MBA success stories: Barbara Cornelissen, Vlerick Business School

Barbara Cornelissen is Project Strategy Lead at Unizima, a Univercells company, in charge of developing and supporting key partnership projects within Africa and Latin America.

She has more than eight years of experience in business development and project management for healthcare & life sciences, both in Africa as well as Latin America. Prior to joining the Univercells Group, she was responsible for setting up the Latin American subsidiary of Noppen Group and managing their project team.

Barbara holds an MBA, with a focus on healthcare management, from Vlerick Business School in Belgium.

Explain your current role.

I am currently Project Strategy Lead at Unizima, a Univercells company.

Unizima is the smallest affiliate within Univercells Group, which means that I get to wear different hats at the same time.

My main responsibilities can be split into strategy and business development.

On one hand, I am responsible for – together with the general manager – defining the strategic direction of the company, working on the business plan, defining product market specifications, revenue models, etc. as well as establishing strategic collaborations with other healthcare institutions.

On the other hand, I am the business development leader of flagship health projects within Latin America and Africa.

Where and when did you achieve your MBA?

I studied the one-year MBA program at Vlerick Business School in Brussels, Belgium and graduated with the class of 2019.

Why did you want to study for an MBA in the first instance? And why did you choose to do an MBA at this particular School?

I decided to study an MBA because I wanted to work at a management level and be confident in the decisions that I make in that position.

While not having studied business studies before, I was able to grow within one of the companies I worked at to reach a managerial level and set-up and lead the regional office for Latin America. During this time, I felt I needed more business knowledge to comfortably define and execute the regional strategy and oversee its finances.

Furthermore, during my time as a project director for healthcare conferences within that same company, I developed a great affinity for the sector and decided I wanted to redirect my career in the healthcare space. This is also one of the main reasons why I choose Vlerick: Vlerick has a specific bootcamp focused on healthcare management. This bootcamp, together with the international offering of the school (not only the highly diversified student base, but also the study trips to China, USA, Global Social Project which I personally did in Kenya), was a real differentiator and made it an easy choice for me.

What is the most interesting thing you learnt from your MBA?

The most interesting thing that I learned during my MBA is to effectively manage a team of highly skilled and strong headed people without having official authority. I already had some experience managing employees but not peers, nonetheless it served as good bases but was nowhere enough. The eyeopener event was learning about the Cognitive Style Indicators (COSI) and how based on different typologies each one of us has its obvious triggers. For example, if you have on your team a Planner, who by definition prefers a structured way of approaching a task and sticking to it, he/she should be given a more important role in the beginning of a project than in the end when it comes to execution.

Also, you should pay special attention to this person when unforeseen circumstances arise. In a nutshell, learning to pay attention to and recognising each one’s triggers saved me a lot of time and effort, not only during my MBA but my day-to-day job allowing me for time to continue developing myself.

What were some of the challenges you faced when studying for an MBA?

I must admit that one of the main challenges was learning to work well with such a diverse group of students. Having always worked abroad and in different cultures, I expected this to be a walk in the park. However, add a different professional and academic background to the cultural mix and this led to some interesting discussions.

Vlerick really puts a lot of effort and thought into ensuring you learn how to deal with different personalities in all types of situations and it has been one of the most valuable lessons for me, especially now, where on a daily basis, I am doing stakeholder management between people who have very different technical and cultural backgrounds such as reconciling discussions between a Belgian technical expert and government officials from Latin American countries, just to give one example.

How has the MBA made a difference to your career path and leadership journey?

The MBA really has allowed me to switch my career 180 degrees. Thanks to the healthcare bootcamp, I managed to secure a job in the healthcare and biotech industry which I would never had been considered for otherwise.

The earlier mentioned Cognitive Style Indicators and the many practices we had during the MBA also formed an important base for my leadership and negotiation style at my current company and has allowed me to grow rapidly within one year.

In what interesting ways have you taken what you have learnt in your MBA into the organisation for which you work?

I use so many things that learnt at Vlerick on a daily basis. Unizima is a start-up affiliate within Univercells Group, which means that they need all-round people who can fill in different boxes. One day I am using all what I learned during our entrepreneurship and strategy courses, while the next I am working on a marketing plan or assisting our finance business partner with the company’s financial forecast.

Apart from the hard skills, I fall back a lot on the leadership and negotiation skills learned during the year at Vlerick to ensure a smooth stakeholder management across continents and professional backgrounds.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about studying for an MBA?

Expect the unexpected! An MBA at Vlerick is not only about professional but also personal development. You must be ready to confront yourself in order to move forward and reach your goal. It is all about taking the leap towards a new you, which should not be defined as of from the start but where you should give yourself the space to develop throughout your MBA journey.

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