Some call it “The Chicago Way.” In popular culture, that means greasing the skids with bribes or strong-arming with threats. In academia, the Chicago Way is associated with using data for decision making – and it’s called “The Chicago Approach.” Rather than settling on intuition, anecdotes, and observation, the Chicago Approach focuses on hard-earned evidence. Those facts are found by framing the right questions, choosing the right sources and tools, and continuously testing to reveal probabilities and possibilities.
The Chicago Approach is particularly prevalent at its namesake, the University of Chicago…home to the Booth School of Business. It is an MBA program, as the saying goes, that teaches students how to think more than what to think. Call it research-focused and academically-rigorous, a program that pursues truth by drawing from disciplines as diverse as economics, finance, statistics, and behavioral sciences. Here, MBAs aren’t just coming for self-discovery and networking. For them, Booth represents a traditional academic path: a place to master classic fundamentals and technical intricacies, all under the watchful eye of world-class teachers.
A METHODOLOGY THAT FITS EVERY INDUSTRY
“There is self-selection, no question about that,” says Stacey Kole, deputy dean for MBA programs and clinical professor of economics, in a 2019 interview with Poets&Quants. “The students who come to Chicago are attracted by the fact that we have these incredible thought leaders who believe their role is to share these ideas with the next generation of leaders. It’s not just research for research’s sake. They want to change the world and that happens both through their research papers and through teaching their ideas to really talented people who then put those ideas into practice.”
Among faculty, that “talent” includes Austan Goolsbee, a former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Raghuram Rajan, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. In fact, Booth employs three active Nobel Prize laureates – or “three more than all the other top business schools combined,” jokes Dean Madhav Rajan. That includes Richard Thaler, who won his Nobel in 2017, and Eugene Fama, described by some as “father of modern finance.” Such scholars can access plenty of data for their research. The school is home to all historic stock market data, not to mention the largest database of consumer behavior through Nielsen. This empirical bent enables the program to explore markets – societies even – in a way that is far more deep and rich than other programs. As a result, students gain greater insight and clarity in an evolving world that is increasingly complex, ambiguous, and flat-out messy.
The applications of this data-centric approach crosses every discipline, says Kwaku Frimpong, an advertising sales executive and member of Booth’s Class of 2021. “I understood that my soft skills are stronger than most and wanted an MBA program that would fill in the hard skills I need to thrive in my career as a marketing leader long term,” he admits. I loved Booth’s data-driven approach to marketing and felt their marketing approach was truly reflective of the current state of the industry where numbers drive most decisions.”
NOT A “CONVEYER BELT” PROGRAM
“What we are is a data school,” Kole adds, “an evidence-driven institution that’ll teach students regardless of discipline: how do you bring evidence to bear to make good decisions? That is what students are hungry for.”
That creates, in the words of 2019 MBA Aditi Shah, “a culture of debate.” That’s the Chicago Way, a clash of ideas backed by data that weaves together a fact-based narrative that’d rival any case. More than that, Booth is a platform to experiment. “If they don’t work, we let them go,” Kole notes. That mindset extends to the Booth curriculum, where students only take one required course, freeing them up to pursue interests and pivot direction sooner. In other words, Booth treats their students like the seasoned professionals they are. This flexibility and freedom – a ‘Have it your way MBA’ – further prepares students to get their hands dirty when faced with the uncertain and unexpected.
“A lot of programs put you on a conveyer belt,” Kole argues. “They’ll tell you which classes to take…Here, we think the world is going to present our students with so many good choices, every day, that they’ll have too little time to really make fully-informed decisions. So they need to get comfortable with ambiguity. They’re going to have to learn how to navigate these choice-rich situations and eventually pull the trigger. Employers tell us that our students are pretty unflappable when it comes to looking at a problem. They ask themselves, What evidence do I need; How do I gather it or find it; and How do I navigate the organization to find people who have the resources. That’s because from the minute they get here, they have to figure things out. We don’t tell them what to do. We don’t tell them what the ideal job is for them. We guide them. We show them how to search, prepare, and research.”
A FINANCE SCHOOL? HARDLY!
