Elias Suliman is originally from the UK – but his career has taken him all over the world. He’s worked in government departments, held sales positions at Belgian start-ups – and set up his own consultancy. Now a senior investment advisor at the UK Department for International Trade in Belgium, Elias is currently participating in Vlerick’s 100% Online MBA.
“Through my different roles, I realised I needed a more practical view of how business works,” he says. “I have a masters in International Economics – which is helpful, but quite theoretical. I wanted to get real world experience. I also decided I wanted to be someone creating strategy, rather than just implementing it. To do this, I needed to enhance my skills.
“I started to explore MBA programmes – but a significant barrier for me was that I didn’t want to press pause on my career to study. I was also travelling all over the world, so logistically, a face-to-face programme wouldn’t work.
“I already knew Vlerick by its great reputation and heard they were launching an Online MBA. And after several discussions with the school, I realised it ticked all the boxes for me. The format is completely flexible and accessible – and you can take part from wherever in the world you happen to be.”
In January 2019, Elias joined the MBA kick-off session from India. He says: “It was fantastic, everything about the programme is so accessible. I’ve taken part in classes from places like Sri Lanka and Oman. Wherever I am, I can access the platform.”
At Vlerick, Elias found exactly the type of learning journey he was looking for – and says both his peers and the faculty have enriched his experience.
“The cross-pollination of sectors, industries and cultures adds so much to the programme. Being able to tap into insights from so many areas adds a lot of value. The MBA puts a strong focus on real-world application and a diverse group really lets you explore this. For example, if you have five people working in different places and dealing with local issues, you have five perspectives to consider. So when you’re looking at a theoretical concept, you can really think about whether it will or won’t work in different scenarios, and work together to see how you can apply it.
“I’ve learned a lot from my group, but the faculty are fantastic too. You really get to tap into their expertise and use them as a sounding board. They are there to help you outside class too – whether it’s preparing for an important meeting or role playing a difficult conversation.”
Elias has never met his professors – nor indeed, his class colleagues – face-to-face. But this doesn’t mean he hasn’t got to know them. In fact, he believes you can build deeper relationships virtually than you can in person.
“I feel I understand my colleagues better having worked with them virtually than if we’d met face-to-face,” he says. “In a classroom setting, people are in professional mode and trying to make a certain impression. When you see people online, you get to know their home life, families and backgrounds. During the modules I see my peers for 3-4 hours a day for six weeks. This is more than I see my family!”
These peers have formed part of Elias’ fast-growing network – alongside the connections he has made through Vlerick’s alumni community.
“Regardless of where you are in the world, people in the Vlerick network want to help you,” he says. “Their attitude is, “Your success is my success”. I’ve reached out to alumni – or asked contacts to make introductions for me. I see being part of the network like having a gym membership – it’s about what you put into it. You can carry your card around with you but never go – or you can get stuck in and learn from others. There are so many benefits to being part of such a vast and active network – it’s important to make the most of it.”
Elias started his current role as the Covid-19 pandemic began to take hold – and has already put his MBA skills and knowledge to work. He says: “Right from the beginning I benefitted from my online learning experience. I was already set up for and used to remote working. Then when everything went online overnight, and we had to identify areas where we could gain a sustainable competitive advantage, I could really draw on my knowledge from the digital strategy course.
“I recently led a project to help growing companies access investment – using elements from marketing, finance, operations – essentially all my Vlerick modules. It was a direct translation of my tools from the MBA into my role.”
Elias admits the MBA is hard work – but says it opens doors to lots of opportunities. “I’d recommend it without a doubt,” he says. “There’s so much value in working with like-minded people – and with people who think differently too.
“I’d advise someone considering an MBA to think about their “why”. You need to have a clear understanding of what it could help you achieve – even if your only goal at the beginning is to be better at what you already do.
“So much of the journey is about growth through exposure to different ideas. Even if you don’t quite know where you want to go at the start of the programme, by the end you’ll be a different person with a clear idea of what’s next.”
And what’s next for Elias? “I want to continue to grow in my role and bring new ideas into my organisation,” he says. “It’s quite hierarchical, but I’d love to grow into a leadership position. I’m really enjoying being challenged and having the autonomy to have ideas and make an impact.”