The Accidental MBA: My Unconventional Journey to Harvard Business School
By Kaneisha Grayson
The summer before my senior year of college, with two paid internships secured, I shipped off to Los Angeles eager and excited to meet success, only to find disaster instead. Just one day in, I quit my internship placement at a law advocacy center, unable to cope with commuting an hour and a half to a run-down and windowless courthouse to spend the day recording the disturbing testimonies of battered women. And because my second internship, a self-designed funded research project depended on the first one. In a single day, my summer plans had collapsed. I felt like a failure.
In an attempt to salvage my summer, I persuaded my funders to allow me to use the grant from my research project to volunteer at River City Youth Foundation, a local youth-serving nonprofit in my hometown of Austin, TX. I’d report back on my experiences helping to organize a “Stop the Violence” back-to-school concert. My recent failure drove me to pursue my duties with tenacity and creative thinking.
Several weeks into my internship, my supervisor and the foundation’s executive director, Mona, sat down next to me and began asking about my post-graduation plans.
“Oh, I’m spending a year in Ghana,” I replied quickly, proud to have secured a year-long scholarship to volunteer and study in West Africa.
“But what are you doing after that?” she asked gently.
When I failed to respond, searching inwardly for an answer, Mona filled the silence with her own suggestion: “Have you ever considered business school? One of our board members just graduated from Harvard Business School, and you remind me of him,” she said. “I’m sure he’d be happy to speak with you about his experiences there and why he decided to get an MBA.”
As Mona continued on, I was surprised to learn that I knew the guy. Bryon had been my camp counselor one summer in high school, and also the leader of a local youth leadership organization to which I had been a member for several years. It was exciting: One moment, I went from not knowing anyone who had ever gone to Harvard, to realizing that someone I knew well had just graduated with a Harvard MBA. I don’t believe in fate but I do believe in opportunities for reflection. I began to think about what alternative steps I could take in my career and education.
If Bryon, more the entrepreneurial-leader type with a dedication to volunteerism and mentorship, than the typical straight-laced businessperson-type with dedication to maximizing profits, had found the MBA to be the right path for him, I wondered if it could be useful for me as well, because I too was an entrepreneurial leader with a dedication to public service. Later that day, I Googled, “What is an MBA?” and clicked on the search result for the HBS homepage. Do you want to change the world? Do you want a transformative experience? inquired the site’s copy. Yes and yes! I looked over the salary data for HBS graduates and saw that I could earn more in my first job out of graduate school than my parents earned combined. I was definitely intrigued with the possibility of getting an MBA.
I began my research. I learned of the Harvard Business School’s deferred admittance policy (now known as the HBS 2+2 Program), which allowed college seniors to apply for free, gain admission and then defer for two years to gain life and work experience. It was a perfect scenario for someone in my situation. The serendipity of it all overwhelmed me, and I knew that I was determined to apply to and gain admission to HBS.
I had never considered an MBA, though. I had grown up in a low-income neighborhood surrounded by crime. Though I had planned to go to graduate school, Harvard even, I was more interested in the humanities. As a Black studies major in college, I avoided anything quantitative in nature, preferring courses like, “African American Crime and Mystery Novels”, “African American Mental Health” and “Black Women Feminisms and Social Change.” I had studied abroad in Havana, Cuba, researching the history and struggle of young sex workers. My goal was to be a leader dedicated to progressive social change, and I never considered anything outside of a liberal arts education. My plan was to earn a PhD in African American studies, to become a professor, and to continue to revel in the world of academia.
Yes, I wanted to help change the world. But I also wanted financial security, the ability to have a lot of influence, to learn more about the hazy worlds of business and government that seemed to make the world go round.
With my experiences, grades, and recommendations, I knew I could choose a number of paths. However, I knew that a joint degree from Harvard focused on public and private sector management and leadership was the one where I would learn the most new material and have the most flexibility to explore and expand my interests upon graduation. So I decided to use the next six months to focus my energies on making myself the best MBA/MPA candidate I could be.
With an eye on the Round 2 deadline in January, I Googled “What is an MBA?” I was confident that I could guide myself through the application process since I had successfully guided myself and my three best friends through the college application process in high school. I purchased a GMAT prep CD and put myself through a self-study program for the next five months. I reached out to my professors and mentors to solicit their support and recommendation letters. I tackled the essays, sending them back and forth to Bryon. Realizing that I needed to prove that I could handle quantitative coursework, I signed up as the only graduating senior in microeconomics and calculus.
The grueling process of applying to business school happened at the same time as I was writing my 74-page senior thesis, aptly titled “Sisterhood Agenda: Black Women, Feminism, and Social Entrepreneurship.” I was also meeting separately with student leaders, the resident advisors and college administration on a weekly basis as the head sponsor.
Close to burning out, I was fueled by the desire to make it to Harvard for graduate school. I blogged about my experience applying to business school for the organization MBA Diversity and found support in other bloggers like Marquis Parker from Stanford GSB.
My three-week winter break I spent finalizing my essays and studying for the GMAT. I took the test only days before my application was due, only to see that my self-studying had not resulted in a ten-point improvement. I was disappointed in my score—620 heavily weighted toward verbal, but knew I had no time to take it again. To make matters worse, I received my grades for the semester, one of which was a C, the first of my life, and in my major. While these developments could compromise my chances of admission, I was not going to let fear and doubt paralyze me when I had been so action-oriented and focused thus far.
I submitted my application, relieved to have one less plate spinning. Several weeks later, I received interview invitations from both Stanford and Harvard. Elated, I was that much closer to achieving my goal. I left both interviews feeling great about my chances of getting in. It felt like the interviewers were on my side.
I was waitlisted and eventually rejected at Stanford and accepted to Harvard Business School, with a two-year deferral, and Harvard Kennedy School, with a one-year deferral to spend a year in Ghana. I remember that moment: Running out of a hushed computer lab where my classmates were studying, so I could squeal and jump in celebration. In just five months, I had gone from not knowing what an MBA (or an MPA for that matter) was to gaining acceptance to arguably the best educational institution in the world.
The odds had been stacked against me: I was too young; I had a low GMAT score; I had very little background in business. I was going to Harvard Business School, despite the odds. And I planned to make the most of it.
Whether you are an activist, artist, entrepreneur, or other so-called nontraditional MBA applicant, you should at least take a moment to consider going to a top business school. The combination of your creative and critical thinking background combined with the quantitative rigor, leadership skills, and management training you will receive will make you a strong candidate for a number of different jobs in the public, private, and nonprofit sector. You’ll command higher earnings and find yourself tackling a variety of situations and challenges with confidence. Think of your nontraditional background as a strength rather than a weakness, and you may very well find that the odds are not stacked against you but rather in your favor.
Kaneisha Grayson graduated from Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School in May 2010. She is the founder and owner of The Art of Applying, an admissions and career-coaching company focused on serving nontraditional applicants. Read more of her advice at http://theartofapplying.com.