B-School Insider Interview: Second-Year Student, Harvard Business School, Class of 2015

Born and raised in the South, this student earned a degree in economics from Princeton University before moving to California to work in mergers and acquisitions. Feeling a call to pursue something more meaningful and “be a part of … a tremendous force for good,” he eventually left investment banking to join the armed forces for several years. His next “logical step” was an MBA degree. [Note: The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

mbaMission: Did you arrive at HBS [Harvard Business School] knowing what you wanted to do when you graduated?

Harvard Business School Second Year: No, I really didn’t. I now have a much greater sense of that. I think people apply to certain places due to the power or the name brand of the school. My sense is that there’s not a huge difference in education really anywhere. You’re going to learn discounted cash flow analysis and marketing strategies at any business school in the nation—or the world, for that matter. So I think people apply where they think they’ll get a lift in their resume and their “marketability” and employability. So I certainly wouldn’t say I was any different from anyone else in that regard.

mbaMission: Did you apply to any other schools?

HBSSY: I did, yes. So I applied to HBS. I applied to Wharton. I applied to MIT Sloan, and I applied to [Duke] Fuqua.

mbaMission: And did you ultimately have a choice?

HBSSY: I did. For me, to be quite frank, the power of the HBS brand name is pretty tremendous. I think it would be disingenuous to say it’s not. And I just really loved HBS when I visited. I’d go up and see friends. I love the area. There are certainly differences [among the schools], and there are pros and cons everywhere, but I felt happy here. I felt like it was unlike anywhere else. Really, it’s a great place to be and certainly a good fit, and I have had numerous friends come through here, and it just made sense. It felt comfortable here. I think it’s kind of an initial sensation you get when you arrive on campus or you’re talking with folks here—just your comfort level walking around the classrooms or attending classes. I think that plays into it a great deal, and first impressions certainly help, too. I don’t have any regrets, obviously, but I also don’t have any counterpoint.

mbaMission: How have the winters been for you, considering that you’re from the South and have lived in California?

HBSSY: Yeah, the winters are pretty brutal. Last year was absolutely terrible, but I mean, it’s weather. It’s fun. It’s cold. You just have to find the right cold weather gear, and you’ll survive. What’s challenging is not necessarily the cold itself but how much that impacts your travel and your desire to go work out. Like, whether or not you want to walk across the street to go to the gym or run that half mile to the gym. You don’t think that that would impact you, but it kind of does. So it’s funny.

mbaMission: So do you feel the school has matched what you expected when you enrolled?

HBSSY:  Yeah, I certainly do. Quite honestly. I think I had an initial concern with HBS that it was just going to be a bunch of wealthy kids from Connecticut and upstate New York who were working in private equity or on a hedge fund for the last X number of years. So you think you’ll just walk into this very arrogant kind of gilded ivory tower, which I think is a common misconception, and it’s an initial fear I had. And it’s absolutely been the complete opposite. The people are quite humble and very kind, very intelligent, obviously, and very driven. And you really have to work to make people talk about themselves, which for me has been really nice.

mbaMission: How has the classroom experience been for you? Harvard primarily uses the case method, which not everybody is necessarily up for.

HBSSY: Again, I don’t have a counterpoint. I think people who will tell you that there are no cons to any school are being disingenuous. People learn in different ways. So the case method, and therefore the classroom discussions and the Socratic-style teaching method, it’s very interesting. It’s very much a “go home and learn it” thing, and you can use your classmates, but everybody tends to be pretty busy. So it’s very much the opposite of what you would imagine. In college, you’re given problem sets or such and have immediate access to “Okay, this is actually how you do it.” So this is less step-by-step, less regimented.

So one of the complaints levied potentially against HBS is that if you’re weak in a certain area, you will ultimately get that knowledge and you’re going to be competent leaving, but the learning process is much different. It’s going to be trial by fire rather than a regimented buildup. But I have enjoyed it. There are upsides and downsides to it, and I think it depends on the type of learner you are. I’m much more of a rote, kinetic, repetitive learner, where I like to learn the basic learning blocks, whether it’s marketing or finance or looking at term sheets or whatever. I think there’s definitely a noticeable difference.

