How studying in Paris, centre of luxury brands, landed Urna her dream career

For American Urna Biswas, a career with a Paris-based luxury brand was a lifelong goal – albeit not one that she thought she'd achieve so quickly. That would change in the space of one exciting week.

How studying in Paris, centre of luxury brands, landed Urna her dream career
Paris is one of the world;s most beautiful cities in which to study. Photo: Getty Images

Having spent a number of years in the field of business development, Urna joined ESSEC’s Global MBA cohort at their Paris campus in 2020. She opted to pursue the Luxury Brand Management major, in the hope of securing a job with one of the glamorous, iconic brands she grew up admiring.

“It was always an industry I wanted to make a career in, and that dictated my choice to study business and French. The goal of working in Paris never left my head for over a decade, so eventually, I decided to swallow my fears and enrol in the ESSEC Global MBA.”

Urna enjoyed coming to grips with new ways of thinking and doing business in Europe as part of the challenging programme, and was soon learning from some of the luxury industry’s top talents. She also relished building a new life in France: mastering the language, finding an apartment, making new friends and exploring all that Paris had to offer.  

“While I studied French at university, it was also another thing entirely using it constantly for the first time! The French you use to get around Paris is completely different to the French you use in a professional context, and to develop your networks.”

One of Urna’s favourite elements of the MBA were the ‘case competitions’ – competitive team problem-solving events, drawing on a vast library of business case studies. These competitions were designed to immerse students in the real-life workings of famous brands and were often judged by senior executives. 

ESSEC Global MBA students work with real-life case studies from the world’s most exclusive luxury brands. Discover how you can join them

“Nobody’s travelling. What do we do?”

One of these case studies involved luxury luggage brand Delsey, which was facing a Covid-19-related quandary.

“This was as the pandemic was impacting everything and they told us, ‘We’re Delsey, we make luggage. Nobody’s travelling. What do we do?'”, Urna remembers.

“Luckily, I was able to spend a week with my team preparing non-stop, all hours of the day. We were incredibly focused! There were lots of coffees and late nights.

“We created profiles for four different types of pandemic consumers, and this helped us to identify how Delsey could refocus their line of products to appeal to the market. More backpacks, for example, and luggage designed for those who needed to keep travelling, despite delays and reduced checked baggage allowances.

“We were all able to bring our separate talents in strategy, presentation and design together to create a really strong digital plan that we presented to Delsey Chief Marketing Officer Miriam Hendel.”

So impressed was Hendel that she awarded Urna’s team first place for their presentation at ESSEC, noting that it was better than many pitches by established agencies,

Hendel also kept in touch with Urna and when hiring picked up as the pandemic eased, she brought her on board as Marketing Manager and Media Planner – an astonishing feat, considering the competitive nature of the luxury brand space. 

Urna says: “I’m so lucky to be at Delsey, I really love my role. I still have a close bond with Miriam – a strong female director who kicks ass – and I really enjoy the trust she places in our team. It’s a small team and we’re able to support one another and share ideas all the time. We also spend a lot of time together outside of the office.

“It’s so different from corporate environments in the United States. We work hard here, but there’s a lot of time for discussion and finding a better, or more effective way of doing things. It’s a good balance and I find it really rewarding.”

Want a career working with luxury brands? ESSEC’s Global MBA in Luxury Brand Management will open up new paths to success

Following graduation from the Global MBA programme, Urna secured a job with luxury bag brand Delsey. Photo: Supplied

Understanding the DNA of luxury brands

Beyond the case studies, Urna says the ESSEC Global MBA programme as a whole gave her the skills she needed to succeed in working for a luxury brand.

“We simply don’t employ the same kind of marketing strategies in the United States as we do here in France. We have fewer luxury brands and fashion houses. It’s a different world, in some ways. The MBA was crucial in helping me understand how luxury brands in Europe really operate.

“The ESSEC Global MBA was also so structured and focused, in such a way that we could really analyse the ‘DNA’ of luxury brands and apply what we learned to changing market trends. I also developed the ability to employ strategy, rather than just my own thinking. This really helped me, as I’ve always valued taking a qualitative, analytical view of things.

“I also have to stress how valuable it was working in really international classes. We had such diverse teams, with so many different experiences and points of view. My cohort taught me so much about the luxury brand space in places like Asia, and this helped shape a truly global point of view.”

An experience that doesn’t fade

While she’s now busy in her dream role and with enjoying life in Paris, Urna hasn’t let her time at ESSEC fade into the background.

“Although we’re all over the world, I still connect with my class – a group of girls in Korea, for example – and we continue to share our experiences and learn from one another all the time,” she says. “It’s an incredibly valuable resource.

“I’m also keen to help new cohorts establish themselves in Paris and get settled in. Who knows what they could achieve, with the lessons and skills they learn at ESSEC?”

ESSEC’s Global MBA in Luxury Brand Management is your gateway to a career with the world’s most iconic luxury brands

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


The biggest culture shocks foreign students face in France

France is one of the most popular destinations in the world for international students, but for those who are used to studying in English-speaking countries, there are a number of things about French universities, and student life, that take some getting used to.

Paris-Saclay University on the outskirts of Paris. Public universities in France do not charge EU students tuition fees.
Paris-Saclay University on the outskirts of Paris. Public universities in France do not charge EU students tuition fees. Photo: ALAIN JOCARD / AFP.

