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He Dropped Out Of High School. Now He’s At HBS

Rahkeem Morris talks about Aday, the B2B HR and operations startup he cofounded, at the Harvard New Venture competition in April. Courtesy photo

It’s no exaggeration to say that Rahkeem Morris took one of the most unusual paths to business school you’ll ever hear about. Or that he is probably more immune to stress than most because of the responsibilities he had to shoulder at a young age.

Living with two siblings in a single-parent household in Albany, New York, Morris dropped out of high school at 14 to help care for his younger brother. The next four years were all about family and work, as Morris did odd jobs — by his count more than 10, mostly in the service industry and often two at a time — to help his mom makes ends meet. It wasn’t until he was 20 that Morris earned his diploma.

But in the 10 years since, his life has taken a fruitful turn: He graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University, went to work for GE and Google, and began the full-time MBA program at Harvard Business School. Now, as his first year at HBS draws to a close, Morris is looking to translate his experiences in the work world into a venture to mobilize and modernize the lower-skilled workforce across a spectrum of blue-collar occupations. The startup, Aday, a finalist in HBS’ recent 20th annual New Venture Competition, brings Morris’ journey into sharp relief.

“Everything is going really well,” Morris says of his nearly complete first year at Harvard — and life in general. “It’s been great. I’m making a lot of new friends and really great connections. It’s been very challenging in a different way than I’m used to, and also doing this startup on top of it, it’s been another thing that I’m trying to manage — but so far, it’s good. I’ve done a lot of things that I’m proud of in the first year.”

FROM DROPOUT TO HARVARD MBA IN 16 SHORT YEARS

Rahkeem Morris. Courtesy photo

Harvard Business School keeps track of a lot of facts about its MBA cohorts. Average GMAT score. Percentage of women. Percentage of under-represented minorities. Previous employment industry. But nowhere does HBS have any statistics on the number of one-time high school dropouts in its MBA ranks.

There’s probably good reason for that: Rahkeem Morris is the only one.

And while the massive, 942-person Class of 2018 includes perhaps the most diverse skill set of any elite business school, undertaking what is undoubtedly one of the most difficult business management programs in the world, few if any can claim to have handled the kind of pressures Morris has for more than half of his life. “It’s very bizarre in a way, but things are easier now,” he says.

Morris, in a recent phone interview, spoke to Poets&Quants about his unique journey. He talked about his upbringing, his life at Cornell and Harvard, and his work history, which informs Aday, the digital matching firm he co-founded that provides a liquid workforce for lower-skilled, hourly positions. Or as Morris, 30, calls it, “the future of work.”

Your journey is fascinating. You actually dropped out of high school at one point. Why did you do that, and what changed things for you that you would go back to school?

I dropped out at 14 and I did a ton of odd jobs, sometimes working two jobs. Long story short, I have a younger brother who is 10 years younger than me. I grew up in a single-parent family like many people do, and every morning I had to bring my brother to day care. I was 14, he was 4 or 5, and it’s pretty difficult to get someone who is 4 or 5 washed up, dressed up, and across town. I would be late to school every day, for my first period, and I more or less came to realize that people didn’t care if I didn’t go to school at all.

The dominoes began to fall at that point. First it was first period, then that became first and second period, and first, second, and third period, and so on. All of a sudden I wasn’t going to school at all. And that’s how I dropped out.

But when I went back to high school, there was this manila folder that they kept everyone’s records in, and on the front of my folder they wrote on my folder that I was in prison. And I’ve never been to prison before. And it was just really a strange thing.

I went back to high school at 18. My high school has this weird program where anyone can be able to pass a final exam for the test, and you get full course credit for that one class. So I ended up graduating about three years of school in single year. At that point I was two years behind my initial graduation year, so I ended up graduating undergrad when I was 24, when the typical age is 22.

You went to Cornell University for your undergraduate degree in applied economics and management. Talk about the process of being accepted at Cornell. Did you get in right away? 

When I applied there, they didn’t accept me right away. I can’t remember the exact number but they told me that I needed to get a 3.5 or 3.8 at another school. I suppose my transcript didn’t look like everyone else’s applying to Cornell! But they had this thing called guaranteed transfer, which is more or less to prove to them that you have college readiness. And so I was able to go do a mixture of community college and also SUNY-Albany, and graduated with a 3.9 and was able to transfer to Cornell as a “guaranteed transfer” my sophomore year.

At Cornell I graduated magna cum laude. It’s fair to say I was definitely not going to waste my opportunity. I also always worked one or two jobs, the whole time.

I initially wanted to be a lawyer and go to law school, but I spoke to a lot of people and they told me it was not a good fit for my personality. (Laughs) So one of my focuses in undergrad was keeping my GPA up because I knew it was very important for law school. Then over time, during my first year working at GE is when I became certain I wanted to apply for an MBA.