Hope For The Hopeless: Confessions Of A Stanford GSB Dreamer

Valerie Rivera

Disclaimer: I hesitate to share this story in the vein of providing advice to B-school hopefuls. It’s crazy. There’s no guarantee it can be replicated. If you take this path, you may derail your career, relationships, and sanity along the way. But if you’re a ridiculously stubborn dreamer like me, know that statistically inexplicable things do happen – and they just might happen to you! (Good karma probably helps, too…)

Have you seen that infamous Leeroy Jenkins video? It’s the one where a WoW player, oblivious to the plan hatched up by his team, runs headlong into battle and gets massacred.* That’s easily how my bid to get into the GSB could have ended.

A few crucial facts:

  • I enlisted in the Air Force after high school. That’s right, enlisted (more on this later).
  • No fancy college here. In fact, I might be the first person from Hawaii Pacific University to attend the GSB. It took me a decade of night school and online classes to get my degree in Diplomacy and Military Studies.
  • GMAT scores – meh. I naively thought they would add points for the written portion. Wrong!
  • At 34, I’m old. I even have twin boys who are almost as tall as me.
  • I’d never known anyone who went to the GSB – didn’t visit campus, either.

If I had been featured in Handicapping Your MBA Odds, the analysis would have been too brutal to publish. Seriously.

Aside from all that, there were things that made me interesting. For example, I speak Mandarin and spent over a decade in the intelligence community. However, translating Mandarin wasn’t my calling – instead, I was much more effective translating industry best-practices into solutions for the military and government. Unnecessary bureaucracy became my enemy, and soul-crushing work environments became my nemesis. With a few trusty sidekicks by my side, we plotted against them – armed with knowledge we’d gleaned from books and TED talks. With little formal power, we managed to transform our “company” culture into one that was both positive and productive. Our little ding in the universe! I was hooked – and getting an MBA seemed like a logical step to prepare for starting my own consulting firm.

An MBA wasn’t part of some master plan – rather, it snuck up on me as life unfolded. I’d always thought of business schools as churning out analysts for Wall Street or some other profit-motivated endeavor. Not bad, but not appealing to me. Through my reading, I encountered profiles of various Stanford MBAs involved in meaningful projects. Could this be a school where someone like me could thrive? I did some research. The GSB motto of “Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world” sucked me in like a tractor beam. That’s exactly what I wanted to do! Naturally, I worried about how I would stack up compared to other applicants. Then I found this: “While the Stanford GSB community does include students who have pursued incomparable opportunities, most Stanford MBA students have excelled by doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. What you make of an experience matters to us, not simply the experience itself.” Getting admitted to the GSB would be a long shot, but it seemed worth a try.

My heart was dead-set on Stanford – I didn’t apply to any other schools. In my case, the path to the Class of 2017 was fraught with uncertainty and risk. For starters, I’d have to leave the Air Force with 15 years of service – only 5 short years away from retirement, which is almost unheard of. Then, my husband would have to find a job in the Bay Area. The prospect of living on one income in one of the most expensive cities in the US was enough to give him a near heart attack – literally. But nothing could quite prepare us for the agony of being waitlisted from December until August. It was to the point where I’d only get a spot if someone dropped out of the incoming class. When the call came from Derrick Bolton, we were ready – I’d quit my job and we’d moved from Hawaii to California. I’d gambled everything and set us on a path we couldn’t escape, only to have it all work out in the end.

Taking these kinds of chances isn’t for everyone, but the journey was worth it. In fact, it’s probably a bit sweeter because it was so incredibly hard.

Some have asked how the experience has changed me. To say that I’ve grown – both academically and personally – is an understatement. Without a background in business, foundation classes like finance and operations were new and eye-opening. And now that I’m in my second year, I have complete latitude over my schedule. Last quarter, I took my first d.school class – one of my bucket-list goals. Academics aside, we have access to a mind-blowing array of fascinating people – not just leaders and CEOs, but our own classmates, professors, and alumni. Reading Adam Grant’s Originals earlier this year, I marveled at how I’d gone from reading books like these, with every name a stranger, to actually knowing some of the people referenced. So yes, it’s true that my network is stronger. More importantly, spending time with brilliant, driven people has expanded my realm of the possible. When I try to explain my time here to family and friends, I say that it feels like winning a platinum ticket to the universe. Along with that comes a sense of responsibility and a desire to pay it forward – especially to those with similarly humble backgrounds.

