Oxford, a magical place I once dreamed of

5 minute read
Lynda Chen and her cohort

When I was studying in Scotland at the University of St Andrews, I visited a friend who attended Oxford Brookes University. The Oxford in my memory of just a few days was historical and mysterious, like the old towns in the European fairy tales that I read as a child, or the magical world of Harry Potter. I thought that was it. I had set foot on Oxford’s soil once in my life and that was already enough.

Unexpectedly, at the age of 40, fate miraculously brought me back to Oxford. I became an Executive MBA student at Said Business School. At that time, I had accumulated more than a decade of experience in several Fortune 500 companies in China and moved to Hong Kong to work as a negotiation consultant for a leading negotiating consulting firm, specialising in helping large companies in Asia-Pacific to achieve business profit targets through large-scale commercial negotiations.

A career in consulting enabled me to be a globetrotter who flew around the world. While I worked with more and more best-in-class companies in the region, I discovered that I became less and less satisfied. In an environment where corporations usually pursue short-term profit targets, I realised that many businesses that could originally generate long-term mutual benefits could not find a breeding ground to grow. The business world seems to have entered a vicious cycle of short-sightedness, resulting in superficial business relationships and, indeed, fragile mutual trust. Everyone only concentrates on their own issues, focusing on a small spot without seeing the big picture. The framework of co-creating long-term values has vanished. 

It came to me that my role as a negotiation consultant was only a minor individual in a massive business system, and there was nothing much I could actually do to address such a system breakdown. With an increasing sense of helplessness, I started to ponder the ultimate meaning of my job.

Out of serendipity, I read about an Oxford MBA information session in Hong Kong. I participated as it was free of charge. During the session, I met an Executive MBA alumna and this left a lasting impression on me. Driven by curiosity, I searched Saïd Business School, the place I passed by in a rush during my visit to Oxford years ago. ‘Tackling world-scale problems’ was their vision. For an unknown reason, Oxford Saïd's purpose statement made my heart tremble from time to time over the next few days. 

Lynda Chen and her cohort
Lynda Chen and her cohort

The next magical moment was when I submitted my application on the last day of the deadline and received an offer on Thanksgiving Day. I could not help thinking deep down that I was on my way to a purpose-searching journey.

This was indeed a magical and exciting journey. The beginning of this two-year adventure was marked by a private banquet at the Ashmolean Museum. That was the first time I met my classmates. We were in a big family like the United Nations, representing 38 nationalities and multiculturalism. I studied desperately and yearned for knowledge.

Professors may use their Shakespearean accent to transform the supposedly dull Statistics module into hilarious Shakespeare dramas, or cynically evaluate each managerial economics theory. And, of course, the classic Oxford-style debate would not be left out. What is special about the Executive MBA programme are the international modules. We travelled to Bangalore in India, Shenzhen in China, Cape Town in South Africa, Silicon Valley in the US, and the fintech community in London to talk and exchange insights with the pioneering entrepreneurs of our time. During these visits, we experienced for ourselves the pulse of this ever-changing world.

The School’s compulsory module, the Entrepreneurship Project, was my personal favourite. I formed a dream team with a German and a French classmate. We strived and worked around the clock in a Hackathon-like fashion to come up with a business plan that eventually won the acclamation from the panel of teachers and investment advisors. 

While many business schools generally pursue a boost in their rankings and treat this as their key priority, Saïd Business School stands persistently on their founding cornerstones to encourage students to solve world-class issues through independent thinking and entrepreneurship. From my point of view, I had chosen the right place for my purpose-searching journey.

For me, this journey was not only an intellectual enlightenment and a multicultural shock that expanded my worldview, but it also led me to consider what kind of person I wish to become and how to create a meaningful career and life.  

Approaching the end of the journey, I met someone from the think tank of Mars Incorporated. They have been collaborating with the University of Oxford for years to lead a global movement called ‘Economics of Mutuality’, which aims at advocating a breakthrough management innovation to induce systematic changes in the business world. The model promoted by Milton Friedman 50 years ago, which merely looks for maximising financial capital and shareholders’ interests, has been exposing systemic flaws. ‘Economics of Mutuality’ upholds that companies should not only seek profits and financial capital but also see solving the world’s needs and challenges as the ‘corporate purpose’.

The planet that we inhabit faces various complex problems, such as the emerging scarcity of natural resources, the constant depletion of social and human resources, the rise of unilateralism, and the collapse of mutual trust within society. How to empower corporations to be responsible business leaders has become an urgent matter. My eyes glowed. That was exactly the answer that I had been seeking for two years. I joined Mars before graduation to lead and champion the ‘Economic of Mutuality’ movement in Asia-Pacific.

Lynda Chen
Lynda Chen

In the welcoming banquet for the China module, as the only native Chinese in the class, I shared a personal account of the massive changes I had witnessed in 40 years of reform and opening up and my hope that the idea of ‘responsible business’ can be delivered to more Chinese enterprises through my work. I believe that more people from China will begin their EMBA journey in Oxford and bring more China insights to this international stage.

I am an Oxonian. Making the world a better place through my hard work is the purpose of my life. I gain momentum to move forward whenever this thought comes to my mind.