There are lots of reasons to go to business school -
- broad education of business fundamentals
- great network of future movers and shakers
- piece of (expensive) paper that will help you land a good job down the road
- opportunity to reset and/or pivot your career
- break from the ‘real world’ to enjoy student life again
While the aforementioned are probably the most commonly sited reasons to go back to school, my personal experience highlighted something that was not immediately obvious when I entered Columbia in the fall of 2007. Business school was a sandbox to experiment with and explore different real world careers.
I had two transformational experiences as a student, both of which were internships, that shaped the path I’ve taken since graduating and expect to continue upon for the rest of my life.
My first internship between first and second year was at boutique investment bank called Allen and Company. Allen and Co. is a very unique place. While it is extremely well known and respected within the tech and media worlds (maybe you have heard of the Sun Valley Conference hosted by the firm each summer), it somehow remains extremely secretive and flies under the radar with the general public (they don’t even have a website!). As a merchant bank that offers top tier advisory work in tech and media AND principally invests in many of the most exciting tech startups, Allen was a great place to spend the summer given my background in finance and interest in early stage investing and tech startups. If there was ever a firm in ‘traditional finance’ that would fit me well, it would be Allen and Co. And yet, I walked away from that summer realizing more than ever that traditional finance would never fulfill my personal and professional aspirations. I didn’t particularly enjoy the work functions and still found myself feeling too far removed from impacting the outcome of the companies we worked with. This realization was not easy to accept - emotionally and psychologically - as it meant risking the opportunity to make boatloads of money and walking away from whatever it is that makes finance kinda sexy. At the end of the day, I was just not inspired by the work and came to grips with the personal implications of it over that summer.
Fortunately, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Roger Ehrenberg early into my second year at school. I had actually stumbled upon Roger’s blog while interning at Allen and Co. (I believe it was this awesome post that hooked me) and while perusing Roger’s site noticed that he had amassed quite an impressive portfolio of angel investments. As head of the venture capital club at CBS, I invited Roger to participate on a venture panel on campus where I proceeded to meet Roger and attempt to pimp myself out as his personal intern. Roger, of course, summarily dismissed me, but not before making a critical introduction on my behalf that changed my life.
It just so happened that Roger was about to lead a seed round for a very interesting early stage company that had just moved to NYC. (Keep in mind 2008 was still a time when angel investors could generally lead seed round, price and structure deals, take board seats, etc. This is less common today as there is more institutional capital focused on the Seed stage). The company had a brilliant founder and a product in market with paying customers, but in reality there was no ‘company’ as at that point it was literally one man show (yes, no co-founders or employees) with no infrastructure that could possibly constitute a real company. Roger suggested I meet the founder and see if there was an opportunity to work together. The following week the founder and I met for coffee and hit it off, leading to my second transformational experience during business school. I spent the next five months interning for this company. I was tasked with everything from setting up the basic operational infrastructure to building the first usable financial model to crafting our first board deck to conducting competitive research to making early BD calls to thinking through our hiring and team buildout strategy. I was officially an intern and yet found myself actively participating in our first board meeting! I was the CEOs right hand man for those five months and it was awesome. I felt invigorated and excited. And I knew that I had found my calling.
[The rest of the story is that after insufferably nagging Roger for a meeting, we finally met for a lunch at which I proposed ways to bring some sanity and organization into his angel investing life as well as ways in which I could serve as an operational and business resource to his portfolio of early stage companies (as I had done during my internship). My proposal serendipitously coincided with Roger’s own contemplation of how he could formalize his efforts with more structure and possibly a fund down the road. Our lunch led to more discussions, which eventually led to contract work where I split my time heading up operations and finance for a company we were incubating as well as helping Roger with his angel investing. I moved onto the investment side full time when we launched IA Ventures in January of 2010.]
At the end of the day, business school afforded me the opportunity to pursue two awesome, but very different, real world experiences in a safe and scoped way. The first gave me conviction to move away from a path that I subconsciously struggled to abandon, while the second solidified my passion for building transformative tech companies and gave me the courage to pursue that path. While I’m also grateful for the other benefits of business school, it were these two particular experiences that fundamentally changed my life.