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Business Schools

Arash Farin: Reflecting on the First Year of B-School

It's not often that I've found myself in a position where I'm explaining what the Harvard Business School is, much less where it's located. Yet, such an opportunity presented itself in mid-June as I sat down for drinks with my colleague Mary Anne on the rooftop of the Hotel Washington on a balmy DC evening.

My waiter, Kyle, a recent immigrant from Lebanon who had sought better fortunes in the U.S., engaged me in such dialogue and we spent the better half of the evening discussing various business schools and what I've learned from HBS. Ironically, the gentleman sitting next to us was from the class of 1990 and together we chatted, sharing our thoughts on the HBS experience with an eagerly listening Kyle.

Almost a year has passed since I started at HBS and the experience thus far has been tremendous, exceeding some of my highest expectations. I feel my level of confidence, maturity, business savvy, and interpersonal skills have all grown, and I've learned to approach many business situations in a smarter, more well-informed way. Thanks in part to a class we took last semester called The Entrepreneurial Manager, coupled with my interactions with numerous entrepreneurs at school, I've met with a few independent businesspeople about a variety of opportunities after leaving school. Before, having worked tremendously long hours on Wall Street, I may not have first thought about the big picture and where I would fit in. But, today I look at opportunities with an eye toward my potential to become a leader in any professional endeavor I undertake.

Perhaps more importantly, the school's efforts to inculcate students with ideas of honesty, ethics, and integrity in business remain at the forefront of my thinking, particularly as we witness a slew of highly successful CEOs and corporations facing increasing scrutiny and allegations of impropriety on the job. The credibility crisis facing corporate America, along with the classes I've been fortunate to take, are stark reminders of the ramifications of trying to cut corners, hide questionable business practices, and fail to represent the interests of all stakeholders at all times.

HBS has given me access to a cadre of bright, eager students who I can rely on to assist me with most any challenge, particularly those I've come across this summer as an intern. For example, on a recent assignment where I had to write a short paper on the energy sector, I was able to speak in-depth to a number of classmates and alumni about their experiences in the industry and get some very useful guidance on industry dynamics. My first year also helped hone many basic skills essential for running any successful company, including finance, accounting, technology and operations, marketing, and business/government interaction. I am pleased with the administration's responsiveness in dealing with issues raised by students and serving as a support network for any possible concern, including those stemming from September 11, the challenging job market, balancing school with personal time, and violations of our Community Standards (a set of rules designed to ensure everyone acts with honesty and integrity as they partake in the HBS experience). Finally, HBS offers its students incredible flexibility with respect to the classes we take as second years and the ability to travel and write cases alongside faculty members through field studies on most any topic. Certainly, some students won't be able to get into the most popular classes, and some classes certain students want to take may not be offered. But, on the whole, I've been impressed with the diversity of offerings next year and heartened to learn that most faculty members are open to suggestions given by students on topics for field studies.

No BusinessWeek Online journal, however, would be fair without a few thoughts on things that may be improved as well. The technology at HBS is fast, robust, extensive, and easy to use, but suffers like LA freeways from extreme congestion. Numerous times we have had server outages, including a week or so when our email server buckled under pressure and other servers conveniently went down as students sought to check grades or take exams.

To its credit, the technology department has been pretty responsive in tackling these issues, but students still nervously murmur and look around in class when we're told we have an exam coming up which must be downloaded from the web. Nevertheless, I'm told that the technology environment at HBS is by far the most advanced of any business school in the world, so I'm sure we have more stress free times to look forward to.

Something else I would be interested in trying to improve is the extent to which we are challenged in class on certain numbers we throw out or ideas we present. In contrast to the working world, where we may be asked to vigorously defend to a partner or boss a financial forecast, a line of reasoning, or a prediction about a certain industry, I've found some ideas presented by students are simply glazed over, perhaps due to the amount of information the professor needs to share in such a short amount of time and still allow for a case discussion to take place. I remember, in particular, a partner I worked with at Blackstone who was extraordinarily bright and talented and made sure to continuously challenge me every step of the way on our projects. While that wasn't always fun after putting in 18-or-more-hour days, I look back very fondly with the rigor of his analytical thinking and the mental exercises he put me through. Many of my comments in class this past year were directly based on the manner of thinking this partner inculcated within me.

