IE: The Most International Undergraduate Business Experience

IE Business School boasts the most international student body of any undergraduate business experience

After spending three years in the U.S. Navy as a nuclear machinist mate, Benjamin Reid Weber decided it was time to go back to school to get his undergraduate degree. The California-native spent a less than enthusiastic year at the University of Colorado in Boulder when Weber came to the conclusion he wanted both an international experience and a business education steeped in entrepreneurship.

He did what many do today: he went to Google and typed in “top business schools in Europe.” Ultimately that search led him to Madrid and IE Business School, which boasts the most international undergraduate business program in the world and one with a heavy focus on developing an entrepreneurial mindset in its students. 

Weber, now a senior and 25, will graduate this year with no regrets. HIs closest friends at school, he adds, are from all corners of the world: Argentina, Holland, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and Zimbabwe. “The international part of the experience was the appeal,” says Weber, 25, who is working on an energy startup at the school. “My end ambitions are more on the social side of things and going to school here helped. The classes here are much better based on how you want them to be.”


Marc Smelik runs the undergraduate program at IE Business School

Starting from scratch 11 years ago with a cohort of fewer than 100 students, IE Business School began an undergraduate business program. Today, some 2,100 students from 75 different nationalities are enrolled in the four-year program on the school’s campuses in Madrid and Segovia. Over the next three years, IE plans to increase undergraduate enrollment by a third to roughly 2,800 students and move the undergraduate program from Madrid’s Maria de Molina area to a 165-meter high campus tower now under construction in the north of the city.

But what makes IE’s experience truly unique is that 70% of the students are from outside Spain. Only five years ago, when IE also had a Spanish-speaking version of the undergraduate experience that it has since canceled, students from Spain made up 40% of the enrollment. The school is now aiming to further increase the international student population to 85%, cutting the percentage of students from Spain in half. “We want to bring it down to 15% because it is an international program in Spain and not a Spanish program,” explains Marc Smelik, associate dean for the bachelor programs at IE. “For me, 15% is a natural cap for any truly international program.”

“Most programs have a vast majority of students from their domestic market,” he adds. “We are the most international BBA in the world. So when you come to our program, you’re going to be working in multicultural, multinational teams. This will give you an enormous amount of skills and insight into how you’re going to work in multinational companies or across borders when you graduate.”


The mix of cultures those students bring to the classroom makes IE’s undergraduate program which is taught in English a very different experience. IE says the international student contingent exceeds what students will find in other popular European undergraduate business schools, whether it’s Britain’s Warwick or Manchester business schools, Germany’s WHU Otto Beisheim. France’s ESSEC or Italy’s Boconni.

In the U.S., international students are a distinct minority at top undergraduate business schools. At Wharton, they make up 19% of the undergraduate students, the high-level mark for a top U.S. option. At Washington University’s Olin School of Business, just 4% of the students are from outside the U.S. At Michigan Ross, the number is 2%. At Notre Dame, it’s 6%, while at UVA McIntire it’s 8%.

But it’s not only the cultural diversity of the program that many find appealing. What also differentiates the program are small class sizes, limited to 50 students, a focus on the practical versus the theoretical in business, and a recent overhaul of the curriculum that has put an even greater emphasis on entrepreneurship and technology.


“We’ve created a learning journey so all the subjects hang together and that journey is very visible to all the students,” says Smelik. “The second part is we combine academic rigor but really focus on practice as well. We have practical courses in marketing, strategy, and entrepreneurship but practice is in every course. About 60% of the professors are practitioners.”

IE’s learning journey is broken into three parts: the fundamental courses that cover the basics of finance, accounting, marketing, strategy and HR, then, a series of broadening options in such core humanities subjects as philosophy, history, and communication as well as technology. Finally, there are practical courses that allow students to execute projects and business plans. In the entrepreneurship course, teams of students not only come up with a business plan, but they also implement the idea.

Nick van Dam, who had been a McKinsey & Co. partner and the firm’s global chief learning officer, was brought into IE to consult on the curriculum overhaul. Van Dam, whose son is now in IE’s undergraduate program, joined IE as its chief learning officer in January. His main role was to provide guidance on exactly what employers expect from their undergraduate hires.

“No one should graduate from a business school without a knowledge of the basics in technology, analytics and big data,” he says. “If you are too stuck on your curriculum, your graduates will be stuck.”

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