Was Pursuing an MBA Worth It?

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It has been almost six years since I got my MBA. After a stint in management consulting and leading teams at a Fortune 200 company, I am now an executive at a venture-backed Silicon Valley clean tech company. For a bit of my background, please visit my profile page.

Some prospective, current, and alumni of MBA programs often ask me for advice on navigating their careers. Many ask whether I thought the MBA was worth it.

When I re-entered the real world from the safe ivory towers of academia, I wondered whether all the knowledge, frameworks, and relationships built during my graduate school years (esp. the MBA) could truly bring order to the messy business of the real world. It prompted me to reflect at my reasons for going back to graduate schools and whether or not I had learned anything useful along the way.

Let me just say that the most important lessons I learned during that journey were actually about life itself. Yes, it sounds cliché, but it is the truth.

Graduate schools (including the MBA) were a personal sacrifice for me mainly because I had to leave my home in San Francisco and moved to Boston and Chicago and lived separately from my husband for a few years.

I got my graduate degrees from two schools: MIT for my Master in Engineering and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University for my MBA. This reflection will focus primarily on business school (Kellogg) as it is the one that has actually taught me the most “important” lessons in life. I was too busy stressing out applying to b-schools while at MIT that I regret not having much time to enjoy that wonderful place. To add a little complication, I was also fortunate to be accepted at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government as part of a joint MBA/MPP program with Kellogg, but due to personal family reasons, I decided to decline that particular admissions offer and just got the MBA instead of the MBA/MPP (and finish graduate schools in 3 years instead of 4 years). Maybe one day if I am still passionate about public service and my husband and I can live in Boston, I may enroll at Harvard’s Mid-Career Program.

So, let’s focus on my MBA experience. I wanted to learn something about business. Check! This may sound peculiar because I am not convinced that everyone who goes to b-schools wants to learn business. Many go because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. They just want their tickets punched “Top MBA” and off they go, either return to what they were doing before or moving on to greener pastures.

I wanted to learn how business people/leaders think. Check again! I was fortunate to attend a school where there was an abundance of opportunities to learn how business people/leaders think straight from the horse’s mouth. We constantly learned through the speakers, classmates, alumni, teachers, and companies who seemed to swarm our campus almost on a daily basis. Today is Clinton, tomorrow is Annan. Countless Fortune 500 CEOs, political leaders, and the World’s Who’s Who descended upon us. Oprah even taught a class called “Dynamics in Leadership,” which was of course a perennial favorite that was always over-subscribed. For those networking-obsessed people, being in b-school was like a child in a candy store. Click here for some pictures of the all-so-important people you get to meet.

I guess there is some truth to the saying that b-school is the perfect place to “network.” At times, I was in awe by the people around me. Seems like everyone has stellar pedigree and credentials, something extraordinary – they are rock star, superstar, what-have-you. Sometimes I secretly wondered how I got into that place because surely my normal credentials paled in comparison to those of my classmates. Was I the admissions mistake?

There was the pharmaceutical heir who has climbed the Seven Summits while raising educational funds for sherpa communities around the world so that their kids could go to school. Countless scions of industrialists, cabinet ministers, and heads-of-states. A girl whose grandfather invented Clearasil (oh, hey, I used to use Clearasil when I was a teenager with a face full of zits, does that count?). A speech writer to a US President. Oh, another Olympic Gold Medalist. The last time was in men’s 100 meters, what is this one for, you may ask? Beach volleyball, go figure! A fighter-jet pilot who has started and sold a successful company when he was only in his early 20s. A Marine captain who has lead teams of thousands of soldiers in two wars. A girl so smart that she’s holding 7 US patents, and counting! And so on and so forth…With names like Kaiser Wilhelm August Cousteau V (the fifth for God’s sake!), you’re in good company. The sheer number of “highly-accomplished” people around me was just mind-boggling. It was a mixed blessing — It’s great to be surrounded by ambitious, successful people because discussions become very interesting, but it can also be detrimental, for these types of people are usually highly competitive, and by nature, insecure (myself included!). You learn that everyone is groping towards something called business success, and that what marks out the successful gropers – if you will excuse the term – from the unsuccessful gropers can be anything from an engaging personality to analytical brilliance to plain dumb luck.

