ Kevin adds. ‘America has some wonderful universities but they tend to concentrate on providing a breadth of education. At that stage, I was looking for depth.’

First career steps

So what skills did they gain, that helped to kickstart their careers? ‘Studying in the UK gave me a more global orientation,’ Kevin says, ‘which is critical to technology businesses like ours that operate on a worldwide scale. I would also say that the UK’s reputation for academic rigour opened many doors.’

For Mukund, who studied in the UK from 1991 to 1994, it was a turning point. ‘The whole emphasis on learning to think for yourself in many ways excited me and prepared me for what I saw happening in India and with the Tata Group, finding its feet in the new India.’

The challenge for Chris (right) was to gain a postgraduate degree in the middle of his career. ‘When you are working, you are dealing with results, not development. I now realise that if you don’t have a strong development, it shows in your results. My course leader pushed me so much… but that is why I did the MA, to be challenged.’

And Chris’s career advice for new students? ‘Internships, freelancing, apprenticeships are so important. I sent out huge numbers of CVs to designers I really liked and was lucky enough to get a response from Christopher Bailey at Burberry. I interned during and after my course, and was able to constantly show him the work I was doing.'

‘It will open your eyes’

To all students thinking about studying in the UK, Bryan’s advice is: ‘Do it. It will open your eyes to the world. Coming to Britain to study gave me a global perspective that I didn’t have before.’

The top tip for new students is to make the most of the opportunity – get to know students and tutors from all over the world, and take advantage of opportunities to make professional contacts. Mukund says: ‘It is important to be aware of the diversity that exists in the world. In the UK you will find there is a fair amount in terms of people and cultures that you will get to interact with.’

Nevin’s advice? ‘Network. A lot of Chinese only network with the Chinese, and the result is that, by the time they leave, their English is poor. They insulate themselves. If you do that, you're wasting your time. You have this opportunity – try to socialise with people from all over the world.’

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You never know who you might meet, and how they might end up shaping your career – whatever your ambitions. Chris says, ‘I wish I had done my first degree in London. I would have had longer to network in the fashion industry, as well as meeting more people at college who go on to work in the fashion industry – not just in the design pathway but in other areas, such as communication.’

Now working in India, Mukund says, ‘So many of the people who studied in the UK have come back and done some very important work in the judiciary, the media, journalism, academia. That experience of studying there perhaps helped them to push themselves harder and do better than if they had stayed here or gone somewhere else. Certainly in my own case.’

And the most memorable thing about being a student in the UK? Kevin sums it up: ‘The calibre of talent, intellect and the wonderful personalities of the students and professors.’


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