Peter Thiel Is Wrong About MBAs

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel Photograph by Patrick T. Fallon/Getty Images

I admire the way PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel expresses his opinions, however unpopular. Recently he has been vocal about his disdain for hiring MBAs, characterizing them as sheep that act with “herd-like thinking and behavior.” While his views often flout popular beliefs, this time Thiel is himself following the herd, repeating generalities and hackneyed criticism about business school. His view is narrow-minded and wrong, even if he claims not to have an absolute ban on MBAs.

Thiel fails to recognize that business school grads are jumping into traditional sectors such as health care, energy, and government eager for the chance to have an impact in these mature industries. Take Anderson School of Management grad Thomas de Fresart (’14). After he launched SolarWing, a clean tech startup, he decided to pursue an MBA. He wants to “transform the electricity market” by working at an established utility company, EDF Renewable Energy. Such pursuits are not sheep-like.

Thiel’s position on business school graduates is unfortunate, because a graduate business degree offers more opportunities to experience new fields than any other graduate program. MBAs seek access to this wide array of paths in part to do work that has meaning and not get pigeonholed into unfulfilling jobs.

Higher education can expand our thinking and challenge our assumptions. It doesn’t have to teach us to put on cognitive blinders. As a student at Anderson, I see countless examples of how MBAs think and act fearlessly. From trailblazing new startups, such as Vow to be Chic, Neural Analytics, and SmartestK12, to such industry heavyweights as SiriusXM and the investment management company BlackRock, the history of entrepreneurship at UCLA and other top business schools belies Thiel’s narrow view.

The “high extrovert/low conviction” caricature Thiel crafts is not familiar among the MBAs I know. His limited approach to hiring wantonly eliminates a talent pool, where, if he looked deeper, he’d find fascinating individuals with stratospheric achievements yet grounded by their thoughtfulness and humility.

Elliot Ling (Anderson, class of ’14) came to business school with a dream of developing South Los Angeles, a battered inner city. Ling and his wife took into their home a 16-year-old dropout and helped the young man build a future. As Ling finds more success in his career as a brand manager for Nestlé, he embraces the notion of shared success and continues to help others. Not much shallow MBA extroversion going on there. Ling is just one of many examples.

The value of an MBA continues to rise, with the percentage of companies hiring MBAs jumping 30 percent over the past five years, according to the Graduate Management Admissions Council, the body that administers the GMAT. And 45 percent of those hiring companies are increasing base pay to MBAs in 2014.

Mr. Thiel, you have an open invitation to visit Anderson and share more of your perspective with us. We love a lively debate. It expands our world and helps avoid groupthink.