“See you in sunny California!” says the kickoff page for the Columbia Business School’s West Coast Trek, and you can see how sun is a big part of the reason the trek is now in its 20th year. The weather in the Bay Area the first week of January 2017 fluctuated between 45 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit, mild and partly cloudy, while back home New York was enjoying below-freezing temps, snow, and biting winds.
In fact, Columbia’s trek, which brings MBAs to the Bay Area (with an optional day in Seattle) to meet and introduce themselves to executives at top companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google, is more popular than ever, with a record 86 participants this year, says Regina Resnick, senior associate dean and director of the Columbia Career Management Center. Resnick should know: She’s been on every trek since the first one back in the late 1990s.
“We started with only 12 students the first year, in 1998, and at that point we stayed in the Valley,” Resnick remembers, noting that a simultaneous trek occurs in Southern California involving such media companies as Disney, Warner Bros., NBC, and CBS. “When you think about what’s happened in Silicon Valley, when we first came here, among the companies that we visited were Sun Microsystems, which is no longer here, Palm, hand-held devices — this is when I had just gotten a flip phone and thought it was really cool.
“So fast forward to now and there’s a total of 86 students, and here in the Northern California trek we go all over the Bay Area, with dinners and presentations around product, marketing and sales, business development, and business operations at major companies and startups and everything in between.”
LEAVE THE SUIT BEHIND
The cost to participate in Columbia’s trek is about $1,000 per student. It’s divided into four sections: VC, with visits to 12 companies including Lux Capital, Greylock, and First Round Capital; tech, with visits to Apple, CreditKarma, Flextronics, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, LYFT, and Uber, among 21 participating companies; nine health care companies; and eight green energy companies. The numbers vary year to year, Resnick says, but every year “a number of success stories” emerge where students are offered jobs by businesses they’ve visited. “The relationships built with companies and alumni are important,” she says. “But another interesting stat is that more women were on the Technology Business Group trek this year than men!”
Poets&Quants caught up to the Columbia tech group at the gallery of Autodesk, the 3D design, engineering, and entertainment software company, in downtown San Francisco on Wednesday (Jan. 4). The MBAs took a tour led by Jason Medal-Katz, director of brand experience, and also heard from Autodesk CFO Scott Herren, a Columbia alum. Medal-Katz noted his company’s engagement in the trek over the years, and Herren told students a story about the value of his MBA coursework and network to a diversified career in tech.
Resnick says the value of the trek lies in appreciating and understanding the differences in the business culture between the coasts — differences that Columbia students in the early days of the trek learned, if not the hard way, the humorous way. “I remember the first year we came here, our then-dean came out and we had a recruiter’s breakfast and invited them to a hotel near Intel,” she recalls. “We wanted to make a proper introduction, so we were all suited up in our blue and gray suits, and we looked rather formal and inappropriate for the Valley.
“And then we ended up three or four years later at IDEO and we’re all business casual, probably some people wearing jeans, and we’re sitting there and this group comes in that was some of our colleagues from a tech school up north and they were all in blue and gray suits. And I thought, ‘This is weird, they should know what this all about.’ At the time, it was interesting in terms of the mix of what East Coast business was, that there were certain protocols, and what the Valley was.”
STUDYING THE ‘SCALE-UPS’
The vast majority of Columbia MBAs — more than 70%, according to the school’s latest employment report — get jobs on the East Coast, and Jasperina de Vries is no different. She has a job waiting for her back at McKinsey. Yet for the last two years, de Vries, Class of 2017, has helped to organize the Columbia West Coast trek, which she calls “the most exciting and rewarding leadership activity I’ve taken on yet at CBS. Exciting because it’s something you create as a team from scratch. Rewarding because 60 students get exposed to so many opportunities in so little time, and tell us they are intrigued and inspired.”
Born in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, de Vries got her undergraduate degree at Erasmus University’s Rotterdam School of Management before taking a job with McKinsey, where she plans to return after graduating in May. Something less than 10% of her cohort is likely to go west for a tech or media job; the top West Coast employer of CBS MBAs last year was Seattle-based Amazon, 11th with eight hires (Google had seven, Apple three). Still, the West Coast visits have been invaluable to her career development, she says, giving her and other participants a unique window into how business is done on the other side of the continent. Most interesting, she says, are the companies such as car marketplace Shift or virtual healthcare practice HealthTap that fall between startup and established corporation.
“These ‘scale-ups’ have typically found their product-market fit, but need to start thinking about building the company in a future-proof way,” de Vries says. “I think that stage requires all hands on deck, and is most exciting for MBA students to learn about.”
She’s also been surprised by the ubiquity of tech companies like Autodesk and Flex, another design and manufacturing firm that builds wearable technologies, car electronics, and smart home devices. She admires Autodesk’s application AutoCAD “that is used to design the bridge you’re crossing, the mug you’re holding, and so on,” and, after touring Autodesk’s gallery in San Francisco, says she’s inspired to have “a deep appreciation of the intersection of design, tech, and manufacturing.”