But at the end of the day, HBS’s mission is to groom you to make C-Suite-level decisions and ask the right questions. So I think the environment has been really interesting, because I find that when I’m traveling or back home visiting family or out and about, you really start to unconsciously incorporate a lot of the discussions and questions into your daily life. It’s stuff as simple as thinking about random businesses you pass on the street, and you start wondering how their business works. It takes a lot of viewpoints, and it’s pretty helpful, certainly.

mbaMission: How does all that translate with respect to work load?

HBSSY: You can make a very healthy work-to-reward ratio. You could go home and prep literally all night for a case, you could prep for four hours and then not get called on in class, so you have to be a bit conscious of that. There’s an optimal ratio, an optimal amount of time to invest in the case to make sure you have solid grasp of it and have run the numbers on it.

mbaMission: I imagine that finding that ratio could be challenging.

HBSSY: Yeah. I think a lot of people are certainly willing to invest a little bit more time and make sure they are always on point with their comments and always offering a fresh idea. And I think there’s certainly great value in that, but you do have to personally find what the right ratio is for you. It’s hard. You’ve got a life to live, right? So you do get pulled in three or four directions, and it’s important to balance all those things. It’s challenging, but you’re here for a reason, so you need to make sure you do the work and contribute in some way.

mbaMission: How does your learning team fit into all this?

HBSSY: Here they call them discussion groups, and they meet the morning of classes. So for instance, classes start at 9:00 a.m., and the discussion groups meet at 8:00 a.m. The first half of the first semester, they’re mandatory, and the second half, they kind of become optional. There are pros and cons to it. I didn’t really do a great job of attending, and my argument was that I would have liked to have learned the material the night before rather than trying to cram the work. I want to learn the material the way I know it, so I can speak intelligently about it and not have you tell me about the analysis you did.

So I didn’t find it exceptionally helpful, because basically, it can become a useless discussion if you haven’t done the work or don’t have a good grasp of it in the first place. And I would rather stay up later and get the work done the way I know how and at least I would be able to reach out to my classmates the night before, rather than come in in the morning and not know what I was doing. So I kind of had a contrarian view on it, but some people kept it up and really enjoyed it. I just don’t think the timing is correct on it. So that was my big complaint. I’d rather take the extra time in the evening and be comfortable and learn it the night before.

mbaMission: What can you tell me about your FIELD [Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development] experience?

HBSSY:  So there’s FIELD 1, FIELD 2, and FIELD 3, and FIELD 1 is a shadow class, basically, where you learn to cooperate, you learn teamwork. They put you in challenging mental scenarios. You’re still on campus. You work through problems with people, whether it’s literally building things together or doing simulated computer games or having challenging discussions. And then FIELD 2 is where you travel to a city in a foreign country and partner with a local company and help them do something. So you’re literally a free consultant for about two weeks to a foreign firm. And the other one is FIELD 3, where you are given cash to build a business, and you compete and pitch your idea and actually set up a functioning, working business. And if you fail, you have to write about it. The FIELD program is the entire first year.

mbaMission: Where did you go for your FIELD 2?

HBSSY: I went to China. It was phenomenal to see and to be a part of that. I’d never been to China. But the city was pretty filthy. The air quality went off index when we were there. I felt terrible. I mean, coming from being an athlete in college and being in the military, I’m used to not being in great conditions, and I felt absolutely miserable. Just raging headaches. It was quite weird. Before we landed, they told us, “Don’t eat vegetables. Don’t eat anything that water would have touched. Don’t drink the water. Don’t drink milk. Don’t drink any of the juices.” I mean, I get it, there’s probably a reason for that. But I think at the end, people were just drinking canned Cokes and eating… I don’t know. It basically became a very weird existence where you’re just hoping to God you see a McDonald’s or something after a while. Those may have been exaggerated fears, but I think we got a weird intro to that.

mbaMission:  Were you able to choose where you wanted to go, or was it assigned?

