It has taken six years but I finally have my MBA. On a hot spring day in May, I and more than 900 of my Wharton classmates from the full time and executive MBA class of 2004 processed around the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field stadium to receive our MBA certificates. In a series of speeches we were told to be proud but not arrogant about our achievements and to go out into the real world and represent the school in a positive and ethical manner.
So, was it worth it? In many ways it is too early to tell but, at this stage, I think it was. In the short term, Wharton has totally changed my perspective on what work I want to do. When I went to Philadelphia in September 1998 to start the MBA, I was leaving a job as deputy political editor of a UK national newspaper. At the end of the first year of the MBA, I spent a summer at Goldman Sachs’ fixed income division before taking a leave of absence to help start an online education company. Two years later I set up my own gambling consultancy, Sports Gaming, before returning to finish my MBA last September.
Without the MBA, I would not have had the confidence to set up on my own and I have learned a lot about what makes a business work. It is often said that an MBA course squashes into two years what would take 10 years to learn in the workplace and to an extent that is true.
There is always going to be something of a disconnect between what is taught in a classroom and reality but if you come to the course with very little background in business – as I did – it is invaluable. Of perhaps greatest importance is that Wharton gives its students credibility, which means they are able to raise finance for projects and convince companies and individuals to work with them.
But the true test of the worth of the MBA will probably be in 10 or 20 years’ time. Then I will have a better idea about whether what was taught about strategy or marketing were brilliant insights or just stating the obvious.
People who complain about the cost of MBAs – and at more than $100,000 all-in over the two years, they are expensive – need to think about them as a 20 year investment and then they look like rather better value.
Perhaps the most important part of business school is meeting other like-minded people who are intelligent, interesting and ambitious. At Wharton I met some incredible individuals and I made some very good friends. In a class as large as Wharton, there is a huge range of interests and even if you are interested in some obscure area of nanotechnology, there’s probably a dozen other people to talk to about it.
I feel I have left Wharton with a network of people I can rely on for advice and, although they are now spread across the globe, I will stay in touch with for the rest of my life. Of course, there are downsides to business school as well. For some of my Wharton contemporaries it seemed like business school was something they felt they had to do to be promoted in their careers.
Business education rankings
It seemed odd to me that they had left a position in investment banking to study for two years to go back to pretty much the same job. Those who benefited most from the MBA seemed to be people who wanted to change the directions of their careers and those who benefited most were planning to start their own business and could take advantage of a huge range of support networks at Wharton.
And while time is a valuable commodity, going to business school also showed me that you cannot teach common sense. Some of the most academically brilliant of my Wharton contemporaries may have graduated with incredible skills in stochastic modelling or conjoint analysis, but put them in charge of a project or managing people and it was clear it was going to be a disaster. An MBA can teach many things but it is not a panacea for all business ills.
Finally, because of its size, going through Wharton did at times feel like it was a sausage factory for producing MBAs.
There is a definite sense that it is a business transaction, although perhaps I am foolish to expect anything else at a business school. The semester I spent at London Business School showed me that a smaller intake does make the learning experience more personal, but also restricts the scope and opportunities for study. Anyone choosing a business school needs to think carefully about their preferences on this balance between size and intimacy.
Now I have my MBA, I will continue to build the gambling business and apply the lessons I learned at Wharton. I have already made two acquisitions, of America’s largest gambling information website, Vegas Insider (www.vegasinsider.com) and a UK based odds comparison website, Bookies.com (www.bookies.com).
Now I need the one thing we were taught at Wharton that is most important for success in business – a lot of good luck.