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Jonathan Hua, MBA ‘17

Jan 10 2017

Young and Inexperienced: Taking the Road Less Traveled to Business School

Jonathan Hua, MBA ‘17

My path to business school has been an unconventional one. I have a degree in history, a background in startups and no professional work experience. As a result, college seniors and recent graduates often pepper me with questions about my atypical MBA experience. I am now three semesters into my MBA at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, and I honestly would not trade the experience for anything else. I do not, however, recommend this path for everyone. I typically discourage young upstarts from jumping straight into an MBA program, because I believe that some, even if very little, work experience or adult responsibility can improve the value of a full-time management degree experience. But even though the overwhelming rhetoric on this subject is fervently against the recent uptick of inexperienced MBA candidates, I think that the jump straight from undergrad to b-school makes sense for a small handful of people with unique backgrounds and goals.

Of course, it is no secret that most MBA programs look for candidates with a proven history of strong leadership, teamwork capabilities and exceptional professional performance. After all, accepting these time-tested candidates is far less risky than taking in a cohort of fresh-faced recent college graduates whose professional "experience" is limited to internships and not much more to base judgement on. Business is a very results-driven entity, and MBA admissions committees are no different. In fact, as an example, the Johnson School boasts an average of 5 years of pre-MBA work experience and recommends applicants have at least three years of experience before applying, in order to gain the most value out of the educational experience and recruiting opportunities. And there is some merit to these recommendations. After all, in the eyes of many MBA recruiters, prospective employees are often only as good as their last professional performance or success.

But people often wonder: Can an aspiring MBA candidate with a negligible professional history still get a high value experience in a graduate business school? I think the answer is a firm yes, but not unequivocally so. Not just any zealous college-age applicant can succeed in this formidable arena. From what I have seen and experienced, younger applicants who derive the greatest value out of the MBA are those who have clear and distinctive goals, and who have already demonstrated the equivalence of several years of work experience in their personal or academic lives. In other words, they are wise beyond their years and thoroughly understand how to "maximize" the value of their MBA experience.

My own story will add some context and serve as an example. I have been obsessed with startups ever since I joined my first startup team in my sophomore year of college. Ever since then, I have had the opportunity to build, manage and advise multiple tech startup ventures. The only problem was, I had to rely almost exclusively on my unrefined business intuition and excitable instinct; and a couple of uninformed and naive decisions led to the disbanding of my very first team and the failure of my very first project. As I moved on to new projects and put together new teams, I was marginally more successful, but still limited by my lack of knowledge on important management topics such as finance, accounting, strategy and operations. My primary reason for jumping straight into an MBA program was to gain more formal business acumen and to surround myself with the kinds of people I was striving to be: competent, courageous and compassionate leaders with strong convictions and principles.

In addition, I had two goals in mind when I was considering a business school education:

  1. To become a more complete and well-rounded entrepreneur
  2. To build a formidable network of friends and mentors out of classmates, professors and alumni

So how did Cornell help me achieve my goals? Most top business schools rely heavily on the case study method in the classroom. I was very fortunate to be able to immerse myself in an experiential learning experience that combined practical skills with theoretical business insights. The emphasis on teamwork in the classroom has been crucial to my personal and professional development in business school. The collaborative nature of the MBA program allows students to learn to be engaging team leaders as well as effective team members, both of which are critical roles in any corporate setting, including that of startups. Furthermore, there have been a litany of course offerings that have allowed me to engage in intellectual discussions on everything from social enterprises to international entrepreneurship to impact investing and even startup law. I have been exposed to almost every facet of entrepreneurship and my new understanding of how businesses are developed and managed will help me handle adversity better in the corporate arena.

Just as importantly, business school has provided me with an environment where I am no longer afraid of taking risks, failing or falling flat on my face. Some deride this type of support as too much "coddling", but b-school is truly one of the few places in the world where you can struggle or fail dramatically and then have everyone around you pick you right back up, get you on your feet, and then help steer you towards the right direction. My first failed startup was a miserable experience to go through and it made me scared to commit to new projects, and so I am glad I have had the chance to build up my confidence again, which has allowed me to diligently focus on my next ideas and ventures. In the startup world, being timid, cautious and circumspect rarely leads to success and accomplishment.

Finally, Johnson has provided me with invaluable opportunities to create a network of lifelong friends, supporters and mentors, who I otherwise would not have met. A few years ago, I would not have imagined how many coffee chats, entrepreneurship summits, startup boot-camps, founder lecture events and meetups I would be able to participate in. And through these myriad events, I have met the VCs and entrepreneurs who have become my staunchest supporters and my greatest resources and assets. The MBA experience has far exceeded my expectations, and I will be walking away from it a more complete entrepreneur, with a new arsenal of practical skills, a vastly improved business acumen and a close network of individuals who are far more accomplished and intelligent than I am.

And yes, while I could have theoretically studied business on my own or reached my goals without a formal business education, the structured and organized nature of a strong MBA program pays dividends for someone like me looking for a formalized experience. There were also other practical considerations that drove me to pursue an MBA so quickly post-college, including the smooth transition to a rigorous academic environment, the prospect of improved earning power over a longer period, and fewer responsibilities and obligations in my personal life. I am at a convenient point in my life where I don't have to make the same financial or familial sacrifices that many of my classmates in their late 20's or early 30's do.

I feel like my personal experience can only partially exemplify how someone in my position can take advantage of inclusion in a top-notch business school community. My opinions on the subject of whether younger candidates should pursue an MBA are purely from a pragmatic and educational standpoint. I do understand that the MBA is not a feasible investment for many fresh graduates because of the high opportunity costs and extraneous responsibilities that come with pursuing the degree.

But the truth of the matter is, nothing is set in stone with respect to the debate on the virtues (or lack thereof) of pursuing an MBA with a lack of professional experience to draw on. While the value of tangible work experience in a classroom discussion should not be discounted, it remains true that this single quality is not the determining factor for success or value in business school. I feel like I have done a good job of maximizing the return I will get on my business school investment, despite lacking the same understanding of business context that my peers do. Instead of languishing in my perceived disadvantages, I have focused my attention on reaching my goals and engaging with Cornell's limitless resources and opportunities. Not every fresh college graduate is ready to tackle the business school challenge. But to those of you who have unique career goals and aspirations and are wise beyond your years, do not be afraid to take the road less traveled to the MBA degree.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.

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