HBSSY: There’s a system where you input your list. So you’re given 12 countries or 15 countries, and you rank your preferences on an index. And they have an internal system that compiles it all and analyzes it. You just basically rank your choices. I didn’t have anything I preferred over any other place, so it spit out China for me, but there are certainly a lot of other places as well.

mbaMission: And how was the learning experience over there?

HBSSY: It was tremendous. The people were fascinating. We really enjoyed our work. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say who the client was, but we worked with a small startup that was basically a client of a much larger state-owned enterprise. And the liaison startup was fantastic. They were all friendly. The learning experiment was fantastic. To be able to see the area was really incredible, and it has undergone such growth. And that’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. You were given an inside glimpse into the culture and learn what’s appropriate and the right way to think about problems in China versus the United States. It’s a very different mind-set.

mbaMission: And how did your venture go in FIELD 3?

HBSSY: FIELD 3 went well. It was cool. You create an idea—and you do this super rapidly, so it creates a lot of stress—but you have a group of like five people, and you throw your ideas out. “I think we should start, say, a home delivery service that delivers X.” Any business you can think of or you have an interest in, you throw out all your ideas, and everyone works through them to figure out what seems the most viable in the shortest amount of time. And that’s the other constraint, time, because it [FIELD 3] starts around February 1, when the second semester starts. So from February 1 to May 15, you have to set it up, make actual sales, and then on May 15, it all stops. It was neat.

mbaMission: You touched on this a little earlier—how would you describe your HBS classmates?

HBSSY: I think they’re tremendous people. There’s a great sense of humility among the people here. Quite ambitious, incredibly intelligent, very social, very aware of the world. People you would see and think, “Hey, this is someone I could work with or work for.” And I think people tend to be very humble and very nice and very welcoming and friendly. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that.

To go off on a bit of a tangent, HBS administration decided to start this Twitter campaign called, I think it’s #lifeatHBS. And I have huge problem with this, because I think it creates a perception that it’s just a giant party. So people will go to a game or travel to a city for a weekend, and they’ll take pictures out with friends or meeting someone famous and blast a picture on Instagram or on Twitter. And they tag it #lifeatHBS.

And I think that’s a great initiative, but it creates a perception that this is just a bunch of wealthy students wandering around the world, throwing themselves elaborate parties. And you find that there’s a tiny, tiny concentration of people who are abusing this HBS-created Twitter campaign, and it looks like it’s the most arrogant, wealthy people just living it up. So it creates a pretty bad perception, I think, for HBS. But that’s certainly not the administration’s stamp. It’s just what I’ve seen that looks really bad. I would caution people not to take that as the majority.

mbaMission: So you don’t feel that it’s representative of the true HBS experience.

HBSSY: Not remotely, not even close. I think it’s potentially well intentioned, like an inside glimpse, meant to show what we’re doing, maybe on a daily basis, but it’s been taken and run with in the opposite direction. I think the real picture would be a student sitting in the Spangler Center, working. People sitting around a table, talking. I think there’s a much different perspective that is not broadcast by that Twitter campaign. To be fair, the official HBS #llifeatHBS page is very moderate, benign, and quite diverse in what it displays. However, there are a select few students who abuse that tag on their photos. I don’t like that a bit, because I think it sends the wrong message.

mbaMission: So how has the school’s Career Development Office helped you in your job search?

HBSSY: Number one, they do an incredible job of reaching out. They send weekly emails with updates and little two-minute professional videos they’ve made of correct interview techniques or the right way to make phone calls or cold calls, so you can tell there’s an incredible amount of money and time and resources put into career development. And they have people working there who are incredibly sharp. They have people from different industries that they lured from Goldman [Sachs] or Bain [& Company] or McKinsey [& Company]. So they’re now the full-time HBS staff to help people understand what it’s like inside the machine. They’re very good.

