Stanford GSB diary

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I had seen Stanford’s mission statement a few times on its website as I was going through the application process, nearly two years ago: “Change lives. Change organisations. Change the world”.

I did not pay much attention to it, as I am generally not a big fan of corporate yackety-yak and was selecting my future school more on culture, teaching perspective and experience than on “mission”.

After all, Harvard had “We educate leaders who make a difference in the world”, and Wharton had “Learn more, do more and be more.” To me these all sounded very appealing and pretty much the same.

The next time I saw the mission statement was a few months later, when I received the “red binder” sent to all admitted Stanford students.

The cover letter contained a personal note from the Director of Admissions, with reference to what I had written in my application essays. It also contained a direct reference to the mission statement and I thought: Wow, these guys are really serious about this stuff.

Still not convinced, I decided to withhold judgment and see how this mission manifested itself in the daily lives of Stanford students and alumni.

Life at business school is fantastic. You meet incredible people. You travel the world on exotic study trips. You learn great stuff. You fly to Las Vegas in the middle of the week just for the heck of it.

To make the most of the experience, life at business school is also demandingly busy. And sometimes it is plain frustrating.

Petty classroom and residence policies. Unreturned recruiting calls. Lunchtime jam-ups in the cafeteria when you are already running late for your next meeting.

In between the great experience, the pace and the minor frustrations, it is very easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Until something very simple makes you take a step back again.

Today (Monday) at lunch, Herb Kelleher – founder and retired chief executive of Southwest Airlines – addressed us on what made his company so successful in a period when most other airlines were going bankrupt. “Our people have been a key to our success”, he said.

I thought it was pretty ironic that in an era when just about every company belabours the people mantra, so few have been able to succeed in the way that Southwest has. Of course, the success factor lies not in what you say about your people, but in what you do about them.

It reminded me of my mission statement reservation, and I decided to take stock. Were we at Stanford only saying great things, or were we doing them? Going over my calendar, I scanned the activities of the past couple of weeks.

Two Fridays ago, emotions were running high as first and second year guys were bidding each other up for a day on a yacht with 20 first year girls. It was the last item up for “sale” at the “Stanford Business School Gives Back” auction and the auctioneer reminded us that it was “for the kids”, as the bid went over $6,000.

The auction is an annual event in the Business School calendar, with proceeds going to selected charities involved with disadvantaged youth. The items donated by students were staggering, both in number and creativity.

There was an autographed cycling jersey of Lance Armstrong and an autographed Brazilian soccer jersey of Pelé. A group of Latin Americans offered salsa lessons while the ex-US Special Forces (Army Rangers and Navy Seals) classmates offered a paintball outing and pistol shooting lessons.

One of my friends offered a jazz piano performance at a dinner party, while I am yet to tell my mother that someone now has legal claim to visit our farm in South Africa for a weekend of horse riding and camping!

There were also significant contributions from outsiders. A round of golf with Charles Schwab. Lunch with a founder of KKR or the CEO of either Wells Fargo, Kraft or Pfizer. Dinner with a founder of the Texas Pacific Group or Nobel Laureate Myron Scholes. The list goes on.

The 930 items sold in the auction raised $127,000, the highest in its history. Not bad for a group of students who have not seen a paycheck in the past eight months.

Last Monday, in our weekly “Talk 07” series where classmates share past experiences, a girl told us how she had started a micro lending organisation in Kenya. Through her online site (www.kiva.org), first world citizens have already lent thousands of dollars to farmers and entrepreneurs to whom as little as $20 can make a huge difference.

Last Tuesday, I attended the feedback session of the New Orleans Service Learning trip. A group of classmates had given up a spring break in some exotic location in Mexico in order to assist with the restoration effort after the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina.

Last Friday was the annual Stanford Management Internship Fund carnival. In between professors doing karaoke and laughter at the dunk tank – a weird US contraption where hitting a target makes a student drop into a tank of cold water – students pledged a portion of their upcoming summer job salaries.

The funds raised will be used to provide financial assistance to those classmates working at not-for-profit organisations over the summer.

Yesterday morning, a large group of students volunteered at a track and field meeting on campus for Special Olympics Athletes (athletes with development disabilities).

Some were helping the athletes find their way from one activity to another. Others were passing back balls and javelins. I saw a hedge fund analyst running next to a disabled woman, cheering her on: “You go, Mary. You are doing a great job!” She was trailing the field by 50 meters, but beamed from ear to ear.

This afternoon a group of us helped students with homework as part of the annual volunteer week of the Boys and Girls Club of America. To my embarrassment, Benny – the student I was assigned to – had to remind me that one was not a prime number!

Tonight – in this week’s instalment of Talk 07 – another classmate told us how she had raised funds and oversaw the construction of a school building in Ghana, during her time as volunteer teacher.

Looking back on these activities – and the ones preceding the last two weeks – I am filled with a sense of pride.

With summer jobs in the bag, the year winding down and spring sunshine returning, students certainly had the opportunity for a selfish pursuit of leisure. Instead, many channelled their energy to help those less privileged than themselves.

I see Mary, Benny and 60 pupils in Ghana and I see lives that are positively influenced. I’d even venture to say that – to some degree – they are changed. And I start thinking that the mission statement is more than yackety-yak.

Because if we can change lives, then what should stop us from changing organisations? And if we can change organisations, what should stop us from changing the world?

Previous MBA diaries

Scramble begins for summer internships

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

I’m having a great time but I’m still at school

Close to death before it starts

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