Stanford GSB diary

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Part Seven: Just over a year ago I arrived for my first time ever in the US and enrolled with great excitement at Stanford. With most of my classmates I shared the welcome relief to step away temporarily from the working world, where many of us had spent long days and nights over the preceding years.

In front of us stretched two years in which we could explore academic interests, take part in exotic sports, form great new friendships, push the boundaries of our abilities and generally think about what we wanted to do and be in life.

So far the experience has certainly allowed us all of that, but we got a particular detail wrong: we would have only one year in which to make the important decision on a career – and life – path.

Hardly back from our summer internships, the career management centre e-mails brought back a sense of reality: in less than a month recruiters would start coming to campus to interview us for full-time positions. And while some students – including me – found a fondness for their summer jobs, the feeling among most of my friends is that the summer only taught them what they definitely did not want to do for the rest of their lives!

So amid the usual scramble associated with the start of every school year, a lot of the second years are also undergoing a bit of an internal scramble.

I find the decision facing me very difficult. Going back to management consulting would be the default option and would make a lot of financial sense and lead to further professional development. However, with my ultimate goal of a more entrepreneurial route, now may be the ideal time to switch. The past two years have taught me how to live without the comfort of a salary again, and it may be easier to jump into my own venture now than after a few years of renewed corporate pampering.

In addition I face a geographic decision. At the start of my summer I spent two weeks back in South Africa. Camping on our farm with nobody and nothing but my family, our horses, dogs and the southern hemisphere night skies made me realise how much I had missed home. Furthermore the enormous economic growth and general sense of opportunity that currently abound there make it a nearly obvious choice to go back after school.

But going back is likely to be a “no return” move. Having already paid the high cost of uprooting friendships, relationships and belongings back home, I may as well capitalise on it by staying in the US for a few years.

Thinking about this calmly I know that no decision needs to be set in stone. However, when I look back on the huge impact that even the smallest of my past decisions have had, I feel that the one lying ahead warrants a fair bit of consideration and soul searching. As with most things in life, prevention is better than cure.

Yet among all these macro considerations, it is the everyday problems that fill my days for now. This coming week negotiating with our landlord to fix the sink garbage disposal unit is likely to take at least a few hours (if the broken window and carpet cleaning negotiations are anything to go by). Most second-year MBA students migrate from the very comfortable on-campus residence to houses in and around Palo Alto. Together with two classmates and a mutual friend from the Law School, we found a huge wooden house among tall redwood trees, not too far from campus. With the rent well below market rates, we should have expected some problems to appear and fixing these has been a pretty occupying task.

It is very comical to see how MBA students can talk off-handedly about investing hundreds of millions of dollars of shareholder funds, but if it is their own $50 that is needed to fix the door lock, they balk like mad. True to that stereotype, I will see how applicable my current course in Negotiations and Conflict Management turns out in dealing with our landlord. For now, I think that his BATNA (Best Alternative to the Negotiated Agreement) is better than ours.

Introspection and real estate problems have not been limited to the second-year students. After a very intensive task force review, Stanford’s faculty have overwhelmingly approved changes to the content and delivery of the MBA programme. The new curriculum, which will be implemented in the fall of 2007, will capitalise on the school’s small size to create a high-touch, customised programme, with a significant new faculty-student advising and placement component.

Together with the new curriculum came the need for a new campus and it was with great excitement that we received news of the $105m gift from alumnus Phil Knight, founder and chairman of Nike. Believed to be the largest gift ever to a business school, this will go a long way to completing the new building.

As fantastic as these developments sound, I am pretty thrilled with current run-of-the-mill things. With most of the outstanding faculty reserved for second-year classes, students go through an online bidding process near the end of the first year to obtain seats in the high-demand classes.

Using whatever I remembered from auction theory and with a bit of luck, I ended with an all-star list: Conflict Management and Negotiation, Growth and Stabilisation in the Global Economy; Formation of New Ventures; and Managing Growing Enterprises.

These certainly have a much nicer ring to them than do Accounting and Statistics and the other core subjects, useful as they are, to which my first year was devoted.

Managing Growing Enterprises – taught by Prof Irv Grousbeck to 40 students in the autumn – is the most sought-after MBA class. With the protagonist from every case discussion actually present in class, it deals with real dilemmas that young entrepreneurs and chief executives encounter on a daily basis. Telling an employee he did not get the expected promotion; making sure your star salesperson does not leave; addressing an underperformer…these are tough and important issues and much more complicated than calculating your weighted average cost of capital. It is hard to describe the class delivery outside of saying that I leave every session feeling the entrepreneur’s equivalent euphoria to seeing U2 live in concert. Wow.

Extracurricular life has been good as always. The first weekend back I joined a few of my friends in taking 25 first-years out to a lake, where we stayed on a house boat for two nights. This was certainly less active than the river rafting, surfing and rock climbing trips that took place over the same time, but at least we did break hot-tub sessions and barbeques with occasional bursts of water skiing and swimming.

And if the first years on this trip are anything to go by, Stanford’s admission team has once again done a great job of pulling together a bunch of incredible, yet diverse people.

This past Thursday we celebrated the “turnaround” of our house with a very enjoyable dinner party. Mixing up the Business School and Law School “crowds” definitely adds a spark to the usual conversations.

This afternoon I tried my hand at polo (having finally given up on rugby after the umpteenth injury) and the bug has definitely bitten.

So barring some pretty important life decisions and a ton of piled up dishes in the broken sink, not much has changed.

Another year of academic interests, exotic sports, new friendships and exploration lies ahead.

Part 6: Work and play sees the summer away

Part 5: Doing, not just saying

Part 4: Scramble begins for summer internships

Part 3: Heaps of work and some play too, as the pace quickens

Part 2: I’m having a great time but I’m still at school

Part 1: Close to death before it starts

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