Do I Really Need an MBA?

Dear Mandy,

I’m Elysia from Taiwan:) I am a co-founder of a fashion tech startup.  Recently, I saw your career story on Columbia MBA’s alumni website and was deeply impressed by your idea of how technology can help shape the fashion industry. I am planning on applying for my MBA degree this year and hoping to integrate my fashion tech company experience and family business (manufacturing in the fashion industry) in the future. Can you share with me how Columbia’s learning experience and resources combined helped you in the fashion industry? Thank you very much.

Sincerely,

Elysia

 

Hi Elysia!

When I was first applying to the MBA program, I remember going to a prospective student panel on campus at Columbia. I wore fancy shoes and blow-dried my hair. I was so excited to get off at the 116th Street stop on the 1 train, it was like I was trying on a different persona and it felt like coming home. I was now Mandy, prospective MBA! One of the students on the panel – a bright, razor-sharp, and poised woman – proclaimed that the degree was an “accelerant” for your career.

I thought that was so freaking cool. The idea that you could unleash rocket fuel on your career and accelerate to your destination (a straight line from MBA to Director, VP, then land in the C-suite) seemed like a sure ticket to me. In my imagination, the MBA was a time when you could solidify your business skills, “figure out” what you wanted to do with the rest of your life, and then fly at 1,000 mph towards the bullseye of your goal.

I’m now six years out, and as I’ve navigated my own post-MBA journey and watched my friends do the same, I’ve witnessed the following:

  • Friends leaving their high-powered jobs to take a much needed mindfulness break, to recalibrate their next step
  • Friends quitting their six-figure jobs at stable, big companies and going to smaller funded startups
  • Friends going from full time to part time positions in order to take time off with their new babies

What I’m saying is that you should expect a certain level of change. There will be volatility, uprooting, starting over, beginning fresh, “failures,” and quiet exits. Now I think the idea of an “accelerant” is a curious one. Assuming that you know exactly what you want to achieve, then getting there should be an easy task. Work hard, map out the steps, be an efficient machine, make the right connections, and sooner or later you will succeed.

The problem is that life often gets in the way. You realize, oh, I actually hate investment banking. Or, oh, I really want to try this startup thing. Or hey, I just had a baby and maybe I need to readjust my priorities a little bit. This can be very frustrating for Type A women MBAs like ourselves, it’s like an unexpected betrayal. Damnit, you might tell yourself, why can’t you just follow the path, why do you have to be so difficult and change course. Now what am I going to do?!  

So I’ll tell you how the MBA becomes useful. Because it teaches you, in some part, resilience. As in, I come from the fashion industry (as you do, yay!), and have no idea how to do a valuation in Excel. OK so, you say to yourself, I’d better learn this stuff. As in, I don’t really understand finance, and so – you ask a ton of questions and study your ass off, and become friends with all the bankers so they can teach you something, and over time you get better at it. You learn the language of business.

Essentially what you’re doing is you’re cross training your brain to go from one thing (i.e. fashion, family business) to a totally different other thing (i.e. sitting in a room with a bunch of really smart dudes in suits, a talent that if you go on to raise money later, becomes surprisingly useful – sigh/that’s the truth) and excelling at it. When you’re able to do that, you become more confident. You think to yourself, holy shit, I’m really doing this…what else am I capable of?

In your case, it might be applying to leadership management programs at Chanel and LVMH because you have a new level of confidence and connections. Or, you might have the support to start your own fashion tech company, and talk to alums to help you raise money to get your business off the ground. Really the options are limitless. But I don’t think it’s because the MBA suddenly opens up every door for you; but rather, because you give yourself permission to do the things that maybe you were afraid of before.  

So I would encourage you to pursue the MBA for the core reason of pushing your own personal boundaries and expanding the critical thinking capacity of your own mind. It helps you realize that you don’t need permission from anyone, anymore.  You give yourself permission.  It will likely make you more humble, more self aware, and have a more gangbusters attitude in life.

At the same time, the MBA is not the only path. I really believe this. You can also achieve this by say, taking six months off to hike the Pacific Coast Trail, starting your own company now (who needs a fancy degree), traveling and doing photography in rural India, doing something different and risky for yourself and not for the benefit of pumping up your resume or impressing other people, etc.

One final word about the idea of an “accelerant.” Now I’m of the mind that what we need more of is to decelerate (is that a word?). To slow down, look inward, take our time, and really do the work of figuring out what drives us. That way, when we do have the rocket fuel, we’re going fast as hell … in the right direction.

Onward,

Mandy

PS.  Elysia, you sound smart and savvy and like you will achieve anything you put your mind to. Thank you for writing to me. You should name-drop me (“after talking to Mandy Tang ’10 about entrepreneurship, I am confident that CBS is my first choice…blah blah”) in the application. Any little bit helps.