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Exit Interviews

Graduating students share reflections from two years at Harvard Business School.



Fear of the dark never really goes away. In New York City, my home before HBS, there is no true darkness – always some light trickling out of a bodega, a flickering street lamp, taxicab headlights. But where I grew up in rural New Jersey, I could walk out my front door at night into total blackness. I remember so easily how scared I was, all those years I lived there, to leave the shelter of my family’s old farmhouse after the sun had set. 


Arriving at Harvard Business School in August of 2022 felt a little bit like walking out into the darkness again. Those early weeks were full of uncertainty. Business school was an inflection point – a chance to change careers and find meaning, to uncover not only what I wanted to do, but who I wanted to be. What will make me happy? How can I find my way there? What if I choose wrong? The idea of answering scared me, in the beginning, because I really didn’t know.


Fast forward two years and the uncertainties are still there – but now, the certainties are too.


I know I want to work in digital news, an industry where subscribers, and the revenue they promise, are slipping away. It’s funny, pursuing a career in a field whose future is so unknown. But someone needs to tell stories, to hold a light up to hard truths, to fight through the darkness of misinformation and other looming threats to our humanity. The media world needs more business minds to find a way forward. HBS has helped me realize this, thanks to the dozens of alumni in media who’ve been willing to take informational calls, the EC classes that have given me a greater understanding of the opportunities and challenges in the industry, and the extracurriculars (like writing for the Harbus) that have solidified my passion. 


But more importantly, HBS has helped me realize who I want to be – a person who can embrace uncertainty in pursuit of what matters, who is confident in the people standing next to her, who is there for the ones she loves. I learned this in LEAD cases and on long-haul flights across the world with best friends and through the big life questions so often asked at HBS dinner tables. This, more than the financial modeling skills or strategic frameworks, is what I will take away from my time in business school.


That’s not to say I’ve grown out of my childhood fear – I haven’t. I'm always going to be a little scared of the dark. But as I prepare to leave a place that feels like home, I’m ready to step outside and forget (at least for a little while) why I was scared.


Thankfully, I won’t be alone. There are so many more things to reflect on from two fulfilling years at HBS – so I asked my classmates to share what they will take away from their time here. 


***


Just say yes: “We think things with tiny probabilities will never happen to us. But the truth is life happens every day, so don’t spend it all in the mean – take that weird class, chase your dreams, and definitely say yes to that date with your sectionmate!” – Lucy Zheng (MBA ’24)


Don’t be afraid to say no: “In a place where we are constantly bombarded by social invitations, speaker events, academic obligations, recruiting – the list goes on – I've learned when to take a moment for myself and prioritize self-care. We are so fortunate to be in a place where we are afforded all of these opportunities, but it can be overwhelming. Just as we may feel an obligation to others, we also owe it to ourselves to take care of our mental and physical health. Part of the takeaway is learning how to deliver the ‘no’ kindly. There are right ways and wrong ways! Discovering what works to find and set healthy boundaries has been extraordinarily additive to my life, and something that I'll take with me.” – Brandy Sun (MBA ’24)


Debate with passion and listen intently: “Reflecting on my time at HBS, I find that the most valuable takeaway is the art of meaningful debate – a skill first nurtured at home and refined through my career. HBS has been a crucible for merging these experiences with a deeper empathy and a philosophy that emphasizes the importance of diverse perspectives. As I advance, I will hold fast to the principle of listening intently, debating with passion, and living with an empathetic spirit, ready to apply these lessons on a global scale.” – David Messenger (MBA ’24)


Mistakes are part of the process, so lean in: “Learning from the experiences of my classmates has challenged me to ask myself … ‘In what areas of my life have I played it safe? Have I truly lived a life free of fear?’ And sadly, the answer was a resounding ‘NO!' The same motivation that propelled me to succeed and strive for perfection was simultaneously fueling my fear of failure. Cautioning me to play it safe. But what these two wild and transformative years here have taught me most is that mistakes are a part of the process; certain lessons can only be learned through failure; and no one has truly succeeded if they have not first failed. As I leave HBS and embark on the next chapter of my life, I am no longer fearful of failure and will go after everything I've ever wanted!” – Alliyah Gary (MBA ’24)


