Reflections From My 25th Harvard Business School Reunion: The Mental ROI

Harvard Business School MBA alums attend a reunion on campus

Harvard Business School MBA alums attend a reunion on campus

Not all that long ago, I returned from my 25th reunion at the Harvard Business School where I earned my MBA in 1998.  Aldrich Hall, where we did most of our classwork, is showing no sign of aging, though we attendees certainly had.  The school facilities and grounds are still impeccably maintained, and I enjoyed so many interactions with both dear friends and classmates I don’t see as regularly. The Harvard Business School network is certainly incredible.  There were so many successful PE executives, entrepreneurs, NGO leaders and corporate officers attending. 

During my reunion, I had a frequent comment in the back of my mind. Through my MBA admissions consulting practice, Prep MBA, I constantly hear from applicants that the real value of the HBS degree is the powerful network versus the actual learning.  And even when I spent two years at the school, I heard classmates echo that same perspective.  They argued the content would fade away, and it was mostly the network we were paying for and giving up income for to leverage.

Well, on the first day of my reunion I engaged in a case discussion with about 50 Harvard MBAs from multiple reunion years.  And in that intense 90-minute session, the professor guided us through a dialectic that brought me back in time, and reminded me of the frameworks and mindset I developed at HBS.  I was invigorated, and would argue that HBS has a Mental Return on Investment as well.


Alex Leventhal of Prep MBA Admissions Consulting

Case Discussion: Direct to Consumer versus Legacy Brands:

Direct to consumer brands (DTC) have certainly multiplied in many categories and are competing against established brands from larger companies.  The HBS professor started by asking the class whether DTC brands were a fad, would they have long-term staying power, and how could incumbent players respond to these newer threats?  

Then the fun began. Typically, in a Harvard Business School class, somebody would be “cold called” by the professor to lead off the discussion and offer substantive, data-based arguments and a point of view. But we had not read a detailed case prior, so the professor opened the discussion to all. HBS grads from multiple years raised their hands to push their point of view on the main question of whether DTC brands would fizzle out or be able to compete in the long term.  The professor got out chalk and started categorizing points on huge blackboards.

For the next 90 minutes we made points, built on previous comments, disagreed, added personal experiences and offered relevant industry insider perspectives. I was inspired to be part of this dynamic discussion and felt we got to the main issues of profit margins, supply chains, digital marketing, barriers to entry, market research, pricing strategies and other critical factors. 

The group decided to focus on the razor segment at some point in the case discussion, and how Gillette had lost a ton of market share to no name entrants with cheaper, more convenient to purchase offerings. Prior to starting my MBA admissions consulting practice, I had been in strategy/marketing roles in both Fortune 500 companies and start-ups. Using my industry experiences, I jumped into the conversation and made some points that made the Professor’s blackboard—that is how you know you have advanced the case discussion at HBS!

After the 1.5 hour intense debate, we did come to consensus as a group that DTC brands were here to stay and that some were becoming incumbents themselves or were being purchased by larger players to grow further.  The digital economy is making it easier for new entrants to seem established to end consumers, market at lower costs versus traditional TV ads, focus in more clearly on a subsegment, and use on-line reviews to drive new customers.  Though there are certainly examples of failures, there are many success stories of companies that needed less capital to get to critical mass versus traditional retail driven brands. 

The Mental Return-on-Investment  

As I flew back home to Los Angeles, I felt invigorated by that discussion and the reunion in general.  And I tried to reflect on how this mental business training I got at HBS had impacted my time since graduation.

Many without a top MBA tend to stay in the same industry throughout their careers.  But the MBA gave me the flexibility to move into multiple segments as an executive and management consultant before I became an MBA admissions consultant.  I had been a leader at a medical ecommerce site, a life sciences software player, a machine translation start-up in the language space and even a top national moving company.  And I had consulted for an online moving marketplace, an insurer, and an automotive ecommerce player.  And though I had a learning curve for each experience, I never felt at a loss to do my research and put my head around the key quantitative and qualitative issues.  

Given that I am a veteran admissions consultant with over 15 years of experience, some of my ex-clients have asked me to weigh in on their venture ideas as a courtesy or have even paid me to spend time with them on developing their plans.  And when I do, I lean on those question asking muscles I developed at HBS.  

And finally, in my work, I employ the mental models all the time with essays, interview training, resumes and evaluating LORs.  For example, MBA applicants regularly face behavioral questions in interviews and essays. These questions tend to start with tell me about a time or project when… The client is then on the hook to retell a key project in terms of:

 1) What were the stakes, context and critical issues around a work or extracurricular project?  

2) How did an applicant navigate the analytical/technical and people/political challenges to move the project forward alone or with others?

3) And what were the specific conclusions, and downstream related outcomes of the project?

Mentoring applicants on behavioral questions is perhaps one of my greatest core competencies, and I draw on the training I got at HBS and in industry to help the applicant flesh out and deepen their stories based on key or missing variables.    


I know that MBA applicants often wonder what the true ROI is for an MBA.  And at my HBS reunion, I attended a break-out session on what the school was planning to make the MBA even more compelling to future applicants given the growing cost and time investment.   Not many reunion attendees chose that session given it is not really their concern anymore.  But as an MBA admissions consultant, I knew this topic was critical for me and the future of my practice.  I will not summarize that confidential session, but HBS is considering models of change and extension to ensure their own program ROI, and that of their MBAs.      

Different publications and authors have presented economic models to show the MBA payback. And MBA starting salaries and bonuses offer a compelling time to break even.  But the Mental ROI keeps giving well into your career.  Starting a new venture, thinking about how your industry is at risk of disruption, becoming an investor or advising friends and family on their start up ideas, sitting on a corporate or NGO board, making side investments, and yes even advising MBA applicants are all enhanced by the mental training of a transformative MBA.  HBS was an awesome mental experience, and I wholeheartedly believe the school will find a way to stay exceptional beyond providing a network.

Alex Leventhal is the founder of Prep MBA.

DON’T MISS: Harvard MBA Class Of 2025 Achieves School’s First GMAT Increase In 13 Years or Love, Sex & Money: A Revealing Class Portrait of The Lives of Harvard MBAs

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