March 6, 2009

So here is what really pisses me off.

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:30 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

I should have gotten into business school. Specifically, the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business (now Booth), although if I had any respect for the fuckheads at Kellogg they would also be on my shit list now. Only my disdain prevents me from railing against them as well.

I applied to those two venerable institutions back in 1996 or 1997, can’t quite recall which. I really wanted to attend the U of C, as that’s my alma mater and I am unquestionably a Maroon snob. I reserve my bitterest judgment for them: they have some dealings with the College, and they should have known what my college transcript meant in a way that Kellogg would not have understood. My grades were not absolutely perfect, but they were good enough to get me on the Dean’s List for four years running. I did reasonably well in a respectably difficult full-year calculus sequence. I aced statistics (which is actually my best college grade story; I’ll have to tell you about it sometime). I did very well in the Psych department’s Research Methodology course, which has direct application to a wide range of business research. I graduated with general honors in the College and special honors in my concentration (Psychology, which was actually Behavioral Science before I started but the department succumbed to the inevitable change while I was there). I had excellent GMAT scores. I had several years of experience in a not-for-profit, where I held responsibility for overseeing half of the spending on the $1.2 million annual budget and maintained a persistent nosiness about every aspect of the business. I had a letter of recommendation from the chairman of our board of directors, the CEO of a major corporation. Yes, my background came from the warm fuzzy artsy part of the world, but I obviously had plenty of capacity in the cold and rational world of numbers.

So why the hell didn’t they take me? I haven’t thought about this at all in at least ten years, but after watching this hideous economic mess unfold I am getting pissed off anew. Clearly there’s a whole lot of people in the business world who don’t know their asses from their elbows, people who failed—repeatedly and systematically—to do a gut check of the numbers. Once again it comes down to that question I asked in this previous post: does what you’re saying make sense? For example, does it really make sense to say that you will make oodles of money by extending crazy amounts of credit (be it through credit cards or mortgages) to people who will never be able to pay it off? Yes, you’ll get some nice interest payments for a while, but what happens when the inevitable default comes around? You lose so much more than the damn interest was worth, and by allowing people to get in way over their heads you’ve ruined lives in the process. Nice job, jerkwads.

But back to the business school question: after giving it some thought, I now suspect that the problem must have been my message to the admissions counselors. After comparing my nonprofit experience to what appeared to me to be obviously wasteful behavior by corporations, I couldn’t stomach the conventional wisdom. This perspective maintained that not-for-profits were the sad, pathetic Great Unwashed, doomed to our perpetual pilgrimages to the massive profit-based corporations on which our system of capitalism is based in feeble hope of learning from these sages. Instead, I had the temerity to say, “Well, yes, there are things that the nonprofit world can certainly do better, and I’d like to learn about that. But actually, folks, there’s some pretty important stuff that you could learn from us.” Stuff like frugality and making (literally) every single dollar matter. Stuff like the importance of knowing your mission and making sure everything you do is in service to it. Stuff like building strong relationships with your donors and customers. But those things would not have mattered to the U of C’s GSB, a place dedicated to elucidating and supporting a big-picture economic model which esteemed enterprise of only the most gargantuan scale and regarded complexity as an inherent virtue.

In fairness, I was waitlisted by the U of C., and I didn’t go after the admissions office to further pursue it. (Kellogg rejected me outright, but I’m not as angry with them because 1) I’m a Maroon snob and don’t think it’s worth the effort to be concerned about them and 2) it would have been a bad fit, so they were probably right.) Maybe if I had been more persistent they would have reconsidered; maybe it was a test to see whether or not I was serious. I was certainly disappointed (although I’m still very rah! rah! about my alma mater). But being waitlisted caused me to step back and question why I was doing this in the first place: after thinking it over, I decided I probably didn’t belong in business school. I never made another attempt, there or anywhere else.

And that is still probably right. Because it’s not hard to imagine how aggravated I would have become about the house of mirrors that is out there. As it is, simply from the standpoint of an observer I have been known to pummel people with questions about scenes from the financial world that haven’t made sense to me as an outsider. I ultimately decided that it was all just a little too lofty for me to comprehend, defending myself by explaining, “You see, I’m just a soprano. All those high notes restrict the brain’s access to oxygen.”

Well, it’s taken me a while to understand, but now I do. In the nonprofit world, you just have to get it right. Fail and you’re dead. In the world of high finance, screw up royally and you just ask the government to put one of your high-risk 60-year mortgage specials on every current and future citizen of this country because you’re Too Big to Fail.

We’re gonna have to keep an eye on those balloon payments.

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2 Comments »

  1. Hugh said,

    Siren:

    Some thoughts.

    Having gone to one of the great unwashed b-schools, I can tell you that a lot of b-school attendees just go there for credentialling. If you work for 4-5 years at Goldman as a peon, and then apply to Booth, they’re going to teach you stuff (a) that you already know about, (like derivatives and futures), and (b) that you won’t need (marketing, operations, and heaven forfend, human resources).

    As a graduate of a similar non-profit real world curriculum to you, I can tell you that I didn’t have any more business savvy when I came out of b-school than when I went in. More people listened to me because of the three letters of the degree than because I was actually smarter or could make substantially better decisions. You had two more years to make a life for yourself.

    My experience trying to get a job with an MBA and a non-profit background was substantially less than successful. I was too expensive for most non-profits, and had no industry background for most traditional MBA employers.

    If you had graduated from Booth in 1999, you probably would have been downsized/changed jobs at least twice in the first couple of years. To some people, that’s OK, but an MBA doesn’t mean increased job security.

    Two kinds of people (95% male) do well in b-school, number crunchers and players. The number crunchers believe in the data absolutely, and the players talk their way through any situation. Neither group is incentivized (a good b-school word) in the real world to self-reflect.

    In a perfect world, yes, they would have accepted you because you could gain so much from that type of curriculum. But b-schools tend want to have students who become graduates who become like Mr. Booth: rich and giving. If you have a goal like “bring MBA savvy to the NFP world”, they think, “Eh…” People get MBAs to make money, lots of it.

    Hey, you got wait-listed by (one of) the best b-school(s) in the world. That is something to take with you, however small.

  2. Hugh, thanks for the perspective. I truly haven’t spent a lot of time worrying about this, and even when it happened it didn’t hurt my self-esteem any, but recent events have turned my thoughts to this memory.

    Sounds like it’s a good thing I didn’t waste my time and they didn’t waste theirs. They probably wouldn’t have liked me much, anyway!


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