my business school experience



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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  1. Kate Anderson

    Love this! I had a similar experience in business school. I learned so much, and grew so much, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. But I had to learn over time to not let my grades define me, which was difficult! Thank you for sharing 🙂

    1. Jess Lively

      I can so relate! Though I don’t know that I’d like to go through it myself again… I can so relate to the growth part! : )

  2. Suzy Smith

    Wow, it’s so strange to see that you had a similar experience like my boyfriend did at our business school. He reached out to professors and other business school resources on how to open and run his own business, and would be shut down because that isn’t what the business school is training you to do. He’s been a little bitter about his experience too. He always tells people that it doesn’t matter what your GPA is when you graduate because it doesn’t determine your success. He graduated with a 2.7 and runs a successful business. Even though it’s unfortunate that y’all both went through these things, it’s comforting to me to know that I’m not a bad student because I want to focus my efforts elsewhere. A lot of people don’t understand why I’m not spending every moment studying to make an A. Anyway, I’m going to stop myself before I write a novel, haha. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    1. Jess Lively

      No problem! I loved reading your boyfriends story. I think he, myself, and Tim Ferriss all kinda landed in the same boat in b-school. : )

  3. Lindsay

    Best post I’ve written in awhile. I’m only in my second semester of my MBA program, but I know that I’ll hit my moments of “why is this taking me so long to understand” are on the horizon with some of these courses. Thanks for being honest about your experience and proving that not all business minds are the same.

  4. Brianna Cook

    This is exactly what my husband is going through at Kellogg!! He’s finally realized his time is better spent networking and talking business ideas with friends rather than studying in the library. I think b school is a great way to meet like-minded people, but, agh, the grades part is such a bummer… Great post!!

    1. Jess Lively

      It’s awesome to hear your husband also is approaching b-school in this way!

  5. Chicspace/Marguerite

    I really needed this today, been focusing way too hard on my weaknesses and dissatisfaction at work. I need to focus on my strengths instead, which are very much not in the mainstream here. Thank you.

    1. Jess Lively

      That’s so awesome to hear! Yes, focus on your strengths!

      And you can always read/take the Strengths Finder 2.0 Book/survey to discover even more clearly what your strengths are. I loved it and found it incredibly enlightening!

  6. Sarah

    Great Post. I realized this only after graduating B-school. I had a high GPA, but not as much real-life and entrepreneurial experience as I needed to start my own business. I really wish that entrepreneurship and starting your own small business was discussed more when I was in my undergrad & MBA programs.

  7. Katy Canzone

    I feel beyond grateful to have been a student in the class you spoke for today. Your story related to my story in more ways than I can count; and when I was telling people about the presentation afterword I consistently referred to you, as me, in 7 years. Your story, your energy, and your passion are truly inspiring. I cannot tell you how many times I have lost sleep stressing over ways to build my credibility through school, knowing in my heart its my experiences that will carry me to the places I want to be. Your speech validated those beliefs and motivated me to never doubt myself or my intuitions. I cannot wait to start blogging, and networking, and engaging in other aspects of my university in the way you did at my age. Thank you for taking time out of your hectic, and amazing, schedule to come and speak with us. It is something I will never forget. YOU HELPED ME!!!!!!

    1. Jess Lively

      I’m so happy to hear that I helped you. : ) I’m also excited to know that you had that gut intuition to begin with and that you now feel ready to follow it.

      I can tell you, that makes all the difference in the long run.

      Best of luck to you, you are destined to do great things.

  8. Alyssa

    Jess – Thank you so much for joining our class yesterday. Your enthusiasm and authenticity were so compelling. I could practically see the wheels turning in the students’ heads (and my own). You embody so many of the qualities of a transformational and servant leader that we’ve talked about so far this quarter. It’s amazing to see the theories and research that I teach embodied in a live actual human being! Thank you again for everything.

    1. Jess Lively

      Aw, I had the best time, Alyssa! Thank you for having me. : ) I had a blast and would be happy to do something like that again for you.

      And also, thank you for my adorable hedgehog measuring cups. My husband and I adore them!!!!!

  9. Kellini Hager

    I am so glad you came to speak to our class yesterday. I left the room feeling so confident and inspired.

    I am studying finance but recently decided I want to start my own company rather than work in a bank. I have been so stressed lately, but after your presentation I felt as though a huge weight was lifted off of my shoulders by knowing that you went through many of the same things and have become so successful.

    Thank you so much for all of your helpful advice!

    1. Jess Lively

      Aw, that is so awesome! I wish you the best with the business! It may not be the easiest course of action, but in the long run the right course of action will lead to the best result.

  10. Leana May

    I loved this post! While I am on a much more linear career trajectory, medicine, I find so many similarities as a physician that doesn’t necessary follow the “usual path.” While I was not able to, nor did I desire, to let my academics slide during medical school, my year off before med school, my out of the box rotation choices and now my unconventional fellowship choice has not always been received well. I am headed to a world class institution where physicians are supported and rewarded for their thinking and practice outside of the box, for the advancement of medicine, but this hasn’t always been the case in my training. As a very type A individual who is used to being praised for her success I have struggled a lot the past years to give up some of the external validation, during some of my rigorous training years, as I followed my heart and the path that has ultimately lead me to my dream fellowship position. It is always nice to hear others following their heart vs the status quo!

    1. Jess Lively

      I could not agree more! I’m glad you found a path that allows you to be creative and learn what you need.

  11. Sarah Withers

    Thank you for this post. I had a very similar b-school experience. I went in thinking that this was the path I needed to take to learn how to run and market my future business (though I didn’t know at the time what that was.) Like you I quickly figured out that the program was really geared toward the future accountants, bankers and consultants of the world and I wanted nothing to do with that. I’ve sometimes felt guilty for feeling like my technical college education was a bit unnecessary, and find myself wishing someone had mentioned the words graphic design to me back then. Though I’ll be ever grateful for the “world/life education” I received. I often think about returning to get a graduate degree of some kind, but as I’m not aiming to be a doctor or engineer, etc I always come back to whether or not my time and money would be better spent developing my business and simply finding ways to hone my skills. So far it’s always the”path less traveled” that wins.

  12. I just came across your blog and I’m in love. I feel like I can really relate to you especially regarding business school & entrepreneurship (not to mention your aesthetic is up my alley). I went to USC Marshall and got my MBA in 2009. Although my “vertical” was entrepreneurship, I feel like all I learned is about cap tables & how to pitch to VCs vs. actually how to run a business. I came from a management consulting & real estate development background and quickly after b-school graduation I burnt out and decided start my own wedding & event planning company (Preppy Chic Events) because that was what I was always passionate about. I seriously think what I’ve learned in the last 2 years of trying to run my own small business is WAY more valuable than the 2 years I spent “studying” (aka networking / drinking) at b-school. Although b-school opened the doors to many new potential contacts, I don’t think the education taught me what was needed to to be a creative entrepreneur. It’s exciting to see how far you’ve come and what you’ve done with your career, branding, business, etc… I’m excited to read more!

  13. Jess Lively

    You are most welcome! I wish you the best with the rest of your MBA experience. I’d make sure you use every other opportunity outside of the classroom to your fullest advantage. That way, no matter what happens in the grade world, your time will be well spent.

    If you can believe it, my story is actually about my undergrad experience, so those feelings can transcend the undergrad and grad programs in certain instances.

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