Further fueling the competitive game is a particular sport peculiar to top b-schools, called “recruiting.” Amidst never-ending classes, exams, team meetings, projects, networking events, speakers, community service, your own private life (if you have any, that is), every top b-school student experiences the hell called recruiting. It is the mating dance between companies and students, which for many students, seems like a matter of life and death. It starts as early as the second week you arrive on campus. Imagine, you’ve just arrived, second week of school, all wide-eyed and have just finished with CIM Week (the Kellogg equivalent of a boot camp), and companies have already started courting you. Mind my language, yes they are courting you but you are also expected to deftly return the courtships and play the game. So…, you go to these invite-only events, brown nose (a.k.a. kiss ass), smile, try to be witty to be remembered so that they’ll include you in their closed lists later on, smile, witty, smile, witty, blah blah blah, rapeteta, yadda, yadda, yadda. Different companies intentionally hold their events at the same time so you need to be resourceful to make sure that you attend all of them (they keep a checklist of who shows up and who doesn’t) because you don’t want to be the one to whom they ask, later on in an interview, “If you’re really interested in our company/industry/whatever, how come we’ve never seen you before?” (Did I ever told you one bulge-bracket investment bank actually interviewed me at 12 midnight on a Saturday night for the 2nd round? Such is the life of a banker, no life that is, working like a horse for 120-130 hrs a week!). Honestly, after going through hundreds of corporate presentations and interviews, it’s no wonder you mix Morgan Sachs and Merrill Stanley, or was it Goldman Lynch or Gambling & Proctering? Why can I never get them straight?????

The competition among your peers during recruiting season is very subtle. No one will stab you in the back (hey, they know you may become very successful one day so people in b-schools are experts at competing while at the same being friends with you, oh how they are slick!). Sometimes I think b-school students are in way over their heads. I cannot blame them, the environment is somewhat toxic and bubblish (is that even a word?). Companies spend a fortune trying to woo students. They wine and dine you at the most expensive restaurants. They fly you out for second-round interviews and put you up at the nicest hotels. They even fly your spouses out and arrange for a city tour, complete with a real-estate agent in case you are interested in relocating after accepting your offer. Mind you, these are just for interviews, before you have even received an offer or yet accepted a position. Companies compete with one another trying to get the best minds in business to be groomed their next generations of leaders, or so they say. The following are several illustrations of the lengths companies will go trying to woo you.

A well-known chocolate company located in Hershey, PA (in the middle of nowhere as far as the MBA crowds are concerned) was so worried about their location that they sent in their private jets to fly students out for interviews lest students would decline due to their “undesirable” location (many MBAs prefer to work in NYC, SF, London, Tokyo, or Hong Kong after graduation, making these major cities very competitive to land a job post-MBA, even more bad news for someone like me with a significant other in SF).

The world’s largest software manufacturer, which is also arguably the world’s largest public corporation by market cap, arranged for their summer interns to have a BBQ at Bill Gates’ home where Gates himself tried to convince these whiz kids to go back to said software manufacturer post-graduation. The Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffet, also the world’s 2nd richest man (who has just announced that he would donate 80% of his estate (valued at approx. $30B) to charity, good for him!), offered a private dinner and talk (flights to and hotels in Omaha, Nebraska, not included though) to 100 lucky students (we had to run a lottery given how many students were interested). So all in all, you can see how all these things get into students’ heads, after all, we’re just impressionable kids.

Then there is the prestige factor. Seems like everything you’d want to do have to be “prestigious.” Oh, you have to want to be a management consultant at McKinsey, Bain, BCG, or do banking (mind you, in b-school circles “banking” means investment banking only, not commercial banking, nor retail banking) at Goldman, Morgan, or Merrill. Doesn’t mind that in banking you’ll have no life (they work you 120-130 hrs a week!). Or, if you are really a superstar, you should yearn to work in the all-mighty private equity (PE) industry for the likes of KKR, Blackstone, Carlyle, or Bain Capital. Or, the hedge funds, like Farallon, Viking, Renaissance or SAC Capital. Also, everyone seems to know what is going on with your lives at all times. They seem to know where you worked last summer, which companies you are interviewing for full-time, which ones extend you an offer, and which offer you decide to accept. You live in a fishbowl, no privacy, and everyone is quietly judging you (and your supposed “achievements.”). Oh, and once you’re forced to accept an offer out of peer pressure, don’t even think of reneging on your offer because the b-schools and Corporate America will blacklist you for at least a year. Sigh!

I actually found the social experiment part of the MBA experience the hardest. Yes, the academics were demanding, but the social pressure was even more so. Things seemed to center around jobs, jobs, and more jobs! If you do not secure a job one year in advance prior to graduation, you risk being a social outcast. Mind you, not every type of job offers a position a year in advance. Most normal people in the real world look for jobs after they graduate, not accept a position a year before they graduate. Many creative industries such as entertainment, fashion, hospitality will not even interview you a year in advance, but hey, in b-school parlance those aren’t the kinds of jobs you are supposed to be interested anyway. B-school is a bubble, a very painful social bubble. It takes guts…, and courage to rise above the masses. A good friend of mine aptly puts it as follows…

“’Swimming upstream alone’, that’s what I’ve felt like spiritually for the last couple of months here at Kellogg. It’s like there’s this current that is “Kellogg” that seems to constantly be flowing in the opposite direction of where I’m trying to go. Sometimes the current switches directions and I get to swim with it for a while, but mostly I end up with a mouthful of water as I try to stay afloat going, well… no where.”

