A self-styled “bohemian idealist,” Adeola Ogunwole is black, a Southerner, and a lesbian, And she also was chosen to give the student address at Harvard Business School’s Class Day yesterday (May 27)—even though she never wanted to apply to Harvard in the first place.
A traditional centerpiece of HBS’ commencement events, Class Day is held the day before the university graduation and it is a business school celebration of the two-year MBA experience. The Class of 2015, noted Dean Nitin Nohria, will be remembered as “the class that survived the worst winter in Boston’s reported history.” Some 110 inches of snow fell on campus this past winter, canceling three full days of classes in February. “You should consider yourself record holders,” the dean quipped.
The highlight of the day was a compelling 13-minute speech given by Ogunwole to the 908 members of the MBA Class of 2015 on the sun-drenched Baker Lawn of the school’s campus in Boston. She was chosen as the student speaker through an audition process judged by her peers. The daughter of Nigerian immigrants to the U.S., Ogunwole traced her unusual path to the school and how her MBA experience has shaped her future. Her forcefully delivered speech should hold much appeal to would-be applicants who feel that Harvard Business School is an elusive, hard-to-reach goal, with an elbows-out culture that might clash with their personal values. And like official Class Day speaker Scott Cook, co-founder of Intuit and a 1976 HBS grad, the Class of 2015 MBA student started her talk with a confession.
“Right here, right now,” she said, “I must confess something to you all. I shouldn’t be here. Truly. Not in the figurative humble brag that my GMAT wasn’t perfect, or I could only speak three languages, or I only went to Yale. But very literally, I should not be here—not at this institution. Nothing about my background or ambitions spoke to a Harvard Business School pedigree.”
After her 2003 graduation from Washington University with a major in marketing and a minor in theater, her work background seemed jumbled. Her mother, a nurse, had always thought she would be a stockbroker. Instead, she found herself in a variety of wildly different jobs. She had worked at in sales at General Mills, at UBS investment bank in London just before the financial crisis hit, at a website operator in Silicon Valley, at the for-profit education provider Apollo Education Group, owner of the University of Phoenix, and had also done a jam and preserves startup.
“I carved out this professional path of near misses and detours that never seemed to add up to what I thought was the distinction of a typical HBS student,” she said. “HBS was also a mismatch of my personal identify as a bohemian idealist who cares more about preserving nectarines and mayer lemons than a balance sheet, I couldn’t see how this school would fit into my value system. As a woman of color, Southerner and lesbian, I had no concept of what it meant to be a boardroom leader because there were so few of them who seemed to embody all of whom I am.”
Ogunwole then went on to explain how she had no intention of applying to Harvard. “The only reason I chose to apply is because one of my mentors, an HBS alum, forced me to on condition of writing my letter of recommendation for a different school i had chosen. What finally sold me on applying to HBS was one of his ubiquitous Wayne Gretzky quotes. He told me, ‘Addie, you miss 100 of the shots you don’t take.’ He got me. It cut to my core sense of competitiveness. Having no recourse but to accept his challenge, I put in my application. So now I am here but I didn’t miraculously find my path once I landed in Boston. In my mind, I was still the different one—being the only black lesbian on campus during my entire tenure and Dee,” she said referring to Director of Admissions Dee Leopold, “if you are listening I hope you have someone else in the pipeline because this is it.”
FEAR AND ANGST OVER TELLING HER CLASSMATES THAT SHE WAS A LESBIAN
She confessed that she felt out of place her first few days on campus, but found solace in the section experience at HBS which carves up each incoming class of some 900 into ten sections of 90 students each. “I was shocked how easy it was to succumb to the beauty of having so many different opinions brought into the classroom and appreciating that while we may have many different perspectives, no one voice held the answer,” she said.
“The feeling of alienation began to dissipate when I started seeing the section for what it is: a collection of differences. Everyone brought their own bag with them. It’s just that our luggage looked a little different. The section experience forces us to confront our differences in the classroom. But this doesn’t only happen in the classroom or in one-on-one sessions with faculty. It happens in the cracks, in all the ephemeral, intangible moments: the small group dinners. the impromptu conversations in between classes.
“For me the moment that was most pivotal was my presentation for National Coming Out day to my section. I had so much fear and angst leading up to this discussion. What if i lose friends in the section because of who I am? What if I offend someone? What if no one shows up? What if I bare my soul and no one cares? Much to my relief, I found quite a different reaction. Because I was so willing to share something so essential to who I am, others in my section felt comfortable sharing their stories and struggles.”
Ultimately, Ogunwole conceded, she was completely mistaken in believing that Harvard wasn’t for her. “I was wrong,” she said. “As much as I wanted to believe that I shouldn’t be here, this is exactly where I needed to be. This experience, this push out of my comfort zone academically, this challenge of building community with so many different people, was the necessary discomfort to push me toward this incredibly rich and utterly stunning life I could nor had not imagined.”