Spending the summer sampling

Category: MBA

First published on FT.com (Financial Times) on July 17th 2013

Suspicion surrounds the summer between the two academic years of business school. Responsibly employed friends often ask me how my classmates and I are spending our summer, wondering whether we MBA students simply prance around at Burning Man or go “find ourselves” on the beaches of Thailand.

It is a fair question, particularly given the logistical ease with which some MBA students, like those fortunate to be living on Insead’s Singapore campus, can get to the KohPha-ngan full moon parties.

At Stanford GSB, our professors, career advisors and classmates are all obsessed with encouraging us to engage in sufficient, protracted introspection to work out what we really want to do with our lives. It’s an ongoing process that for me has been greatly aided by meetings with Uta Kremer, career advisor extraordinaire, and Luis, a second year student assigned as my “coach”.

Uta seems able to remember the precise career path of every alumnus who has graduated since 1980 and Luis is an incredibly good listener, who received special coaching training through a series of intense courses at Stanford. Both were able to push me to help me work out what I actually really care about. The summer then serves as a perfect opportunity to test a hypothesis.

I have long thought that I would eventually want to steer my own ship, trying to build a company from scratch. Yet at each junction so far, I have opted to join the ranks of well-oiled platoons rather than parachute behind enemy lines alone, telling myself that I still have to learn much-needed combat skills from experienced sergeants. In the vaults of an investment bank, I started to learn how to model out battle scenarios for almost any eventuality. In the towers of a management consulting firm, I began to learn how to craft strategies to ambush the competition. In the corridors of a venture capital fund I learned how to recognise talented young warriors. Yet I have probably just been engaging in a process of self-justification, always watching the battlefield through binoculars, without ever entering the field. In short, I have stayed within the panelled halls of West Point.

As I pondered what to do for the summer, I was overwhelmed with the options Stanford provides. Job opportunities poured into our inboxes and most of them at institutions that I’ve always admired: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Warburg Pincus, Apple, Google. It took me a while to realise that while a summer spent at any of these great organisations would be incredibly interesting, it would not help me, personally, answer whether I actually want to be an entrepreneur.

So I reached out to numerous entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, career advisors and professors to ask them who they believed were the great chief executives of start-ups, for I wanted to learn how to manage operations. A few names came up several times and one more than any other. So I asked Danny Rimer, one of the partners at the venture capital firm Index Ventures (I worked at Index Ventures just before business school and again for the first part of this summer), to put me in touch with David Rosenblatt.

David is a veteran of start-ups: he ran DoubleClick for more than 10 years before selling it for $3.2bn to Google and now runs 1stDibs. 1stDibs is an online marketplace which provides an online platform to antique furniture dealers, jewellery stores, vintage fashion retailers and art galleries, to enable them to sell their work online. David and his team kindly agreed to have me on board and so I am working to develop a strategy for fine art. I’ll write another post about my great experience at 1stDibs (as well as at Index Ventures!), but suffice to say for now that it is incredibly invigorating being at a rapidly evolving company, where every day it feels as if you can be a part of new inventions or ways of operating.

My housemates are also trying to test out hypotheses. Next year I’ll be living with Jake, Ben and Hiroshi. Jake is the best-travelled man I know, with 85 countries under his belt, in part due to his singing tours. He spent the last few years co-managing a solar energy start-up in India. Used to relying on funding from others, he wanted to learn the process from the investors’ side. So he is spending the summer at Kleiner Perkins Caufield& Byers’s Green Growth Fund, travelling around North America looking at renewable energy businesses.

Ben is a true free spirit, who spent a year before business school doing freelance consulting while sailing around various parts of the world, after working at Bain Capital. He’s interested in running a search fund, which involves raising capital from investors to seek and acquire a small company and then manage it. Typically, these acquisitions are in less technologically advanced industries such as trucking or mail sorting, where there are opportunities for extensive operational and technological improvements.

Ben felt he had to test whether he enjoyed operations. So he has gone to spend the summer in Bhutan, working for Mountain Hazelnuts Venture Limited, the first 100 per cent foreign direct investment company in the kingdom, which is helping subsistence farmers plant 10m hazelnut trees on degraded mountain slopes. His aim is to get his hands dirty and he literally has done just that, improving the processes for the plantation of seedlings and fertiliser mixing. He has also been using the optimisation techniques we learned in class to create an efficient routing system for the distribution of trees, while incorporating into his model the probabilities of landslides and truck breakdowns.

I got to know Hiroshi when we travelled to Haiti and the Dominican Republic together – we bonded over shared experiences of brainstorming furnaces (ie McKinsey team rooms), a love of random nights out (we managed to get ourselves invited to a huge Dominican wedding) and a curiosity for countries going through periods of economic transformation. During hot, bumpy, dusty, cramped bus rides, we spoke excitedly about business ideas in Burma, Libya and Greece. Hiroshi is Japanese and developed his fascination with countries experiencing rapid change through his work for the UN, where he helped create economic development programmes in Indonesia. So he jumped on the opportunity to spend his summer investing in high-volatility Greek assets, on behalf of a London-based hedge fund.

I can mention a couple of other friends, who almost qualify as housemates because I spend so much time with them. Amanda, as well as being one of the most efficient people I have ever met, has an eye for elegance and is hugely attentive to others’ needs. So it came as no surprise to me when she spoke of her desire to move into management in high-end retail. During her summer at beauty retailer Sephora, she is working to ensure that the rollout of the company’s proprietary Skincare iQ technology (launched last week) goes as smoothly as possible. It aims to match the best skincare products to each customer’s specific needs.

Federica is deeply passionate about food, regularly whipping up dinners for groups of up to 20 people, which fuse the spices of Oaxaca (she is Mexican from Monterrey) with the natural flavours of organic vegetables sourced from Californian farmers’ markets. She wanted to find a way to channel her passion this summer, so joined Starbucks to create a ‘foodie culture’ there. Following Starbucks’s acquisition of La Boulange, the bakery chain, Howard Schultz wants to put food on a par with coffee in the stores and so Federica came on board to help them execute the plan.

All this is to say that we are all experimenting, treating our summers as laboratories. We each chose our summer jobs not because anyone else deemed them worthy, but because they fundamentally excited us.


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