Then again, that’s exactly what the Class of 2021 had been doing long before they enrolled at Booth, the country’s second-oldest business school. At Google, for example, Sarah Presant carved out her own role. In contrast, Marie Cour, a U.S. Army Battalion Intelligence Officer, preferred to correct over create. “I fixed two dysfunctional organizations,” she writes. The same could be said for Julia Boserup, a Top 100 women’s professional tennis player who has competed at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the French Open, and the Australian Open. Despite winning three tournament titles and making it to the third round of Wimbledon, Boserup considers her biggest achievement to be serving on the WTA’s Player Council, where she helped boost women’s prize money and design the organization’s maternity policy.
“I loved representing my peers on the WTA Player Council – it was fascinating to see what was happening behind the scenes and I enjoyed problem-solving on the business side of our sport,” she writes. “I saw the potential to combine my perspective as a pro athlete with strong business knowledge, so when I got injured last year and could no longer compete on the tennis court, I knew that an MBA would be a great next step.”
Alas, Chicago Booth is sometimes reduced to being a “finance school” populated by spreadsheet jockeys destined to become CFOs. The numbers don’t bear that out in true Booth quantitative fashion. Just 31.3% of the spring full-time class entered finance, three points less than consulting. What’s more, the Class of 2021 hardly fits the profile of dour bean counters. Take Kyra Atekwana. A songwriter and performer, she studied Anthropology at Harvard and has had her work performed in several venues, including the Williamstown Theater Festival. Brooklyn native Simon Ayzman has spent 20 years in dance, “dabbling in ballet, ballroom, modern dance, and more.” Across town in The Bronx, Kwaku Frimpong grew up so close to Yankee Stadium that he could hear the home run cheers outside his window before it’d happen on TV. Then again, he was lucky enough to hear the cheers.
FROM RAGS TO ROCKETS
“I know what it feels like to be a fish out of water,” explains Sarah Presant. “In high school, I participated in America’s Junior Miss, San Diego competition, and performed a water polo rap in a bathing suit and cap to an audience of strangers where my jokes failed to land.”
Looking for a feel-good story? Check out Swati Agrawal. She holds a Master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering, making her a true rocket scientist. More impressive, however, is the path she took to reach that point. “I grew up in a rural part of India in a lower-middle-class family, where common people barely thought of preparing for one of the toughest entrance examination for Engineering…I cycled more than 10 miles every day to complete my high school education and learned scientific concepts in Hindi. At night though, under the optimism of nightlights, I would translate my learnings to English to prepare, with bleak hope, for the IIT examinations. This experience not only put me on the world map but also gave me hope that everything is possible to achieve and strengthened my determination to define my life in my way rather than by my peers.”
Some of the Class of 2021’s biggest moments were team achievements. At Shell, Ethan Ardern was part of the team that brought online the Appomattox, the company’s largest floating platform in the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, Daniel Derrig was a member of the unit that earned KPMG’s Engagement of the Year Award in 2015. Still, his biggest moment was something he doesn’t even remember.
‘THE SORT OF PEOPLE YOU WANT TO LEARN ALONGSIDE’
“I was born following a fatal car crash. The paramedics declared me dead at the scene, but the hospital staff was pleasantly surprised to discover otherwise. Considering that, I try to never take life for granted and am committed to making a positive impact in everything that I do.”
Thus far, what does the Class of 2021 think about their classmates? They’ve definitely garnered rave reviews. Juan Pablo Jimenez, a McKinsey analyst from Argentina, strings together these virtues to describe his peers: “Hunger, curiosity, and motivation to learn, grow, and help others.” Even more, the class has adopted the program’s analytical approach that values probing over posturing and broad-mindedness over bias.
“The classmates I have met so far have impressed me with their apparent desire to dig deep to understand what makes things tick at a fundamental level, rather than getting distracted by more superficial forms of hype or prestige,” writes Ethan Ardern. “They’re exactly the sort of people alongside whom I want to learn.”
To access 12 in-depth profiles of class members, go to Page 3.
To read an interview with deputy dean Stacey Kole, go to Pages 2-3.