First published on Financial Times on12th September 2012:
I listen as the drumming of the rain on the roof grows louder. I decide to wait it out with Rawad, who is sharing a hotel bungalow with me on our first night on Stanford’s pre-MBA trip to Colombia. Twenty minutes later we decide to venture out into the deluge of water and leap between the puddles towards Santa Marta’s beach.
A lone guard on the sand, cowering beneath an umbrella in the darkness, informs us that tonight’s ‘fiesta’ has been moved to the Ark, a nearby patio shielded by a thatched roof.
As Rawad and I arrive others appear from their bungalows and go in two by two to meet our troop of new MBA students for the first time – there are almost 200 of us on the trip. Immediately the ritual of strangers begins. Handshakes are fractionally firmer than necessary; furtive glances are noticed; subtle nods are exchanged to trigger conversations.
One student with Slavic cheekbones and a furrowed brow walks past me – he seems self-assured. Two women start to dance, their swirling dresses catching the light like spinning tops – they seem insouciant. I meander through the throng and am fascinated by how so many here have mastered this social dance. Their smiles are platonic yet engaging; their sentences sound polished yet casual; their stances open yet unimposing. In each conversation, I hear people seeking common ground, which they quickly find through shared national pride, an allegiance to a former employer, a similar love of cycling or mutual adulation for Tarantino.
Leaning on the bar, I order a gin and tonic and start talking to Collin. It turns out he founded a mobile payments business and ran it for six years. He had no co-founder, so I ask whether he ever felt like a lone wolf. He explains that he had not been too isolated, because his employees had developed a shared sense of ownership due primarily to the autonomy he gave them. His greatest challenge involved deciding when to sell his company, for “other founders suggested exiting whenever the business was challenged by competitors or overvalued by potential acquirers”. These are interesting insights to receive by a bar, which make me impatient to start the business school classes in which we will tackle these dilemmas.
My gin and tonic finally arrives, so I swivel around to join a lively debate about Mexican politics (about which I know next to nothing). Federica, who worked at the Wall Street Journal and Boston Consulting Group, points out that Pena-Nieto, the president-elect, needs to capitalise better on Mexico’s unique position as gatekeeper to the US. It is unclear whether Pena-Nieto is the best man for the task. I am given my first MBA assignment – a foreign affairs article I should read tomorrow.
Maria, formerly a curator for Mexico’s National Arts Museum, turns to me and asks whether I am happy to be moving to Stanford. For me, the prospect of living at the heart of Silicon Valley is phenomenal, for it is where the world is being reinvented. As Derrick Bolton, Stanford’s director of MBA admissions observed, the San Francisco Bay area is the 21stcentury equivalent of Florence under the House of Medici.
Stanford University is a unique intellectual utopia, where wild ideas are helped to blossom. So I feel very fortunate. Despite my excitement though, Maria and I share similar important concerns, regarding not where we are heading, but who we are leaving. Our supportive families, beloved partners and engaging friends will be separated from us by seas and there is nothing more important to me than these relationships. It is hard to leave them for two years; it is harder still to embrace the fact that I have no idea where I shall live after Stanford. It could be back in London or in New York, but it could just as easily be in the Bay area, Mumbai, Beijing, Beirut… all places of which I am fond and which provide real opportunities.
Suddenly the thunder rumbles loudly above us and the lights and music immediately cut out. It is late and time to abandon ship, so I leave the Ark. As I stroll back towards my room through the haze of rain, a colossal bolt of lightning illuminates the jungle-covered mountains cascading into the Caribbean Sea. This striking image will eventually fade from my memory, but the collage of conversations I had tonight should stick. I am so impressed, if rather daunted, by the people embarking at Stanford.