You would expect a typical Executive MBA candidate to have an academic qualification—whether that’s an undergraduate degree, a master’s, or more. But for Elaine Versloot, an Executive MBA from Nyenrode Business Universiteit, was her very first academic qualification—she’d even dropped out of high school without any certificates. Now, she’s chief operating officer (COO) at Binx, a tech company moving IT systems onto the cloud. It’s a story that involves overcoming personal challenges and, as a leader now, Elaine is combining her life experience with an EMBA to drive her career forward.
After dropping out of high school Elaine worked first at a hotel front office, before a brief stint in a clothing store. It was after this that she made her first footsteps in IT—as a finance and projects assistant for Rivium Business Applications. By 2015, aged 26, Elaine was working as a project manager for Sogeti, an IT solutions company, while looking after her then two-year-old son as a single parent. “If I wanted to make sure I had the right career prospects to look after my son, I felt I needed to add a diploma,” Elaine says.
The pressures of looking after a child meant Elaine wanted to ensure she was earning enough to comfortably look after her family, but she also had her own career ambitions. “Before starting the EMBA I had aspirations of being a c-suite professional in a big, international company,” Elaine says. While her goals would change slightly during her EMBA, what remained clear was Elaine’s desire to become a better leader.
After struggling to find a program which would accept her without a bachelor’s degree, she spoke to an alumnus from Nyenrode. Nyenrode also considers EMBA applicants from less traditional backgrounds. Elaine soon enrolled on the program and found studying for an EMBA whilst holding down a full-time role wasn’t going to be easy. Combined with the demands of a two-year-old son, she had to juggle her EMBA with everyday life. “Looking back now, I don’t know how I survived!” Elaine says. “At times it was hard, but throughout the program the professors at Nyenrode were so supportive. When it came to deadlines, they understood external pressures, like families and professional careers.”
Going into the program in 2016, Elaine expected her learning would be on the theory side—financial control measures, strategy, economics. But there was even more to be gained. “Of course the theory did form an important part of what I learnt, but the biggest part was definitely the personal development,” Elaine explains. At Nyenrode, the EMBA’s primary focus is on the personal development leadership journey. The course modules all tie back to learning about the unique strengths and weaknesses in relation to career prospects. “You get to know yourself, and therefore who you are as a leader,” Elaine says.
This personal approach is bolstered by peer group coaching. Using classmates for feedback not only helped Elaine understand her own leadership style better, it also formed the strong bond of her network. “My class was amazing,” Elaine says. “We are still in contact now and go away together every year.” It was a diverse and tight-knit class, where a variety of backgrounds made for a dynamic environment. She was youngest of the group, joined by lots of people in middle management positions, as well as entrepreneurs. “They’re all looking for the next step,” Elaine says.
Elaine’s own next step would take her to Binx as COO of a team implementing cloud IT solutions for businesses. It’s a part of the Xebia group, a leading global consultancy company. “One of my classmates started working for Xebia, and after a couple of days she called me to persuade me to come and talk to the CEO,” Elaine explains. “But at the time, I was pregnant with twins!”
Elaine had to put the offer on hold, but in time, after giving birth to the twins, she did go and talk to the CEO. They had a productive chat, and after her maternity leave she soon started the job. “I definitely couldn’t have got the job without the network at Nyenrode,” Elaine says. Right now, her company, like any business, is coping with the disruption from the global coronavirus pandemic. It’s something impossible to predict but requires the right kind of leadership to get through. “There are two things that have really helped,” Elaine says. “One is that I don’t think I’m in panic mode—I know I’ve been through hard times. Secondly, the analytical tools that were integral to the MBA have helped me keep a pragmatic outlook.”
For Elaine, using those skills from the EMBA program is now a part of her everyday life. “I’d say 85% of what I learned I use on a weekly basis,” Elaine says. “Especially relevant is the reflection skills from the leadership development part of the course.” Having come through the program learning how to understand her own leadership qualities, Elaine now helps the other leaders in her team.
Looking back at her first and only academic qualification, Elaine is keen to spread what she’s learned even further. “On the one hand it’s helped enormously in the practical way I do business,” Elaine says. “But the other important part is sharing the knowledge with everyone around me so I can develop the company as a whole.”