That’s how many describe Harvard Business School graduates. They are the Delta Force of MBAs, painstakingly selected and rigorously trained – a unit versatile in skill and fearless amid adversity. A HBS degree confers a prestige, a seal of excellence that certifies a graduate is ready to lead. However, “leader” may not be the best term for Harvard MBAs, whose ranks stretch from Stephen Covey to Sheryl Sandberg. In reality, they are “doers” whose courage, commitment, and compassion fulfill the school’s mandate to “make a difference in the world.”
No, HBS grads aren’t dreamers whose visions languish in uncertainty or dilettantes who leave the heavy lifting to others. They take ownership, shoulder responsibility, and make things happen. They are the volunteers who raise their hands to shepherd the titanic projects; the catalysts who go all in to launch companies; and the grinders who dive into the details and dirty their hands in the thankless tasks. They aren’t leaders because of title or resume. They are leaders because they are the doers who set the bar and slice a path for others to follow.
GROWING UBER IN THE HARSHEST CONDITIONS IMAGINABLE
That is certainly true of the Class of 2020. Take Daphne Pham. The Mount Holyhoke grad spent the first two years following the conventional path, working as an investment banker in New York City. From there, she moved to Thailand to work in marketing and analytics at Lazada, Southeast Asia’s premier e-commerce firm. However, neither of this experiences would prepare her for her next jump: being Uber’s first employee in Vietnam. In this developing market, she ran smack into the toughest barriers imaginable. Government regulators shielded entrenched incumbents; the press ratcheted up attacks; and drivers fretted over the company’s legality and longevity. That doesn’t even factor in operational issues such as the low car ownership and a reliable payment system.
In true ‘doer’ style, Pham rolled up her sleeves. She tossed the American-centric playbook she’d learned and adapted to the culture. She established partnerships with banks to make it easier for drivers to take out loans to buy vehicles. At the same time, drivers accepted cash payments – the currency of choice for customers. In the process, Southeast Asia emerged as Uber’s third-largest market, with Pham running the Vietnam operation and managing 150 employees and contractors.
So why leave all that to come to Harvard Business School? Pham had been wrestling with that question for years. As an aspiring entrepreneur, she wondered, why not jump right into the fray? However, Pham decided it was better to step back from the scraping and hustling to take the long view.
“After spending a few years at one of the most prominent startups, I became more aware of my shortcomings as a leader,” she says. “I am not interested in building a 10-employee company, but an organization with lasting impact. To achieve that goal, I need to understand what makes great leaders and great organizations. I hope that the HBS experience will be transformational, helping me gain a deeper understanding of what it takes to run a successful business, grow tremendously as a person, and build a strong lifelong network.”
FIRST YEAR BUILDS ANALYTICS DIVISION…THAT SHE IS NO LONGER QUALIFIED TO RUN
Pham isn’t the only ‘doer’ in the Class of 2020. Meet Bridgette Taylor. At Stuart Weitzman, a retailer of women’s footwear and bags, Taylor noticed that the firm was losing out on a potential gold mine – data analysis – since accurate customer data was only tied to purchasing a third of the time. To capitalize on this opportunity, Taylor pitched the CEO, who gave her the financial backing and a four-person team to launch the firm’s Consumer Insight Division. Sure enough, within six months, Taylor had built the customer database to 600,000 customers. Even more, her division became “business critical” and enveloped in the Stuart Weitzman’s larger strategy.
Alas, Taylor’s biggest contribution only became clear after she left the firm. “The Consumer Insights group has grown to become much larger than my initial contribution,” she explains. “The team has implemented sophisticated and powerful techniques to analyze and act on customer trends – far outside my knowledge base and basic data understandings. Ironically, I am likely now unqualified to work in the very division that I built.”
That’s just the start for these doers. At Bank of America, Amy Hernandez Turcios earned Bank of America’s Global Enterprise Diversity & Inclusion Award for enhancing the internal pipeline and networking opportunities for Latinx investment bankers. At Amazon, Valentina Toll Villagra handled everything from design to operations for 10 warehouse openings – involving over 1.5 million square feet of industrial space – in just 15 months. Her co-worker, Dominic Marrone, headed up a customer experience team that developed several features on the “Works with Alexa” platform. At the same time, Nicole Koski – who worked three jobs simultaneously to put herself through the University of Wisconsin – ran a limited edition cosmetics launch at 5,000 Walgreens stores. Here, she managed everything from product design and pricing to launch and exit strategy. In the process, she broke company sales records and generated positive press across leading beauty blogs. Still, that won’t be what she treasures most about her achievement.