This particular friend, let’s just call him “John,” is genuinely interested to be a priest as Christian ministry is his true passion in life, but for one reason or another (his Dad is the CEO of the one of the world’s largest banks and maybe the Old Man put pressure on poor Johnnie to get his acts “together”), he ended up at Kellogg. Apparently, he isn’t the only one trying to stay sane at Kellogg as I’m sure many share our sentiments, though few brave enough to admit so.

There is a herd mentality in b-schools year after year, though the flavor of the day changes. For the last two decades or so, depending on the state of the economy, the MBA, particularly from a top school, is a feeder for two industries: banking and consulting. At the top schools, around 2/3rds of the class go into these two industries. Year after year after year after year. And whether banking/consulting is a 1st choice or backup plan, the majority of the classes are chasing some “hot” industry of the moment like Paris Hilton craning her head for a camera. In the 1960s it was advertising. In the 1970s it was conglomerates. In the 1980s it was bond trading. In the 1990s it was dot-coms. Right now, it’s private equity and hedge funds. You have hordes of people who want to do this “hot” thing, not because they actually like the job, but because it would make them feel good about themselves for getting a job in a “sexy” industry that would be the envy of others. It’s no different than a guy blasting his music out of his car for everyone to notice how cool he is. Or insisting on living at a certain zip code because you can tell everyone who cares where you live and remind them how exclusive that neighborhood is. It’s no different than that elementary school kid really wanting that toy because the coolest kid in the class has one.

The irony is, the majority of people at the top b-schools are precisely the people who don’t need the prestige of that degree to get ahead – because they already had the goods to succeed in the first place. Heck, they need to be successful enough to get into a top school, right? They don’t need the prestige because their talents and achievements speak for themselves. But if you ever become extraordinarily successful (i.e. rich, famous, powerful, influential, etc.), the b-school will try really hard to take some credit for being a part of your “formative years.” Yes, b-schools are big business, they know it and act the part (that’s why the Dean knows you by name, that’s why the Alumni Office has started being friendly with you even before you walk out the door, that’s why they practice to pronounce your name correctly for they know you may be an important “asset” to the School for the years to come). Thinking about it, isn’t it ironic — I was supposed to be among my peers, but I was feeling very uncomfortable.

Once you’re back in the working world, no one really cares. And once you go to a top school, you’re amongst peers. In any given company with MBAs, there’s the Kellogg summer intern who was hired by the HBS (Harvard B-School) grad working for the Wharton dropout who reports to the CEO who is a Kansas State grad who reports to the Board – with one Stanford MBA, a college dropout, a Humanities major at some no-name state school, an MIT alum, and some random guy who seems smart but you’re not sure where he went to school, and so forth.

Again, those who have the experience and accomplishments that speak for themselves don’t need no stinkin’ prestige.

There are people, even at top schools, who spend their lives collecting brand names (it’s definitely tempting!), ranking everything in sight and see the world in some crisp hierarchy — and there are those who see through that and focus on the important things.

So, was it worth it? Somewhere in that fog – and here is where business school comes in – is a set of tools any old Joe can use to improve his chances. Whether it is drafting a list of personal priorities and sticking to them, managing the brand called “you,” or learning how to apply a balanced scorecard to your business.

The goal is not so much to develop a specific tactical skill, which may or may not be useful in five years’ time, but to develop an intuition or palate for business that lasts a lifetime. In the short term, this risks serving neither the MBAs nor the companies that hire them especially well. But over the long term, it should all work out.

I do have a far greater appreciation for the rational processes that go into business decisions than before. I have learned that the easily parodied jargon of the business world is often the product of very worthy efforts to conceptualize and solve real problems. I can say quite confidently that levering up a business to juice the returns has its risks. I know that debt can be both a pillow and a sword. Was it worth the time, money and personal sacrifice of living separately from my husband for three years? I certainly do hope so.

I think b-school has allowed me to develop that sixth sense in trying to define a good business, similar to finding that elusive “soul-mate” —  it is hard to define, but you will know it when you see it.

Photo Credit: Stained Glass @ Northwestern via Flickr

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Sonita Lontoh
Sonita Lontoh is the head of global marketing at Trilliant, a venture-backed cleantech company in Silicon Valley. She is a cleantech expert recognized on Wikipedia and is a frequent speaker and contributor on energy, cleantech, and women leadership topics for publications such as FORBES, FORTUNE, CNN, MIT Review, etc. Prior to Trilliant, Sonita was a leader at PG&E Corporation, a Fortune 200 energy company with assets of more than $45 billion and serving more than 15 million customers in California. Earlier in her career, she spent a few years as a technology entrepreneur including co-founding a successful online game company serving the Greater China region and a stint in management consulting at Bain & Company. She earned her MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and her Master of Engineering from MIT, where she was also cross-registered at the Harvard Business School. Sonita holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research from UC Berkeley. Follow Sonita on Twitter @slontoh.

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