First Gen: Inspiring Stories Of MBAs Who Beat The Odds

Patrick Despres-Gallagher

Stanford Graduate School of Business

Class: 2019

Hometown: East Templeton, MA

Fun Fact About Yourself: I helped build a recording studio when I was in high school, worked as a session guitarist, and gave lessons. I have been playing in bands since I was 12, and I recently started playing again with classmates in a band at Stanford.

Undergraduate School and Major: Johns Hopkins University, International Studies

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Deloitte Digital, Senior Consultant

What did your parents do for a living?: My father just retired from working as an Electrical Lineman for 40+ years, and my mother owned her own small business before leaving the workforce.

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your father? Neither of my parents finished high school, but both obtained their GED.

Which of your family members is your biggest inspiration? Why?  My paternal grandfather, Ken Gallagher Sr., epitomized the “Greatest Generation.” He was born during the Great Depression and served in the Army during World War II in the Pacific Theater from 1942-45. He worked on the railroad for 40+ years, and he and my grandmother raised a family of seven with many grandchildren. He was a man of service – to his family, community, country, and church. I aspire to be as humble and selfless as he was.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education?  It was more of an ongoing revelation rather than a specific moment. However, the accelerator for me was transferring to Cushing Academy, a college preparatory school, in search of a more challenging academic experience. I did not tell my parents that I was applying at first because I knew they would worry about the cost. When I was accepted and received the necessary financial support, I jumped at the opportunity. At Cushing, I befriended students from around the world and learned from incredible teachers (shout out to Raja Bala, Peter Clarke, and many others) who elevated my curiosity and appetite for learning.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? I was concerned about the cost and the decision to move out of New England. It was a big expense for my family, which added pressure to get a job while I was in school and find a great job after school. In addition, nearly my entire family lives in Massachusetts. Moving from the town of 6,000 people that I had lived in for 18 years to Baltimore, a city with 600,000 people was a big change. Ultimately, it was immeasurably rewarding.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? I was constantly stressed about finances and underperforming in a rigorous academic environment where I was assessed relative to my talented peers. I worked 15-20 hours a week to support myself in addition to a difficult course load and leadership involvement in multiple student groups. I was hospitalized my sophomore year due to an illness from physical and mental exhaustion. It was easy to learn the importance of hard work, but it took me much longer to learn the importance of balancing work with health and relationships.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher education experience that you wish they would understand better? Education gives you skills and knowledge, but more importantly, I believe it forces self-awareness and self-reflection that results in personal development. My personal goals, perspectives, and interests have changed, even though my value system has largely remained intact. Neither my family nor I truly anticipated the extent of that change, and I wish we had better understood how to manage it. It has made it harder for us to connect in some ways but easier in others.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? I went into technology consulting to build technical and operational skills after developing an interest in college. After a few years, my learning started to saturate, and I wanted to invest in a new experience that furthered either my technical skills or my leadership and management skills. The success I had in my career was largely a result of my strengths and interests in the latter, so I decided to pursue an MBA.

How did you choose your MBA program? Stanford was my top choice because it had, in my opinion, the best program for students interested in technology, startups, and leadership development. From the “touchy-feely” culture to classes taught by Andy Rachleff, Eric Schmidt, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, and others, I felt that Stanford gave me access to the best leadership development curriculum, the top minds in my areas of interest, and a network of talented peers and alumni that shared my values and interests.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? The literal costs and the opportunity costs of pursuing a career are significant, and there are people whom I trust and respect who did not agree with my decision to pursue an MBA. You do not have to look far to find critics of MBA programs, especially in Silicon Valley. However, I had very clear objectives for what I wanted to get out of an MBA, and the experience has consistently exceeded my expectations.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first generation student? I accumulated savings and other financial assets, and Stanford provided generous Fellowship funding that reduced the cost. The rest is financed with loans. I also secured optional sponsorship if I chose to return to my former employer to mitigate any of the financial risk.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? I do not like to give advice out of context. The best generic advice I can give is to be cautious and intentional about the mentors you choose and the advice you take. For many students from non-traditional backgrounds, the natural and immediate mentorship networks are not sufficient. Invest time and resources in finding mentors, and learn from other sources of advice (books, podcasts, articles, classes etc.) that align to your learning interests. However, always be a cautious skeptic. I have been given a lot of unintentionally harmful advice that masquerades as thoughtful perspective, but in reality, is an opinion rooted in a biased interpretation of a narrow set of experiences. Learning to understand underlying incentives and biases is important to filtering bad advice. Draw your own conclusions after listening, observing, and reflecting, and constantly check your own perspectives for bias.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? With regards to work, I am still exploring, but I will continue to work with technology either in an operating or investing role in the near term. Longer term, I have a few business ideas of my own that I will pursue. With regards to community involvement, I am interested in supporting or starting initiatives that seek to create opportunities for people, who are otherwise overlooked due to socioeconomic circumstances, to self-actualize in the new economy.