I'm not sure when I became a slang sense, or teacher. I just know that I was the wrong guy for the job. My colleagues from Asia struck me as intelligent, funny, kind, and passionate. They all sat together during the summer and in general weren't speaking English. I was intimidated and avoided introducing myself.
One day it hit me that many clusters of folks from different backgrounds were huddling together, except for the majority of our class, which was made up of American males. Chastened, the next day I nervously sat right in the middle of a group of my Asian colleagues and was immediately rewarded with warmth, interest, and excellent conversation.
In forming our new friendships I became their idiomatic steward. After covering utilitarian topics such as "cool" and Rocky references, I quickly moved on to more entertaining subject matter. Slang like, "This class is a three-ring circus," or "Americans are clowns when it comes to math," then evolved into more complex slang like, "Hey, clown, stop running this class like a three-ring circus." One day my friend used a slightly off-color phrase after his wife overcooked some rice. Upon hearing my explanation of the full meaning of the phrase, he quickly replaced me with a more responsible slang sensei.
Coke on a Stick
All was not lost, as my friends taught me a new Japanese phrase every day for two weeks. They claim I'm saying things like, "It is an honor to meet you," but by the smiles on their faces when I butcher the pronunciation I wonder if I'm really saying, "I will burn down your home with Waldo the Chicken." Time spent with friends from places like China, Japan, and Nigeria has been incredibly rewarding and I hope when you get your MBA you immediately reach out to folks who are new to the country (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/1/05, "A Crash Course in Classroom Jargon").
That said, don't forget to enjoy the local culture of your new school as well. Primed for adventure, a group of us left the friendly confines of Chapel Hill to venture out to the North Carolina State Fair. Let me tell you, it was one surprise after another. This ranged from the realization that spending 25 cents to see "The World's Shortest Woman" was like spending 25 cents to take a bath in raw sewage while having the Ghost of Christmas Past review everything you've ever done wrong with your life, to the epiphany that people can actually deep fry (and sell on a stick) anything from Twinkies to Coca-Cola to old boot leather.
O.K. fine, maybe it wasn't old boot leather. The greatest surprise came after the pig races but before the Big-Smelly-Room-Full-of-Prize-Winning-Rabbits. Growing up in Boston, I've seen my share of historic sporting events, often live. None can compare with the State Fair Demolition Derby. Go to the fair, shell out the extra seven bucks, and temporarily lose your humanity in the smoke, steam, broken engines, bent metal, and indigestion arousing cheese dogs. It's worth it.
The above-mentioned adventures aside, the reality of the situation is that school becomes your life. Every week you push yourself to the point of exhaustion studying up on and interviewing for internships, preparing for case competitions, going to workshops, cramming for exams, doing homework with your study group, and then socializing with the people you just did all of that stuff with.
Your friends from back home will grimace every time you call them, because all you will talk about is cash flows. Your spouse will suddenly develop a hearing problem every time you say "regression analysis." Nothing I've experienced is as immersive as this, and it's often difficult to come out of it and deal with reality.
Academic highlights of the first two mods (one semester) included operations genius Wendell Gilland demonstrating his mastery of the subject and passion for us as pupils, lightning in a bottle, Rick Moranis-look-alike Professor Sridhar Balasubramanian (Dr. B.) reminding me why I love marketing, and microeconomic hitman Bob Connolly giving us a final that must have been even harder to grade than it was to take.
Taking the Challenge
I've found mentors in sustainable-enterprise wizards Katie Kross and Kelly Boone, who can explain anything I ask them. Ted Zoller, the executive director of entrepreneurship at the Kenan Institute, has also taken me under his wing and is helping a group of us start Kenan-Flagler's first Sustainable Enterprise Incubator (more on this in my next column). All in all, I'm learning everything I need to take the next step as a business person and loving almost every day of doing it. Still, it's always hectic and often overwhelming.
This never proved truer than during the three weeks leading up to the Innovation Challenge finals. I was in Chicago for the Net Impact National Conference, a gathering of business people interested in making a difference in the world, when Anil Rathi called to tell me that our group was one of the 10 international finalists. My classmates wouldn't let me pay for anything for the rest of the night, and I anxiously awaited our topics.
Anxiously was the key word, because none of my teammates was at the conference with me and I couldn't get back home to be with them for three days. My wife and I had also scheduled weekend trips to see family during the coming weeks. Those three weeks were hell. Sixty hours each week went to the challenge, 20 to attending class, and the remaining time to sleeping and studying. Our group got together, alternately producing at startling rates and falling flat on our faces.
I flew to Buffalo to visit my nieces and played a lot of hide and go seek, where they would hide, and I would seek out the computer in the basement and work until they came out of their hiding spots half an hour later cramped and weeping. It's tough being 15! O.K., fine, they're four and six. I have no excuses. I'm a bad uncle.
When we finally got to UVA, we were already exhausted, only had one of our 20-minute presentations remotely finished, and could barely stand to be in the same room with each other. Like most of the groups, we stayed up past two o'clock in the morning putting the finishing touches on what little we had. The next day, we woke up united, ready for battle, and worked seamlessly to present some outlandish ideas to DaimlerChrysler (DCX).
The tension faded, we were all hugs and laughter, and I almost made it to our hotel room before collapsing, face first, onto UVAs tiled floor. Kapil and Hiro carried me to a chair and Phaedra held my hand. In moments like this, you realize that you are now part of a family, and the love you feel towards that family is immeasurable. I probably should have been in a hospital due to clinical exhaustion, but letting the team down in that way would have been a lifelong regret.
They got me to bed, I took a nap, and we got cracking on our presentation for Hilton (HLT). This presentation was 50% innovation, 50% smoke and whistles (smoke-mirrors/bells-whistles hybrid accidentally coined by good KF buddy Tyler Mills). We threw rolls of toilet paper around the room, premiered the Nintendo Wii before it was available to the public, played Name that Tune, and handed out cosmetic gift bags. We gave them all we had, and it was almost enough.
From the get-go, we bonded with a second year team from McGill University in Canada, and had several wonderful meals and conversations with the University of Rochester team as well as some particularly personable recruiters from Whirlpool (WHR). Our new friends from India and Britain kept us in stitches every time we ran into them.
CIOs, VPs, and authors of best-selling innovation books wowed us with their creativity. We interviewed for internship opportunities and had an elegant dinner before the awards were announced. In the end, we were the most innovative first-year team in the world, the most innovative team in America, but not quite as innovative as top team McGill. We were very happy for them. Click here to see a YouTube video of the winners.
After all of these experiences, my heart is now set on founding a sustainable innovation company that leverages creativity and systems-based thinking to help enormous, profitable companies get green, and small green companies get enormous and profitable. Next time around, I'll tell you all about the team that will make this happen. Until then, good luck with your grad school applications and drop me a line at email@example.com if you have any questions about UNC or life in general.