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HBS vs. GSB: Decades Later, Alums Reflect

The Harvard Business School Baker Library – Ethan Baron photo

She decided on Harvard, Business School and he followed his instincts to Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Some 20 years later, they reflect on this life-defining decision—how, why, and what they’d say to MBA candidates now. 

At Fortuna Admissions, we often help clients navigate tricky decisions between competing MBA admissions offers. How do such choices play out in the long term? Twenty-two years ago, both Karin Kissane and Barnaby Grist shared a rare yet agonizing decision – choosing between offers from Harvard Business School and Stanford GSB. It was the threshold of the dot-com boom. Yahoo was founded and Ebay was launching on the heels of a little-known online bookseller, Amazon.com, the year before. No one had heard of Google and Mark Zuckerberg was 11 years old.

But then, as now, HBS and GSB were the undisputed doyens of the MBA world. Kissane ultimately decided on Harvard, Grist followed his instincts to Stanford. Twenty years later, these successful business leaders reflect on what fueled their decision, what they value most from their experience, and how their lives might have been different if they’d taken the other road. They also offer candid insights on the experience of choosing between MBA programs and what they might have done differently—in hindsight—in the face of this decidedly life-defining decision.

THE FACTORS THAT DROVE THEIR DECISIONS AND WHERE THEY LANDED

Karin Kissane reflects on a decision made 20 years ago

Grist recently co-founded a mission-driven for-profit marketplace that connects investors to entrepreneurs in developing markets like Colombia. He founded Include Capital last year after a highly successful post-MBA career in the mainstream retail financial services industry.

But at MBA decision-time, the British-born financial analyst was at Oliver Wyman (after turning down BCG) with an undergrad in Ancient Greek and French from Oxford University. Grist’s decision between MBA programs was complicated by the enviable position of weighing four incredible offers—not only from HBS and GSB, but also INSEAD and Wharton Lauder (a joint MBA & MA in International Studies), the latter having also offered him a scholarship.

“My post MBA goal at the time of application was to become an equity analyst, and Wharton would have been a great prep for Wall Street. The difficult decision was actually between GSB and Wharton Lauder,” says Grist. “Harvard also deterred me in the interview process by trying to create a pressure situation. It was an additional confirmation of the difference in cultures. I was looking for a learning environment not a pressure environment at business school.”

THE BENEFITS OF A LARGE ALUMNI NETWORK

Kissane had completed her undergrad at Stanford before moving to Boston for management consulting, and was wrestling with a desire to return with her husband to the Bay Area. “Though we both loved Stanford, we both wanted a “different” experience for graduate school. We felt that going to Harvard would be more challenging, because the school has a different culture and approach.”

Kissane went on to a successful career in private equity, helping to fund groundbreaking internet and software start-ups. But when she was deciding between Silicon Valley and Cambridge, mentors strongly advised her to take geographic factors into account that might nudge her towards GSB.

“In the end, it worked out well because during the tech boom, over 200 of my HBS classmates moved to the Bay Area and even now, 180 remain,” says Kissane. “So, I believe my business school network in the Bay Area is likely as strong as it would have been if I’d gone to GSB. There is no question that a bigger graduating class and thus, alumni network, is helpful long-term.”

HOW DID THEY CHOOSE?

Barnaby Grist reflects on a choice made 20 years ago

Part of the cultural dynamic that deterred Grist from HBS was what attracted Kissane, who emphasizes that “Stanford and HBS have very different cultures.”

“At HBS, you feel you still need to prove yourself, especially in the first year,” says Kissane. “The experience is meant to help you grow and learn. For me, especially because I was new to Harvard, HBS provided a more challenging experience, and I’m grateful for it.”

Grist visited his top schools to inform his decision. “As it was February, Stanford had a natural advantage!” jokes Grist, noting the contrast between Boston’s cold, snowy winters and the Bay Area sunshine. “But also, I felt a vibe among the students that I really liked. The students I met seemed more likely to teach me things I didn’t know.” Grist was impressed by “the broad range of backgrounds, intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness and cultural diversity” he witnessed on GSB’s campus.

“In the end, I made the right choice, despite having the wrong criteria. In retrospect, I was too concerned about getting the hard skills,” says Grist. “If you want to get these skills, you will get them at any top MBA program. The hard skills are a commodity, and should not be a factor in your decision.”