You could call Shawn Xu a child of Silicon Valley. He and his family immigrated to the United States when he was a toddler, and he grew up in the heart of the Silicon Valley suburbs. He graduated from the same high school that Apple cofounders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak attended, and often rode his bike past the garage on 2066 Crist Dr. in Los Altos where they hand made the first Apple computers.
“So much of my life has been informed by my upbringing in Silicon Valley,” says Xu, 27, now an MBA student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “It was very formative. I was taught HTML in middle school and began making simple websites when I was 13 years old. My idea of a good time in high school was writing business plans for startups and getting mentored by entrepreneurs.”
After rising up through the ranks at several startups in San Francisco, Xu started thinking about going back to school to earn an MBA. That’s when he began hearing a familiar refrain from friends and colleagues working in the high-flying entrepreneurial tech scene in the Bay Area. Almost universally, they counseled against it. “I consistently kept hearing, ‘Why would you take two years off in your mid-20s to go back to school? This will totally halt your momentum. Why would you take that risk?”
‘TAKE THE $250K YOU’LL PAY IN MBA TUITION AND JUST START A COMPANY’
At times, Xu recalls, the arguments against business school became quite heated. One good friend of Xu’s, a Y-Combinator founder, told him, “If you want to be an entrepreneur, why don’t you just take the $250,000 that you would have paid down for business school and start a company instead? Even if you fall on your face, you’ll learn something. Business school is too structured and it’s hard to learn anything.” Even Silicon Valley players with MBAs on their resumes urged Xu to stay put and not return to school.
Another friend of Xu’s, a Harvard Business School MBA who is successful in venture capital, told him: “‘If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t. I loved my time at Harvard, but did I really need to get the MBA to be successful in my job? No, I didn’t.’” Xu heard it all. “If you want to build a network,” advised one friend, “you can do that here in the valley by getting a coffee meeting once a day every day with someone interesting. You’ll build just as good of a network in the industry you want to be in, if not better, than the one you’ll get in business school.
“‘And if you want to go to business school to take a breather and enjoy a great social life, well, I bet you can find a better way to spend a quarter of a million dollars on parties and travel than what’d you get through business school. “‘And the jury is out on whether the skills you get in business school are worth it. You could take your quarter of a million and use some of it to get really sharp on technical skills or conduct dedicated self study on artificial intelligence, machine learning, or whatever.’”
CRITICS INCLUDE SUPERSTAR VCS MARC ANDREESSEN & PETER THIEL
If all the negative comments gave him pause, what really made him think especially hard about the decision was the day he interviewed an MBA who wanted a job at Square, the $16 billion fintech company cofounded by Twitter chief Jack Dorsey. Xu worked as the point guy for Square’s country launches in Europe. “She was an MBA grad just a couple of years older than me who was interviewing for a junior role on my team,” recalls Xu. “I thought why would I take two years off and come back to the same spot I was in two years earlier? There is an HBS grad who is a friend of mine who said, ‘I don’t feel I have an advantage in interviewing for these jobs. There is no sense that because you came from Harvard or Wharton that you have some significant advantage over the person who already has proven themselves in the same industry.’”
The backdrop to all the disapproving talk from colleagues and friends, moreover, has been the a parade of comments from some of tech’s leaders who have publicly come out against formal education. Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen famously said that when MBA graduating classes start wanting to go into tech startups it would be a leading indicator of a bubble forming. Peter Thiel, an early investor in Facebook and a co-founder of PayPal, claims that MBAs tend to get caught up in groupthink, arguing that they are more often than not “high extrovert/low conviction people.” Even Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, herself an MBA from Harvard, has said that “… MBAs are not necessary at Facebook and I don’t believe they are important for working in the tech industry.”
Ultimately, though, Xu rolled the dice and decided to enroll in the Lauder Program, which offers students a dual degree with a Wharton MBA as well as an MA in International Studies at Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences. “My VC friend thought that if you had a fundamental passion for a certain subject and you’re excited to learn more about it, you should go,” he says. “I was always fascinated by public policy, economics, and globalization. If the events of the last year have taught me anything, it’s that this is the perfect time to study how the world works.”
NERVOUS ABOUT MEETING ‘WAVE AFTER WAVE OF COOKIE CUTTER BANKERS & CONSULTANTS’
After being admitted to the Lauder Program, Xu had all of two weeks to make his decision and quit his job and then another two weeks to pack his bags and head to Philadelphia in May of this year. While nearly all his friends and colleagues thought he shouldn’t get an MBA, Xu’s parents were very supportive. “They really wanted me to go. They thought that getting a graduate degree is a big achievement.”
His first impressions were not all that favorable. “I was pretty nervous about meeting wave after wave of cookie cutter bankers and consultants,” concedes Xu. “In fact, when I first arrived at Wharton, I experienced intense culture shock. Many of the MBA students I first met had a fundamentally lower capacity for risk and uncertainty than the entrepreneurial crowd I was used to in Silicon Valley.”
He found that novel ideas were commonly approached with a more skeptical response: “What are all the reasons why this is impossible” instead of “what are all the things that we need to believe to make this work.” “Few had an innate bias towards action. Fewer still had a consistent sense of the core values they stood for. I spent the first few weeks asking my classmates a simple question: ‘What are the problems that you are most interested in solving?’ I can count on one hand the number of people with thoughtful responses.”
Yet, once he settled into the culture, Xu quickly realized he had not made a mistake. He came to appreciate the value of perspectives and cultures very different from his own. He’s had dinners with classmates who were once professional football players and nuclear submarine engineers. “I’ve had deeply held political beliefs intelligently challenged by classmates from parts of the country I’ve never stepped foot in,” he adds. “Wharton has been a diverse melting pot, and I think building relationships with folks outside the Silicon Valley bubble has been healthy for me.”