Of course, the main difference is the price. Students in France pay just €170 per year at undergraduate level, and €243 for a master’s degree. Recent reforms have made this a lot more expensive for people without an EU passport – €2,770 and €3,770 – although some universities have refused to raise fees for foreign students.

The reality though is that France’s commitment to cheap public education is at the centre of a very different conception of what university is supposed to be. This, along with the usual culture shocks involved when moving to a new country, means that foreign students can find it difficult to adjust.

Here are some of the biggest differences you’ll find when studying in France.

It’s worth noting that if you’re attending a fee-paying university such as Sciences Po, you might find the experience is closer to what you’d expect in English-speaking countries.

READ ALSO Eight ways to save money in France as a student

Everyone goes home at the weekend

Since undergraduate courses on offer at different French universities are largely similar, it’s very common for students to go to their local institution. As a consequence, a large proportion go home to stay with their family every weekend.

If you’re living in student accommodation, you will witness this shift every Friday, as the hallways empty out and people leave carrying heavy duffel bags full of dirty clothes, looking like they’re heading off to war.

That means the weekends are quiet, and by extension, Thursday is the traditional student night when young people will hit the bars and clubs in town. So if you make friends in your classes, be prepared for messages asking for your notes from any Friday morning lectures.

There are lots of classes

Although university is very cheap in France, students here are made to take more classes than they would in many other countries. Public university students spend on average 19 hours in class every week; humanities students have the fewest contact hours, with 15 on average.

If you’re from a country such as the UK where students, particularly in the humanities, are encouraged to do lots of reading outside of class hours, be prepared for shocked looks when you tell people how many contact hours you had back home, and how much you were paying for them.

Students at Paris-Saclay University. Students in France spend a lot of time in the classroom.

Students in France spend a lot of time in the classroom. Photo: ALAIN JOCARD / AFP.


While you’re likely to have more classes, lots of this time will be taken up by presentations. Oral presentations are a more common evaluation method than essays in France, and once you get to the second half of the semester it’s not unusual to have a two-hour class which is entirely dedicated to student presentations.

And it’s not just the number of presentations that may come as a surprise, but also the format. While it’s not a requirement at university, French students are conditioned from an early age to structure presentations in three parts, plus an introduction and conclusion, with each of the three parts typically having two or three sub-sections. So while many professors will appreciate creativity, it’s still important to have a clear structure.

It’s even more likely there will be a firm expectation of this three-part structure – which often takes the form of “thesis, antithesis, synthesis” – for written essays.

It can seem chaotic

Studying at university is a good introduction into the world of French bureaucracy, and you’ll soon learn to stop asking “why?” and accept that some things are out of your control.

Above all, once you realise they’ll change the room your class is in at the last minute and everyone seems to get the memo except for you, you’ll get into the habit of checking the notice board outside of your department’s secretarial office every morning.

There aren’t as many clubs

This is definitely one thing which will differ depending on whether you’re at a public or private university. But generally speaking, you’re unlikely to find the same variety of clubs and student societies you might be used to back home.

You will be able to meet people through sports, since most universities have a service called SUAPS which organises a plethora of different sports activities. However, don’t expect to find a ‘Harry Potter society’, or other incredibly specific clubs, neither do French universities usually have fraternities or sororities.

READ ALSO These are the culture shocks you will experience as a foreign student in Paris

Fortunately, you can meet other foreign students by attending activities and trips run by the Erasmus Student Network. The association is present in 37 French cities, and they organise events which help you to meet people and discover the culture as well as trips to other cities in France.

Sharing is caring

If you do manage to make a connection with a group of locals, you’ll find that the French social life is pretty similar to what you’re used to, with only slight differences. Students still like to organise pre-drinks to socialise and get drunk on cheap alcohol before heading into town, although they use a different English term – le before – to describe this ritual.

But it’s the small differences that can take you by surprise. For example, it’s common at parties in France to coordinate with the rest of the group beforehand so that not everybody brings the same thing, because once you arrive, everything is shared, so you might not even end up drinking what you brought. Don’t be surprised then if you’re at a party and see someone you don’t know helping themselves to the wine you brought.

Of course, if you’re from the United States, it might come as a shock simply seeing 18-year-old students being allowed into bars and clubs.

Clouds of smoke

Since most lectures in France last two hours, it’s common for professors to give you a break halfway through, and most students will head outside, either to smoke or to accompany their friends, leaving just a few students alone in the classroom. If the professor is a smoker, they might even announce it as a pause clope (smoking break), and it will last the time it takes to go outside, smoke a cigarette, and come back.

Here, the clichés are true, at least to an extent. Young people in France are among the most likely in Europe to smoke. 23.5 percent of French people aged 15 to 24 are daily smokers, compared to 16 percent across the whole of the EU, according to Eurostat figures from 2014.

Student housing

Just as classrooms and lecture theatres are usually pretty basic, since most people aren’t paying expensive tuition fees, so student housing in France is designed to be cheap and cheerful.

The CROUS university accommodation is genuinely affordable, since as well as international students, it’s mostly targeted at students from low-income families. It’s a great way to save money for doing all the fun things you have planned for your year abroad, but if it’s luxury you’re after, you’d be much better off looking into private housing.

READ ALSO Five crucial tips for Americans who want to study in France