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Harvard Business School’s Original Poets

Ruth Owades is an original MBA poet. On day one of orientation at Harvard Business School in 1973, she was summoned to the Dean of Admission’s office for a quiet word. She recalls, “For the first time” the Dean said, “we’re admitting 3% of the class with a purely liberal arts education. We’re calling you ‘the Poets.’ You don’t actually meet the entrance criteria, but we think you may have promise.” He encouraged me to ask for help – “We have tutors available,” he said. I can remember thinking: What is he telling me?”

Owades had earned an undergraduate degree in French Literature from Scripps College in California, and was awarded a Fulbright Grant to study theatre in France with the playwright Eugene Ionesco. Back in the US, she found few opportunities in the male-dominated working world, so she turned her sights on Harvard Business School. She graduated into the business world (alongside classmate George W. Bush) with a brand name that opened doors.

Four years after graduation, Owades launched her first company, creating a new consumer market niche with the upscale gardening accessory catalog Gardener’s Eden. Williams-Sonoma bought it from her three years later. In 1988, she began Calyx & Corolla, the Flower Lover’s Flower Company. Reinventing the floral distribution chain by eliminating middlemen (wholesalers, brokers, warehousing and florists), and tapping the speed of FedEx, her company made next-day, direct-from-the-grower delivery possible. She sold Calyx & Corolla to an investor group.

Today, MBA students around the world analyze the two case studies that examine her companies’ journeys. On the eve of her 35th reunion from Harvard, Owades shared her own story from French literature to entrepreneurial genius.

My story:

After my husband completed a consulting assignment in Greece, we moved to St. Louis, where I looked for work in advertising and broadcast media. Potential bosses would respond to my attempts at landing a job with zingers such as, ‘we already have a woman,’ referring to one woman out of perhaps 50 employees. Finally, I got a job in advertising as the lowest-level copywriter.

We then moved to Boston, which I anticipated would be a forward-thinking, female-friendly city. After a lot of hard work, I got an entry level job at a TV station. I was asked to help produce programs I found distasteful and sensational. I thought we could and should do better, perhaps theatre or film reviews. But the General Manager told me, ‘you’re in Boston. We do sports here.’ I left his office discouraged yet again. It was lunch time, and I got in my car and took out my map to find Harvard University. I drove straight to HBS, and then to Harvard Law School, because I didn’t have a clue which path I wanted to follow. But I knew I needed some credentials.

Business school was not at all in my plan. I was welcomed by both admissions offices, which made a big difference. Both schools were at a turning point – they were being pressured to accept more women. The Law School Dean said, ‘you’re just what we like,’ because a liberal arts background makes good sense for the law. At the Business School, the admissions dean said, ‘It’s good that you’ve had some experience holding down a job.’ You see, men could come right out of school or the army into business school; but with women, they thought that was a bad gamble. I applied to HBS because it was only two years instead of three. It was a totally last-minute thing, but very exciting.

And then it was terrifying. On my first day of school, I got pulled aside. We were lined up, getting our cases when I was summoned to the dean’s office, where it was explained, it seemed to me, that as a “poet”, I had been admitted more as part of a trial experiment than in any recognition of my intellect or belief in my potential. There was no understanding on the school’s part that such an off-putting “welcome” could be viewed as a negative rather than a positive.

I thought business school would be like a job: you go in by day, and still have a life at night. But it was all consuming. The first day was a Monday, I had a dinner party planned for Wednesday. I thought, ‘I’m cancelling.’ I held very few dinner parties over the next two years.

The amount of work was overwhelming in areas where I had no familiarity. That’s the hard part about being a poet. I’d never done statistics, accounting, or managerial economics. And a lot of the guys had. For me, everything took such an effort in the beginning.

As time passed, the professors and some of the key administrators acknowledged that they were giving us more work than any human could possibly accomplish, because that’s what it’s like in business: you have to pick and choose what you can and should focus on. But at the beginning, there was a lot of anxiety among all of the first-year students.

My biggest ah-ha moment as an MBA was when I realized, ‘I’m going to pass these courses, and get decent grades in some of them!’ I was good at marketing and in organizational behavior – everything that relates to people. Students often ask me what the most important course is to be a successful entrepreneur. My answer is Psychology 101. You need to understand the people: employees, customers, suppliers, investors, etc.

The most important lesson from business school was that I could hold my own with the men – most of whom were “quants”. A strong liberal arts background became a huge plus in the real world.