A Call to Re-brand: 3 Petitions for MBAs in Tech

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Three MBA candidates walk into a bar. Two years and $120K+ later, they walk out with Master’s degrees.

I hate that joke. I hate it partially because it extrapolates the experience of < 5% of MBAs to the rest of us but more so because it perfectly captures the sad brand that many newly-minted MBAs perpetuate in the tech industry. (Note: I literally just made up that joke, so there’s no way you’ve heard it yet).

While tech employers certainly recognize the value of an MBA (at least those with enough capital to scale), I’ve found that tech employees across the industry often regard MBAs with disdain. The smaller the company, the greater the skepticism in discussions about the value of business school grads.

Just a few weeks ago, a new hire approached me with a question he thought I might be uniquely equipped to answer because, as he put it, “You went to business school.” My self-importance-o-meter ticked up slightly as I prepared to review an operational metrics model or hiring plan. Instead, I got a question about PowerPoint and Excel formatting. From this exchange, two thoughts emerged:

  1. ‘I really hope my 3-months of PowerPoint wizardy as a McKinsey Summer Associate come in handy here.’
  2. ‘Is this what people think we learn in business school? Eek.’

The root cause here? Me, you, other MBAs and how we talk about our experience.

For example:

During an interview for a Business Operations role at a tech startup in the Peninsula, an HBS ’14 grad asked me, sardonically, “Did you learn anything in business school?” She expected us to bond over a shared, laissez-faire “waste” of two years. Perplexed, I offered a self-deprecating response about how I actually got a lot out of B school (…awkward pause…) but probably had much more to learn than she did. Classic female move. I felt bad for her both because she may have actually wasted 2 years of her life and because she had no idea how poorly our conversation reflected on her and HBS in general.

(Note: This is not meant to knock HBS — anyone would kill to go there. The same conversation has happened amongst graduates of all the other top MBA programs. Also, this parenthetical aside feels like another classic female move.)

With perspectives like this, it’s no wonder that I continually hear PMs, Marketers, and Managers speak with reluctance about adding MBAs to their teams. All that touting about business school being a 2-year “break” has finally caught up with us.

Three petitions for MBAs in tech:

  1. Please stop belittling the MBA. You make yourself look bad. If you got nothing out of your MBA experience intellectually, it’s your own fault. You get out what you put in, so shame on you for not taking harder classes. Also, what a colossal waste of money — hope you’re not in a Finance role now.
  2. Please own your secretly intense side. Listen, we all (other MBAs) know that you tried super hard on your GMAT, freaked out during internship recruiting, and secretly loved nerding out in random classes like Taxes & Business Strategy. We also know that the journey of personal and professional self-discovery accelerates in business school and the majority of people leave changed…some for better, some for worse. So please be authentic in speaking about your B school experience and stop being a punk.
  3. Be honest. Be humble. You worked hard to get in. You worked hard while you were in school. You’re probably working hard now. It’s okay to tell people that you put the time in and you’re grateful for how it worked out. No one asked to hear the story of the girl who didn’t have to study and got an A (I can’t stand that girl…and by “can’t stand” I, of course, mean that I totally envy her brain power). That said, most tech employees don’t care that you went to a top 5 school; they care about your value add, so let’s roll up our sleeves do our core jobs well, eh?

If Entrepreneurs plant the seeds of the Silicon Valley, then MBAs hold the watering cans. Whether through venture investments, sales leadership, business development, or marketing, the steady stream of MBAs into the tech industry has greatly contributed to the explosive growth we’ve see in the past 15+ years. Let that lead our brand as MBAs — our ability to drive real, long-term impact.

Now, I know you haven’t heard this one: Three MBAs walk into a bar. One gets wasted and still goes to her 8:30am Data Science class the next day. One leaves early to obsess over thank-you emails to consulting recruiters. One carries a rolley bag having just returned from a weekend trip to Taipei. Terrible joke, I know — we didn’t study that in B school either.

Spattering of random MBAs in tech I found on LinkedIn:

Oliver Hsiang, VP of Partnerships @ Lyft, Kellogg

Lynn Vojvodich, EVP & Chief Marketing Officer @ Salesforce, HBS

Chris Yeh, Senior VP of Product at @ Box, Wharton

Satya Nadella, CEO @ Microsoft, Chicago Booth

…don’t get me started on all the (awesome) MBA co-founders out there…

Strategy for Confluence @Atlassian| Ravenclaw

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