Finally, some colleagues of mine have noted a bit of redundancy in cases across various classes, where we've been exposed to companies such as Microsoft and Dell a number of times. I think the administration has listened carefully to these thoughts and, through a comprehensive evaluation system with input from students, is constantly re-assessing the mix of cases used each year to ensure an appropriate balance.

My own summer internship has been phenomenal thus far and allows me to fulfill a different operational role as compared to my previous positions on Wall Street. I decided to go to Washington to pursue a position with Kissinger McLarty Associates, which merges my twin interests in business and government. The firm, which was founded by former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Mack McLarty, Bill Clinton's former Chief of Staff and Special Envoy for the Americas, advises multinational corporate clients, providing support for special projects, strategic partnerships, mergers and acquisitions, investment opportunities, and government relations throughout the world. It has been very educational thus far and I've had great opportunities to utilize, in particular, the skills I learned in Business, Government, and the International Economy (BGIE). One recent project, for example, involved assessing geo-strategic and geo-economic business risk and determining capital flows among large regional conglomerates.

I have also had the opportunity to speak to a number of friends interning at firms such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, NASDAQ, Bear Stearns, the Department of Defense, as well as a firm in nanotechnology and a subsidiary of Danaher Corporation, which manufactures leading electronic test and measurement equipment. Most said they are quite pleased overall to be able to put some of the frameworks from HBS to work and that the slow economy hasn't prevented them from partaking in key strategic discussions and working on meaningful assignments.

Kirsten, from my section, has so far assessed brand strength, outlined strategies for dealing with existing brands, and helped identify opportunities to improve internal processes and operations. Nate and Sava, both of whom were in my study group, are working at the Department of Defense and in nanotechnology, respectively. Nate is doing strategic planning and working on the military transformation effort (implementing an HBS hallmark, the balanced scorecard, which Professor Bob Kaplan is famous for), and Sava is doing business development with plans to brief the board of directors on what he's undertaking.

The few criticisms I've heard are that things have sometimes gotten off to a slow start and that it has taken some time to be placed on the "right" projects and convince hesitant colleagues to invest time in interns even though they may only be there for 10-12 weeks. Finally, another colleague who's thrilled to be working at a socially responsible investment firm in Boston, loves the social mission atmosphere of the company, but laments that she is not always able to think from a CEO's perspective, as we are so used to by virtue of HBS' case study method.

This past 4th of July, I had the pleasure of taking in the fireworks at a secure and undisclosed location with Dick Cheney; seriously, we were in a secure location, but I can disclose where we were??ort Myer, which continued its long tradition of opening its scenic Whipple Field to about 2,000 guests. I joined Sava and Russ, two classmates from West Point, as we ventured to the base and were searched at two separate security checkpoints by the base's military police to ensure a safe holiday for all. Having never celebrated Independence Day at the nation's capital, it was an exhilarating experience, particularly given the tragedies we've faced as a nation this past 12 months.

Later this summer, I'll be traveling to Thailand with a group of section-mates, thanks to the generosity and hospitality of Oo, another section-mate who hails from Bangkok. It should be an exciting 10-day excursion including tours of the Grand Palace, ChiangMai and Samui Island, elephant rides, and relaxation at the beach. It will be a welcome segue to my second year, where I expect our classes to continue to be engaging and even more practical. As president of the Jewish Student Association, I hope to bring great speakers to campus and increase our membership through more frequent events with other clubs and other schools at Harvard. Given how fast I've been told our second year will fly by, I'm also planning to take ample time to host dinners and trips with friends to create memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.

Yet, as my experience with Kyle demonstrated, HBS cannot fully define who I am -- nor will it facilitate every aspect of my life beyond graduation. In other words, I realize that not everyone will have heard of HBS, let alone accord the school with the same high level of respect a student, alumnus, or faculty member might. Companies we work with or clients we solicit may not embrace MBA students; there will certainly be many occasions where we'll feel woefully unprepared or beads of sweat may slowly wind down our temples as we launch into a presentation in front of the board of directors as graduates. So, as the beginning of my second year draws near, my goal is to improve my skills not simply in financial and business matters, but along other dimensions as well. Improving my public speaking, balancing priorities, making time for friends and family, and other outside interests -- all these goals will pose themselves as challenges for many years after I leave HBS.

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