Alumni Profiles: Azadeh Ghotbi (MBA’94)

How I found I needed to always wear two hats to find the right balance

I can hardly believe I’m about to attend my 25th year INSEAD reunion this year. Has it been that long already? I so look forward to going back to Fontainebleau and spending time reminiscing about the past and catching up with former classmates many of whom I consider good friends. Love hearing about the journey people took, where they thought they’d be, where they landed, and what they’ve learnt from it all.

My own story is somewhat unusual especially for an INSEAD alumna. I left Iran at the cusp of the revolution, lived between France and the US, got my French baccalauréat, studied international relations at BROWN University and took a job in telecommunication consulting.  So far so ‘normal’ except that I very soon realized I had just taken a wrong turn.  I wanted a more creative job so I applied to INSEAD hoping that an MBA would jumpstart a more interesting career in international marketing. INSEAD was everything I like: Multiculti, open to the world, friendly, dynamic and stimulating. From there, I joined L’Oréal and sailed the ship I thought was meant for me. Other jobs followed. The most exciting and challenging one was being given near carte blanche to create a website and ecommerce division from scratch for an American cosmetics retailer back in 2000.

What I haven’t told you yet is that I took one art history class in college and felt an irresistible compulsion to paint. First time since kindergarten! I come from a rather cartesian academically focused family, so I took the urge to produce abstract paintings of all things as an odd hiccup at best! I discarded the couple works I painted and moved on with my life. Some years later, getting a French work permit proved harder than planned and I had a few spare months before being allowed to start my first post MBA job. Lo and behold that repressed urge immediately crept back and I started painting again. I continued on and off throughout my corporate life but didn’t talk much about it as I couldn’t quite rationalize my own behaviour. Fast forward many years and a chance encounter with a private art dealer led me to donate two works to the Asia Society of New York where a Christie’s auctioneer sold them during a charity gala. Standing in the back of a room filled with strangers bidding for my paintings was the most surreal yet thrilling experience. Yet it took another decade for me to feel half comfortable referring to myself as an “artist”. Towards the last years I was the VP of a cosmetics company by day (crazy long New York workdays!) and a painter whenever else possible. Not quite sure how I pulled off that double life.

I ended up leaving the corporate world behind around a decade ago to focus on my art. Cutting off the structure, comfort and safety of it all was exciting yet quite daunting. The journey was long and lonely though gratifying in ways I hadn’t experienced before. I finally had time to fill my days not with endless meetings but rather studio time, art fairs, gallery and museum shows around the world. I also added photography to my body of work. My last exhibit, The Nature of Light, which took place in London earlier this year examined the alchemy and interplay between light, time, movement and space with a focus on impermanence and perception. The exhibit moves to Paris in early June.

While I am passionate about the artworld part of my left brain did start feeling somewhat underwhelmed some years ago. I decided to get into the property search business and thus resume wearing two hats this time juggling art with real estate, the asset class I’ve always felt most attracted to. I once again get to leverage some of the skillsets acquired at INSEAD making net yield analysis and price comparison charts to help clients find the best investment property or optimally priced home. The part I enjoy most is the hunt for the right property, looking for unique features, good design or renovation opportunities, and sound value. Since I work for myself, I have the ultimate privilege of balancing my time and energy between art and property search. My left and right brain couldn’t be happier. Finally!

If you are interested in sharing your alumni story, please contact the UK alumni association at uk.manager@insead.edu

May 2019