Stanford GSB | Mr. Navy Officer
GMAT 770, GPA 4.0
Harvard | Mr. Public Finance
GMAT 720, GPA 3.9
Darden | Mr. Engineer Consultant
GMAT 730, GPA 3.47
Stanford GSB | Mr. Systems Change
GMAT 730, GPA 4
Tuck | Mr. Consulting To Tech
GMAT 750, GPA 3.2
Harvard | Ms. Ambitious Hippie
GRE 329, GPA 3.9
Harvard | Mr. Milk Before Cereals
GMAT 710, GPA 3.3 (16/20 Portuguese scale)
Harvard | Mr. Sales To Consulting
GMAT 760, GPA 3.49
INSEAD | Ms. Hope & Goodwill
GMAT 740, GPA 3.5
INSEAD | Mr. Airline Captain
GMAT 740, GPA 3.8
Harvard | Ms. Almost Ballerina
GRE ..., GPA ...
Harvard | Mr. Startup
GRE 327, GPA 3.35
Stanford GSB | Mr. MBB to PM
GRE 338, GPA 4.0
IU Kelley | Ms. Biracial Single Mommy
, GPA 2.5/3.67 Grad
Darden | Ms. Unicorn Healthcare Tech
GMAT 730, GPA 3.5
Stanford GSB | Mr. MBA Class of 2023
GMAT 725, GPA 3.5
Chicago Booth | Mr. Guy From Taiwan
GRE 326, GPA 3.3
Stanford GSB | Mr. Energy Reform
GMAT 700, GPA 3.14 of 4
Ross | Mr. Verbal Engineer
GMAT 710, GPA 3.3
UCLA Anderson | Ms. Packaging Manager
GMAT 730, GPA 3.47
Kellogg | Mr. Danish Raised, US Based
GMAT 710, GPA 10.6 out of 12
Wharton | Mr. Sr. Systems Engineer
GRE 1280, GPA 3.3
Chicago Booth | Mr. Semiconductor Guy
GMAT 730, GPA 3.3
Harvard | Mr. Polyglot
GMAT 740, GPA 3.65
Duke Fuqua | Mr. Enlisted Undergrad
GRE 315, GPA 3.75
Stanford GSB | Mr. Rocket Scientist Lawyer
GMAT 730, GPA 3.65 Cumulative
Darden | Mr. Stock Up
GMAT 700, GPA 3.3

What Harvard MBAs Really Want To Accomplish

The question, formidable and provocative, is also rather simple. “What is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

It was first asked in 1992 by the American poet Mary Oliver in a masterful poem entitled “The Summer Day.” Ten years later, that question was systematically answered by graduating MBAs of the Harvard Business School.

The idea to pose the question to Harvard MBAs came to Tony Deifell, who had taught photography to blind and visually impaired students before arriving at Harvard as a student. For Deifell, it was a bit of a layup. He was a professional photographer and a budding social entrepreneur. So he used his photography skills to do stunning black-and-white portraits of classmates who had penned the best 200-word-or-less replies to Oliver’s question. In the first year, Deifell approved 100 of the answers and photographed 100 classmates, all of them displayed at an exhibition during commencement for the Class of 2002.

Some 372 Harvard MBAs have weighed in over the years. The photographs, in stark black-and-white contrasts, are stunning. More importantly, the essays often are nothing less than inspiring, even gripping. They tell poignant stories of ambitious hopes and expansive dreams, of dramatic hardships and hurdles already overcome in the journey of life. Perhaps most surprisingly, they sometimes reveal intimate, often vulnerable, details about their lives, from a gay MBA who writes about what it was like to come out of the closet to a man who confesses that he was so overweight as a child that he was never chosen for football practice.

In all, the portraits and the essays represent time capsules of the aspirations of several generations of MBAs. They are almost always surprising, in part because they make a myth of the common stereotype of MBAs as money-grubbing Masters of the Universe with little concern for society or community. In fact, right from the start of the project in 2002, many of the students wrote about their vision to work either immediately or some day for social enterprises.

“When people come to the exhibition during commencement,” says Betsy Brink, an HBS staffer who helps students manage the project, “nine out of ten people say, ‘Wow, I had no idea.’” She says that the Portrait Project, as it is called, has encouraged some applicants, inspired by the thoughtful and intelligent reflections, to apply to Harvard. It is a student-driven initiative. This past year, four student leaders screened essays from 120 of their classmates to choose the 34 responses that ended up online with photographs.

In the first year, when Deifell organized it on his own, he discovered an Asian classmate who saw himself as the “repository of my parents’ hopes and dreams.” His goal? To make his parents proud. Another graduate noted that he had come to Harvard Business School hoping to find answers and would leave with only questions. He shunned investment banking and consulting jobs, resolved to assign himself to “Saving the Planet and Promoting World Peace.” Yet another MBA left Harvard with the desire to change the world. “I want to teach these HBS cats that it’s not about what kind of car you drive, what kind of house you live in, which top-tier consulting firm or investment bank you join, or how many zeroes are on your signing bonus check; but instead whether you can look at yourself in the mirror in the morning, how many lives you touch, whether you can laugh at yourself and the world, and whether you made a difference.”

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.