What Matters Most & Why: Ten Years Later

A Class of 2009 MBA returns to Stanford GSB for his tenth-year reunion and reflects on what really matters to him and shares the essay he wrote over ten years ago for the school’s iconic essay question

This week is my 10th year MBA reunion at the Stanford Graduate School of Business where I am coming in with both excitement and anxiety. I had also a chance to be so grateful to be given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to attend such an institution I would have never dreamed of attending.

Stanford GSB Alum Earl Martin Valencia

Just a little background that not everyone knows. I applied to Stanford three times before my MBA application – first for an undergrad transfer for engineering, second for a Ph.D. in engineering and the last time for a masters in engineering. I was rejected all three times.

So in 2006, I applied to Stanford’s Graduate School of Business by accident and without much hope. They announced that they for the first time in the history of the school, will experiment to admit students who did not take the GMAT, but will accept people who have taken only the GRE. For most B-school hopefuls, the GMAT is the prerequisite to applying to school – a make it or break it exam. I had the GRE because I had to take it for my application in 2004 for my masters at Cornell for engineering. I re-used my scores and applied with my scores that were dismal, it was 760 in the math and 400 in my verbal in the GRE. For people not familiar, the highest score is 800 for each. I did fine in math, but I was in the 30th percentile in verbal, think of it that 70% of ALL applicants had a higher score than me.


I wrote my essays within a span of three weeks in the plane on the way to and from Washington, D.C., when I was in a business trip for Raytheon Company where I was working as a systems engineer at their space and airborne systems division. The theme of my essays – “Partying like a rockstar.”

After a couple of months of my application, I got an email saying that I have an interview with an angel investor named Dave Witherow, and he then interviewed in the Starbucks in Santa Monica beach in Los Angeles. He was an entrepreneur and sold his company to Dow Jones. He told me that he will wear jeans and a leather jacket and not to be more overdressed than him. After our conversation, my view of business changed forever after that meeting and fell in love with the school a bit more – that business can be kind, informal and authentic.

In a few weeks, I got a call from a Palo Alto number, a call from Derek Bolton, then the admissions director of the GSB, congratulating me to be admitted to the class of 2009. five years after graduation during his visit to the Philippines, Derek confirmed that I was the first if not one of the first admits in the history of the GSB never to take the GMAT.

Fast forward to this week, 10 years after, I am excited to see and catch-up with some of my closest friends, the ones that knew me when I was a bright-eyed engineer trying to learn about business. At that time, we didn’t have owners of start-ups or venture funds, we didn’t have billionaire classmates yet, and no big fancy corporate titles, we were all students and friends.


I am anxious not because I will compare myself to the accomplishments of my classmates, but more importantly, how do I compare myself to the dream I set out to achieve when I applied and committed to my mission when I attended Stanford MBA school. In the school’s application, of course, they ask you a proverbial question – what matters to you most and why. I remember on the first day of school, the head of admissions challenged us: “You’ve been selected, what will you do to help make an impact on the world?” And the dean iterated the mission of the school: “Change lives, change organizations and change the world – and you all can change the world.”

I have re-posted my essay word for word here to remind me of what my dreams were when I was 24 and for the world to make me accountable to see if I have stayed true and authentic to this dream. With an open heart and the risk of being vulnerable here it is:

Essay A: What matters most to you, and why?

Three months ago, I got to see Bono, the lead singer of U2, give a speech in Dallas about the problems in Africa and he said something so profound that it really made me think. He said, “we as citizens of the world need to solve the problem of global poverty – because poverty leads to the elimination of hope, without hope there is despair, in your despair, you will commit a crime, and with the natural evolution of crime is in terrorism.” Wow… if only all of us in the world eliminated the human nature of selfishness then the world would be a better place. Since I was young, my parents exposed me to the harsh realities of poverty.

Growing up in the Philippines, a country at which 90% of its population is below the poverty line, I was exposed to this fact every day – and being part of the upper 10%, it is easy to shun away and ignore this fact, but something inside me always said that “your life should have meaning and it’s your obligation to give back.” Who you want to be when you die? If you had a chance to inspire the common person to try to be future leaders and dream more than they are right now, wouldn’t you want a chance to do this?

Over the past months in my quest to answer my quarter life crisis, I have tried to answer the basic questions regarding “what is my purpose in life? What is the meaning of living?” Throughout my soul searching, I have looked and reflected on my past, try to look for who I want to be, and what is important to me. While reading the classic book “Good to Great”, Collins talked about the hedgehog concept – which is, in his words, how a company or an individual can be great. The 3 things are: what drives your economic engine, are you the best at what you do, and what is your passion? This struck me, often thinking… of yes… what is my passion? I had to dig deep and looked at my core values – the things that really really matter to me.

While in a career planning session at Raytheon, I wrote down my four main values: the pursuit of excellence, see the world and party like a rock star, having a lasting impact in everything you touch, and making the world a better place.

As of now, my core mission is in helping educate and create a dream for young people who might not have had a dream before. My personal belief is that education is the great equalizer, where in a university, it is really not how much money you have but rather what is in your head and how to use this potential to create more opportunities to uplift yourself and your family. As of now, I am a true believer in the mentoring process. I realize that when talking to people younger than you, you have to be careful of what you say or do. Why is that? Because every word and every action you do can impact someone’s life forever. I personally am involved in trying to be a mentor, not just through being a Big Brother, but more so to my peers and younger or older folks that may need some guidance in life or their careers. I enjoy giving career talks and advice to middle school and high school student and also would never shun away from a conversation from any student that asks for my advice. I am always involved in such activities as career panel discussions or giving a leadership talk, but what I really enjoy is having a one-on-one with someone and just trying to inspire and get them to have goals in life to reach. I was also fortunate to be invited to sponsor five less fortunate students to shoulder their high school tuition in the Philippines, and why not? I had a chance to meet them, and some of them are single moms, or taxi cab drivers, or waiters, and just seeing the tears in their eyes when they found that their $200 tuition was covered, touched me a lot. For some of us, we take education for granted, some of us we believe that it’s a right for every citizen of the world to get, but for most of the world, it is a privilege. If only I can make the world a better place by helping more people get the opportunities that I have been luckily presented with, I will do that.

So knowing my core mission, how does this tie into one of my values of excellence. I have to admit though that I am not this super organized person that has his palm pilot always on, pristine office desks, or nice pressed clothes… but the excellence that I am talking about is deeper… beyond physical… it lies with ambition. I love just “believing” in the future and who will be and will become “one day.” Maybe this is one of my weaknesses, that I sometimes get frustrated at people who “just want to be an ordinary worker.”

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