The Trump Shock In The MBA Bubble

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

“Who here thinks Trump will win?,” asked Kevin Sharer, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School. On Monday morning, the day before Trump’s upset victory in the Presidential election, only three out of nearly 90 MBA students in Sharer’s corporate strategy class raised their hands. After all, Donald Trump, the Wharton undergrad, was supported by only 3% of Harvard’s MBA students, according to a pre-election survey by The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper.

So when Trump pulled the proverbial rabbit out of a hat on Tuesday, there was utter shock on the campus where graduating MBAs this year year started jobs with compensation packages of $158,080 to start, more than three times the $51,939 median household income in America.

The mood on the HBS campus—and business school and university campuses all over the U.S.—is “somber and perplexed,” notes Preeya Sud, who will graduate from Harvard with her MBA next year. “No one expected this. HBS students are known to say, somewhat flippantly, that we live in a bubble…Just how much of a bubble we live in seems to finally be sinking in.”

Or, as one glum Harvard MBA student put it, “HBS gave the world Bush. Wharton gave us Trump.”


The upset victory by Trump has led to widespread protests and vigils on college campuses. At Trump’s Philadelphia alma mater, students marked his victory by marching in solidarity against him. Some professors cancelled classes and moved back exam dates and deadlines for papers. Wharton junior Jennifer Hutchens told The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper at Penn, that she spent election night crying with members of her sorority.  At the University of Chicago, hundreds of students gathered in the quad for a “primal scream” and an anti-Trump demonstration that included burning t-shirts and posters in support of the candidate.

The Harbus asked Harvard MBAs to anonymously share their reflections on Trump’s victory. Some 40 students immediately expressed their feelings the day after the election. Not surprisingly, most were shocked and stunned by the news. They called it “unconscionable,” “a vote for racism and misogyny,” “embarrassing, infuriating, terrifying,” and “what the ever lovin’ f?!?”

“I’m an Asian-American woman, a first-generation immigrant, and a first-time voter, having become a citizen in 2014,” wrote one Harvard MBA student. “During my citizenship ceremony, I felt so proud and excited to become an American. The origin country of every new citizen was announced that day to cheers and celebration. I felt I was entering the embrace of the greatest country in the world – one that honored my heritage and personal identity.

“Today, that excitement has fallen through a pit in my stomach. To me, Trump’s impending victory tells me everything I need to know about how I am seen by half of America. It tells me how little value is placed on me as a person of color, an immigrant, and a woman. I feel put in my place, and my place is not here.”


Added another HBS student, “As a brown woman who came to this country five years ago, I never once felt discriminated against and always appreciated how America is so progressive considering gay rights, equality, and pro-choice! And now I realize this was because I was primarily living in the blue states. Today, I’m appalled to see that the country I’ve loved actually has a majority that sees me as both brown and a woman. I feel weirdly unaccepted.”

The angst on college campuses all across the U.S. drew cynical responses from many Trump supporters. “I don’t see any option for the special snowflakes other than crying, screaming and stomping their feet until Trump resigns,” wrote a commenter to a story about protests by the Yale Daily News. “I’d like to help them cope by donating a couple of cases of binkies for the safe rooms — where should I ship them to?”

On the HBS campus, at least one MBA conceded he had supported the Republican candidate. “I’m one of the secret Trump supporters,” he wrote. “He’s an impossible candidate to be proud of supporting, or to even defend, but I truly believe he is the lesser of two evils and still very much an unknown in terms of how he will lead. My decision ultimately came down to my belief that our nation’s system of checks and balances will keep Trump in check, with even his own party guaranteed to challenge him, whereas Hillary will never be held accountable for her actions by any of the institutions that are supposed to do so – the courts, the media, even the FBI.”


And at UPenn, College Republicans President and Wharton senior Jennifer Knesbach maintained her group’s neutrality. The club decided not to denounce Trump after recordings of him bragging about committing sexual assault were made public. “There has been a lot of mixed views within the club,” she told The Daily Pennsylvanian. “A lot of members were really unhappy today and a lot of our members were happy and excited about Trump’s win.”

At Yale University’s School of Management, Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies Jeffrey Sonnenfeld attributed Trump’s victory to the failure of elites to hear the concerns of disenfranchised blue collar workers. “Secretary Clinton has been a friend for 30 years and Trump – ultimately a friend for 12 years – after a rough start,” he says (see The B-School Professor & Donald Trump). ” Trump’s win is not primarily due to James Comey’s missteps, Vladimir Putin’s hostile intervention, Julianne Assange’s  malicious maneuvers, misguided trade isolationism,  or even the horrific and real lingering shadows of misogyny, nativism, bigotry.  Success and failure here is more attributable to images of trust and perceived hypocrisy as well as the candidates ability to pierce the elite bubble to  hear the concerns of much of the nation regarding trade, immigration, and jobs. “

One of the more thoughtful conclusions from an MBA student came from Harvard Business School’s Rafael Rivera, who was born in Mexico and who had worked for McKinsey & Company in the offices of Mexico City, Mumbai, and Dubai, and for the World Bank in Cambodia. “The fact that we are deeply surprised about the results reveals how disconnected we are from the average citizen,” wrote Rivera on a Huffington Post essay.

“While we have been blessed with an education at Harvard Business School, our situation might also put some distance between us and the vast majority of citizens. As aspiring leaders in business and politics, we cannot ignore the problems of our people. Inequality, stagnant wages, terrorism, and poor welfare are issues faced by developed and developing countries alike. Our education is a great privilege, but also a big responsibility to find real solutions to those problems.”


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.