Hi. My Name is Zach and I’m a recovering MBA…

By Zach Kirkhorn

Last summer a friend connected me to the CEO of a small yet fashionable Silicon Valley startup to talk about an internship.  From the moment I shook his hand and said hello, I could tell he was not interested in our meeting.  After a few minutes of conversation, the hostility was too strong to keep going.  So I directly asked him about the tension.  He was shockingly transparent, almost as if he was waiting for this moment to put an MBA in his place.  And he did just that!

I was too corporate.  I didn’t have any experience.  I had no skills.  I would detract value.  I wasn’t going to work hard.  I wouldn’t fit into the culture.  I didn’t understand the market.  I didn’t understand the customer.  I didn’t understand the product.  And I wasn’t Silicon Valley.

Whoa.  I was stunned.  Ultimately I’d come to appreciate this experience, but at the time it was rough.

Despite the hypocrisy of many of this young CEO’s criticisms of me and what I represented – the MBA establishment – he had a point.  For years the broader startup community has been active in expressing their disgust for the MBA degree and those people who have them.  My favorite example of this is to read the comments of this surprisingly pro-MBA TechCrunch article.  A few examples:

·         Of the top 20 [richest people in the world], 0 have an MBA, 1 has a PHD
·         OK, so I am a startup and a coder; and you suggest I get advice from these jokers [MBAs]?
·         The start-up environment requires DO'ers and not one's that delegate theories for optimization.
·         I have huge problem with the ego's the MBA's carry with themselves. It is ridiculous and doesn't work for a startup.
·         I'm sorry, but an MBA in my opinion may be a negative impact...  Most MBA's come out with minimal real world experience at the level they are being placed in.

Jokers… Egos… Theories… Minimal experience… Ouch. These criticisms hurt my feelings! For me, they’re not true.  Besides being an MBA, I’m also a mechanical engineer.  I’m a self-taught programmer.  I’m a passionate car enthusiast.  I’m a marathon runner.  I’m a hard worker.  I’m a good person.  Why do the letters M, B, and A change this perception of me?

While some of this hate is understandably rooted in the anti-establishment mantra that is the ethos of the startup community, we [MBAs] certainly need to be aware when we fuel the fire.  After two years of at HBS, I can see some of these criticisms beginning to manifest in me.  As I leave the bubble that is HBS and return to the real world, there are a few things I have to keep in mind…

·         I’m not in charge.  Yes, I’ve read over 500 cases where I get to pretend to be the CEO.  But reading about being a CEO doesn’t make me a CEO.
·         I need to be cognizant of my pushback against leadership and peers.  The MBA curriculum encourages confrontation as a means to learn.  But the intellectual exercise of arguing must be managed in the real world.  The bias must be towards executing and respecting leadership.
·         I still have to work my ass off.  As much as my acceptance letter to HBS felt like the “I have finally arrived” moment, it isn’t.  My career is young and I still need to prove myself every day.    
·         I have a lot to learn.  When I started at HBS, I was a 26 year old who made great spreadsheets.  The only difference today is that now I’m 28 and have more debt.
·         I need to stay humble.  Harvard tells me I’m going to make a difference in the world and that I’ll be a great leader.  But to date I haven’t accomplished either.  I have to keep my ego in check.
·         Invest in listening to those with more experience.  Interesting BusinessWeek article on this topic.
·         I must stay true to my passions.  Money isn’t the answer to all my problems.  In fact, it’s probably not the answer to any of them.  Rather, I need to free myself to pursue my passions.
·         I must always respect those who choose to work with me.  One day I’ll manage a team or a business unit or a company.  But being a manager doesn’t mean my work is more important or more meaningful.
·         I must remember that work is only one part of my life.  No explanation needed.

I’ve met so many amazing, interesting, and inspiring people here at HBS.  I can’t even begin to express how excited I am to see how my classmate’s careers and lives progress.  And I have no doubt they’ll fulfill the school’s mission to make a positive difference in the communities they live and work. 

Yet an MBA is only a degree.  In its most literal sense, it’s a piece of paper and a line or two on our resume.  It doesn’t define me or dictate how I’ll act.  Despite the MBA criticism coming from the startup community, I promise not to be the MBA they think I’ll be.  I vow to prove my value through hard work, delivering on promises, demonstrating results, and, most importantly, being a good person to work with.  Let the recovery begin…

Zach Kirkhorn (@zachkirkhorn)

Some of my favorite examples of MBA hate:


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