FROM SOCCER FANATICS TO RENAISSANCE FESTIVAL AFICIONADOS
“I was able to read customers’ comments and discover that the items were often being given as gifts to friends or family members who had wanted the items, but couldn’t justify spending money on themselves at the moment. The realization that my products were building relationships between people and making hardworking women feel special was immensely rewarding and continues to be a motivator for me.”
‘Doers’ all, but what the Class of 2020 does outside their work lives makes them even more memorable. Daphne Pham, a “self-proclaimed fashionista and skincare expert” holds a certificate in wine tasting – even though she is slightly allergic to alcohol. Yazeed Al-Rashed, a MIT grad and Shell process technologiest, writes screenplays during his free time. As a huge fan of the Argentinian national soccer team, Valentina Toll Villagra “never misses a chance to paint [her] face light blue and white.” Like most, the class has its vices. For Nicole Koski, it is Ken-Ken number puzzles. Bridgette Taylor, on the other hand, can’t pass up a Renaissance Festival!
Some have even been preparing for Harvard Business School since middle school. Well, sort of in the case of Amy Hernandez Turcios. “I used to be terrified of public speaking,” she admits. “Luckily, I got over the fear in middle school when I was cast in a Hip Hop musical as a 90s rapper. After countless practices that led to the final performance, I lost my fear of public speaking. Thanks to this unique middle school experience, I can now embrace the HBS case method, which involves public speaking, every day.”
AN “INSPIRATIONAL” CLASS
How does the Class of 2020 see each other? Forget the popular perception of HBS students as image-driven mercenaries. Hernandez Turcios, for one, kept hearing “diverse perspectives” pop up as one of the school’s strengths during the recruiting process. Two months into the program, she now understands exactly what that means. “Inside the classroom, these diverse perspectives are valuable because we can see one issue through multiple lenses,” she observes. “Outside the classroom, these diverse perspectives have allowed me to learn about various cultures, industries, and walks of life.”
That fits with Bridgette Taylor’s impression – “curious” – a group that is “genuinely eager to learn from each other.” In Valentina Toll Villagra’s experience, the class is truly “inspirational.”
“Each person at HBS has a unique story,” she notes. “Every day I’m amazed at the level of commitment people have to making a positive impact in the world. Our first-year sections represent a wide range of professional and personal experiences, and each conversation is a learning opportunity. From private equity to education, I feel like I now understand the perspectives of people coming from industries that seemed so distant to me working in tech.”
A CLASS FROM 288 SCHOOLS AND 69 NATIONS
By the numbers, the Class of 2020 lived up to Harvard Business School’s usual high standards. However, the 2017-2018 cycle proved that HBS, like most luxury brands, aren’t necessarily immune to broader industry trends. In a year when applications fell across the board, HBS suffered a decline like other MBA programs. However, the pain was far less acute at the “West Point of Capitalism.” This year’s 9,886 applications represented the program’s second-highest total over this past decade. At the same time, the school maintained its highly-selective 11% acceptance rate.
This rate wasn’t the only area where HBS held the line with the Class of 2020. For the ninth consecutive year, the incoming class arrived in Boston with a 730 median GMAT – including a 42 median verbal and a 49 median quantitative – with the total range spanning from 610-800. 15% of the incoming class also entered HBS with GRE scores, with median verbal and median quantitative scores coming in at 165 and 163 respectively. The average undergraduate GPA remained an enviable 3.71.
As a whole, the class hails from 288 universities worldwide, including 134 American schools. By the same token, the class features members from 69 countries, with international students accounting for 37% of the class – the school’s highest total over the past decade. Overall, Americans make up 63% of the Class of 2020, with other large blocs belonging to students from Asia (14%), Europe (8%), Mexico, Central America and South America (6%), and Canada (5%). Segmenting the class further, women comprise another 41% of the class – the seventh consecutive year where their population topped 40%. U.S. ethnic minorities take up another 26% of the class – the school’s second highest total over the past 10 years.
Academically, the percentage of business and economics majors continues to swell. Over the past two years, their size has surged from 41% to 46%. In nearly equal measure, the percentage of humanities majors has fallen from 21% to 17%. Still, the percentage of undergraduate STEM majors has remained relatively steady at 37% in the Class of 2020. Professionally, the largest segment of the class is composed of students with consulting, high tech and venture capital backgrounds. They each represent 16% of the class pie, followed by financial services (11%), government and non-profits (8%), healthcare and biotechnology (7%), energy (6%), consumer products (6%), and the military (5%).
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