Cold Call with Chris Sumner (NA)
Cold calls. Your professors love them. You fear them. Your ed rep crushes them. We think it’s about time that this HBS staple gets the rebranding it deserves. Each week, The Harbus chats with a randomly selected member of the student body. This week, Katie Peek chatted with Chris Sumner (NA), about making it in the music industry, his perspective on the upcoming US presidential election, and where to find the skinniest jeans in Boston/Cambridge.
KP: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about what you were doing before HBS?
CS: The last three years I worked for EMI Music; I spent 12 months in London and the last 2 years in New York. My job was essentially to negotiate our licensing deals for the Americas on the digital side of things, so it was dealing with Amazon, Spotify, stuff like that.
KP: Obviously you’re not from New York, despite your 917 number, which I was impressed to see (classcard stalking – it’s a thing, kids!). Very hard to get those now! Where are you from originally?
CS: London, school at Oxford.
KP: There must be a few fellow Oxxxx (long pause as author searches for how to end that word)
CS: (helpfully)- Oxonians?
CS: There are quite a number yes, I haven’t found too many of them yet but am slowly making my way through the network…
KP: Did you look at a lot of business schools?
CS: No, I didn’t really decide to join until about a month ago – I was thinking about deferring because Universal had just purchased EMI, so there would be this huge period of mashing the companies together, and business school was something of a hedge in that I thought if that was going to happen, it would b a great way to spend two years and learn something while everything is completely up in the air. On the other hand, there may have been huge opportunities to come out of that, so it was a very hard decision for me. I think the clincher was talking to a ton of former HBS folks who really valued the experience though.
KP: I spent a year living in London, and my perception then was that the MBA is definitely not as widely-pursued a route there as it is here. Is that still the case, and how did it factor into your decision to come here?
CS: It certainly makes you much more distinct. In the UK people seem to stay longer in one particular career, whereas I think in the US people tend to switch around quite a lot, so having the stamp of an MBA is a little more useful than if you’re just climbing the ladder at a single organization. Most of my friends in London are in finance or consulting, whereas my friends from New York are in a much wider variety of industries…
KP: Where did you live in New York?
CS: I was in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg. (Here follows a lengthy period of stunned editorial silence. The Williamsburg-Cambridge move is a first for Cold Call, and possibly for the entirety of HBS.)
CS: (rescuing the conversation from the apparent impasse) I mean, you can’t really work for a record label and not live in Williamsburg.
(Interlude where interviewer awkwardly tries to prove her street cred by talking about places she used to go when she dated a Williamsburg guy back in 2002, but that particular balloon punctures quickly when subject points out that at least two of said venues are on the Upper East Side. Moving on!)
KP: Now with two weeks of school under your belt, how are you feeling?
CS: I think it’s been better than what I expected – I came feeling quite skeptical, despite everyone who’d told me it would be an amazing time. I felt like I was leaving a lot, and was rather wedded to EMI and the music industry.
But the last few weeks have changed my mind in that the people are genuinely awesome, really interesting, and a bit more diverse than I originally expected. I expected tons of people from finance, and while there are a lot of people from finance, they’re pretty interesting finance people, and there are so many others who were doing more eclectic things.
Secondly, I was quite skeptical of the speed at which you’re meant to learn in this environment, and I think it’s worked reasonably well. I’ve had some classes here where even though you don’t know that much about the topic, you can certainly still have an informed debate, which is quite different from my undergraduate model of more in-depth study of a single bigger question.
Thirdly, I’ve loved the extracurricular activities – the ability to go play basketball and soccer and rugby every day is great.
KP: What were you most anxious about prior to arrival, and what are you most looking forward to?
CS: I was most anxious about everyone coming from finance backgrounds and there being less diversity than I’ve actually realized, so that’s been a real plus. What I’m most looking forward to are the inter-section sports, as while I’ve gotten to know great people in my section, I’m excited to get to know some outside it as well.
