Inside ‘Touchy Feely,’ Stanford’s Iconic MBA Course

Benjamin Fernandes, Stanford MBA ’17, is co-founder of a Tanzanian mobile payments company. “Recognizing you may come across differently to different people is an important skill to learn,” he says of Touchy Feely. Courtesy photo

Benjamin Fernandes, who graduated GSB in 2017, is a native of Tanzania. In that country, in his culture, “talking about feelings is something that isn’t normal,” he tells Poets&Quants. So when his Stanford interviewer mentioned the class to him, he was confused by the concept — and not at all convinced it was an elective he’d like to take.  

“My GSB interviewer had mentioned their ‘Touchy Feely’ experience and I was confused, I took the literal translation of that and started imagining things until I got home and looked it up online,” Fernandez says. “When I got to business school, my impression of the course was a deeply emotional one that required a lot of energy. I was still confused how you could sit down in a circle every class and sometimes have no agenda.”

His confusion quickly evaporated — replaced, in early sessions at least, by nervousness. 

“I remember one of the first days of class, when I met my T-Group, I was excited and nervous,” Fernandes says. “I didn’t know all of them that well and of course had natural judgments about each one of them in my head. I also felt nervous because I didn’t know if I had close friends within that group who were going to go to bat for me. I had assumed I needed some backup.” 


Benjamin Fernandes on the campus of Stanford University in April 2017. Marc Ethier photo

Fernandes didn’t yet know that Touchy Feely was about trusting the process. “So often in exercises, I would like to skip to the end or assume I would know what the end would look like, then finally be completely off,” he says. 

He recalls one of the most impactful of multiple course exercises, known as the Influence Line, in which students must wordlessly move their peers into order based on perceived “influence.” So on the left will be the most influential, on the right the least — and somewhere in the middle, themselves. The MBA students are told that the dynamics are already at play in the room, they are simply bringing them to light.

“Naturally, we all gravitated to the middle of the line because no one really wanted to mention they were more influential than the others in the group,” Fernandes says. “Then each classmate in your T-Group is given a chance to get up in front of the group and physically move everyone on a scale of 1 to 12 based on how influential they thought they were in that group. This was extremely moving, literally and emotionally. Having to force rank your classmates, you could feel the intensity in the group. No one talks, you only move to where you are allocated by each person. After the exercise, you sit down, reflect, and in some areas, have a ton of questions you want answers for.

“With hindsight, I realized and recognized that the learning experiences the course created for me were phenomenal. Where in the world will you have 10 weeks and 12 people who want to support you actively, and who have dedicated hours weekly to give you feedback and help you become better? At the end of the day, what you put into it is what you are going to get out of it.”


Fernandes currently runs a Tanzanian mobile payments company, similar to Venmo, called NALA. He says that as he and his co-founder have been growing and scaling their team, they have allocated mandatory time in one-on-ones for feedback. “We understand and recognize the importance of this and transparency within our organization,” he says. That’s at least partly attributable to his experience in Touchy Feely.

“Touchy Feely has helped me be much calmer when things get a little frustrating. I notice myself listening more versus immediately reacting.” Fernandes still faces challenges in reconciling some of the course’s core learnings with cultural differences in Tanzania, however. “Feedback really isn’t a thing, and people frequently get scared and think you are going to fire them without understanding your intent of helping them become better,” Fernandes says. 

The benefits extend past his work life, too. “With my family, I notice myself being a lot calmer versus reactive in my responses,” he says. “It’s starting to change the dynamic of a few things. 

“Self-awareness is almost a fundamental principle of this class. Recognizing you may come across differently to different people is an important skill to learn. This class truly gives you a head start with that gift.”


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