The Disruptors: The Token MBA, Born Of A Disappointing B-School Experience

Michael Chen thought he’d get much more out of his MBA than he did.

“I spent my MBA cooped up in lockdown, taking classes over Zoom with my video off,” the Class of 2021 London Business School MBA says. “Most of the time, I was exploring more timely content through YouTube, books, and podcasts.”

Worse, Chen found content readily available on the internet to be more relevant than what was distilled in his expensive, name-brand MBA program. Most of the time, he says, LBS missed the mark on the intersection of technology and business.

“There’s this whole world happening outside of business school around cryptocurrencies and blockchain that we didn’t even touch on,” says Chen. “We learned about digital disruption by looking backward rather than trying to have debates about how business leaders and thinkers should approach technology to shape a positive future.”

‘CRYPTO FLIPS EVERYTHING WE UNDERSTAND ABOUT B-SCHOOL ON ITS HEAD’

When LBS increased their fees for the class of 2022 despite the program running online, Chen became even more frustrated. According to Chen, students went above and beyond to make sure they still had a good MBA experience despite their circumstances; they led student clubs and organized virtual events and meetups. He describes administration “taking a back seat” as they let students create value for each other while the school profited off of the students’ success.

“Students do so much for free out of the goodness of their hearts. But if alumni become successful — or if the network becomes desirable — the schools are the ones that increase the fees,” he says.

Determined to find a way to decentralize the power of business schools and give students more skin in the game, Chen launched The Token MBA, a platform that helps students purchase an NFT — non-fungible token — for the first time in a safe environment with Ethereum, a form of cryptocurrency. The goal? Spark more conversations at business school about what’s happening at the frontier of cryptocurrency and business and let students take their power back.
“Cryptocurrency flips everything we understand about business on its head,” he says.

“The idea of public blockchain and open source protocol is that everyone who has a token benefits if that network becomes more valuable, rather than just a small group of people in a company. We need to make sure that the value of a business education accrues more to the people that are out there creating and hosting events and generating value for that community, rather than the administration who’s sitting back and watching it happen.”

WHY SELL NFTS ON THE TOKEN MBA?

A copy of the NFT Bored Ape #4620, which is also Michael Chen’s avatar

Inspired by what Chen was learning outside of his LBS classes, he began consuming as much content as he could on the ways in which cryptocurrency, blockchain, and NFTs can change the future of business.

At the time, Chen says there were NFT projects popping up on Twitter all over the world. “I looked at that trend and thought, ‘surely, I could build an NFT,’” he says. “The Token MBA is my desire to point the brainpower that you find within the orbit of traditional business schools towards tackling problems and building solutions for this new paradigm.”

He decided to collaborate with an artist, Chris Yee, to create an NFT that would depict his experience of getting an MBA online during a pandemic. Chen connected with Yee through a friend who was located back home in Sydney, Australia. Interested in exploring the NFT space, Yee quickly agreed to create art for The Token MBA. “I wanted to turn this piece of art that commemorated my MBA experience into a reason for people to have a go at using cryptocurrency,” says Chen. “I think the art will likely speak to business school students and university students impacted by the pandemic more than others.”

Chen chose to make 1,000 NFTs available on The Token MBA to represent Kevin Kelly’s concept of 1,000 True Fans. “With 1,000 copies available, people can think of it as a limited edition print,” he says.

When asked to describe the art, Chen says that the scene captures his experience of business school during the pandemic: a manipulation to convince students that their MBA was, in fact, exactly what they paid for. A graphic image depicting two students in the back of class hiding behind smartphones and Twitter feeds, Yee’s art sums up the frustration that Chen experienced at LBS.

WHAT ARE NFTS?

NFTs act as digital certificates to prove ownership over something like art or music. Since they’re non-fungible, each NFT cannot be copied or replicated. Like real estate, physical art, or diamonds, NFTs have a limited supply and have unique qualities about them that aren’t directly interchangeable with another asset. The limited supply of NFTs gives them the potential for retaining value and appreciating over time. Programmed, coded, and logged transparently on the decentralized ledger system that is blockchain, NFTs cannot be altered or destroyed.

Cryptocurrencies, like ethereum or bitcoin, have been described as ‘digital-native’ money while you can think of NFTs as ‘digital-native’ property. To put it simply, NFTs allow artists of all kinds to have more creative control over their work without relying on external sources who hold more power. “With NFTs, they’re really an entirely new category of property that inherits attributes of the Internet, and software in general: borderless and programmable,” says Chen.

Chen believes that NFTs are changing the game for artists of all kinds as they’re able to attribute ownership to a digital art file that otherwise would have no scarcity. “People can’t just simply copy the file to their heart’s content,” he explains. “If an artist sells 10 digital prints, there will only be 10 digital prints sold and this information is transparent to everyone on blockchain.”

While those who create art on Instagram are currently rewarded in the form of ‘likes,’ in a decentralized world, those artists would be getting more of the value that these likes create for the platform. “For the first time in their careers, NFTs give artists a way to properly monetize their passions,” adds Chen.

HELPING FIRST-TIME BUYERS PURCHASE NFTS

One of the main goals of The Token MBA is to help people have their first experience buying an NFT. “When I talk about NFTs, most people nod and smile politely. Many don’t have any experience or exposure to it,” he says.

To purchase The Token MBA NFT, it costs 0.04 Ethereum. This equates to approximately $50 USD. Chen says that in order to buy an NFT on The Token MBA, you need to know how to operate your own cryptocurrency wallet. “You can’t just buy it with your credit card. The whole point of The Token MBA is to incentivize people to experiment with new technology in a relatively safe environment.”

Chen explains that The Token MBA is a way that he can show people in a guided environment how to use the technology. “You can talk all you want about new technology, but with something like blockchain, it’s much easier to learn when you actually start using it,” he says. “I’d love it if years down the line there were people that were creating businesses on blockchains that could trace it back to The Token MBA being their first introduction.”

Eventually, Chen wants to see students and alumni being able to financially benefit from the ways in which they contributed to their community beyond recognition and pats on the back with a social token. That way, if an MBA network became desirable, causing more people to want to join that network, it wouldn’t be just the administration and shareholders who would benefit from the network — everyone holding a token would benefit. Plus, it would provide incentive for students to go above and beyond for the community. “I think having a simple idea of a token to coalesce people is pretty revolutionary,” he says.

MISSING THE MARK

With an undergraduate degree in law and governance from the University of Sydney, as well as five years of digital strategy experience at Deloitte, Chen entered LBS with a business background. Due to his past experience, he didn’t feel that the MBA provided nearly as much value as he’d hoped for. However, he doesn’t believe that the MBA is irrelevant. Rather, Chen believes that the better question to ask is whether or not the relevance of the MBA has peaked.
“I’m sure the MBA will continue to be relevant for many groups of people, like those who don’t have any formal business education or those whose companies are willing to pay for it. But do I believe the relevance of the MBA has now passed its peak? Probably.”

Chen says B-schools still play the role of being the experts and gatekeepers to a wealth of business knowledge. “Decades ago, when business schools were formed, they really were the experts in business. You had to go to business school to get exposure to management, economics, and learn how business will be done in the future. Nowadays with the internet, this content is available to everyone,” he says.

“I would like to see business education have more agility in responding to what’s happening on the front lines of the business world,” he adds. “There needs to be more discussion about the edge of business and technology, and how this can be applied in class.”

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