Benjamin Fernandes was at a fork in the road. The native of Tanzania was weeks away from getting his bachelor’s degree from the University of Northwestern-St. Paul, and he had three good job offers on the table. One involved a lot of money — the most, he says, that anyone in his graduating class had been offered — and a green card. Not only that, but despite applying in round 3, having no post-graduate work experience, and having scored abysmally low on the General Management Admission Test, Fernandes managed to get on the waitlist at both Harvard Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business.
So what did he decide to do? Turn down the job offers and go home.
It was the beginning of a long detour. By the end of it, Fernandes would not only be a Stanford Class of 2017 MBA, he’d be a celebrity in Tanzania, preparing for graduate studies at an globally respected public policy school, and planning a complete modernization of his country’s financial services — and, he hopes, a future in that country’s government.
GOOD FORTUNE AND TOUGH ACADEMIC LUCK
Fernandes’ declined to start his career in the United States for one simple reason: He “felt indebted.” And he has a point. Tanzania is a poor country; by some estimates, more than a third of its 53 million citizens live below the poverty line. Fernandes, raised in the coastal metropolis of Dar es Salaam, was no stranger to financially challenging conditions. But from an early age, he was fortunate. He and his sister Bernice, one year his senior, were sponsored by a British family to attend K-12 school at a time when public school was not universal or free. Later, he was supported by teachers, co-workers, family, and community in his desire to attend college in the U.S.
In fact, as a soccer-obsessed kid who was a poor test-taker — “When I was a senior in high school,” he says, “I wasn’t a smart kid” — he was fortunate to have the chance to go to college at all. There was just one problem: His grades were so bad, his academic ambitions seemed likely to come to an early end.
“When I was playing sports, it was my outlet, but my grades were sacrificed, so when I was a senior I didn’t do well academically,” Fernandes, 24, tells Poets&Quants. “We were graded on the British system — A-B-C-D-E-F-U. Our teacher told us that a U meant so far below F that you’re Ungraded. I had two U’s and two D’s. So of course when you apply to university with two U’s and two D’s the acceptance rate is not gonna be good.
“I applied to four universities that my sister applied to and got rejected by all four.”
ONE QUARTER TO MAKE IT WORK
Once again, Fernandes got a break. He struck up an email conversation with the admissions team at the University of Northwestern, where his sister Bernice was attending. And he begged.
“I began emailing back and forth with them asking them to give me a second chance, and they said, ‘We’ll tell you what, we’ll give you one quarter, you do well, you stay, you don’t do well, you’re out.’ I said, ‘I’ll take it.’”
Fernandes didn’t waste his chance. Not only did he do well that first quarter, he got good grades for four straight years.
GOODBYE TO A BRUTAL INDUSTRY
Meanwhile, each summer, Fernandes was living something of a double life back home in Tanzania.
He had become a national television personality when, at 17, he was noticed for his “animated” play on the soccer pitch and encouraged to translate that enthusiasm to TV. He hosted a handful of sports shows, and then he quit.
He didn’t quit because he was about to embark on his undergraduate studies in the U.S. He quit because of the negative feedback.
“TV is brutal,” Fernandes says. “We didn’t have Facebook, really, or Twitter or Instagram, they weren’t big then, and so it was mainly text messages. People would text in their views and comments, and what I would do is, right after the show, I’d go and read those comments, and as a 17-year-old, it was brutal.
“So I was burned out on the industry, and I said, ‘I don’t like this industry, I’ll never go back to it, I’m out, I quit.’ I was done, and I moved to the U.S. to go to undergrad.”
But it wasn’t long before he did go back — and when he did, television became a bigger part of his life than ever before.