An opportunity to fit my personal development around my career

21 February 2023

As Winston Van Niel's career began to develop, he decided to improve his skillset to meet his new business demands. Discover how the Distance Learning MBA* provided an opportunity to fit his study around his already busy schedule. 

Throughout my career in public-private financing innovations, I have supported amazing entrepreneurs who use the potential of tech to restore the planet and the value of benevolence to better serve communities. Every day, they amaze me. That hunger, passion, roll-up-the-sleeve mentality and a can-do mindset. It’s contagious. Whether in my industries of clean energy, food or non-profit, my mind is constantly producing and connecting ideas on how to contribute to help others or enable myself in making a profitable impact. And I love being this creative and energetic. 

Over time, I noticed that my strongest skills were no longer answering to new business demands. I wanted to be better and leave my mark. Stepping out of my comfort zone for growth was already a way of life. This time, as I realistically evaluated my career achievements against the roles I aspired to, I concluded that the time had come to sharpen those business and leadership abilities and start an MBA programme.

Short executive programmes at top-ranked business schools responded to my needs. Still, I wanted the full package. Obviously, at another forward-thinking school with access to a global network that fosters academic excellence in management and business. But, in the context of my personal situation, it had to be a school that supports my global mindset and remote lifestyle while holding a vision of inclusive leadership. As an ambitious black and openly gay man, I can only excel in leadership if networks, discussions and academia nurture authenticity and lived experiences. Not when crunching numbers, but definitely when analysing these in certain contexts. How else can we, in the words of Obama, become the change we seek? When I came across the change-maker profile in WBS’s online MBA offering, I sensed this would be a good fit.  

Now, 10 months later, the program is slowly proving its worth. One of my highlights was the residential week where I was able to meet and get to know my fellow students. Their positivity, ambition level and confidence made me feel part of something beyond my expectations. The MBA team did a great job in forming this cohort and adding me to it. 

It took time to get used to the part-time format. Since my most alert moments were already reserved for work, it took me some time to figure out new slots to focus and process information. My NGO board and previous political activities already led to late nights, extended working hours and busy weekends. I thought replacing that with another project would be an easy fix. Not!! As the MBA wires my brain to function differently, I had to improve my time management and learn how to learn. Now, months later, after each workday, I either cook dinner or go to the gym, and take a warm shower to build head space for studying for two and a half hours straight. The quality, accessibility and didactical set-up of the virtual modules are quite a relief when it comes to my private life. Dinner nights with my also busy partner are still on just like travelling and spending quality time with our foster child. 

A major boost to this mind shift was the advice from one of the Leadership Development facilitators. Instead of simply applying the learnings and moving on, he suggested processing the learnings having in mind a real conversation we want to be part of, or a real and current problem we wish to solve. One of my recent professional assignments was to design and evaluate a new investment scheme for agri-food scale-ups. The Financial Management course helped me to speak with people at different ends of the table. Understanding financial decision-making through the lens of shareholders bridged our worlds without me pretending to be a subject matter expert. In leading myself, this approach also encouraged me to figure out my own leadership if positioned at the decision-making level.

*Please note that the Distance Learning MBA is now titled Global Online MBA.

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