With that being said, you can meet with people, but they can’t make the decision for you. They can tell you what a job is like, but at the end of the day, it’s your priorities—do you value your time or your money or your effort or time with your family? I think they do a great job and invest heavily in it, and it’s very apparent. Because ultimately, that’s what props up the name brand of any school. So it behooves them to make their career development group a really sound institution. That’s the case here, certainly. I know some people were helped by it, but I was kind of in a weird limbo where I didn’t necessarily find it as helpful—but that was due to my internal conflict, and they were very much open to helping me.

mbaMission: Do you know where you’re going after you graduate?

HBSSY: I worked this summer and got an offer to return and had a great time. I don’t think that’s what I’m going to do, though. I’ve actually started a company here, quite recently, with a classmate. So we’re going to pursue this full-time after we leave. We’ve gotten enough momentum with it, and we’ve had enough indications of momentum and forward progress that we’re going to probably pursue this after we leave in May.

mbaMission: That’s exciting! Did you think coming into HBS that you might end up being an entrepreneur?

HBSSY: No, absolutely not. I mean, I think that’s an overly generous term to call me an entrepreneur. I think it’s more like the blind leading the blind. Or like some village somewhere is missing its idiot. Our business venture addresses a problem we have been able to frame and understand the pain points of. Honestly, being here, you learn so much about how to think about businesses and how to structure and analyze them and how to understand the financials and the projections and everything else that it kind of hit us that this is a huge problem we could potentially go and solve. But I don’t think of myself as an entrepreneur and much less as a successful entrepreneur, certainly. I am a business school student who’s in debt and trying to make something work.

And it’s a completely different risk-reward profile. It is a powerful incentive to know that you can leave here making, you know, let’s call it $200,000 a year all in, including bonuses, the moment you walk out the door. You’ve got a pretty predictable life. Your hours are going to be fairly predictable. You know the salary is going to be there, your health insurance. It’s a very difficult thing to turn down. So I think we’re just a little bit nutty, that that’s what we’re going to go do. But if you think you can make it work, it’s exciting.

mbaMission: Were there any particular classes that made you feel like starting your own business was now an option? Or a certain professor or experience?

HBSSY: No, I think it was all the classes, everything from finance to entrepreneurship to marketing. It’s literally everything. You learn how to analyze and think about business in the right way to have your niche, defend your market position, think about how you do pricing and compensation and all aspects of that. Honestly, a lot of that is through the cases and the courses, but it’s also through listening to your peers and your classmates and your friends who have worked in the industry and made really great comments. So I think those individual data points added up over two years lead you to think you can at least give it a shot.

mbaMission: Sure. Have you been involved in any of the student clubs?

HBSSY: I have, yes. But I think there’s a huge problem with this, though I’m probably naturally a skeptical individual. The clubs are a different animal as well, where people say, “Hey, if you want to be in private equity or if you want to work for a consulting firm, you need to join this club.” So you show up as a first-year student without anyone telling you to hold up and really think about it. You show up for the club fair in the gym, and there are tables set up, and there’s this overriding sense of social pressure. And you’re like, “Are you kidding me? I’m 29 years old. I don’t succumb to social pressure.” But you see all your friends signing up for the Euro Business Club, and you think, “I probably need to go sign up for that. I don’t want to miss the opportunity to work for X company in Western Europe.”

Please, this is my opinion only, but no part of any club is going to get you a job working at any given employer. They’re hiring you based on what they like in your resume and your experience, your background, your personality. The fact that you’re in a club or not in a club isn’t the key. Not to mention these clubs have annual dues, so you have to spend between $30 and $100 to join a club for the year. And it basically just covers speakers and mixers and such. That money adds up. It [being in a club] does convey your interest in a field, but it’s not getting you the job without going through the same interviews as your peers. I don’t know, I wish I had had better info when I got here, because I would not have joined any clubs. I have not joined any clubs this year.

mbaMission: So that wasn’t particularly helpful for you, it sounds like.

