Friendships Brought an MBA Some Lasting Lessons

Reflecting on an unforgettable year at Said Business School in Oxford, Larry Kao says fellow students "invaluably widened my lens"

I was excited. I was jittery. I could no longer sleep. I jumped out of bed and into the shower. From my closet, I pulled out my sharp black suit, freshly pressed tuxedo shirt, creamy white bow tie, newly polished Johnston and Murphy shoes, and recently refilled Mont Blanc pen.

There are two pictures that may come to mind when you read the last few sentences: 1. This guy is getting ready for a formal Rotary Club dinner; 2. This guy is a ninny. Although I assure you I hope to be both one day, my situation was nowhere close. I was getting dressed for our MBA End of Course Ceremony.

It's a familiar routine because it is virtually the exact same one I went through before matriculation, exams, and most of the other formal Oxford events I have described before. Although MBA students officially graduate with their colleges—so I will be attending New College's graduation next summer with even fancier gowns—this may be the last timeI will see my MBA classmates together in the same place. In fact, this is one thing I did not think about before attending the Said Business School.

Surely the best business schools all boast leaders from around the world who study in their programs and my class is no exception. I cannot say how diverse our class is compared to other business schools, but I can say for certain that my friends and colleagues have invaluably widened my lens. Here's a look back at some lessons learned:

September 2007: The Freshmen

On a cold Oxford night, I walked down a long "broad" street towards one of the city's famous pubs to meet some new friends from the class. It was a funny gathering, including a Chinese-American Californian (myself), a bald and good-humored German, a fun and friendly Indian working out of Dubai, a studious London-based Indian, and a rock-star Thai chef. I thought to myself, "Wait, where is Dubai again?"

My Lesson: I have spent too much time focused on the United States and, specifically, California. I need to really expand my knowledge and viewpoints.

December 2007: The First Date

On a very cold Oxford night, I walked down that same street again, towards another one of the city's famous pubs to meet a few older friends around the time we were heading into our first-term exams week. It was a full house with only one chair available. I sat down next to a shy Japanese classmate I had only briefly chatted with eight weeks prior, on the first day of our course. I learned she worked for the Bank of Japan. I thought to myself, "Bank of Japan is like Bank of America, right?"

My Lesson: The Bank of Japan is not like the Bank of America (BAC). In fact, it's more like the Federal Reserve. They help set monetary policy, print money, etcetera.

January 2008: Getting To Know Each Other

On a cold, Spanish winter night in the Sierra Nevada, I found myself talking with my French-speaking, African-loving, venture-capital hungry, Virginian architect, Oxford-varsity-sailor, Skoll Scholar friend—yes, that is his official title. (Skoll Scholars at Oxford are five scholarship students who are terribly bright with unshakeable conviction that you can help the world and still be well off—if not terribly well off—financially. Pretty much those kids in high school you adore and hate at the same time because they are like you, but just a bit better in every single way). We were talking about the European Union, the opportunities in post-conflict areas, and many other subjects all way over my head. Midway through the conversation, I asked why we were talking about such deep issues on a ski trip. Besides, will we ever be in a position where what happens to the EU will affect how we do business?

His reply: "Yes, we will be."

My Lesson: Our MBA director said it best, "Things that seem elective now will be mandatory soon. Worrying about poverty, climate change, pollution, disease, and migration all seem elective now.

It's overwhelmingly likely that they'll be fundamental to any business in your lifetimes. You can choose to think harder about these things sooner."

May 2008: Making a Connection

On a very cold Oxford morning, we dragged our feet at 6 a.m. onto a bus, headed for a European MBA Sports tournament (MBAT) at the great French business school HEC Paris. I sat next to our class' husband-wife MBA pair from Mexico. I never found the chance for a lengthy conversation with them and felt the long bus ride would be the perfect opportunity. I learned the wife had worked for Corona, and we talked about the exciting business of bottling and distributing beer. The husband had entrepreneurial aspirations similar to my own. He dreams of one day owning a vineyard and had previously thought about me when he found out I, too, wanted to start a wild and impractical business. I thought to myself, "Make sure you one day start a winery with Fernando."

My Lesson: No matter who we are or where we are from, MBAs have similar hopes and dreams.

September 2008: Remembering The Love

On a cold Oxford night, I sat in the Said Business School library, writing this note as my classmates left one by one.

The friend from Dubai, the one that taught me about the United Arab Emirates and the opportunities of the glitzy fantasy resort, had gone back to figure out her next career move.

The funny, bald-headed German is heading home to rock his country's finance industry.

The Japanese economics researcher, my girlfriend, has headed back to Tokyo to research "stuff" that's way too advanced for me.

The Skoll Scholar-sailor is making it happen, working with VCs from London to Africa on a venture to fund other African venture capitalists.

The Mexican couple is headed back to sunny Mexico to continue with their careers.

It was very exciting to think we would make friends with people all over the world, and we have. But eventually we must separate and now that the course has ended, our support system has stretched and thinned—globally. For all those first-year MBAs who will soon face these same experiences, I have three words of advice for you: Stay in touch. We may not remember what Ansoff, Wheelwright, or Clark did for business theory, but we will remember what our friends did for our lives.

Meanwhile, South Africa seemed to be the destination of choice for Oxford's 2008 MBA Class. Thanks to a wedding and traveling happenstance, a few dozen of us found ourselves heading to the African continent. A group of us spent time together at the Waterfront Shopping Mall as if we were still in Oxford.

Now that the fun is over, we are all excited to move on with our lives. As we re-enter the business world, it is a changed place from where we left it a year ago. A financial crisis, depressed co-workers, and opportunities await us all. I hope all fresh business school grads will keep their MBA fires lit and that together we can do our small part to help lift the economic world back onto its feet, so that come June 2009, we will be able to welcome next year's graduates with wide open arms (and jobs).

A note to my friends: Thank you for the best year of my life. You've challenged and argued and debated with me, which sharpened my crazy business plans and ideas. And if I forgot to mention you above, it does not mean I forgot you. It just means I wanted to thank you personally. Cheers.