Monthly Archives: October 2013

Designing a handbag at HBS?

Yes, this is what we are doing, as incongruous as it may seem. This is our team’s task for the FIELD 2 program. Every team has a different partner company and assignment, and as it turns out mission is to design a new handbag for women, partnering with a Chinese luxury apparel company. Design a new handbag? Yes, we are designing a new handbag.

It’s a totally antithetical experience in comparison with our daily classroom learning environment, which requires of us logical thinking, analytical skills and aggressive discussion. As well, this project requires us to exercise intuition, creativity, out-of-box thinking and ACTION. As I have never created a tangible product, this experience is totally new and alien to me.


Today our team started the market research and conducted customer interviews – visiting upscale areas in downtown Boston. Like cats on the prowl, groups of HBS students could be seen stalking the streets.

“Excuse me, we are HBS MBA students and working on a research project, could you give us 5 minutes for a quick interview?”

“Of course, what is the project about?”

“…We are designing a new handbag for women.”

“HBS students design a handbag? ……….Why in the world…?”

Normally glib-tongued HBS students looked somewhat awkward and were at a loss for words today.


From now until December, we will be collaborating with a Chinese company across the Pacific Ocean. In January, we head to Shanghai to finalize product design, hopefully obtaining their approval on the commercialization of the product.

It’s genuinely exciting to imagine a product I had a hand in designing being born into the world.


SG Cowen and Investment Banking

“Among four well qualified candidates, to whom do you give the offer?”

Today’s Leadership class started, as always, with a straight forward question. The protagonist of today’s case was a recruiting manager at SG Cowen, an investment bank.

Understanding the bank’s business model and Cowen’s corporate culture, and given the resumes of four MBA students, we were to make a decision as to which candidate should be given an offer of an associate position.

A student with a military background promptly raised his hand.

“I would hire Andy. Although he has little finance background, Andy has entrepreneurial experience and strong interpersonal skills. Considering the size of the company’s organization, these qualities are more important than hard skills in accounting and finance.”

“Does anyone disagree with this?”

When asked by the professor, a multitude of students raised their hands, most of them investment bankers.

“I can’t disagree more. You don’t understand what the investment banking business is. It’s a real hell. There is no work-life-balance. Work is life. What is required is physical toughness and mental tolerance. But Andy is an entrepreneur.  He may accept the job offer, but I promise he leaves in 6 months, and we can’t get the recruiting cost back.”

The professor followed up by inquiring, “How many of you are from investment banking?”

About 30 students, myself included, for the most part disagreeing with the military student, raised our hands.

The professor then asked “And, how many of you want to go back to the investment banking business?”

Surprisingly, but not totally unexpected, everyone lowered their hands, again, myself included.


The main takeaway from the case was intended to be the importance of aligning corporate culture and recruiting standards. However, it seemed that many of my section mates were impressed more with the graphic stories of the hellish lives led by investment bankers than they were by the case’s takeaway.

Five years after the financial crisis, investment banking still remains one of the top industries HBS MBA students aspire to. Only time will tell how many of these naive souls find happiness with investment banking as a career choice, and I can’t help but wonder how many will be saying “What was I thinking?”


How are we graded?

As Philip Delves Broughton writes in “Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School”, one of HBS’s features is the ubiquitous curve grading system, which motivates and compels us to be combative and Darwinian whether or not we are cutthroat by nature.

Ahead of the curve

Specifically, every class at HBS grades students from category 1 to 3, based on daily class participation and the results of a final exam. In most classes, class participation and the final exam are equally weighted fifty-fifty.

The most abominable component of this grading system is the resulting “forced curve”, in which the lowest 10-15% of each class automatically receive the lowest grade, category 3. Since it is a comparative grading system, the top 15-20% automatically receive category 1; the next 70-75% receive category 2; with the remaining 10-15% (9-13 students per class of 90) receiving category 3.

Should a student receive a category 3 in more than 5 classes per year, that unfortunate soul is reviewed by the Academic Performance Committee (APC) at the end of the year to determine whether they should continue on to the second EC year or withdraw and take some time off. Called “hit the screen”, this is the last situation in which any student wants to find themselves.

No matter how Herculean our effort, we are at a risk of scoring poorly, ultimately dependent on the class’s overall performance. Surrounded by the smartest students from all over the world, a large number quake at the thought of this brutal competition.


Midterms started last week. However, since our grades are primarily determined by class participation and the final, in many classes, mid-term exams have a minimal effect on the final grade (0-15%).

What disconcertingly comes to mind is the fact that we are halfway through the term and final exams are insidiously lurking in the shadows.

So sorry to cut this short, but I have to study….

Going to developing countries

In January 2014, all HBS RC (first year) students will be traveling to developing countries as a requirement of the Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development (FIELD) program, which was launched in 2011.

A major component of FIELD, the trip requires us to work in small teams and collaborate with organizations in these emerging markets to aid in the development of new products or services targeting local markets. The duration of our sojourn in these countries is one week.

This year, we were presented with eleven candidates as destination options:

  • Brazil
  • Peru
  • Argentina
  • Ghana
  • Turkey
  • South Africa
  • China
  • India
  • Vietnam
  • Cambodia
  • Malaysia

Last month, we had prioritized and submitted our preferences, and have been awaiting the announcement of our destinations with bated breath. A few painful weeks later, HBS finally announced our destinations. And, as is typical of the learning environment at HBS, the announcements were part and parcel of a team-building, teaching opportunity.

We were convened in a classroom, divided into small groups, and given a disassembled jigsaw puzzle – one per group.  At this point, we were oblivious as to our destinations, but the group members were presumably to be our team.

At a sign from a professor, we commenced assembling our respective puzzles and as you may have already guessed, the jigsaw puzzle revealed our destination via a map. “Aha!” we collectively exclaimed, as excited as a group of school children receiving a gift. “What a novel method of disclosing our destinations!” We feverishly worked on the jigsaw, and 15 minutes later, the puzzle was finally completed, with us simultaneously declaring, “Got it!”

Shanghai Map

My destination turned out to be Shanghai, China; one of my preferences – along with Cambodia and Malaysia!

As elated as I was with my destination, I was equally delighted with the impressive team I had been placed with. Our six member team is composed of extremely talented members: two management consultants, two private equity bankers, a Biomedical PhD/entrepreneur, and myself. All are incredibly affable and amiable. I could not have wished for a better team.

We still have roughly three months before departure, but I cannot wait for this exciting and compelling field trip.

Section Retreat

Friday was an official holiday for HBS’s RC (first year) students. Called a Section Retreat, this is one of HBS’s annual events where RC students go on a three day trip with their section mates and partners – strengthening our bond and getting to know each other away from campus. This year, we Section C members went to Cape Cod, a summer retreat located 2 hours east of Boston.

After spending approximately one and a half months together, I feel our section is getting a sense of unity; however, there is still a great deal I don’t know about my 95 section mates. This retreat was a great opportunity to familiarize myself with the little-known aspects of my section mates.

The Section is the strongest close-knit community at HBS and it is said that we will never forget the names and faces of our section mates. Last week, I had a chance to meet with an old Section C alumnus (class of 1975), and he actually said that he remembers all of his section mates even though it’s been almost 40 years since he graduated. Incidentally, it was also revealed that George W. Bush was also Section C though…

So, what did we do to strengthen our bonds during the three days? It was not a big deal. We just drank!