In his classic book on the Harvard Business School, the late David Ewing wrote of the “mysterious and magical power of a section” at the school. “A first-year section has a life of its own,” he theorized, “bigger than any student, more powerful than any instructor. Just as a potter’s oven bakes color and design into a bowl or vase, so the HBS section system ‘bakes’ into the educational process such principles as freedom of inquiry, checks, and balances on power and dissent.”
Ewing, however, missed the single most important takeaway of Harvard’s section system, which carves up each incoming class into 90 students each who then go through the first-year MBA curriculum as a cohort. What he failed to note was how the section system makes a large class small, creating enduring connections with each other that can last a lifetime. Those connections are not only to each member of a section; they are to the school and to all of its alums who join a powerful network of professionals.
And so it may come as a surprise to some that one group, section C of the school’s most recent graduating class, found itself in a direct dialogue with alumni from the same section who graduated three decades earlier when there was no such thing as the Internet, iPhones, Google or Facebook. The professional hookup occurred after the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world for the Class of 2020 (see What Harvard Business School Has Learned From The Coronavirus Crisis). The more gray-haired crowd who once occupied the same classroom seats in Aldrich 009 some 30 years earlier wanted to help their younger counterparts at a time when the world has turned upside down.
‘IT WAS A GREAT BRIDGE TO THE FUTURE’
“For our group in Section C, it was an incredibly thoughtful gesture for them to reach out in the first place,” says Billy Tabrizi, 29, who just graduated and is returning to his pre-MBA employer, PwC in Chicago, as a manager. “It was a great bridge to the future. It was important for all of us in the middle of the pandemic and racial justice work that we were reconnected with the community. And then for many people in our section who are looking for new jobs or starting new ventures getting support from this group was exciting. To have someone proactively say, ‘Tell me what you’re doing and how I can help was incredible.”
The outreach occurred, moreover, after a highly disruptive spring when on-campus classes were abruptly canceled due to the pandemic, and many students left campus to finish their studies remotely, unable to say goodbye to classmates in person. “For a lot of us” adds Tabrizi, social chair of Section C, “it was crazy at the time. In early March, you sort of felt something was coming and you didn’t know what. Then, all of a sudden you went from normal campus life to a fully virtually campus. Events and conferences and trips are all canceled. I wound up leaving for spring break and never came back. It was an unceremonious end to it all.”
Linda Cohen, a Class of 1990 member who helped organize the initiative, says the impetus for the meet up was the class’ forthcoming 30th reunion and Zoom sessions that started during the COVID outbreak. An alumni survey to section mates to discover how they wanted to celebrate their reunion found that while “socializing” was the top choice for future Zoom meetings, networking and problem solving were high up on the list. And while the number one idea was a class wine tasting, the second most popular notion was to invite the newest class of Section Cs to a virtual meeting so “we could listen to their challenges and find out how we can help.”
MORE THAN A SOCIAL EXPERIMENT, IT BECAME A WAY TO IMMEDIATELY CONNECT WITH THE LARGER HBS NETWORK OF ALUMS
The class got in touch with three key 2020 graduates who sent out feelers to their classmates. “They ended up finding out that 95% of their section mates responded and wanted to meet us and work with us,” says Cohen, who joined McKinsey after earning her MBA and has spent most of her professional career in consulting and marketing. “We were delighted.”
The initial outreach by members of the Class of 1990 occurred in early June, shortly after Harvard Business School held its first virtual commencement ever on May 28th. That would lead to a Zoom meeting later in June between the two C sections, along with follow-up sessions among different members of the class and individual one-on-one meetings with graduates who wanted more mentoring or connection building.
More than just age, the cultural divide between the two classes is evident in their class photos, taken in front of the iconic Baker Library on the Harvard Business School campus. Next to the Class of 2020, with all the men in suits and ties and all the women in professional attire, the Class of 1990 looks like a ragtag group of students hastily assembled after an informal picnic. There’s not a single Brooks Brothers-clad student in the picture. The 2020 group is more diverse as well with greater numbers of women, international students and minorities. Yet, separated by 30 long years, both Section C cohorts share a life-shaping experience that quickly bonded them together.