In terms of what I want to get out of the year, as clichéd as it is, have fun? I think that’s probably the focus of one’s time here really, because unless that’s the principle by which you judge everything you’re going to walk out having worked extremely hard and having not really achieved that much.
KP: What’s one common setback you’re determined to avoid?
CS: What I’ve found is overworking on the cases can be a mistake, because when you drill down too far into your own thinking it means that you end up with comments that you think are really insightful and good, but won’t always fit into the flow of the class discussion.
Reading the cases is obviously important, but less preparation can sometimes be better because you’re listening to others more and building on their points, as opposed to just inserting your comment, can be much more effective.
KP: Are you looking to move back to New York and back to the music industry?
CS: On the former I’d like to, on the latter it’s going to be more of a challenge just because of the way the industry’s consolidating. I had quite a niche job in the industry, and across the entire industry there are probably 10-15 jobs like mine, and those just don’t open up very often.
KP: Are you not interested in other roles?
CS: I am, but typically MBA grads lend themselves more to business development and that kind of functional role, whereas for sales, marketing and A&R you typically rise up from the ranks.
It would be really exciting to run the sales or marketing operations of a record label, but it’s much harder to achieve those roles coming from an MBA background where you’re hoping to parachute in at a fairly high level, because they’re so relationship-based.
KP: Coming from a writing background, I sometimes worry because while I know this experience is wonderful and valued by so many players, I’m not always sure it’s valued by the players I might care about the most. Do you ever feel the same?
CS: Yeah I think that’s 100% true. The way I looked at it though is if you want to be an EVP at a record label, then the MBA isn’t worth it particularly, but if you want to be able to make that jump to CEO then you need it.
I could have taken a sales role or marketing role and worked my way up, but I think you hit a kind of glass ceiling where a shareholder or board member starts to worry about your general management experience, which wasn’t a place I ever wanted to be.
KP: So after two weeks in what are some hits and misses for you? Do you expect to be a major denizen of the Kong, or would you be equally happy if it fell off the face of the earth?
CS: I’ve actually never been to the Kong, about which I feel rather embarrassed, but so far every evening out has ended up at Daedalus or venturing into the depths of Boston, both of which are… interesting.
I think in terms of Cambridge I’ll be spending most of my spare time in Shad and on the rugby pitch, and then in the evenings I don’t know. I’m trying to find the Williiamsburg of Cambridge, but not sure if that exists. Where are the jeans the skinniest is the question?
KP: You’ll need to look long and hard I think…
CS: Is Brookline anything like Brooklyn? Phonetically it seems like it should be…
KP: (Makes stupid joke to cover the fact that she has a) no idea what Brookline is like and b) likely couldn’t find it on a map for love or money. Geography: it’s hard.)
KP: What’s one thing I wouldn’t know about you from your classcard?
CS: Probably that all of my family lived in New Zealand and I’ve spent quite a lot of time doing New Zealandy stuff, so any trips to New Zealand anyone wants to take, I’m right there.
KP: Since you bring up issues of nationality, and since things are heating up here in the final countdown to the election, I was wondering what your views might be on the election as a Brit?
CS: As a European I think you look upon the differences between the left and the right in the US as the differences between being really really really right, and a little bit right. The concept that here the word liberal has a negative connotation in the US just seems kind of perplexing, and accusations of people being “European” having a negative connotation is just pretty shocking.
The US system for me is the most broken in healthcare and education, because those two things are natural human rights – in most countries in Europe you have a right to be treated, and you shouldn’t have to bankrupt yourself in the process.
In education too I just think it’s abysmal that so many people would choose to go to a state university because it’s cheaper than they would Harvard, because Harvard’s 20 times the price of their state university, and you just end up with a much less diverse class. Harvard’s probably a bad example because of the financial aid, but still. You obviously end up with good students, but do you end up with the absolute best students?
In the UK, Oxford costs the same as any other university, and education is a public good. The idea that the best students can’t get the best education because they can’t afford to, I think the government has a responsibility to get involved.