Supermodel Tyra Banks already had a hit talk show, a production company, and a global franchise with America’s Next Top Model when she enrolled in Harvard Business School’s Owner/President Management Program in 2010. Taught in three-week increments over three years, the now $33,000-a-year program aims to help successful entrepreneurs take their businesses to the next level. Banks graduated from the program on Feb. 17 and spoke with Senior Editor Diane Brady that day. Below are edited excerpts of their conversation.
Diane Brady: So what has this done for your company, Bankable Enterprises?
Tyra Banks: After my first term at Harvard, I came back and killed a whole bunch of businesses we were going to go into. We have to say no more often than we say yes, no matter how much money people put on that goddamned table. Harvard is all about innovation and being first to market. It’s something I’m constantly bringing back to my team, whether it’s my soldiers or my generals. I give them challenges and homework and brainstorming sessions to bring the culture that I’m learning at school into my own business. I’m supposed to see a business plan on Thursday and I learned that the differentiation wasn’t in there yet, and I said, “You guys know that needs to be in there before I see it.”
Were any of the courses sort of ho-hum?
I wouldn’t say any of them were ho-hum. Some of them were intimidating. For me, finance is intimidating. When the chalkboard starts to look like Einstein’s chalkboard, I’m like “whoa!”
Did any subject come more naturally?
In second term we talked about a tactic that’s highly risky—you take such a leap forward in one direction that you burn the bridge to go backward. I thought, “Oh my gosh, is that what I did when I retired from modeling and walked off the Victoria’s Secret runway and told the entire world ‘I am retired!’ before I even had my talk show renewed?” I knew with my gut that I was making myself accountable to the entire world so I couldn’t go backward. But I didn’t understand that these were tactics and strengths I had. My marketing professor Rohit Deshpande is now doing a case study on my business, so I’m now going to be part of the Harvard Business School curriculum.
Doesn’t that make you a little worried?
Of course you’ve got to be worried because these guys are going to come and tear apart your company. As the protagonist of the case, I am welcome to be in the classroom when they present it. So it is like free advice—free, harsh, honest, unfiltered advice. I just have to put on my armor to go there.
Was there anything in the program that surprised you?
Our leadership professor, Robert Steven Kaplan, was the vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs before he left to become a professor at Harvard. The difference in income he now gets is staggering. He is constantly trying to teach us to not chase the dollar but to make a difference. I thought we’d be taught “profit, profit, profit, win, win, win, go, go, go.” Instead, we were hearing about the importance of exposing vulnerability to your team. It’s soft stuff, talk-show stuff.
You support leadership groups for young women through your foundation. Did you bring a bit of Harvard thinking to them?
I love the style of teaching that my professors do at Harvard, with this case-study thing. I really love how they’re running up and down the aisle. I’m joining efforts with the Lower Eastside Girls Club. I was wondering if we should create our own case studies for the girls and have them debate them because there’s no right answer in a lot of these things. It already made an impact on America’s Next Top Model. There was a show where I taught the girls about the different types of fame. Is your skin thick enough to be torn apart on message boards and national TV? I was using the same techniques I saw in class.
Do you think the act of going to Harvard has changed how people view you?
On Twitter and Facebook, a lot of people comment about wanting to go back to school or reach their goals. I see it almost as much as women talking about feeling better about their bodies and their curves. It used to be that 80 percent of what I’d hear was about beauty and body image. Now it’s about education and empowerment. It’s an interesting thing when it comes to branding, which we’re trying to figure out as a company.
Would any of your peers benefit from this?
A lot of people in the industry—very famous people—have come up to me and said, “I want to go, too.” I also look at what Lady Gaga is doing and think it’s near-genius. Had I not gone to Harvard, I’m not sure I would have seen it as a marketing play. I would have just said, “Oh, she’s popular.” Now I see how smart she is. It’s a true, clear, executed plan.
I look forward to reading the Tyra Banks case study.
I do, too! I just wish I knew what it was going to say.