As a veteran and a mother, I’m still struck by how these roles set me apart at Stanford. It’s funny to go from a life where that is the norm to one where you are automatically considered a badass and a superhuman. Not that I mind! But there is another role that I find more complicated – being an enlisted veteran. On one hand, I don’t want to put too much emphasis on labels like “officer” and “enlisted.” Most non-veterans have no clue about the distinction, anyways. But on the other hand, I point it out because it’s important to dispel the assumption that all veterans at schools like Stanford are officers. Why? Because I want to see other enlisted people here – and those seeking a graduate degree will be more likely to consider applying to top schools if they see someone else doing it. I worked with so many brilliant people who, for one reason or another, didn’t seek a commission. If they wanted to, they could easily be at Stanford or another top school – but they are few and far in between. Here’s where the law of averages comes into play. In the active duty world, educational opportunities like full-time MBA programs or fellowships are restricted to officers. Just a handful of programs at military or government schools are open to enlisted. Due to the divided nature of the military, the goals, aspirations and conversations among peer groups tend to be quite different. We are shaped by these networks and the kind of information that flows (or doesn’t flow) within them.

Nowhere was this more evident than during a recent Veterans Retreat at the GSB. I learned that out of the 30+ veterans who attended, most knew at least one other person there before school (some were even former roommates!). And if they didn’t know someone at Stanford, they had friends at HBS or Wharton or elsewhere – friends they could ask for advice as they went through the application process. In contrast, I knew no one. I didn’t even know about programs like Service to School, which helps veterans get into top universities. By the time I signed up to be a mentor, I’d already finished my first year at the GSB. Unsurprisingly, many of my officer friends had taken advantage of these resources. Perhaps I’m just clueless, but it’s unlikely that my experience is unique. I want to help change that, which is why I decided to write about it here. How might we encourage more enlisted veterans to apply to top schools, or top employers? And how might we lessen the stigma of being a “blue-collar” enlisted person vs. a “white-collar” officer? 

Future Plans

By now, you may have sensed a trend in what makes me tick – creating conditions where people can reach their highest potential. Most of us will spend 40+ hours at work each week. Shouldn’t it be a source of joy, satisfaction, and growth instead of just a job? It might sound idealistic, but it is possible – and culture plays a huge role. A great culture can be a force-multiplier. A negative culture can behave like a tax, wasting time, energy, and resources. It’s challenging work, but witnessing the positive transformation is very satisfying. That’s what’s driving me to start my own consulting firm after graduation – Take Back Work. From workshops to coaching, we’ll be able to help small startups as well as large companies. It’s a little scary, but exciting, too. 

Here are a few thoughts to ponder for fellow long-shot applicants. 

Take the evaluation criteria at face value

Some people try to search for hidden meanings and mixed messages. If the GSB claims that there is no “typical” candidate and that no single factor is decisive, why not believe that? Read everything on the official application website, paying particular attention to the evaluation criteria. Does that sound like you? If so, maybe you’ll be a compelling candidate.

Concentrate on what makes you shine

Don’t let a bad test score or low GPA keep you from applying. Play up your strengths while acknowledging your weaknesses. Remember the law of diminishing returns? Put your energy to use where it can make the biggest impact.

Make every part of your application count

GPAs and GMAT scores aren’t everything. Take your time with the application – it’s a long one. Each section is a chance to share a bit of what makes you interesting. There are short-answer questions on topics like “why did you leave this job?” and “what was your biggest challenge in this role?” Use these spaces to present a richer, deeper picture of who you are and what makes you tick. 

Ignorance can be bliss

In retrospect, visiting campus or talking to GSB grads might have intimidated me to the point where I decided not to apply. The same thing goes for spending too much time reading about other people’s test scores, work experiences, and stats. Instead of comparing yourself to them, focus on telling your story.

Give yourself a chance

It’s the admission committee’s job to make decisions – don’t write yourself off, or let well-meaning friends and family talk you out of even trying. Like Wayne Gretzky used to say, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” You might be the person they are looking for!

I’m not saying to forego campus visits, bomb your GMAT, and ignore sage advice. It’s smart to be prepared and informed, especially if you’re trying to get admitted to a top-tier B-School. But there are dreamers out there whose life paths have left them with a few unchecked boxes, and those don’t have to be deal-breakers. Who knows? You might have checked boxes you didn’t even know existed!

*I’m not a gamer, but you can’t be an Air Force linguist and not know a few.

Valerie Rivera is a second-year MBA candidate at Stanford and an Ambassador for Service to School. After graduation, she plans to launch Take Back Work, a workplace culture consultancy to help organizations create environments where people thrive.

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