Reflections on Business School

When I returned from Nicaragua and asked my readers to opine on the future of this blog, there was an understood consensus that I would continue to write about culture and experiences I have, but also write about my time in business school. I have not written much about culture and experiences. Part of that is having traveled less and being back in my birth country (certainly North Carolina is a different culture from the Northeast, but not that different). Another part of it is that during my first semester I had less time to write, since I was doing a lot of schoolwork.

I have no such excuse for not writing about business school. I am not by any means lacking in opinion. Part of me wanted to wait and spend more time in business school before putting forward an opinion, but I was also reluctant to criticize an institution of which I am a member. I suppose I am now breaking my silence. As always, I write humbly and accept constructive criticism, disagreement, and debate.

Kenan-Flagler

Kenan-Flagler Business School

I had a lot of misconceived notions about business school. I thought that it was going to be about the art and science of management: mixing the science of management, the art of leadership, and the skills of business strategy, to be successful in any business. However, it’s really just a corporate vocational school. We certainly take management classes, have leadership experiences, and study business strategy, but it all seems to be focused on securing a job in a large corporation and then climbing the ladder. Every aspect of business school seems to be sponsored by a corporation. We got backpacks at orientation and they have Johnson & Johnson stitched into them. Companies like Deloitte often host receptions for the whole school, and even our classrooms and small study rooms have placards naming the rooms after certain corporations.

As you apply to MBA programs you are expected to have a short-term and long-term career plan that you can articulate. Mostly everyone makes this up during the admissions process. A common piece of small talk when we all meet each other is what industry do you want to get into? Upon being asked this question everyone’s eye contact begins to flitter and they deflect the question, not wanting their dirty little secret that they kind of made it up on their admissions essays to get out. The administration seems well aware of this when we arrive on campus and they give us mixed messages: “Focus on your strengths,” “Address your weaknesses,” and “Explore different options for a career.” However, we are then quickly expected to choose an industry to focus on: finance (or its cousins, asset management and private equity), consulting, real estate, health care, energy, or technology. Well, kind of. Corporate finance is also sort of an “industry,” as is operations and marketing. Curiously, sustainability is also considered an industry.

The bastard stepchild is entrepreneurship. I figured that entrepreneurship would be an ever-present concept in a business school. The curriculum would prepare us for corporate work, but starting our own business maybe down the line or right out of the gate would always be an option for which we would be well prepared. I was wrong. Business planning, writing, execution, iteration, and analysis are not part of the core curriculum. They are only electives. Of course, they are touched on during core classes, but never focused on. Instead of being part of the main career buffet, entrepreneurship is a something à la carte that you can go for if you don’t want to try the corporate route. It seemed asinine when I got to business school, and my thoughts have not changed a semester and a half later. At one point, all businesses, including those that have revolutionized the world, improved standards of living, and modernized industries, were start-ups. Innovation is essential for world progress, and yet the most important public institutions, with lofty missions and ambitions of social progress, relegate it to being an “industry,” – an alternate option for the business school freaks and geeks who don’t want to bend over for the man as soon as the corporations descend on campus in September for their monotonous company presentations.

Entrepreneurship is certainly a sexy word these days, and it’s seen everywhere from HBO to the front cover of magazines. The popular belief is that being entrepreneurial is a trait. It takes gutsy and daring visionaries who take the risk to put their idea into action, and they can be handsomely rewarded for their ambition. However, there has been academic research into entrepreneurial success and what has been found is that most successful entrepreneurs are the children of wealthy White folks. They’re trust fund babies. Of course they can take risks, because they have a basement in Dobbs Ferry to fall back on if everything goes south. Entrepreneurship is simply a vehicle for enhanced income inequality unless society can get more minorities engaged and de-risk the endeavor. Business schools are playing no role in this important shift in thinking and structure. Instead, they are just shuttling more and more students into corporate roles so that their average income upon graduation numbers look good every year for the national b-school rankings.

That is merely a digression from the main arguments of this article, but I believe an important one.

During the fall months, every first-year student is in a frenzy to get an internship. We attend a multitude of company presentations and events in the hopes of networking and gaining an upper hand once companies begin to accept applications. We line up to shake every recruiters’ hand and ask questions that we have pre-rehearsed. We espouse how much we’d love to live in Northwest Arkansas or Eastern Tennessee. We forget every facet of day-to-day congeniality such as keeping commitments with friends and having a modicum of a social life and look for every possible opportunity to brown nose recruiters, just in the hopes that it will give us a marginal advantage when it comes to getting an interview.

The troubles with this corporate system run deeper. It’s extremely racist, sexist, and classist. At the beginning of the semester when everyone is trying to figure out what “industry” they want to get into, many people attend information sessions for banking. However, within a few months, the ranks are culled down to mostly White men, which precisely resembles the investment banking ranks in New York. There are many reasons for this. Second years speak of an unspoken dress code that would require many people to buy a new wardrobe. Bankers plan informational interviews and social events where the main topics of speech are golf, strip clubs, and the attractiveness of their co-workers’ or their co-workers’ wives. There is an expectation that investment banking requires obscenely long hours. Given these norms, there is no doubt in my mind why women, foreigners, and LGBTQ individuals do not bother after a few months. There certainly have been successful minorities, but they see very few bankers that resemble themselves, and they would be required to sacrifice their values and personal aspirations if they are to receive one of the few coveted offers.

