“Dropping out of a business school?” Whoever heard of such a thing?”
This isn’t law school after all, where the Type A’s peg their identity to their class rank. And it’s certainly not medical school, where even the best-and-brightest crack under the workload. This is business school. Here – in theory, at least – no one cares about grades. At worst, it is a two-year job fair. At best, it is a time to step away and reflect, experiment, plan, and grow. If you wash out here, where else can you actually succeed?
For most, dropping out comes with a stigma. You can almost hear your mother: “You’re wasting a rare opportunity – not to mention all that money!” In business school, dropouts aren’t dismissed as quitters with something wrong with them. Instead, they are pioneers who are making a business decision on where to best spend their valuable time and money. That’s especially true at Harvard Business School.
MOST DROPPING OUT TO START COMPANIES
On the surface, few would embrace leaving HBS as a sound career choice. The safer bet would be to suck it up and collect your $145K average starting salary after graduation. As five HBS dropouts share in a new piece in The Harbus, leaving early – while a wrenching choice – doesn’t carry the devastating consequences for business students as it would for other professions.
“Dropping out is a no-loss situation,” argues Steve Hind (’16), Editor-in-Chief of The Harbus. “You’ve got a year of HBS experience and branding under your belt, and a “can’t wait” opportunity. On top of that, the school will take you back, so even if the opportunity doesn’t work out, all you’ve done is got an extra year or few of experience.”
Indeed, none of these five dropouts left school for the usual reasons: Family emergencies, running out of money, or flunking out of Finance 1. Like talented athletes, they checked out to pursue a passion or maximize their value. In each case, they founded or joined a startup. They weren’t blindly following the path of Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer. Instead, they recognized that timing was everything. With a game-changing proposition (and funding) available, they took a leap of faith – knowing such windows are short and such opportunities rarely come around twice.
A CHANCE TO FOLLOW A PASSION AND MAKE A DIFFERENCE
This summer, Nate Noughton co-founded growthIQ, which provides data analysis and leasing intelligence to help franchise restaurants expand. He elected to defer his second year after watching his company gain traction after launch. For Noughton, working on his startup was a better investment than finishing his degree. “My gut tells me that it could be a very large, successful business,” he tells The Harbus. “Staying to run growth IQ wasn’t actually a very difficult decision: The opportunity cost of going back was much higher than the opportunity cost of staying. In my view, HBS gives me a decently high “floor” for my career, but launching growth IQ raises my “ceiling” significantly by forcing me to learn things like product and break out of my mold.”
Alec Lee admits that he didn’t plan enough before entering HBS. “[My first] year went by too fast. I picked all my EC classes haphazardly and don’t really know what I want out of the rest of the HBS experience.” As a result, he left school and co-founded a biotech startup in San Francisco, where he has funding to cover testing for the upcoming months. In a sense, he is saving his second year to make it really count. “I won’t regret taking my time, but I’m pretty sure I’ll regret rushing through.”
Ellen Chisa unexpectedly discovered her true passion at HBS, which led her to dropping out. “It was May before someone pointed out to me that I really love making things, and I’d learn more from a founder that I respect, and who has scaled a business.” She completed a successful summer internship at Blade Travel, a startup launched by Kayak’s team. After growing attached to the founders, she accepted an offer to become the firm’s first employee. “Right now I’m doing a little of everything – I’ve written code, made financial models, and do the day to day product work.”
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