Seek the truth, as HBS has prepared you to do: “In ways small and large, on purpose and accident, anticipated and surprising, I think we are leaving HBS better equipped to bear great responsibilities, cultivate virtue, and seek and know the truth. And at a university whose motto is Veritas, and a school whose mission is to educate leaders who make a difference in the world, we know no one does so without it.” – John Pedro (MBA ’24)


Be crazy enough to change the world: “I will walk away from business school with more confidence. Not particularly in my knowledge or intellect, but confidence in accepting that we are all unfinished art, growing and progressing at our own time and in our own style. Confidence to allow fate to take its course, led by curiosity and a willingness to take risks. To be briefly cliché, I'm grateful for the opportunity to meet so many smart and interesting people, to learn from them and truth-seek alongside them, and to be inspired by their hopes and dreams such that I became more willing to raise my own. After all, to quote Steve Jobs, ‘The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.’” – Carla Dibbs (MBA ’24)


Find joy in the ordinary: “Seeing how ambitious everyone at Harvard Business School is made me realize something important about myself: I don't crave the big, world-changing ambitions as much. Before, I was all about chasing big successes. But now, I've come to appreciate the idea of a simple, yet happy life. It's about finding joy in the ordinary, not always chasing the next big thing.” – Daniel Benitez (MBA ’24)


Persevere – and remember, it’s not that deep: “First, pick an option and stick to it. We've optimized for options to get to HBS, now it's time to commit to something and be excellent. Second, everyone remembers how you made them feel, nobody remembers what exactly you said. Third, take yourself less seriously. It's not that deep. Fourth, people make decisions, not numbers. ‘Homo economicus’ is dead, nobody makes a decision of consequence from a 2x2 matrix. Finally, the world is built by people as smart as us. The key difference is perseverance. Focus on being the longest lasting fighter, not necessarily the smartest.” – Junaid Belo-Osagie (MBA ’24)


Don’t get stuck in an ivory tower: “During the Barry's case RC year, the CEO mentioned that he still teaches classes and requires his executive team to spend several days a year working in the various roles at a Barry's studio. As we become busy leaders in our organizations, we must remember that we are never "too good" for anything. If we want to understand the problems within our organizations, the views from high up in our ivory towers are not as good as those on the ground.” – Chad Gruzin (MBA ’24)


Keep learning from the experiences of others: “More than anything else, something I will take away from HBS is just how big and complicated the world is, and just how exciting it is to get peeks into other parts of it. My upbringing in the Midwest, while amazing, didn't expose me to all that much diversity (of thought, of international background, etc.), but at HBS I've had this incredible opportunity to visit countries that I couldn't have picked out on a map before, and visit them with locals, no less. I've been moved by the variety of perspectives my classmates have offered. More than anything, I'm leaving here with a sense of wonder about the different lived experiences of my friends and classmates, and a strong desire to continue learning about them long into the future. I will also bring this awareness to any organization I join and will encourage those around me to think bigger and broader, just like I've learned from my incredible fellow HBS grads.” – Nikki Steltenkamp (MBA ’24)


When life gets hard, lean on the people around you: “This past year, I had to make many life-or-death decisions for my mom. Two thoughts kept me going: reminding myself to be proud of the way I moved through the hard moments and to look forward to moments when it’s not so hard, which are always just around the corner. Because just around the corner, I had a partner who made me belly laugh until I regained strength, family that shared what didn’t feel shareable, professors whose empathy forced me to give myself grace, and friends that let me lay on their couches, worked out with me, and didn’t let me do this alone. It’s the community that I have to thank, and how lucky am I to have a community like HBS.” – Dora Chu (MBA ’24)


Choose happiness every time: “So many of us spend our lives working towards the next achievement, the next milestone, the next step in our journey. Onwards, always. Funny enough, being at HBS taught me to consider what I really value in my present moment – my relationships, a love of learning for the sake of learning, tackling new intellectual challenges because it’s fun, trying despite the probability of failure, making the world a better place even in the smallest ways. Here, I realized that faced with the choice between happiness and success, I would choose happiness every time. And I have a feeling that while success may not always beget happiness, happiness will always beget success.” – Sonia Thosar (MBA ’24)


Rory Finnegan (MBA ’24) has been an avid reader and writer all her life. She pursued these interests all the way through college, graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in poetry writing. After taking a couple years off from her literary passions to work at McKinsey & Company, Rory has been delighted to pick up the pen again by writing for the Harbus.


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