FOR THE CLASS OF 2020, ‘A GLIMPSE INTO OUR FUTURE’
From the start, it was more than a mere social experiment. The 1990 class focused on three distinct groups of the Class of 2020: “Those who wanted mentoring who already had a job; those who needed help finding a job, and then founders and joiners of entrepreneurial ventures,” says Cohen. “We tossed around different ideas on mentoring or connecting them with people who want to invest in their companies. We set up a LinkedIn group where we can easily find each other between the two sections. We had a wonderful Zoom session which we jointly planned. We wanted to help them feel a sense of closure as well. Then we had two sessions of breakout groups around sectors: finance was one, healthcare and biotech was another. There were smaller groups for real estate. Each one was hosted by some 1990 section Cs who had spent their careers in those fields.”
For MBA grads who are still looking for jobs, the Class of 1990 assigned section mates to “adopt those people and make introductions when possible,” says Cohen. “We have a list of people who are still seeking a job, either because their job offers were no longer going to happen or they were starting their job searches right when COVID hit.”
After all, the career services staff at any business school can go only so far in terms of supporting current students and recent grads. “Individualized support, guidance and introductions from alumni can be amazing benefits when it comes to advancing a career,” says Dan Bauer, the former founder and CEO of The MBA Exchange, a leading admissions consulting firm, and a member of the 1990 class. “And the more accomplished, dedicated and connected those alums are, the more value they can add. This is one more reason why MBA applicants should target the best possible schools.”
‘IT HELPED ME RECONNECT WITH MY YOUNGER SELF OF 30 YEARS AGO’
Outside the counseling and the exchange of contacts, both classes gained a deep appreciation for the value of the HBS network. “It was a little bit of a glimpse into our future,” says Tabrizi. “Seeing them all together on Zoom making the same sorts of jokes about each other that we would have showed me what life has in store for you over the next 30 years. We shared a video we made of our section, and then they pulled out a video they had made 30 years earlier. There were a lot of different feelings and emotions.”
For Cohen, the experience had emotional resonance. “It helped me reconnect with my younger self of 30 years ago,” she says. “A lot of the advice came from what we wished we had known 30 years ago and how that could be most helpful to those who shared common interest areas. But also many of us are at an age where we have children of this age as well. So I view it from the perspective of what kind of support would I want for my children when they graduate? It’s been a lot of fun. They have a lot of great ideas and energy. All of us feel a great sense of gratitude for having experienced HBS and for all the people who helped us along the way. For me personally, I welcomed the opportunity to pay it forward.”
Bauer agrees. “These recent HBS grads were so appreciative of our contacting them to offer suggestions and introductions. But more surprising was their sincere interest in our personal and professional journey over the past 30 years. It was gratifying to revisit the thoughts and feelings we had back in 1990 and, in turn, to give the new grads a sense of how their HBS education would serve them well throughout their lives.”
‘THIS IS NOT A TWO-YEAR EXPERIENCE BUT A REST-OF-YOUR-LIFE THING’
For the newly graduated MBAs, the meetings and the continued relationship with alums three decades older were a welcome gift and also a reminder that they are now part of a powerful and valuable network of people. “What better way to bring the network to life,” says Tabrizi. “It solidifies that you are not just graduating with the Class of 2020, but you are joining this set of relationships and supporters in the tens of thousands. When people think about networking and the MBA, it’s about the relationships they build with their classmates. But this is not a two-year experience but a rest-of-your-life thing.”
And despite the peculiar ending to his MBA experience, Tabrizi has no regrets. “Getting an MBA at Harvard Business School was the best thing,” he says. “It lived up to all my goals, expectations, and more. Our section was an incredible group. I created so many life-long friends. Our faculty chair told us early on that ‘good sections break eggs.’ You’ve got to be willing to push each other, and we challenged each other and brought in different perspectives and experiences. I think differently as a business person. I understand better the human condition, and I learned a lot about myself. You feel like you are in a position to be a better leader to people, a better son, a better significant partner. You leave with a higher sense of responsibility.”
And connections to older, wiser, more experienced alums who want to pay it forward.