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Rotman EMBA becomes fluent in the peculiar language of business

Nine months into her EMBA program, Oksana Chikina has a better handle on the language of business.

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Oksana Chikina, who hails from Uzbekistan, is an international development professional on a leave of absence from Population Services International (PSI), a U.S.-based non-governmental organization. Having spent the past 12 years living and working in 10 countries on four continents, she is spending a year as an international student attending the executive MBA program at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. This is her eighth post in a series.

Whenever you start something new, there is always a moment when words and technical terms do not make sense. It is almost like learning a new language with an unfamiliar alphabet. You start with sweaty palms and shaking knees, uncertain about the actual meaning of the phrases you produce. You keep at it and, then, the next thing you know, you are having an almost fluent conversation. A few more rounds of practice and normal people can barely understand what you do.

Just a few months ago, the core business subjects of corporate finance and managerial accounting were the new unfamiliar languages that made me shiver. There were just too many assumptions and counterintuitive concepts that are really hard to absorb. Why, for example, is one dollar today more valuable than a dollar tomorrow? How is it even possible to calculate a constantly growing value of something forever? Some of these concepts take blind faith; others require hours of practice with examples in different settings including group exercises, discussions and exams.

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The good news is that after a certain point, the effort starts to pay off. All of a sudden, for example, I'm doing an in-depth valuation of a potential acquisition target for an international funeral company. Yes, I did not know whether the case was supposed to make us laugh or cry. I kind of expected the EMBA program to increase our exposure to a number of industries, but the progression from food and beverages to airlines and funeral services took my breath away. What is hard to believe is that the numbers and charts that were intimidating just a few months ago make sense now. Moreover, there is a lot that can be deciphered between the lines and connected to everything else we have learned. Corporate strategy, marketing tactics and negotiating approaches – everything comes together telling a story that goes beyond annual financial statements.

And so does the discussion of genetic differences between male peacocks in an advanced accounting class. As it turns out, the reference is rather powerful when it comes to understanding theories of bounded rationality, analysis of hiring practices and probability of financial manipulations.

And finally, the greatest test of the term is our team project on an in-depth comparative analysis of two major publicly traded companies based on the data available from open sources. We are not using retroactive and often simplified textbook exercises, but real financial statements, annual reports, applying rather advanced sophisticated financial ratios in all possible combinations. Worse, we are also expected to perform statistical analysis predicting the future.

I know that this is what one would normally expect from business school, but just like with a new language, there is a phase between remembering how hard it was in the beginning and the pure joy of being able to understand more complex conversations, right before you begin taking things for granted. This is exactly where I am right now, nine months into the program.

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