Stanford MBAs 25 Years Later: Where They Are & Life’s Core Lessons

Stanford University's Graduate School of Business Class of 1990 gathers for its 25th reunion -- Photo by Rachel Bleckman

Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business Class of 1990 at its 25th reunion — Photo by Rachel Bleckman

A quarter of a century ago, Deborah Knox was one of 334 graduating MBAs at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. She was an unlikely MBA back then, having graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University with an undergraduate degree in French language and civilization. But after a short stint as an actuary analyst for an employee benefits firm, she landed an operations job for a firm that handled North American marketing and reservations for 120 independently owned and operated luxury hotels in Europe and the Caribbean.

When she arrived on campus in 1988, it was a very different GSB. Only 16% of the class of 1990 was international and just one in four of the MBA students were female, though one classmate, Mary Barra, has since become the first woman to lead General Motors, and another, Elizabet (Liz) Smith had been president of Avon and is now chairman and CEO of Bloomin’ Brands. In the GSB class entered last fall, women made up a record 42% of the students and the international total, including permanent U.S. residents and U.S. dual citizens, comes to 44% of the class.

After Knox earned her Stanford MBA, she worked in management consulting for several years, serving clients such as Apple, Hilton Hotels, and Texas Instruments. For the past 20 years, she’s been a freelance communications and marketing consultant, having worked with best-selling management guru Jim Collins on a number of his most successful books. Founder and president of Insight Admissions, an MBA admissions consulting firm, Knox recently returned to campus for her class’ 25th reunion this past June. Poets&Quants asked her to write about the experience, the paths Stanford alums can take and some of the wisdom class members have gleaned since graduation.

Ah, reunions.

The notion can evoke anything from excitement to trepidation to sheer dread, depending on how one’s life has been going, how long it has been since graduation, and how kind or unkind the aging process has been in one’s own case. Will this be a bragfest? Do I have anything to brag about? How open and real will these people be? Will I remember everyone’s name? Will I be the only single person?

When an old friend dropped me off in front of the GSB’s Schwab Residential Center, my home for the next two and one-half  days, I felt a mix of emotions. As I entered the lofty, open-air lobby, however, I burst into a huge smile as I spotted a former classmate and roommate post-Stanford, whom I hadn’t seen for some years. Thus began a cycle of hugs, genuine, heartfelt conversations, and inspiration that characterized the long weekend.


I was further delighted as I rolled my suitcase along the outdoor covered hallways in search of my room. As I passed one door, I saw the picture of one classmate from our old print facebook affixed to his door. “Why did G put his photo on his door?” I puzzled amusedly, since G was notably reserved and European after all. I quickly learned the reunion organizers had put our facebook photos on each of our doors, and it was truly a walk down memory lane as I made my way to my room. There was something quite poignant about seeing us all so fresh, full of ideas and energy, ready to take on the world. (Think about how you pose for your facebook, as you never know how that photo may be used in the future!)

After settling in, I proceeded to join other classmates to take the tour of the new campus. At our last major reunion, it was still mostly a hole in the ground. We were all amazed by how spacious, luxurious, and state-of-art the new campus is, with many of us remarking, “These kids don’t know how good they have it—they’re so spoiled!” Thanks largely to the generosity of Nike’s Philip Knight, MBA ’62, the GSB now consists of eight LEED-certified buildings and the stunning, glass-enclosed Arbuckle Dining Pavilion. To support changes in the curriculum in 2007, the campus was designed to offer more individual study rooms; breakout rooms and other flexible, collaborative spaces for leadership coaching and experiential learning; facilities for videoconferencing; and more. This was a far cry from the drab, concrete building where we took classes back in the late ’80s. As my tour group entered the first classroom, the common exclamation was, “These classrooms have windows!” And as Dean Garth Saloner noted in his opening remarks, we used to eat in the basement and park at ground level; now students get to park underground and eat at ground level.