A Momentous International Move: QS ESMT Scholarship Winner

ESMT student & engineer Zenko Kawabata shares the blueprint for his MBA career plan

This year’s recipient of the QS ESMT Diversity Scholarship, valued at US$10,000, is Zenko Kawabata, current MBA student at the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT). Hailing from Osaka, Japan, Zenko has traversed continents to gain international experience in pursuit of a career in engineering, but has also dug deep after what many would call a turbulent start and clear departure from more typical MBA career paths.

Zenko describes his early start in higher education as quite representative of how typical Japanese students approach their future beyond high school: zealously – and somewhat blindly - studying for university entrance exams in pursuit of a coveted spot at one of Japan’s top institutes. “Everyone is going crazy about it, so much so that some people start from as young as seven or eight years old, as if that is the most important thing in their lives,” he explains. Even so, Zenko scored high enough to secure a place at Waseda University, one of the country’s most prestigious institutions, where he pursued a bachelor’s degree in business. However, a year into his studies, “this ordinary path,” as Zenko describes it, ended when he dropped out.

“Dropping out of college in Japan is considered losing one's mind,” he divulges. However, for Zenko, his heart was not set on this course and looking back, he’s glad he didn’t delay abandoning a path that didn’t inspire him to learn and grow simply because of the status quo. After leaving Waseda, he was criticized and labelled a ‘NEET’ (Not in Education, Employment, or Training), much to his dismay. However, the time off proved worthwhile for self-discovery and his fervor for academia soon returned. This time he felt driven, not by societal expectations and pressures, but by genuine aspirations and personal values. “This period of time made me realize what is important to me - family, education, friends and daily interactions. They all existed in my life previously, but I had not paid attention to them.” Sounds simple, but now it was time to get to work.

Starting anew with an international move to the US

Zenko’s first instinct was to go back to school. “As I started my life over again, I wanted something new and challenging to get back what I had missed during those past years.”  This time, however, he set his sights even higher - or rather, farther – and applied to study internationally, opting for the appealing location of the University of Washington.

“Seattle is a city with lots of things going on and a unique culture that accepts diversity, and yet is still affordable to live. Also, it is not so far away from Japan.” He completed bachelor’s and a master’s degrees in mechanical engineering there, before eventually moving to Europe, five years ago. “It was the best field of study for me to learn the ins and outs of how things work,” he says, “and it gives me the opportunity to find a job anywhere in the world.”

Zenko now lives in Langen, Germany, where he most recently worked for NMB-Minebea-GmbH (Minebea) a Japanese-owned metal processing company, as an application engineer in its aerospace department designing airplane parts. And how did he land such a role? “Because I was in graduate school, I could apply for and get a research internship position (German Academic Exchange Service or DAAD) in Germany, and because I had a master’s in science/engineering, I could secure the job and get permanent residency in Germany in only three years,” he explains modestly, considering the level of prudence and dedication required for such long-term foresight and career planning.


Zenko’s MBA career to take flight with an ESMT MBA in Germany

Zenko’s career in aviation engineering has long taken flight since his slow start back in his undergraduate years. Now, he hopes that an MBA, another cog in his master plan, will give him even more momentum.

Working with different nationalities in his work and study has seen Zenko truly embrace the value of diversity, which ought to position him well to deal with the opportunities and challenges that can arise in an international post-MBA career. One of his major career accomplishments to date is a testament to this and indeed, is what saw him win the QS ESMT Diversity Scholarship. In his role with Minebea, he was tasked with the opportunity to develop a new business which was designed to break the US’s long-held monopoly in the Russian civil aircraft market - a challenging environment considering Japan’s complicated history with Russia. “Together with my team, we embarked on a long and difficult journey to gain the trust of Russian customers,” Zenko says about a project which eventually led the way for the Japanese multinational to successfully enter the Russian market on the basis of strong teamwork and careful communication with a divisive group of stakeholders. 

The experience is one that has added greatly to Zenko’s understanding of the realities of working in an international context. “Some countries, like Russia or China, have their own ways of managing and I feel that it is sometimes not easy to change their business structures to improve international business dealings,” he explains. “But I'm optimistic on this point. Today’s global economy prefers better management, no matter what.” An MBA, he claims, “is the key to enabling this global trend.”

Zenko also hopes that an MBA and what comes thereafter will better prepare him to run his own company. Indeed, in five years, he plans to return to Japan to run his family business, which specializes in supplying temporary housing in emergency situations, such as earthquakes. Towards this end, he wants to build on skills in three focus areas while at ESMT: Leadership, financial analysis, and sustainable business development. In the short term, he hopes to apply these skills in a post-MBA consulting role, from where he intends to build out his experience and further set his career in motion.


In explaining why he chose ESMT for his MBA study – apart from more obvious reasons like location and its strong reputation - Zenko has an unconventional, yet thoughtful, take once more: Choosing it on the basis that, compared to the oldest and most prestigious institutions in the US, it is a lesser-known business school. “I like the feeling of not just being a part of the tradition of a famous school with a long history, but of growing and making history together.” Being the driven individual that he is, Zenko is sure to follow through on what, thus far, has been a carefully engineered career plan and now MBA success story.

Visnja is a content specialist with a background in marketing and communications. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of British Columbia and a master's in publishing from Simon Fraser University. Her interests include media & technology, personal growth, health & wellness, and innovation, topics that stay top of mind in her writing.

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