HBSSY: No. They will basically give you discounted tickets to go hear someone speak. So if you’re in a club, you’ll get like a $35 ticket as opposed to a $100 ticket. Some people enjoy it, but I’m a bit more skeptical of it. Last year, I spent a lot of money to join clubs and then never used them. But the flip side is that some companies literally download the clubs’ resume books. So that is a good counterpoint to my argument. So take it with a grain of salt, certainly.

mbaMission: As for the HBS facilities, what would you say are the best parts or maybe the not so great parts?

HBSSY: So there are two kinds of on-campus living arrangements. One is called SFP—it’s Soldier’s Field Park—and those are graduate student apartments. You literally live in an apartment setting with hundreds of other students. And then there are the dorms, which are tiny. It feels like 20 square feet. It’s absolutely miniscule, so after the first year, there’s a pretty big movement of people who try to live off campus, if possible.

I’m fortunate. I live off campus, but that’s because I got good insight from my buddies who were here before me. So I took their apartment. The dorms are one place I would never want to live, just because they are so small. The other challenge is that if you live on campus, you are really limited in your ability to go get food every week because there aren’t grocery stores nearby. But I can take the T [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority ], and it’s pretty efficient. It’s one stop away. You have your own apartment with a full kitchen when you live in SFP or the One Western Avenue apartments, but if you live on campus in the dorms, you don’t even have a stove in your room. It’s like college dormitory–style shared oven.

mbaMission: Like a shared kitchen per floor or per wing?

HBSSY:  Yes, a shared kitchen for a floor. I eat an incredible amount of food, so it would never work. If you’re on campus, it is very easy to go out to eat every night or eat on campus at the student center every night. The hurdles to get groceries and to store groceries are really challenging. So that’s one aspect.

And I don’t like the gym. It’s really small. And again, this is a very esoteric comment, but I mean, this is Harvard. It’s very old. It’s a venerable institution. It has a ton of money, yet it’s got a very small student workout facility. To be fair, the gym at HBS—Shad [Hall]—is a private gym for use exclusively by the business school students and HBS alums. It is not open to the public or other Harvard undergrads or grad students, so that’s nice.

And they’ve got all the machines, but it’s just very small and very limited, and it gets a lot of use. So I don’t go to Shad anymore. I joined a gym closer to my apartment. It’s much less crowded, and during the winter when the temperature goes down into the teens, I don’t feel like making that 15-minute walk back [to Shad]. So I would rather just work out nearer to my apartment. It’s just kind of weird to me that Shad is so small.

mbaMission: How would you describe the social scene?

HBSSY: There are two answers to that question. One is your first year, there’s this huge social or external pressure to go to all the parties. Your section kind of becomes this centrifugal force pulling you out. And it seems like there’s an event every night. And every email that comes out is “the party you don’t want to miss” or “the party of the year.” And this is obviously ridiculous. So what you find is that everybody will get a ticket and wait until the day of the event, and then it becomes a buyer’s market because so many people decide not to go. Buying a cheap ticket is pretty easy, because people are exhausted or realize they don’t want to go. So with that as a context, the second year, it’s a massive retraction from that, where you’ve got your own plans. So you find the social pressure to go out and do things is almost nonexistent. And it’s really challenging, in fact, to be able to sit down and see people, because you’re just so busy doing your own thing. That’s been my experience.

mbaMission: Did you attend any events that you particularly enjoyed?

HBSSY:  I think it’s nice, your first year, if your section has a retreat. It’s great, and you spend a lot of time with these folks. So it’s nice to meet and talk to people and just be around folks socially. Whether you go to a ski lodge in Vermont or drive down to the Cape or something, it’s nice. However, I have not been to a social event that I thought was “life altering.” There have been some great speakers, but that’s a different thing. That’s not related to the social scene. And I think it would be extreme to say that a party or a social event had changed your life, I guess unless you meet your wife or your husband there. But the social events are certainly fun and enjoyable.

mbaMission: What can you tell me about the faculty? Any standout professors?

