Why I Decided To Go To Business School

Shawn Xu
Shawn Xu
Oct 4, 2017 · 9 min read

Thoughts on what brought me to Wharton, and what I found at Wharton that made me stay.

I finally took the plunge — I ignored many of my closest friends in Silicon Valley and decided to come to business school at Wharton. I still remember all the heated arguments. Folks in my inner circle of trust thought I’d be wasting the best years of my life. I hate to say it, but Silicon Valley loves to hate on MBAs.

Me and Square cofounder Jack Dorsey on my last day in Silicon Valley

Part of this attitude has to do with the embedded skepticism the startup community has towards formal education in general — we’re the folks who celebrate self-taught engineers and college dropout founders. But part of this also comes from real experience — a lot of MBAs are not taught the right skills needed to succeed in lightning fast technology companies. YC founder and Tuck School graduate Jason Freedman offers a good write up on how he thinks the traditional business school curriculum teaches you how to suck at startups.

Here’s the good news — I’ve actually found that business schools are pivoting hard to adapt to the needs in the tech industry. Y Combinator CEO Michael Seibel shared his thoughts in a recent podcast on what MBA programs should be doing to prepare students for startups (e.g. 50/50 technical vs non-technical student ratio, prioritize MVPs over research, etc), and I personally believe some of the changes are already here. For instance, Wharton partnered with Penn’s School of Engineering to offer the highly popular MBA/MCIT joint degree program, which focuses on teaching computer science to students with zero technical background. Anecdotally, application numbers for this program are skyrocketing.

Wharton San Francisco Campus

Wharton is also one of the few business schools in the country to have invested in a physical brick-and-mortar campus in Silicon Valley. Students have the opportunity to spend a semester there to specifically focus on tech. The school actually flies in some of its best professors every week to offer courses on entrepreneurship, product development, innovation management, venture capital, etc. These were all fairly positive signals for me that being tech-forward is a key priority for Wharton.

As for a more conventional reason, Wharton has a reputation for being the best finance school in the world. I’ve long been interested in exploring cross-border venture capital — particularly in East & Southeast Asia. There are few places other than Wharton that can better prepare you to become a knowledgeable technology investor with a global perspective. There’s a certain degree of credibility you get by attending one of the world’s most quantitatively rigorous and analytically driven business schools.

Professor Mauro Guillen at Lauder Hall teaching “Global Political Economy”

However, the ultimate reason that drew me to Wharton was actually the Lauder Institute, which offers the world’s preeminent dual degree program for global business and global affairs. Lauder students complete an M.A. in International Studies at Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences alongside their M.B.A. coursework at Wharton. The additional graduate degree entails intensive studies in policy, geopolitics, history, culture, and language for a specific region of the world. It has a particularly strong program for Asia, where I believe the center of gravity is shifting to.

For much of my adult life, I’ve been deeply invested in studying and shaping the economic, political, technological, and social forces that are driving globalization in the 21st century. This has been a lifelong intellectual passion, plain and simple, and the Lauder Institute offers me an opportunity to satisfy this curiosity. I’m willing to take a few years off and put my technology career on hold to do this, as it’s not altogether straightforward to learn on my own in Silicon Valley.

Plus, if the events of the last year have taught me anything, it’s that there is a stronger need now more than ever to have an international perspective and global vision of the future. Populism is on the rise in the West. China is ascendent in the East. The Middle East is burning. Technological innovation (e.g. artificial intelligence, blockchain, etc) is accelerating faster than human society can process. I am not the only person in my generation disturbed by these global currents. The world is changing, and I want to make sense of it. There is no better time to do this than now.

Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania

Another key factor in my decision to come to the University of Pennsylvania is the school’s recent opening of the Perry World House — a new global policy center focused on interdisciplinary global affairs research. The institute is only one year old, and has already signed on Vice President Joe Biden as a visiting scholar and professor. I saw involvement in the Perry World House as a significant opportunity to shape Penn’s global voice in the international policy conversation, and simply could not pass up the opportunity to join on the ground floor.

And so, I packed my bags and landed in Philadelphia for graduate school. Today, I’m several months in, and everything that’s played out since school started has reinforced in my mind that this was the right decision.

Lauder Institute, Class of 2019

First off, the caliber of my Lauder classmates is beyond belief. All of them speak multiple languages (one of them speaks six) — it’s not uncommon to hear five different mother tongues when we get together in the same room! Their intellectual horsepower is just as impressive. One classmate is an expert on Russian foreign policy and previously worked for former Secretary of Defense William Perry. Another is an expert on pan-Islamic movements during the Cold War. Most of them have worked for the world’s leading companies and believe in the private sector’s capacity to provide social good — something that you might not find at pure policy schools. If it’s true that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, then I think I have a good chance of coming out of school far more interesting than when I entered.

