Meet the MBA Class of 2022: Tim Backstrom, Harvard Business School

Tim Backstrom

Harvard Business School

Love a challenge (intellectual, physical), passionate about creating solutions that improve the lives of others.”

Hometown: Stockholm, Sweden

Fun Fact About Yourself: Serendipitously got invited to play in the UK University Championship in snooker after only having played for two weeks. Needless to say, it was a humbling experience.

Undergraduate School and Major: University of Glasgow, Bachelor of Science in Pure Mathematics (with a one-year exchange at UC Berkeley)

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Co-Founder & CEO @ Spark

I co-founded a fintech venture focused on facilitating investments into off-grid solar assets in Sub-Saharan Africa through an online banking platform.

What makes the case method so attractive as a means to learn and become a better manager? The case method puts you in a manager’s shoes and forces to you make decisions based on incomplete information while constantly being challenged by peers with direct or indirect experiences in the specific industry, or at the specific company, that the case is covering. In this environment, you are taught to constantly consider multiple perspectives and approaches to problems-solving while consistently learning from the experiences and insights of your peers.

What quality best describes your MBA classmates and why? Diverse: each day you are put in a room with 70-90 people who come from completely different backgrounds than yourself. When I was first introduced to some of my future classmates, I was amazed by the various backgrounds they all came from. I met a former Officer at a nuclear submarine, an engineer who designed golf clubs, someone who worked on an oil rig in Africa, and another who did sports statistics for a major baseball team. In my opinion, no other place offers you the opportunity to be in a room with accomplished people from such a wide array of backgrounds at the same time, something which I believe contributes immensely to the overall learning experience.

Aside from the case method and classmates, what was the key part of the school’s MBA programming that led you to choose this business school and why was it so important to you? In addition to the case method, I chose HBS because of its focus on entrepreneurship and also because of its incredible alumni network. When I first did my research on the school, I found it striking that more than 50% of the class went on to start their own business at some point in their career. However, when you consider the sheer amount of support and resources HBS makes available to its students, it’s easy to understand why. Both in and outside the classroom, there is a community of driven people seeking to find solutions to global problems, something which I find incredibly inspiring.

On top of this, the strength of HBS’s global alumni network is something that is hard to ignore. Even before enrolling, I have personally been able to reach out and connect with leaders in industry in both Europe and the US due to my Harvard connection and will continue to do so throughout my career.

What club or activity excites you most at this school? The newly-formed Fintech Club. Coming from a background in fintech, I am excited to explore new ways in which technology can be used to drive financial inclusion.

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: My biggest accomplishment so far has been to successfully raise capital for my venture as a first-time entrepreneur. I don’t think anyone can prepare you for how difficult it will be to start your own business. My co-founder and I were fortunate enough to find investors that believed in us and agreed to commit capital to support our vision. Although it took a lot of hard work to get there, the feeling of elation after reaching this point was incredible.

What led you to pursue an MBA at this point in your career? To me, the start of my career was about testing different hypotheses and trying new things, all while learning as much as possible in the process. As a result of this, I have also learnt a lot about myself as a person. After having spent five years at large corporations and one year working on my own business, I now have a clear view of the kind of work that fulfills me, which settings I thrive in, and where I see myself in the future. At the same time, I have also realized my weaknesses and discovered areas I would like to explore further. As a result of all this, now seems like the perfect time for me to pursue an MBA as it will allow me to learn more about the areas which interest me, give me opportunities to improve on my weaknesses, and use these new-found skills and the network I will cultivate to springboard me into a fulfilling career after I graduate.

What other MBA programs did you apply to? Stanford GSB, Berkeley Haas and UCLA Anderson

What was the most challenging question you were asked during the admissions process? All in all, the HBS interview was one of the most positive interview experiences I had and there wasn’t any question in particular that stood out to me as the most challenging. However, I think it is important to consider what you want to get out of the MBA experience as a lot of the questions were focused on qualities I would like to improve upon and situations where I wished I would have acted differently. I think these insights were key for me to consider going into the application process as it gave me clarity on what skills I would like to obtain and the qualities I would like to improve upon to get me to the next level in my career.

How did you determine your fit at various schools? People, resources and culture were the three most important factors I considered when choosing the right school for me. Coming from a European background, I wanted to ensure that I would be in a global environment with people coming from vastly different backgrounds and experiences than myself, something which I believe produces a unique atmosphere to learn and develop in. I also think it’s important to consider whether the school you are applying to will actually help you achieve your long-term objectives as some schools might be a better fit depending on your future career choice.

The best approach to decide your fit at any school is to speak to existing students and alumni. I was fortunate enough to have people in my network to reach out to, but I was also positively surprised by how willing people, whom I didn’t even know, were to speak to me about their experiences.

What was your defining moment and how did it prepare you for business school? I could probably provide you with a long list of defining moments in my life, but one stands out in particular that has shaped my personality and attitude towards work. This was during my childhood when I, as a young ice-hockey player, found out that I had missed the draft for one of Sweden’s top teams. After calling up the coach and convincing him to let me do the pre-season training with the team, I spent five days a week for two months giving everything I had in order to prove my worth. It is hard to express the joy that I felt when I was finally told that I had made the team. Looking back, the lessons I have learned from that experience have been a major contributor to the success I’ve had in my life up to this point as it has taught me that nothing worth having comes easy – it requires hard work and dedication. Getting accepted into business school has been a seven-year journey that has been riddled with doubt, challenges, and failures. By consistently pushing forward, however, I have learned that I can achieve incredible things when I persevere.

What is your favorite company and what could business students learn from them? Although there’s quite a few companies I am inspired by, one of my favorite companies right now is Tala, a company that uses alternative data to underwrite micro-loans for people in developing countries who have no formal credit history. By doing so, they are not only tapping into a billion-dollar market, but also supporting people outside of the traditional financial system and helping them create a better life for themselves. To me, this is a great example of a purpose-driven business that is using modern technology to solve long-standing socio-economic problems.

What is the most important attribute that you are seeking in an MBA employer? A company that attracts brilliant people and gives them the autonomy to excel. I think the second part of this statement is incredibly important as a lot of companies tend to employ smart people but then force them to adhere to specific standards or corporate structures. As Steve Jobs neatly put it: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”