The other “industries” are not immune to these equality issues. Many women seek marketing roles, and people just assume that the women in our class (30% of the entire class) default to marketing, barring any other interests. This is a completely sexist assumption, but our coursework actually reinforces it! In our core marketing class, we did a case in which marketers were referred to as “Mary” and owner-operators were “Oliver.” For no reason whatsoever the case we were studying had gendered career choice. The real shame in this is that women owner-operators are more likely than men to incorporate social betterment into their businesses, not to mention all of the men who would be great in marketing but they shy away from it because it seems emasculating or beneath them. We need to be encouraging minorities to not feel that the only place for them is marketing, but that’s precisely what our core curriculum is promoting.

All of this classicism and gendering engenders a feeling that different classes of students are better or worse suited for different careers, which is absolutely and utterly false. I feel strongly that every single one of my classmates is intellectually capable of all of the positions for which we are being recruited, but the business school system itself is indoctrinating us into thinking otherwise. It’s not as if calculating a pro-forma financial statement is very difficult, but the system makes us feel that way.

Kenan-Flagler, as well as most other business schools, speaks prominently of its values, and it also makes note that it selects candidates based on their match to these values. The Kenan-Flagler Business School values are:

  • Excellence
  • Leadership
  • Integrity
  • Community
  • Teamwork

Our willingness to work with many of these employers that show no respect for diversity is a complete betrayal of these values, particularly integrity. Anecdotally and statistically, it is obvious that many employers do not take women, minorities, LGBTQ, or foreign-born candidates seriously, yet we continuously invite them back to campus and give them access to our resources in order to recruit our students. If the administration were serious about the values then they would set expectations for companies and criteria to evaluate them, and then hold recruiters accountable and stop inviting them to campus if they are not meeting expectations. Unfortunately, all business schools seem too concerned with their relative rankings to implement a system like this and take their own values seriously.

One thing that I did not inform myself about thoroughly before business school was the “core” curriculum that all students take. I assumed that most business school students would have business, finance, or economics backgrounds, and they wanted to hone their skills in management or business building. I place myself in that category. In fact, many students are called “career-switchers.” The general explanation for these folks is that they have been working in an industry and are unsatisfied so they come to business school to learn business skills and then make more money in a new industry. I won’t get into whether or not this is good or whether I think it is a true characterization of my classmates. However, it creates two classes of students – the students with experience and those without experience. It creates the same “I can’t do math” mentality that takes hold of so many students in primary school.

From the beginning of the first semester we are warned about how hard the core is and how much that first semester is going to suck. We take accounting, finance, economics, statistics, and operations, to name a few quantitative classes, and many of the career-switchers claim that they are not experienced and at an insurmountable disadvantage to the students with more experience in those fields. This leads to more self-selection. The career-switchers think that they are not qualified for the grizzled industries of high finance and consulting, so they settle for “easier” industries like marketing and health care.  However, the truth of the matter is that we all took the GMAT. We were all selected by admissions and qualified as having the requisite quantitative reasoning ability to excel in business.

I love having the career-switchers. They are actually my favorite classmates. I much prefer getting to know a Broadway theatre marketer, a science fiction literary agent, or a commercial shipwreck salvager than another consultant from EY. Nevertheless, I admit that I was very unhappy in the core. Many of the classes were too basic for me. I learned concepts in finance surely, but I could have learned more. I did not find economics very useful, and our statistics and data progression was not very useful for me until we got into concepts such as interpreting logistic regression and cluster analysis. In business school my time is extremely valuable, since credits are so expensive. I would have just preferred to have been in other classes where I could have absorbed new knowledge, skills, and experiences. I was also upset, since CPA’s were allowed to exempt themselves from financial accounting and managerial accounting, but I was not permitted to be exempt from economics.

Maneuvering this career-switcher vs. non-career-switcher situation is a tricky one for administrations. They want to create a community, and you cannot do that by exempting people and having different tracts for different students based on their backgrounds. That would probably just reinforce the classism issue that I am highlighting. However, the current system still engenders this classism, and it leaves many of us non-career-switchers (Am I not a career-switcher? Maybe I am because I am coming out of the Peace Corps, but I don’t really feel like one.) dissatisfied with academics.

Sine first years are so heavily focused recruiting, there is a lot of de-emphasis placed on academics. In some respects, the programs are designed this way. We do not get letter grades (most of us get a “Pass,” while there are a small number of “High Pass,” “Low Pass,” and “Fail”) so we don’t have to be competitive and worry about class ranking, and so we can dedicate time to the internship search. However, some people take this to an extreme and focus nearly exclusively on recruiting, spending entire class periods writing e-mails to recruiters or skipping class entirely to jet to New York and “network” (read: brown nose) with investment bankers. I heard that in years past, after receiving and accepting offers from investment banks, students had to get tutors for finance, since they had missed so much class they were concerned about passing. The “bankers” (students interested in a career in banking) also argue that they should receive a dispensation from the attendance policy because their industry “requires” an enhanced level of networking. This academics-second policy simply reinforces classism and discourages people further from acquiring new knowledge and skills, instead incentivizing them to entrench further in the recruiting process.

