Up From the Candy Underground

"Comic books aren't sound investments&the proper thing to do was to get an MBA"

Applying to business school is a funny process—long and arduous, but funny nonetheless. It generally begins with an intimidated student, in this case my gravely intimidated self, eyes glazing over while scanning the BusinessWeek rankings and wondering which one of these schools I would be attending next fall. Attending a top school meant fighting off the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs for that seat. How could I compete? But wait a second. Those guys never went to business school.

So why do I want an MBA? Let's pinpoint exactly when I realized an MBA was for me. It may have been the day I sat in on an MBA classroom discussing RMA—return merchandise authorization—processes and the benefits of premium customer support, but that moment was more of a confirmation of why I belonged in an MBA program. How about taking a look at the beginning?

While in the third grade in Orange County, Calif., almost two decades ago, I asked my 80-year-old grandfather, "Grandpa, what should I study so I can make lots of money and make you proud?" My grandfather answered without hesitation, "Business administration."

Although I didn't know what business administration was, I had a fairly good idea what it would lead to. I pictured an older version of myself wearing a black suit, sitting back in a leather executive chair, and sipping a giant mug full of Kool-Aid. Pretty nice.

My First Lucrative Venture

Maybe my grandfather and my grand vision of that leather chair helped spark my interest, but I was only eight. I knew I needed to learn about business when I was forced to shut down my first company: Sierra Vista Middle School's Underground Candy Ring (its street name).

I remember sitting up at nights taping book covers over candy boxes to make them look like algebra textbooks. Coming up with different prices would allow kids to buy single pieces of delicious Cherry Airheads as well as an entire combo package of two juicy Fruit Roll-Ups, three tantalizing Laffy Taffys, and one sparkling Ring Pop—for their girlfriends, of course. After a great few months, I started running into problems. Students started littering the campus with candy wrappers instead of throwing them away. And should you offer discounts to friends? If so, how much? These were the kinds of questions I brooded over during eighth grade. When my business crumbled, I didn't just count my dollars, I went over the details of my year-long venture to figure out what went wrong.

Lesson No. 1: Supply and demand. I went too fast and tried too many things.

My First Failure

With my failed candy-shop experiment, I had made $200, enough to buy a video game console and some games to go

with it.. Listen, when you're 13, being able to afford your own Super Nintendo System is a big deal. Of course, I never bought the video games. I'm a businessman. I decided to invest the money…into comic books. For the better part of my middle school years, the Wizard Guide (basically the comic book version of The Wall Street Journal) was my bible. Not only did I memorize the prices of fan favorites such as Spawn and X-Men (the comics equivalent of the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index), I decided to take an interest in the more obscure books, Bone and Space Usagi (penny stocks). Why I ever thought a white bunny samurai defending his honor in space would one day become the next Superman is completely beyond me, but I invested anyway.

Lesson No. 2: A green Incredible Hulk does not grow into a green Incredible Benjamin. Comic books aren't sound investments.

It was then I decided I needed to learn more about business and investments. I found out the proper thing to do was to get an MBA.

Fast-Forward 10 Years

My next step was to figure out where I wanted to apply. Most applicants draw up five to 10 schools they would love to attend, hope to attend, and in my case, beg to attend. Researching universities was a tough task. This would probably be my last stop in the world of academia, so it was vital to find a school with the right curriculum, outstanding professors, and, most importantly, the perfect atmosphere. However, just because I found the right school didn't mean the school would see me as the right candidate. I had to express my life story in language my dream schools would understand. I needed to compel them and leave them breathless. One hundred hours of GMAT preparation, 25 essays, and a few interview sessions later, I submitted all of my applications.

Where The Process Gets Funny

When I started the B-school process, I was the beggar. I needed to prove myself to these schools. What's strange is that once that part of the process was over, it was the business schools' turn to impress me.

Some schools used scholarships to lure me. Others used a beautiful welcome weekend with delicious jalapeño cheese bagels, freshly brewed coffee, savory turkey sandwiches on oven-fresh rye, and soda pop. All of them had alumni and current students phone and ensure me I would feel right at home. But no matter which school I looked into, I quickly realized there was one marketing point they all had in common. Every school boasted of a diverse student population with over 40 countries represented. UCLA has a room full of flags on the wall. Duke has flags draped over their hallway. And they all say, "If you're from a country whose flag is not represented yet, we will put one up immediately." That's when I realized I had to go international. Oxford fits this mold perfectly: Oxford students come from 48 countries around the world, the vast majority coming from outside the U.S.

Accepting Oxford's Offer

It's clear every major company has gone global. Staying domestic would be absolutely crippling. Some schools had courses titled "Business in China." Like it or not, all MBA candidates must view strategy from a worldwide perspective. Further, I'm international. Being Chinese-American affords no hiding of my skin color, my family values, and my traditional beliefs. There was no other choice for me but the University of Oxford, a truly international school for a truly international student in a truly international business world.

My name is Lawrence Kao. I've been a system analyst, a scholar athlete, and a musician for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Band. I'm now a full-time buisness school student. I hope to share my experiences at Oxford's Saïd Business School with all of you through the MBA Journals during the 2007-2008 school year.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.