It's pouring rain outside. I am standing at a bar in Charlottesville, Va., having just ordered a round of beers for me and three of my new friends. As I wait for the bartender to pour the drinks I look over my left shoulder and see a person dressed in a gorilla suit. Over my right shoulder there is a guy dressed in a cheerleader outfit. I can only hope that each lost some type of bet. The bartender slides the four beers over and tells me the bill is four dollars. I ask her to repeat herself, sure that I misheard her. "Four dollars," she confirms.
Ahhh…college towns. I didn't realize how much I had forgotten about the characters, the scene, and yes, the cheap beer.
You see, since leaving college as an undergrad 10 years ago, I never considered going back for my MBA. A year after graduating I was working for Goldman Sachs (GS) in Chicago as a financial analyst. I spent two years there, showing up for work at 6 a.m. and working until 7 or 8 o'clock each night. I loved it. I learned everything from portfolio management to single stock arbitrage and had the opportunity to work with (and learn from) clients who represented some of the most successful businesspeople in the country.
Towards the end of my two-year program, my boss brought up the idea of business school. He had gone many years ago and thought it was the perfect next step in my career. I politely listened, but at the time I had an offer from Goldman to be a third-year analyst in London. I had learned an incredible amount over the previous two years and was confident that the "on the job" experience I would get in London would vastly exceed anything I could learn in business school. To my mind, real world knowledge would always trump anything in textbooks.
Same Job, Different Country
So several months later I landed at Heathrow Airport for a year in London. There I worked on a trading floor with people from all over Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. On trips to the copier or to get a coffee I overheard conversations in no less than eight languages. There was only one problem. Although the scenery was different, my job was basically the same, and I wasn't learning anything new.
I began to look around for other areas that interested me. Through conversations with colleagues and friends in London, I started looking at the world of private equity. During this search I was again presented with the idea of going back to business school and moving into private equity afterwards. Again, I politely listened and then quickly dismissed the idea.
I interviewed with a former Goldman executive who ran his own private equity firm in London. He offered me a job and I decided to leave Goldman and travel for a couple of months before starting on this next stage of my career. It was the last week of August, 2001. A couple of weeks later, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. The world changed, and my new job got caught up in it—disappearing along with the financial liquidity of my new company. My grand career plans had come to a sudden and painful stop.
In the aftermath of September 11, absolutely no one was hiring. So I took the opportunity to check off some things that had been on my life list of things to do: I went to Tanzania and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro; I traveled to Cuba for a week; I moved to Italy and learned Italian.
My time off gave me new energy to pursue my career goals, and through some old contacts in London, I was able to find a job in Rome with Morgan Stanley's (MS) real estate group. My career was back on track. Unfortunately, I was there on a temporary work visa, and at that time permanent visas for non-European workers were hard to come by. Once my temporary permit expired, I was forced to leave. Derailed again.
I moved to Denver and came across a small startup company in the real estate arena that offered me a sales job. I had never had a sales job before but thought it would be good experience while I continued to pursue my ultimate goal of landing something in private equity. Over the next several years, while continuing to work in sales, I spoke to numerous people in Denver and in other cities about various opportunities. Each time I heard a familiar refrain: “Great background, but you could use a business school education to round out your skills.” I still didn't see it. I was confident that I had the skills I needed to get started and that I could learn the rest on the job.
The 180 to B-School
Then, in the summer of 2006, I was at the Denver airport and picked up a copy of a magazine's business schools issue. While looking through the pages, I did what I had been putting off for several years: took a hard, honest look at my career to that point and an even harder look at where I wanted to go with it. The conclusion I came to was that despite my efforts, I wasn't doing what I wanted or what I was passionate about, and if that was going to change, business school was the next logical step.
I crammed for the GMAT, took it the last week of November, 2006, and between then and the third-round deadlines in early January got applications in for three schools.
The application process itself was my first business school learning experience. First I became aware of the paradox of the Internet. There is so much information on it that if you are not careful, it can become useless. I can't count how many nights I spent in front of my computer looking at hundreds of blogs, admission consultant Web sites, and news articles on the various schools to which I was applying. On any given night between the hours of midnight and 3 a.m., I could be found either confident about my pending acceptances or close to tears about the hopelessness of it all.
There is a fine line between learning about your target list of schools and becoming paralyzed by way too much information. I found the best sources came from current students and recent alumni—network into them if you can.
The Big Payoff
The second thing I learned was to be myself. The worst thing you can do on your applications is try to make yourself into what you think the admissions committee is looking for. What they are looking for is diversity of experience in their student body. Spend some time thinking about what you bring to the table—what makes you unique. Then figure out the best way to communicate that to the admissions committee.
The months of January, February, and March crept by. Then, the first week in March, I got a phone call from Virginia's Darden School of Business—Accepted!
The case study method that Darden employs was the biggest draw for me. Having been in the working world for 10 years, I know that real life seldom fits into the neat confines of the problems you find in textbooks. Learning by case study will also give me the best opportunity to incorporate my career experiences into the classroom and to learn from the experiences of my fellow classmates.
Wide-Eyed and Optimistic
So here I am—not your typical business student in that I'm 32 and have had a career that could best be described as "wide ranging." Back at the bar, I bring the beers to the table and pass them out to these new friends I have met at Darden Days (the orientation weekend for admitted students). They are from across the country and around the world. I sit there fascinated by the talk of their diverse backgrounds and interests.
At the table, I realize that my initial impression about business school was wrong. The true benefit will come not from being able to do regressions or statistical analyses, or from any one of the hundreds of case studies I will work though. It will come from being able to look at business problems and opportunities from an entirely different and more sophisticated viewpoint. It will come from realizing that not knowing something is O.K., because I will be armed with the tools to figure it out. It will come from what I will learn from the people sitting around this table and my other 300 or so classmates.
The rain continues while the gorilla and the cheerleader walk by our table, arm in arm on their way out the door. A big smile creeps across my face. It is going to be an interesting two years.