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As a child I used to hate going back to boarding school after the holidays.
The thought of my mother’s food making way for the matron’s burnt, mass-produced pumpkin; or of horse rides with friends making way for being beaten up by the “old boys” somehow never left me too excited.
Yet there was always one escape to look forward to: the night before lessons started, we’d all gather in someone’s room and swap tales of memorable experiences we’d had in the holidays.
Coming back to Stanford after the winter break I was filled with excitement, rather than trepidation.
Here, I am surrounded by an incredible group of people and even microwavable food is better than burnt pumpkin. And, luckily, I seldom have to revert to it, given all the generous small group dinners.
Yet, the urge to hear what my friends had been up to was as persistent as ever. The “significance” of the stories was definitely elevated from those of my earlier years.
A British friend told me about meeting the presidents of both India and Pakistan in a single study trip.
An Australian friend told me about appearing on a national TV talk show during a study trip to the Philippines; and an American had met two former prime ministers of Israel and climbed the Masada rock in Israel to see the sunrise during his study trip.
I certainly had my own stories to contribute from a great adventure to Argentina.
Unlike boarding school, where academic work took about two weeks to ramp up, we hit it hard from day one.
Still fully jet-lagged as I walked into my first winter quarter lecture, I was suddenly jolted to attention as a massive bombardment of “cold calling” ensued.
We had been warned about this phenomenon – where lecturers randomly call on a student to discuss the facts of the case or to present his or her analysis – although very little of it had taken place in the fall quarter.
It now went into full swing in a sort of classroom Russian roulette, with the lecturer pulling a card from a deck and revealing the picture of some unlucky fellow, while the rest of the class let out a muffled sigh of relief.
The focus of the core subjects shifted slightly from fall quarter, as we moved from the science of business to the art of business in subjects such as Strategy and Marketing.
With many of the cases still involving a quantitative component, there was also much more of a “magic touch” involved: Why was it so difficult to copy Wal-Mart or South West Airlines? How could Cemex and Ryanair take on big international companies?
It was soon clear that no spreadsheet analysis on its own was going to provide the answers to these questions, and the long debates that have ensued have been both challenging and enriching.
However, it was not the shift in course focus that gave rise to the sudden increase in cold calling, but rather the imminent arrival of a new distraction that would compete with academics for share of mind.
With the term hardly under way, recruiters started flocking to campus in their quest to scoop strong candidates for summer internship programmes – which is often a prelude to scooping strong candidates for full time employment.
Class jokers put on serious faces and the courtyard soon became filled with consultants and investment bankers scampering around in dark suits.
I watched the mayhem with some detachment. Working in Africa has made me aware of the tremendous value that could be generated in my home continent by buying out parts of large bureaucratic firms and turning them into more nimble units.
As such, I want to pursue a summer internship in private equity in order to see how these types of transactions are done in the first world. Another attractive summer internship would be to join a start-up organisation.
I have been passionate about entrepreneurship for many years and the resurgence of the Silicon Valley buzz, combined with all the stories of classmates that have started their own successful organisations, is certainly infectious.
However, both these industries do very little on-campus recruiting and require a more independent approach through informal networks and meetings. Not being part of the stressful hype was thus hardly a consolation, as I knew that soon the new recruits would be flown to lucrative “sell weekends”, while I would still be “networking” to get a foot in the door.
With recruiting being the number one hype, there were certainly some smaller ones too. It took about two weeks from no one even thinking about it to the whole first year intake being self-selected into groups of three to six for second year housing.
Early groups secured current second year houses (through anything from connections to random draws), while unlucky ones started scrutinising the classified advertisement sections. Why all of this happened now – more than six months before we would be occupying those houses – certainly got the better of me.
Close to two months into the year I started getting that uncomfortable feeling in the bottom of my stomach. Networking certainly required the virtue of patience and I had yet to find a fitting summer job. The few attractive houses some friends and I hoped to get had all been booked. And everyone else seemed so settled and in control.
Yet, as always, life was what happened in between it all. I enjoyed a fantastic dinner with my alumnus mentor and his wife. I joined South African friends in San Francisco for a braai (barbeque) to celebrate the start of our rugby season (watched over the internet).
I attended a stimulating conference on entrepreneurship and a factory tour to an automobile assembly plant. And these were but a few of the highlights.
During a long weekend, I visited the ski slopes near Lake Tahoe with classmates. Snow is pretty foreign to most Africans, and I had a lot of bruises to nurture as I settled down next to the fireplace after a long day of spectacular snowboarding falls.
Another weekend offered the opportunity to visit a friend (also studying for his MBA) in New York, my first visit to that extraordinary city.
This afternoon a classmate dragged me along to a talk given by a fellow South African on the World’s Forgotten Diseases. Doing it more out of patriotism than out of any real knowledge about these diseases, I was struck by images of people deformed by lymphatic filariasis and children leading parents handicapped by river blindness.
It does put life in rather harsh perspective. In marketing, we are discussing the billions of dollars spent on erectile dysfunction drugs, and how best to position one drug against the other. Halfway across the world, a child is dying because he does not have access to 50 cents’ worth of medication, as providing it to him will not always be in shareholders’ best interest.
I begin understanding the fascination that a sizeable portion of my class has with non-profit work and suddenly my concerns about “no job, no home” seem trivial.
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