HBSSY:  Yeah, I’ve had a class with Rawi Abdelal, and he was my BGIE [“Business, Government, and the International Economy”] professor. I think incredibly highly of him. He has rave reviews. He’s loved by his students. He is a very gifted orator, a very, very tremendous speaker with the ability to guide the discussion and obviously intelligent about international affairs and international government.

The one thing that I would say is that until you’re inside the machine, a good professor is a good professor anywhere, and I honestly think all of them here have been tremendous. I mean, there’s Joe Fuller, the founder of Monitor Group. He teaches “The Entrepreneurial Manager” and is just an encyclopedia of relevant worldly knowledge. And what’s interesting too is that there’s a mix of professors who are academic and professors who are practitioners. So you have people who spend a lifetime working and come back with incredibly sharp and relevant experiences. And some professors are brilliantly gifted academics. So you can see the two perspectives, and it’s different in the teaching style, but I think there’s a healthy mix.

mbaMission: What do you think more people should know about HBS that they probably don’t?

HBSSY: Probably three things. So the first thing is it is a lot of work. The perception that it is not is patently false. It’s a high volume of work, and it’s challenging. So that perception that you don’t work and life is a giant party, that’s absolutely false. First year especially is quite challenging. You’ve got a lot of things going on. There are times you can maybe cool off on the amount of work that you invest, but there’s a lot of truth behind the idea of “garbage in, garbage out.” So if you’re not willing to at least do some minimal work at home, then you’re not going to be a good student, you’re not going to contribute to discussions, and you’re not going to learn anything. Actions do have consequences. It’s not a cake walk. It becomes easier as time goes forward, but first year is very challenging.

The second thing is that HBS—or grad school, generally—costs a lot of money. They publish what they think a conservative budget should be, and when I was going in, I think it was $104,000. I think that is off. I mean, if you want to not live like a pauper, you are looking at well north of that amount of money. Because whether it’s going out to eat, going to social events, or going on trips—and not even an overwhelming amount of those things—it really adds up quickly. But there is a huge external push to go do things with your section or go on a trip over spring break or whatever it is. It is much more expensive than is published, I think.

And that’s not because this is HBS, it’s just because you are a grown, working person, and for the last few years of your life, your expenses have risen to meet your income, and it’s quite challenging to remove yourself from the lifestyle you’re used to living. So you want to retain some semblance of that. It’s expensive, but everybody does leave here with a comparable amount of debt.

mbaMission: Sure.

HBSSY: And maybe the final thing is that you’re not going to get a job just because you came here. Just having HBS on your resume does not mean you are going to get a job over any other business school alum, and they’re not going to get a job over you. It’s all based on your background, your experience, your competitive edge, and whether or not they like you. And so this is a great platform, but it is not the end all, be all.

And that being said, it is not a guarantee that you can switch careers easily. If you want to work for a hedge fund, I can assure you that you’re not going to come from a background with no finance, no banking, and no private equity and get a job at a hedge fund just because you want to and it says HBS on your resume. That’s not happening. However, you absolutely do have the opportunity to change careers. The vast majority of HBS alums do change careers in the years following graduation, but there are certain careers that are more challenging to switch into.

It helps you broaden your horizons, but oh, by the way, there are hundreds and hundreds of other students who do have a background in something you would like to do, and chances are they’re going to get hired, not necessarily you. It is still a competitive environment. I mean, I have been turned down by many firms. I attribute that to my having a different background and a different skill-set. And someone who’s got a much more relevant background is more likely to get the job.

mbaMission: Well, thank you so much for your time and all your insight into the HBS program.

HBSSY: No problem. It is a tremendous place with tremendous people. I’m glad I could help!

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