Stories Of MBAs Who Don’t Want To Be In The 1%

by John A. Byrne on

The day before Harvard Business School graduated its 100th class of MBAs, John Coleman stood at a podium in a red tie and a blue shirt to deliver an inspiring speech to fellow graduates in the Class of 2010. That Coleman, one of eight to receive the prestigious Dean’s Award for service to Harvard and society, was even up there to address the latest crop of future business leaders was nothing less than an extraordinary achievement.

“You see,” said Coleman, “like many of you, I didn’t grow up with Harvard as an expectation. When I was born, my family lived in a trailer park in Central Florida. My dad, a former rodeo cowboy, was scraping by finishing an undergraduate degree; and my mom made it her job to find ways for me to develop and learn with the limited resources we had.”

It may sound nearly improbable that someone could go from a trailer park in Florida to earn a joint degree from the world’s most powerful and influential business school as well as the Harvard Kennedy School–and even more improbable that you’re chosen to address the latest 901 MBAs that Harvard had thrown into the troubled and crisis-ridden world.

‘WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?’

In his speech on HBS’ Class Day, Coleman acknowledged as much. “Our two years here have been a season of destruction. Hundred-year-old institutions have fallen like dominoes and markets have plummeted — endangering pensions, college funds, and retirement plans around the world. We’ve witnessed Masters of the Universe in business and politics who have exercised more creativity in evading the law, amassing power, and harming their fellow human beings than in conceiving of solutions to make this world a better place. And millions of people have lost their homes, their jobs, and their hope. MBAs like us have been keenly sensitive to the crisis because we’ve born at least some share of the blame. But as we graduate tomorrow, the primary question for our class – for our generation – is not “What happened?” but “Where do we go from here?”

Coleman attempts to answer that question in a fascinating new book, Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders (Harvard Business Review Press), he co-authored with two other former HBS classmates, Daniel Gulati and W. Oliver Segovia. In it, the three MBAs clearly wanted to transcend the then zeitgeist that blamed business schools and their graduates for the collapse of the global economy.

Their goal: to paint a more substantive portrait of trends shaping the passions and purpose of young leaders and the future of business. At a time when tens of thousands are protesting economic inequality, the book could very easily be interpreted as a defense of the strivers who very much want to be part of the 1%. That would be a mistake.

While many MBAs are getting the degree in the hopes that it will help them live more productive and financially satisfying lives, few aim to be catapulted beyond the 99%–despite the popular stereotype.

Any one who has been on a business school campus in the past 20 years or more knows this to be true. As the authors conclude, “Young businesspeople want to find purpose in their profession and have a passion for what they do. As they come of age, they are growing up with the belief that business can provide us with a way of translating a meaningful, personal purpose into work that impacts the world in a positive way.”

In other words, MBAs are not merely in it for the money. As to the big hairy question of who’s to blame for the economic crisis—an issue that loomed large when these three authors were at Harvard Business School—there is no real answer.

A CROWD-SOURCED PASTICHE OF FIRST-PERSON NARRATIVES AND INTERVIEWS

“We don’t honestly address the retrospective “Who is responsible?” question,” says Coleman, who now works for McKinsey & Co in Atlanta office. “We tried to stay more forward-looking on what people are doing now and what they’ll do in the future that can make a positive impact. There are right and wrong ways to attribute this (economic troubles) to MBAs. They deserve part of the blame for all those things that happened. But we wanted to look ahead to the future.”

And that’s exactly what they did. The book is mostly a crowd-sourced pastiche of first-person narratives written by more than two dozen young business leaders, interviews with seven “business luminaries,” including a pair of prominent B-school deans, Harvard’s Nitin Nohria and Berkeley’s Rich Lyons, and a survey of more than 500 current and recent MBAs. The survey largely gathered the views of MBAs from Harvard, Stanford, Darden, Tuck, Wharton, and MIT Sloan and was conducted in the fall of 2010.

As the authors explain it, “We ‘crowd-sourced’ in this way because we wanted to present a broader set of views than the three of us could provide alone.”

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  • Sandy

    John – the “crowd-sourcing” bit certainly seems to add to the authenticity of this effort. Plus, there always are very amazing stories on the non-profit side regularly emanating from the B-schools (esp. Stanford). So, there certainly is good that the top MBA programs have done. However, all those who fell into the claw of free market mechanism and $$ ambitions of the wall street firms obviously have royally goofed up.

    There is a certain degree of hypocrisy associated with both the MBA market and the also with the application process. For example – you ought to have had leadership positions and societal engagement in your extra-currcular activities before you apply to a top school! But how many students who claim such work actually end up working in firms with positive societal engagement? Your own data from HBS 2011 class with record number of students taking up hedge funds jobs proves my point. I think it is fair for people to aspire for wallstreet jobs, but the whole application process seems to be nothing more than a cookie-cutter approach. If you know the nitty-gritty of it two years before you apply, you can very easily get into any school. That’s a wrong matrix for selecting students on part of these schools!

    I was recently told by a consultant that even though I did not have “extra-curricular leadership” experience, he can make suggestions on my CV for it to look real. So I let go of my inner compass only to show a “correct” image?

  • MBA Aspirant 2012

    hmm, inspiring !!

  • Alois de Novo

    The popped jacket collar (worn with an unpressed, white button down shirt) in Coleman’s head shot is simply insufferable. This is why I distrust social enterprise types, the do-gooders — they’re all oddly self-conscious image mongers.

  • azsx

    Sandy, I have to disagree. the colleges are not taking a cookie cutter approach, doesnt every college seek to balance diversity with the merits of purely meritocratic admissions? Doesnt that make the entire process quite subjective, anything but cookie cutter?
    l do get your other point though, b schools seem to be using, more so now than ever before, the concept of plausible deniability to their advantage. Especially when viewed in the context of what consultants are referring to, or maybe its HBS, as impact beyond self, as a critical criteria for gaining admission to the top b schools in the us and europe, Somehow, from every member of the incoming class showing acute and painful concern for our societal ills, we go to a class that largely consists of hedge fund and private equity managers. 1 to 2 years in a b school magically seems to wipe away the tear jerking tales of refugee work that our mckinsey consultants seem to be engaging in, This sham seems to be shamefully condoned by the b schools, with a significant proportion of this accentuated perceptibly by the consultant industry that seeks to pigeon hole applicants and bastardize the process. So maybe its not really the b schools at fault, its the peripheral industry that sprung up around this demand for b school thats at fault. Im almost waiting to hear next of a blackwater employee getting into hbs on account of impact beyond self.

  • Celebration

    “Stories from the best and brightest…” lot of hubris in that sub-title.

  • http://whoweam.com/ Nia Hampton

    It’s refreshing to see this class of Harvard MBA’s be so pro-active in changing the common business leadership style in America. They seem extremely invested in changing how businesses are led in the 21st century. Is it this kind of personal motivation and innovation, both from the MBA’s as well as the Universities from which they have graduated, that can help change our society for the better.

  • CC

    Oh Nia grow up please. Businesses will always be lead to make more money. Neither HBS nor any other Holy B-school has the magic pill to cleanse the society of greed. Please wake up from the matrix.

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