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.

  • slayer

    yes I know but that is not the point. As overall institutions, they are nowhere near the prestige & quality of a school like Stanford , simply because they are known/good at one or two things whereas Stanford is at the top or almost the top across the board in all or almost all fields. (and besides Stanford is better for engineering than both anyway) …like you will not find many, if any at all, students who would turn down Stanford for CMU or UIUC both at the undergraduate and graduate level…

  • jddude

    You do know that cmu and Illinois are among the top 5 or 6 in engineering?

  • DROSEN85

    AlexK, 25 years ago, Stanford GSB was the considered the top MBA program in the world. Here is a fun fact reported by the director of admissions at the time. Of the 100 people who were admitted to both Stanford and HBS, roughly 75% chose to attend Stanford. When you consider the relative class size, that’s a huge proportion on a relative basis.

  • slayer

    I agree about Med school. Harvard is considered the absolute top in terms if prestige. But if you look at the upward trend of Stanford med and the way technology is becoming more and more relevant on the medical field I can see a time where Stanford med takes over as number 1 , but admittedly not yet. Also stanford law no way can be replaced with Uchicago law. Stanford law is competing with Harvard and Yale Law nowadays. And again as tech is dominating more and more aspects of our lives i bet yiu will see it becoming more and more relevant. Also you cant really be serious in comparing stanford with CMU/UIUC. The thing is stanford is so far ahead in terms if tech, engineering, entrepreneurship than harvard and only marginally behind in areas like medicine, law, economics, political science and the gap is rapidly closing. Also in the areas where stanford is a little bit behind the lag is due to slight difference in prestige not actual quality which cannot be said the lag in engineering, science, tech, entrepreneurship. For business Harvard used to be on par wt it but stanford has been noticeably ahead for the past few years and the gap is widening. Also ugrad has been become both more selective and desirable ( yield rate) than Harvard. So based on all of these observations it is safe to say that overall Stanford as an institution is leaving harvard behind. Harvard has the almost 400 year old prestige but nowadays prestige does not mean what it used to. Nowadays is the age of innovation not established stuffy priviledge. And it cannot be denied that stanford is perceived as this cool, dynamic, exciting, innovative institution whereas Harvsrd is seen as more old school, traditional etc.

  • westregion12

    Slow down there. It’s safe to say that only Stanford’s business school has overtaken HBS but it ends at that. You are right about engineering: Stanford is one of the top 3-5 schools and Harvard’s program is relatively unknown. But this has always been the case as far back as you can go. So has this allowed Stanford to surpass Harvard entirely? No and I don’t think it ever will. Heck, even CMU and UIUC’s engineering departments blow Harvard’s out of water but their overall prestige doesn’t hold a candle to Harvard.

    As for Stanford med, well it is top 5. There is Hopkins, Yale, and Penn among others that are nearly interchangeable with Stanford in their reputation. But which med school is undeniably at the top? Yes, Harvard med. You can say it’s a tie with Hopkins for 1st.

    For law school, the exact same thing can be said (just replace Hopkins with UChicago). And finally, in the arts and social science, the clear overall winner is Harvard. Clearly more reputable economics, english, and political science departments. Need I say more?

  • slayer

    I know Harvard is trying hard but it is gonna be very difficult. also the gap is not just between the two business schools but as whole institutions. for example Stanford ugrad has become more selective and desirable than Harvard, and Stanford’s law and med schools are pretty much up there with Harvard. as for engineering it is not even a competition. It can be argued Stanford overall is leaving Harvard behind and a lot of it has to do with the fact that nowadays it is the age of tech, engineering, startups, silicon valley etc, not wall street and I frankly have a difficult time seeing how Harvard as an institution can reclaim its #1 spot, no matter how much money they spend trying.

  • fidel305

    agreed. but hbs is spending a lot of money trying to fight that tide. it will not go quietly into that good night

  • fidel305

    the semiconductor startups that gave silicon valley its name began in the early 70s

  • slayer

    Def agree. GSB has been up there along with HBS for at least the past 30-40 years, with Wharton trailing a few notches behind. The only difference nowadays compared to 25 years ago is that GSB has actually left HBS behind and gap is increasingly widening..

  • DeborahKnox


    My first answer didn’t post properly. Anyway, when I applied and went to school, Stanford and HBS were considered the top schools. At that time, Stanford was well-known for its strengths in high tech and entrepreneurship. Mentor to many entrepreneurs in our class, Irv Grousbeck taught back then, and he still teaches there now. Many students also chose to attend the GSB for its Public Management Program, which was the foundation for its work in social innovation.

    Deborah Knox GSB ’90

  • DeborahKnox

    We were also the fortunate ones who got to learn from Jim Collins, who went on to become a top management guru. He stopped teaching at Stanford in the mid-’90s
    Deborah Knox GSB ’90

  • bwanamia

    Wrong. Stanford has been the top dog since at least the late ’70s.

  • AlexK

    Was Stanford really so hyped 25 years ago? It definitely attracts the best and brightest now but I think 25 years ago, it was clearly second to HBS or even Wharton. Stanford GSB’s whole social innovation and entrepreneurship culture has to be a relatively recent phenomenon. So in that regard, is it really worth looking at MBAs who graduated 25 years ago as a reflection on the school’s potential today?