Focusing on the Fundamentals

MBA applicants must consider a key question: Do you want the MBA degree as a stamp of validation? Or, do you want your knowledge base to fundamentally change?

I'm not one who "drinks the Kool-Aid." I'm far too blunt for that. And my inability to be a cheerleader—as an entrepreneur, I prefer to get things done than to talk, talk, talk about them—might not bode well for future political ambitions. But I have to present that disclaimer to contextualize what I'm about to say about Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business:

Quantitative analysis. Group collaboration. Entrepreneurship. This stuff works.

I'm not pulling quotes from the admissions brochure; I'm not that guy. Make no bones about it, this place is not for everyone, and the workload will make your head spin. What's incredible, though, is that someone who is allergic to numbers—as a wee lad, I read Euclid to learn geometry because I could understand philosophy but not the equations in my math book—can actually feel his thought processes changing.

Real-life scenarios once fraught with sentiment—like buttressing my family's half-century-old sewing machine business against an onslaught of cheaper Chinese imports—become opportunities for application, broken down into challenging chunks, plugged into a matrix of equations, and made efficient. This started over Thanksgiving break of my first year.

Words like "arbitrage," "net present value," "sample size," and "perfect competition," burst spontaneously from my mouth like that Whack-a-Mole gopher we used to smash at carnivals. With due respect to my statistics professor, nothing makes you feel like more of a business geek than viewing customer relations choices as a function of sample size.

MBA as Credential or Training?

Which brings us to a quandary: Though economically and strategically sound, viewing certain problems analytically—Tepper's euphemism for "mathematically"—can miss the point entirely. I'll don my media and marketing hat to declare that customers cannot be compacted into a series of numbers, and companies that attempt to do so fall from grace. (See Countrywide Financial. See also Sprint Nextel (S), Pacific Gas & Electric (PCG).)

Such tension sits just below the surface here at Tepper: How can we analyze without dehumanizing?

MBA applicants to Tepper and other leading business schools—which all offer unique and worthwhile specializations—must consider a key question: Do you want the MBA degree as a stamp of validation that you already know what business is and does? Or, do you want your knowledge base to fundamentally change—to sharpen and grow—such that looking below the surface of a business quandary becomes not a habit, but an unconscious instinct?

Neither is a wrong answer. I'm constantly floored by my colleagues not only at Tepper but also at other schools I considered (and some that I didn't but probably should have). Everyone learns something from their MBA experience, but some of these fellow candidates have already done so much that I wonder what they could possibly gain out of two years focused on the fundamentals. I used to wonder—and as an entrepreneur, I am often asked—why get an MBA if one already has critical thinking and management skills?

B-School Tension

But from my vantage both inside and out of the working world, the toolkit of fundamentals is the point, especially during times of economic crisis. Fundamentals let you leap from the sinking financial ship and survive to flourish, because (as I often say) "Business is business is business." The underlying disciplines of finance, marketing, strategy, and operations are the same whether selling widgets or subprime mortgages.

At Tepper we encounter constant tension between the goal of a professional business degree—there really are just two options: getting a great job or building a successful business—and the highfalutin interest in education for its own sake. When you have a family to feed and a mortgage growing ever harder to pay, the whimsies of academia's marble halls can seem too dreamy to bother with. To that dose of reality, add that "grades don't count," since only a few companies (mostly consulting and investment banking firms) bother to consider them, as they say nearly zilch about applied business ability. (Several top programs feel similarly, as BusinessWeek reported back in 2005.

I asked John Mather, professor of marketing and executive director of Tepper's master's programs (both the MBA and the master's in computational finance), why bother with grades? Furthermore, how to reconcile the split needs to, say, attend job fairs around the country that occur during midterms? While maintaining his commitment to learning—he is, after all, a professor—Dr. Mather said that Tepper's "focus on the learning" is about "forming ideas and models to extract as much as you can." Grades, he said, reflect just a "discrete moment in time."

Building a Network

Tepper has some quirks, most notably the "mini-semester" system: Our terms are just seven weeks long, which affords us the happy opportunity to take up to 40 different MBA-level courses over the course of our degree (not including cross-registration at one of the country's top schools for computer science, engineering, and—oddly—acting). But it also means that we have term exams every 3.5 weeks. Yikes!

With a hellish schedule on top of life's daily commitments, we students would not survive without one another—which breeds the mutual reliance of a real-world teamwork incubator.

For instance: I write very highly effective cover letters, but it's a good day if I manage to count to 10. Thankfully, several of my classmates are mathematical geniuses—one of whom has grown into my business partner—who can supplement the professors' lectures, often more accessibly. We spend many hours together in the Masters Lounge poring over homework until everyone is on the identical page, because underlying our respective academic and career directions we realize we're a network—and the value of the MBA is only as great as the network.

Which brings me to my final point: Like gravity or inertia, we tend to wind up where we belong. Of course, aim to ace the GMAT; write cogent, spell-checked essays; do research before sitting for an interview; pick a town where you can live happily for two years (at least). But these preparations should be obvious to you—they're simply hallmarks of good business.


Less clear is that business school admissions officers are exceedingly good at letting in students who will excel in their programs, so they may see a fit even before you do. Some schools pile-drive quant thinking into holistic general managers; others churn pragmatic engineers into PowerPoint-fluent CEOs; still others (like Tepper) offer unparalleled access to entrepreneurial networks.

Conceptions of "better" or "worse" that rely on a numerical rank alone neglect that there's a reason so many schools coexist: Most business schools with a name—even lesser-known ones—were given a large donation by a successful alumnus or devoted advocate. They got there the same way you will, by blending fundamentals, an accessible network, and savvy self-selling to live the immortal words of Frank Sinatra: "If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere."

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