Me and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd at Wharton’s Hong Kong Forum

Lauder has also given me extraordinary access to key influencers. Over the summer, I traveled across East & Southeast Asia with twenty region-specific students. The Lauder Institute gave us opportunities that I could never have dreamed of in Silicon Valley. I had the opportunity to pick Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s brain for advice on Chinese foreign policy. In Hong Kong, we contemplated the nature of democracy with Umbrella Movement figurehead Professor Benny Tai. In Seoul, we debated “off-the-record” with South Korean Ambassador Moon Chung-in — the new administration’s chief international security advisor — on North Korean policy (particularly interesting for me since I toured the DPRK only two years ago). Staying true to my roots, I also met with entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in Beijing, Tokyo, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur. These were only possible due to my ties to Lauder.

Lauder has empowered me to conduct my own original research. I’m still in the early phases, but I’ll be working on autonomous vehicle regulatory policy in the emerging world (e.g. BRIC nations). I’ve been plugged into more think tanks and policy experts than I can count, and again, I’m thankful that Lauder has been there to help me along the way.

Me and former Vice President Joe Biden at the Perry World House

Perry World House has also afforded me a unique opportunity to engage with leading scholars across the university. I’ve been lucky enough to be selected as Lauder’s representative member on the Perry World House Committee — a student-run assembly of students charged with connecting the rest of the university to the speeches, lectures, and workshops hosted by the institution. One of my favorite highlights from my first month has been meeting former Vice President Joe Biden and former Mexican President Felipe Calderon at a recent talk.

As for the traditional business school community, I won’t lie to you — I was pretty nervous about meeting wave after wave of cookie cutter bankers and consultants. In fact, when I first arrived at Wharton, I experienced intense culture shock. Many of the MBA students I first met had a fundamentally lower capacity for risk and uncertainty than the entrepreneurial crowd I was used to in Silicon Valley (e.g. novel ideas were approached with “what are all the reasons why this is impossible” instead of “what are all the things that we need to believe to make this work”). Few had an innate bias towards action. Fewer still had a consistent sense of the core values they stood for. I spent the first few weeks asking my classmates a simple question: “what are the problems that you are most interested in solving?” I can count on one hand the number of people with thoughtful responses. I am reminded of this influential essay on purpose by Asana founder Justin Rosenstein that I encourage my peers to read — “in the face of threats to humanity’s future on the one hand and the extraordinary potential of mankind on the other, at some point we must ask: are we not capable of more?” We have aggregated some of the best minds in the country here, with the privilege of real access to influencers and resources to make change happen. To borrow from Steve Jobs, we have the opportunity to make a real dent in the universe, and we should try.

Given all this, I’ve also come to appreciate the value of perspectives and cultures very different from my own. To be clear, I have nothing but respect and admiration for my fellow classmates — they are some of the brightest people I have met and I have learned much from them. I’ve had deeply held political beliefs intelligently challenged by classmates from parts of the country I’ve never stepped foot in. I’ve gotten a first glimpse at just how much goes into being a working parent (some of my peers are juggling school and 2–3 kids). I’ve had dinners with classmates who were previously professional football players or nuclear submarine engineers. Wharton has been a diverse melting pot, and I think building relationships with folks outside the Silicon Valley bubble would be healthy for anyone.

Team Wharton winning 1st Place at Tesla Case Competition 2017

In any case, I’ve found my “tribe” amongst Penn’s entrepreneurial community of serious founders, investors, engineers, and hustlers. This crew is laser-focused on building the future, and I love them for it. In my first month at Wharton, I joined a 5-person team from within this community to compete at Tesla’s first-ever case competition. We pitched a smart AI concept designed to maximize driver safety, and won 1st place! We’ve been offered the opportunity to spend the summer building the MVP at Tesla’s headquarters in Palo Alto. I’ve also been named a new partner at the Dorm Room Fund, a $5M student-run venture fund backed by First Round Capital that invests in student-founded startups. Through DRF, I’ve been exposed to undergraduates ten years younger than me, which has helped me better understand a generation that I believe fundamentally thinks, consumes, and shares differently than mine. I certainly wouldn’t have forced myself into such stretch experiences had I stayed in Silicon Valley.

At the end of the day, I want to become an informed global leader who can help make a difference in people’s lives. I believe my experiences at the Wharton School and Lauder Institute will help me do that. Call me an idealist, but I still think that universities are the greatest engines of transformation in our society. They serve as the nexus point of knowledge, information, and imagination. I want to collaborate with our generation’s most talented entrepreneurs, engineers, and designers on the world’s most pressing challenges. If you put us in a room and ask us to solve a problem, there is little doubt in my mind that we would be able to come up with something more extraordinary than if we had stuck to our own silos. This is the crux of what brought me to business school. I’m eager to see what’s next over the years I am here.

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