When you’re elite, you’re a target. The critics pounce on every flaw and the caricatures are always exaggerated. That’s what Harvard Business School faces every day. West of Shad Hall, the public views Harvard MBAs as the sheltered 1%: swaggering showboats and careless cutthroats – polished and privileged legacies who’ve coasted through life. They picture an exclusive club, whose members are obsessed with image and constantly sizing each other up.
In their minds, the success of Harvard MBAs is pre-ordained. They are the chosen ones who’ve taken all the right steps and checked all the right boxes. That makes them the insiders who’ll always receive the invite or snag the promotion. They believe an HBS pedigree reflexively confers security, status, and influence. It is a path, they imagine, that ends with alumni clinking champagne glasses at reunions, rattling off their conquests, and writing out big checks.
‘EVERYONE IS WORKING ON SOMETHING’
Reality is, Harvard Business School is neither a rest stop for dilettantes nor a party bus for hedge fund bros. Instead, it is a creative nerve center that harnesses talent, kindles creative impulses, and tests beliefs. It is a place that nurtures passion, purpose, and pursuit with a mission of using commercial concepts to drive international impact.
Triston Francis, the co-president of the 2019 Class, equates HBS to a magnifying glass. “Whatever impact you are going to have, the scale and the platform allow you to take that even further.”
Make no mistake: HBS MBAs are a relentless bunch, skeptical of convention, open to suggestion, and forever on the lookout for the next game-changer. That’s one aspect of the HBS culture that stuck out to Sana Mohammed, a 2019 grad and Bain consultant.
“Everyone I know is working on something,” she told P&Q this spring. “They may be working on a startup or an individual project or taking as many classes as they can. They are doing something that is keeping them intellectually engaged and driving them. That, in itself, is so unique. It is very easy for people to be complacent, but I don’t see any complacency here.”
PREPARING FOR BANKING…THROUGH BALLET
You won’t find many blue bloods or Gekko wannabes prowling Aldrich Hall. Fact is, HBS students hardly fit any type, says Tabitha Strobel, a 2018 graduate who joined McKinsey’s New York office. Her class, for example, included a “world-class gymnast who sang operatic music and a comedian who taught three fitness classes a day.” Her classmate – and fellow McKinseyite – Andrew Tingley calls his peers “some of the greatest talents and most diverse perspectives I’ve ever come across.” Looking at the Class of 2021, they are clearly following in their footsteps.
Take Mark Giragosian. On the surface, he embodies the stereotypical HBS first-year. An economics major and magna cum laude graduate of Northwestern University, Giragosian spent four years in investment banking and private equity. As part of a three-member team, he laid the groundwork for a medical firm acquisition. Soon after, he spearheaded initiatives that added 50 people to his employer’s payroll. So where did he develop the grit to excel in banking?
Giragosian spent eight years in the Joffrey Ballet, where he won a Silver Medal in the 2009 New York International Ballet Competition. During that time, he performed in over 40 productions, both domestic and international – balancing a demanding course load in his final years with the company. Even now, he serves on the Joffrey Ballet’s Board of Directors. While Giragosian eventually chose investing over his art, he believes his ballet training has prepared him for a stellar tenure at Harvard Business School.
“Dancing and investing are very different professions on the surface,” he admits. “However, overcoming the obstacles I faced in my ballet career required the cultivation of many qualities that have been invaluable in my second career including discipline, adaptability, creativity, empathy, and the ability to work as part of a team.”
FROM SKY DRONES TO ROCKET SHIPS
While Giragosian strived for greatness, several of his classmates reached for the sky…literally. At Amazon, Sebastian Fischer worked as the lead systems engineer for Amazon Prime’s first delivery drone for consumers. In this role, he was responsible for sizing the engine and battery and overseeing flight tests, to ensure the drone could travel 15 miles in under 30 minutes. Elizabeth Breiter’s ambitions extended beyond the skies and into space. As a senior analyst at SpaceX, she oversaw the development of a supply chain that could “ferry” astronauts into space. At the same time, she helped Bangladesh launch its first communications satellite into space. Not bad for a woman who was told that she’d never amount to anything more than an “average C student” by her 5th-grade teacher – a comment that drove her to become a top-echelon student and three-sport athlete.
“Now, I ignite hidden potential to empower people to envision their future without limitations,” she writes. “I believe [this] creates a platform to convert adversity into opportunities for growth and enables each person to add his or her unique value to the world. The multiplication of this effect will power generations to continuously progress.”
Ronnie Wimberley, a Detroit native from a military family, also fits the traditional business school profile. He studied economics at Duke and worked as a consultant for the Bridgespan Group. As a self-described “queer person of color,” he often finds himself alone in terms of his background and perspective. It is a gap, he says, that he uses for the greater good of all.
“I have always sought to…strengthen institutions by making them more accessible to diverse and marginalized people. At one previous employer, I worked closely with office leadership to define a strategy for better incorporating diversity and inclusion into the operations of the firm. I used my unique set of experiences within the firm to advocate for a set of organizational changes that would help increase retention, promotion, and inclusion of hires from across backgrounds…The leadership team found the recommendations compelling and worked to create a new full-time position wherein I could work with leadership to finish building out the strategy across North America.”
SELF-STARTERS AND PIONEERS
Contrary to stereotype, many HBS MBAs hail from underprivileged backgrounds too. Growing up, Tory Voight cleaned houses with her mom and worked two jobs as a student at Wellesley College. Since then, she has moved over to Google in its Augmented and Virtual Reality team as an engineering program manager. In May, her team stepped onstage at Google IO to demonstrate their latest work, where users can interact with 3D models in Google Search. For her, Google, like Harvard, offered an array of possibilities – ones that required exploration and experimentation in order to be unlocked.
“This sense of exploration into the unknown, expanding our knowledge of still nascent technology and furthering its capability” has been an enriching experience, but it can also be messy,” she writes. “There may not be structured team operations or launch standards, but you roll up your sleeves and build it through trial, error, and feedback. Just like with chess and rock climbing, you grow to love the process.”
At their core, the Class of 2021 could be described as self-starters, pioneers really. Mallika Saharia earned two distinctions at her last job: “the youngest manager and first woman in 40 years of the business to lead commissioning and operations for a new $100M manufacturing line.” In Ghana, Abena Anima Nyantekyi Owusu partnered with the Ministry of Health to help modernize hospitals and health centers. By the same token, Cydni Williams was tasked with piloting a global marketing program at Facebook – one that expanded into seven functions and four continents. As a guest lecturer at USC, Elizabeth Breiter was asked a question that truly hit home: “How often are you the only female in meetings?” Learning that less than 10% of women in her field would ultimately rise to management, Breiter decided to make a difference.
“I launched an organization named “Future Female Leaders in Art, Mathematics, Engineering, and Science” (FLAMES). I am most proud to see our young women pridefully mold their career paths and publicly communicate their vision to become future leaders while we eliminate a statistic and blaze an opportunity-filled launchpad for future generations.”
To access 8 in-depth profiles of class members, go to Page 3.
To read an interview with Chad Losee, managing director of admissions and financial aid, go to Pages 2-3.