From Consulting To Oxford’s B-School

Greg Coussa graduated from Oxford University's Said Business School in 2013

Greg Coussa graduated from Oxford University’s Said Business School in 2013

When I went on the mission trip I thought I would have “X” impact. I’d build a wall, and it would be Greg’s wall. If I’m being really honest, I moved a few desks and played with the kids. But I also developed a microfinance program for small business owners in Haiti. I met with entrepreneurs and researchers in microfinance institutions, and we eventually established a partnership with Zafen, an online microfinance initative, to train our entrepreneurs. We’d vet their business models and funnel them on to Zafen, who would put the approved entrepreneurs on their website to raise funding.

I assumed that once we posted our entrepreneurs online, they’d be off to the races selling food and drinks or clothes. I thought we would transform Le Plain, the town outside Port Au Prince where we worked, and maybe even transform the country. I had very lofty goals. But it was somewhat of a failure. We had a few entrepreneurs on the platform, but I felt like I was spinning my wheels. It was like I had a marketing education for an electrical engineering role. My team was running in the dark with me.

I still remember the tipping point. I continued to work on the project in Haiti while I was employed full time with CAST. I was in the middle of a consulting project for a bank, when I found a story about Zafen. I was so excited because their model was exactly what we were trying to do. I called the journalist who wrote the story and eventually got in touch with the executive director. It was that day I realized I actually enjoyed what I was doing.

I have a lot of passions, but I’ve never had this type of passion for a career thing. I had a simple thought: Why don’t I do something like this all the time? Why don’t I dedicate my life to more socially focused endeavors? It was nice but unsettling, because I didn’t know what my future was going to look like.  I was on the 30-something floor of this bank near the trading desks, surrounded by people trading millions of dollars, and I was thinking about maybe lending $1,500 to an entrepreneur. It was a stark contrast.

In September 2011, I was about to book a flight to San Francisco to celebrate Oktoberfest, when I had another light-bulb moment: I should go to business school. I didn’t go to San Francisco. Instead, I stayed home, studied for the GMAT, and took the test three months later – a few days after Christmas. It was miserable.

People warned me that you need three months for the applications alone, but I figured I’d give it a shot. I applied to Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford in January. Afterward, I booked a one-way flight to the Philippines with a friend from undergrad who had applied to law school. We figured if we both got in, we’d make our way back to California. If we didn’t, we’d just keep traveling. I found out one week after I quit my job that I’d been accepted to Oxford.

I had never seen anything like Oxford’s campus. I still haven’t seen anything like that. It sounds sissy-esque to say, but it was incredibly majestic (I think of a unicorn when I use that word). You really do struggle to find ugly buildings in that city. It’s another world – sort of like scuba diving. I attended formal dinner parties. For exams you’re required to wear subfesc, basically a Harry Potter robe, and a white bow tie. If any of them are missing when you show up for an exam, they’ll turn you away, and you’ll have to take it again. You lay it all out the night before so you don’t forget. It all sounds sort of Medieval.

I’m from southern California so I used to wear baseball caps and skateboard to class every day. I didn’t fit in, but neither did anyone else. We had 192 people from 41 counties in my class, and only 6% of them were British. So everyone is from somewhere else.

Oxford is also organized by colleges, and you have to apply to get in. I knew I wanted an old one, and I was accepted at Herford. They determine your social group, accomodation, food, and external experiences. It’s like a fraternity or sorority in undergrad. Mine had a bar, and I joined the rowing team.

People don’t talk about it much, but students in an MBA program are coming from good jobs and high-paying careers, and some can afford to do a lot. So you’re writing a $80,000 tuition check and you want to experience all of these things on the side, but then you realize you don’t have enough money for it all.

My first term was really hard because you’re staring massive debt in the face. I knew what the pay looked like in management consulting and I knew what the pay looked like post MBA – you could double your salary. It was hard feeling that rush for consulting jobs. The thought entered my mind that I could enter consulting for two years and pay off my loans. But I realized that if it was only about the money, I would have stayed at my old job.

Two professors, Alex Nicholls and Mac Ventresca helped me a lot. I’d come to Prof. Vetresca and say I’m interested in a particular topic, and he would write me an email with resources to read and put me in touch with a dozen experts in the field. Alex was openly honest about the field, and his course on social finance was probably my favorite class at Oxford.

Just last night a friend told me, “I love what you do.” I have friends who are lawyers, bankers, and traders. They’re  holding society’s best positions, and I think they’re happy, but they’re not content. You go into these jobs because you want to make a lot money, but when you’re making money two things happen: You match your lifestyle to your income, so you’re spending more and then you want to make more. Two, you’re constantly surrounded by colleagues who make more than you do. You’re never going to be the one making the most. So when it’s about the money, you’re never going to be content. First it’s, “All I want to do is make six figures.” Then, it’s, “All I want to do is make stupid money so I can buy a Porsche and not have to think about it.” But where do you go from there? Coma money?

My biggest piece of advice for any MBA is that once you get an inclination about what you want to do and who you’d like to work for, reach out to an organization and volunteer your time. It shows you care and that you’re willing to put in the time just for the sake of learning and not compensation. If you do a good job and a position opens up, chances are you’re going to be leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else. The organization has a rapport with you and they know what you’re capable of doing. So reach out to everybody and don’t be scared.

You don’t need to know what you want to do before you get your MBA. When you get to campus be patient with yourself and try different things. If you’re truly passionate about social entrepreneurship, get ready to have an internal battle about money but stay the course.

DON’T MISS: My Story: From Accenture To Founder or My Story: From Zimbabwe To A Stanford MBA



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