If business school is just one giant interview, why don’t employers just skip business schools altogether? I could imagine large corporations like Amazon, which hires armies of interns every year, taking direct applications that include GMAT scores, and then putting their cadets through an accelerated business training program. In short, corporations could create their own mini-business schools and require recruits to stay with the firm for a minimum number of years so that the company recuperates its investment. This would be far more financially advantageous for the students, and it would dispel with the myth that the entire business school process and system holds additional value for corporations and students, above and beyond recruiting.

I very much dislike how business schools use the word “recruiting.” We use it to refer to the internship and job search process, but really, the corporations are the ones doing the recruiting. We are being recruited, and I think we should all internalize the difference a bit more. We act as if they are doing us a favor by making jobs available to us, but truly we are doing them an immense and massive favor. We are offering them one of our most precious and inalienable possessions, our time, and sacrificing our leisure in exchange for money. I suppose the unspoken understanding is that there is an equitable nature to this transaction: they offer us precisely what our time is worth in dollars. In an era of widening income inequality in which executives at major corporations are earning magnitudes more in income than 99.9% of humans on Earth, I don’t really see much equity in this arrangement. Maybe then the recruiters are doing us a favor – they are providing us with the opportunity to maybe someday attain the vast wealth that their bosses’ bosses’ bosses’ have obtained! How’s that for integrity and community? If this is the unspoken reality of recruiting then business schools and the educational institutions that house them are vehicles of income inequality, not the great bastions of upward social mobility that they claim to be.

When most people think of a typical recruiting process for students they think of job fairs that juniors and seniors attend as they think about internships and full-time positions for after college. It seems to make sense because after three or four years of learning you can be assumed to have gained knowledge and skills suitable for work. Students submit their transcripts and resumes, and employers interview the most qualified candidates. However, in business school this process is turned on its head. We begin recruiting before we ever receive a grade (most of which are just passes). Recruiters assume that we are intellectually qualified based on the assessment Admissions does of us, and the recruiters want to see if our past experiences and our personalities “fit” with their organizations. Some people go to career conferences before the first semester even begin and have an internship lined up from day one. The implicit contract underpinning this system is that over the next two years of business school classes we will gain the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in these corporations. Administrations have failed to uphold their end of this contract, taking in exorbitant tuition and turning it into a worthwhile academic experience. There are the poor career-switchers, ever struggling and vocalizing how they are not qualified for certain positions, positions which they may actually really enjoy themselves and excel, and then there are the non-career-switchers who are always putting in a small effort and vocalizing how worthless they find many classes. Many students live by the mantra that once you get a full-time offer you should spend more time on the links than studying.  Genuine learning, the art and science of management, is not the priority. With this mentality, business school simply becomes a two-year, thousands of dollars job interview; nothing more.

I firmly believe that all of my classmates are intellectually qualified for any MBA entry-level position. If the program were serious about academics and trying new experiences in business school, then at orientation there could be a big brown paper bag. Everyone files up one by one and pulls a piece of paper out of the bag. Each piece of paper has an internship position with a different company. Whatever you pull out of the bag, that will be your internship for the following summer. It’s the Sorting Hat, just for business school, not Hogwarts. Everyone would get a new and interesting experience over the summer, we could all focus on learning during our first semesters, and if you don’t fall in love with the internship, then you can search for a more suitable position during your second year, each of us having the added benefit of an MBA internship on our resumes.

I personally have not been immune to much of this mania and frenzy around recruiting and the first year of business school. I often have to remind myself of priorities and make sure that I take advantage of the full range of opportunities that UNC provides, even if they do not directly align with what I see my career path to be. I’m also extremely guilty of maligning classes that I did not feel were worth my time, while knowing full and well that many of my classmates were having a harder time than me while still valuing the knowledge that they were gaining. Not to mention, I recruited fairly heavily and will be joining the ranks of a corporate behemoth this summer. However, I still feel strongly about many of my criticisms here, and had I known what my experience at Kenan-Flagler would have been like before paying tuition, I would have strongly considered other options after the Peace Corps.

These thoughts are only among the many that I have been having about business school. One thing I love about being at UNC is the awesome range of experiences available to me as a student, both within the business school and beyond. There are tons of classes to take, as well as seminars, talks, conferences, trips, company visits, and abroad programs. I wish I had more than two years to be a student again, but financially that is not a great option. Over the next year I am going to focus on learning, having great experiences, and finding a suitable full-time position for after graduation. I’ll also be at the business school, working with my professors and classmates and however I can trying to make their experiences better, as well as looking for ways to make Kenan-Flagler a better school.

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