Stories Of MBAs Who Don’t Want To Be In The 1%

The day before Harvard Business School graduated its 100th class of MBAs, John Coleman stood at a podium in a red tie and a blue shirt to deliver an inspiring speech to fellow graduates in the Class of 2010. That Coleman, one of eight to receive the prestigious Dean’s Award for service to Harvard and society, was even up there to address the latest crop of future business leaders was nothing less than an extraordinary achievement.

“You see,” said Coleman, “like many of you, I didn’t grow up with Harvard as an expectation. When I was born, my family lived in a trailer park in Central Florida. My dad, a former rodeo cowboy, was scraping by finishing an undergraduate degree; and my mom made it her job to find ways for me to develop and learn with the limited resources we had.”

It may sound nearly improbable that someone could go from a trailer park in Florida to earn a joint degree from the world’s most powerful and influential business school as well as the Harvard Kennedy School–and even more improbable that you’re chosen to address the latest 901 MBAs that Harvard had thrown into the troubled and crisis-ridden world.


In his speech on HBS’ Class Day, Coleman acknowledged as much. “Our two years here have been a season of destruction. Hundred-year-old institutions have fallen like dominoes and markets have plummeted — endangering pensions, college funds, and retirement plans around the world. We’ve witnessed Masters of the Universe in business and politics who have exercised more creativity in evading the law, amassing power, and harming their fellow human beings than in conceiving of solutions to make this world a better place. And millions of people have lost their homes, their jobs, and their hope. MBAs like us have been keenly sensitive to the crisis because we’ve born at least some share of the blame. But as we graduate tomorrow, the primary question for our class – for our generation – is not “What happened?” but “Where do we go from here?”

Coleman attempts to answer that question in a fascinating new book, Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders (Harvard Business Review Press), he co-authored with two other former HBS classmates, Daniel Gulati and W. Oliver Segovia. In it, the three MBAs clearly wanted to transcend the then zeitgeist that blamed business schools and their graduates for the collapse of the global economy.

Their goal: to paint a more substantive portrait of trends shaping the passions and purpose of young leaders and the future of business. At a time when tens of thousands are protesting economic inequality, the book could very easily be interpreted as a defense of the strivers who very much want to be part of the 1%. That would be a mistake.

While many MBAs are getting the degree in the hopes that it will help them live more productive and financially satisfying lives, few aim to be catapulted beyond the 99%–despite the popular stereotype.

Any one who has been on a business school campus in the past 20 years or more knows this to be true. As the authors conclude, “Young businesspeople want to find purpose in their profession and have a passion for what they do. As they come of age, they are growing up with the belief that business can provide us with a way of translating a meaningful, personal purpose into work that impacts the world in a positive way.”

In other words, MBAs are not merely in it for the money. As to the big hairy question of who’s to blame for the economic crisis—an issue that loomed large when these three authors were at Harvard Business School—there is no real answer.


“We don’t honestly address the retrospective “Who is responsible?” question,” says Coleman, who now works for McKinsey & Co in Atlanta office. “We tried to stay more forward-looking on what people are doing now and what they’ll do in the future that can make a positive impact. There are right and wrong ways to attribute this (economic troubles) to MBAs. They deserve part of the blame for all those things that happened. But we wanted to look ahead to the future.”

And that’s exactly what they did. The book is mostly a crowd-sourced pastiche of first-person narratives written by more than two dozen young business leaders, interviews with seven “business luminaries,” including a pair of prominent B-school deans, Harvard’s Nitin Nohria and Berkeley’s Rich Lyons, and a survey of more than 500 current and recent MBAs. The survey largely gathered the views of MBAs from Harvard, Stanford, Darden, Tuck, Wharton, and MIT Sloan and was conducted in the fall of 2010.

As the authors explain it, “We ‘crowd-sourced’ in this way because we wanted to present a broader set of views than the three of us could provide alone.”

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