Will the Next MBA Grads Take More Risks?

Who cares what games we choose...little to win, nothing to lose.

So goes the chorus of the Strawberry Alarm Clock's 1967 #1 hit song, Incense and Peppermints. This phrase — an iconic representation of '60s counterculture — came to mind the other day as I read what one of my Wharton MBA students wrote in response to this question I posed to them as we began the fourth quarter of their first year: How are you thinking about the future in light of how the economic context has changed since you first arrived at Wharton in August 2008? She said that now is a great chance "for my classmates and myself to find real opportunity in the market mostly because we are starting with so little and have so little to lose."

This sentiment was echoed by some, but certainly not all, members of the Wharton Graduate program class of 2010. One student recalled the lessons she learned following her entry into the job market after college: "I graduated in 2002 when jobs were tight and decided to do nonprofit for a year. If it weren't for the state of the economy, I doubt I would have considered doing something different. Looking back, however, it was one of the most valuable experiences I've had. From a leadership perspective, these diverse experiences and ability to adapt to change have been essential in my growth as a leader." Another student expressed enthusiasm for taking on the risks of start-up life, realizing that this year's "economic climate change was good for me...I've thought more about what would make me happy and what I want to do longer term — to join a small start-up company where I can help it grow, expand, scale and more importantly establish itself...having the opportunity to add value to an early-stage company excites me."

Another said this:

This economic crisis has been more of a blessing than a curse...Coming to Wharton, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do...When I first arrived, I found myself immediately getting swept up in the 'hot' jobs: private equity and banking. I started to recruit for positions in these industries, without really thinking about what these careers would mean for the life I wanted to lead. It just seemed like a lucrative career option so I dove right in. I wasn't the only one to take this approach. When the economic crisis started happening, the path to careers in these fields became much more difficult. Jobs were tougher to come by. This crisis forced me to take a step back and think about what I really wanted to get out of life. It caused me to think about what mattered to me in a career and a lifestyle, and it made me realize that banking and private equity were not the right thing for me. Since that realization (probably not long after Lehman's failure), I changed my approach to careers and started to focus inward, asking myself what kind of impact do I want to have both professionally and socially. That is what has drawn me to a career in the renewable energy industry. It's the best way for me to succeed professionally while giving me the opportunity to try to make the world a better place. I doubt that my mind would have been this open at this point if the economy were in better shape, and if the path to Wall Street weren't so difficult right now.

Then there was the other side of the coin: fear and risk-aversion. One student illustrated the causes for anxiety by pointing me to this Forbes article, which describes how TARP rules required banks to rescind offers to students from countries other than the USA. Another wrote:

The economic downturn has embarrassingly made me much more conservative about my plans for the summer. I approached school vowing to not pursue consulting and to go after a position at a startup or work on my own business plan, but interestingly enough, I now find myself with a position in consulting. Some would argue that this is a better time than ever to take some risks and work on an entrepreneurial venture, but for some reason I have decided to do the opposite. Maybe I'm not as much as a risk-taker as I once thought — or maybe I just need to find the right business idea!

Based on my informal survey, I observe a split among current MBA students. It seems that most are choosing to adapt and reinvent themselves, taking risks to pursue paths they hadn't considered before, feeling free to do so because they have little to lose. Others are reverting to the relatively safer confines of territory already traveled. My bet is that in the end the members of the first group (of whom I believe there are more) — because they're consciously and deliberately seeking to align their values with the available opportunities to pursue them — will be more successful, in all parts of their lives, than those in the latter group. Let's hope I'm right.

What do you think about how my students are thinking and what else should we be doing in our business schools to help them now?

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