Today I’m going to be speaking to a DePaul class on entrepreneurship. In preparation for the talk, I have been reflecting on what my business school experience meant to me and thought it might be time to share here with you, as well.
I entered the hyper-competitive Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan in with high hopes. I was six years into my own small business and I was eager to learn how to “grow my company and one day get into Saks Fifth Avenue,” as stated in my application essay.
However, once in the school, I quickly became disillusioned.
The in-state program, though world-class, was not suited to teach me what I yearned to learn about running a company. Instead, it catered mostly to those interested in getting investment banking, big three accounting, consulting, and consumer package goods (CPG) offers.
And rightfully so. When I graduated in 2007, I was named Entrepreneur of the Year because I was the only one nominated.
Meaning I was the only with a business in my graduating class.
To help large firms select the “cream of the crop,” there were intense courses focused on analytics and there was a B curve. As in, about 80% of our class received B’s no matter how much we understood the content.
Let’s say most people in the class studied hard for a operations management studies (OMS) test and most people received a 93% on the exam. This would normally merit an A- for each student based upon their understanding of the material.
But since so many people got the same grade, those students would receive B’s and only the top 10% would get an A or A-.
This grading system really just pitted ourselves against one another.
I liked to call it “a sitting contest.” Whoever could sit and study the longest (or was freakishly smart) would receive the beloved top grades. Everyone else was relegated to the B curve.
Needless to say there was a large emphasis on quantitative classes in the (then) two-year program. These classes often seemed to be weeder courses for big companies looking to hire those truly accomplished at regression analysis and other analytical tasks.
Sure, we had marketing and a few other somewhat more creative courses. We also had a single entrepreneurship class. (Which, by the way, I never took. It focused on creating a formal business plan- not implementing strategy, problem solving, manufacturing, marketing, or actually running a business.)
Faced with a bevy of uber-analytical required courses, just a handful of truly small business related courses, and a B curve… I choose the path less traveled.
Unlike many famous college dropouts like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Matt Damon, I chose a different, but somewhat related path… I burned out.
Rather than try to fit into the system that set up 80% of my classmates to receive a B, I realized that there was so much emphasis on the upper end of the curve that without exerting tons of effort I could receive a B- instead.
Rather than trying to force my smart, but not naturally quantitative mind, to become an OMS master, I didn’t study very hard for those exams and instead received the B-. Had I spent hours on end studying for those weeder courses I might have squeezed out a B+ at best.
But the effort was never necessary or applicable for what I wanted to do with my life and entrepreneurial career.
I went from a 3.9 GPA in high school to a 2.9 GPA when graduating business school.
Did I go to every class and was I fully engaged in discussions, content, and did I actually try to understand the mathematical material?
I simply did not base my value as a business person on those courses nor did I try to force myself to define my ability to understand business from a course load perspective.
Instead of spending hours in the library, I spent hours with the support staff.
One major advantage of the business school was the opportunity to go on business conference trips. Free trips were offered to various business schools and I was eager to apply. I loved visiting new states and I even landed my junior year internship on one such trip.
While most of my classmates were cramming for the first finance exam, I was in sunny Arizona at a business conference hosted by Macy*s at the University of Arizona.
While there, I unexpectedly met the Vice President of HR and Recruitment for Macy*s. I showed her my jewelry catalog and she was so impressed she asked me where I wanted to work in Macy*s. I told her Product Development since that’s what I heard was more creative than being a buyer.
And the rest is history. I went on to work in New York for the Baby Green Dog division and helped make jumpers for one-year-olds that summer.
Likewise, I spent other summers working odd jobs for the program heads, found an amazing mentor who believed in me immensely and helped me discover my purpose, and I grew my business on the side.
My senior year I also took our capstone class, Strategy. This class was focused on strategy and CEO decision making.
I loved the class and had a great time debating with the professor about the long-term health of Richard Branson’s Virgin empire.
This class came easily to me because it was all content that I dealt with on a daily basis with my own little Jess LC. I had to make tough calls and allocate resources appropriately. I had to merge the product design with the marketing campaigns. I had to think like a CEO everyday since I started my company at 15 years old.
While the junior year analytical course grades told me I wasn’t business material, Strategy told me otherwise. I was shocked and honored to receive an A+ in this class.
Though I had never “sought” validation from the b-school, especially not in the grading system, it felt incredible to realize that I was never “bad” at business.
I just wasn’t suited to be a first-year analyst.
I was simply a round business peg trying to be crammed into a square hole.
But I will be honest. I graduated with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I realized that the program was not created for creative entrepreneurs like myself. But that didn’t mean that the intense pressure, culture, and emphasis on business analytics didn’t affect me.
I was always outspoken about how the program “didn’t actually teach people how to run businesses.” But at the same time I was always disappointed that in order to get through the program with sanity, I had to constantly battle the popular belief that GPA is an indication of long-term success in business.
Looking back on my b-school experience last night, as I prepared to speak to the business class this afternoon, I had a sudden understanding. I’ve always been a little bit bitter about b-school because I mentally threw in the towel when it came to the grading system.
But what I now see is that my business school experience helped me recognize my strengths and my weaknesses.
Instead of trying to “fix my weaknesses” in school, I threw myself passionately into the areas where I was strong. I excelled at networking on the business conference trips, I thought like a CEO in Strategy, I grew my own business part-time, I engaged with my mentor, and I spent most free time working on a book proposal that eventually became this blog.
I took the road less traveled not because it was mentioned in a poem, but because it catered to my gifts.
I didn’t need a GPA to validate my worth.
And that has made all the difference.
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