The Harvard yards
THREE AUSTRALIAN GRADUATES OF THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS BUSINESS SCHOOL RECKON THE HEFTY FEES ARE MORE THAN WORTH IT.
A trio of local alumni from the world’s most famous MBA brand reckon it was a lot of money well spent.
Studying at home in Sydney was like “practising on a back tennis court”, Tom Humphrey says. “But when I got to Harvard it was like being on centre court with 900 Andre Agassis.”
A 2006 commerce-law graduate from the University of NSW, the 29-year-old Humphrey applied to both Stanford and Harvard universities to do an MBA. He went with the latter because it’s like “a badge of honour, a stamp of approval” and graduated in May.
His professors included Dina Dublon, a former chief financial officer of JPMorgan Chase; innovation guru Clayton Christensen; and corporate strategy expert Michael Porter. Among the guest speakers were US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preetinder Singh Bharara (named by Time last year as one of the 100 most influential people in the world); JPMorgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon; and bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell.
It was, Humphrey says, an extraordinary two years. Not only was the quality of the teachers exceptional, but the camaraderie among the 900 MBA students was unlike anything he’d previously experienced. (The number of Australians doubled from seven in his year to 14 in the next.)
“It’s a whole-of-life experience. When I was an undergraduate in Australia, no one left home to attend university. Once you finished your class, you got out of there. In the US, everyone leaves home to go to university. Everyone lives together in dorms or fraternity houses and that builds this intense collegiality. It’s much more than just about education. We’re like a family. And you click into a huge alumni network.”
It also helped that he was immediately signed up for the Harvard rugby team, which he captained in his second year. “We played against all the other fabulous schools around, as well as big tournaments in Europe. We have a list that connects all the alumni of the rugby team, like a Facebook group, and there are often job offers posted.
The extra-curricular schedule was as hectic as the academic one. “In the first 12 months, I spent only three weekends in Boston. Ski season comes round and suddenly you’re going north to the slopes. In summer, you’re going to the great beach spots. And because of the connections you have access to a lot of American friends with holiday houses.”
However, none of this came cheaply. Humphrey got a partial scholarship, but his MBA cost about $120,000 in student fees and at least $30,000 for rent and food. Factor in no income for two years and the total cost is closer to $ 500,000. That’s unlike 30 per cent of students, whose fees are covered by their employer, private equity or a venture capital firm, or the 50 per cent who get some form of support from Harvard’s generous endowment.
It was while working for a start-up called Ourdeal that Humphrey decided an MBA from an American school would provide access to the US market, which he says is years ahead of Australia when it comes to technology start-ups.
He has joined his sister Olivia, who launched Kanopy, Australia’s largest distributor of videos to universities, in Perth in 2008 and expanded to the US earlier this year. They both moved to San Francisco in June to open a new office.
Bec Nyst, 28, grew up in Brisbane and graduated with a Bachelor of Creative Arts (theatre) and Bachelor of Laws from the University of Melbourne in 2008.
She initially thought MBAs were for “people obsessed with making tonnes of money”. However, after interning at law firms, she discovered a legal career wasn’t as glamorous
as it looked on television, so she took a job withMcKinsey& Co. “I realised I loved working in business,” she says. “It can be super-creative and energetic. I had no formal business training, so anMBA made sense.
“I chose Harvard [because] I wanted the classic MBA experience. What stood out about Harvard was its signature case-study method. Every class is taught by studying a real business case from the perspective of a business leader. There are no lectures. Students are expected to come to class with a perspective on the case and the debates can be intense and passionate.”
Nyst, who is interning at Google head office in Silicon Valley, says that way of teaching was completely different from her undergraduate experience, which involved “sitting passively in a class, having almost never done the reading and often just daydreaming about what I was going to eat for lunch. I found HBS’s high-pressure, interactive style really thrilling.”
Her teachers included an FBI agent, a community farmer, a software developer, a military strategist, a political adviser, a marine who had served in Afghanistan and an entrepreneur who runs his own lighting business.
“There were more than 20 countries represented in my section – fromNorway to Lebanon and Senegal – and the topics we debated [included] bribery in business and gender dynamics in the workplace.”
Phyl Georgiou, 28, graduated from the University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Commerce (actuarial studies) in 2006. He later joined LeapFrog Investments, a social investment fund, in Sydney. “I was the first non-partner hire for what became a $135 million private equity fund that brings affordable insurance products to poor people in developing countries,” he says.
He chose to complete a joint degree between Harvard’s Business School (an MBA) and its John F. Kennedy School of Government (a Master in Public Administration focused on international development), combining the two-year courses into three years and graduating in May. “I was fortunate to have two Harvard fellowships and the support of a previous employer [McKinsey]. But, believe it or not, I still have some debt,” he says.
“When I arrived at Harvard, I thought I would struggle academically, that being a decent student in an Australian university was not good enough to compete with those who made it into a place like Harvard. That hasn’t been my experience.
“Going to graduate school was a moment to reflect on what I wanted out of life and what path I wanted to take to get there. It is a rare luxury to take three years out of life to be a selfish student – filling your day with what you want to do. By being open to the experience, I realised I had an unstoppable desire to start my own business. I really didn’t think I had the entrepreneurial bug until I was so deep in an idea I couldn’t get out.”
Georgiou started a business in his second year at Harvard that is now the basis for a full-time job in New York. “Tiggly is changing the way that pre-schoolers interact with tablets and improving educational outcomes in the process. I am working with my two co-founders to launch a series of toys that interact with iPads.” BY BEING OPEN TO THE EXPERIENCE, I REALISED I HAD AN UNSTOPPABLE DESIRE TO START MY OWN BUSINESS.
Tom Humphrey (above) and Bec Nyst both now work in California.
The business Phyl Georgiou (left) started during his second year at Harvard Business School (above) is now a full-time gig in New York.