Harvard MBAs: Putting goals of corporate domination aside

May 25, 2011: 11:07 AM ET

While many Harvard biz school soon-to-be-grads are off to investment banks and consulting firms, a good number seem to yearn to have a positive impact on the world.

By John A. Byrne, contributor

(poetsandquants.com) -- Some 936 MBAs will graduate from Harvard Business School on Thursday set to head off for six-figure jobs at Goldman Sachs (GS), Morgan Stanley (MS), McKinsey & Co., and Boston Consulting Group.

But a good number of these soon-to-be-graduates seem to yearn for something else, a chance to have a positive impact on the world.

"I will speak up and speak honestly. I will ask questions that disrupt the status quo," says Harvard MBA candidate Dominique Bailiet.

At least that's the impression left by answers to a simple, yet provocative question: "What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Since 2002, Harvard MBAs have been answering that question, initially posed by poet Mary Oliver in her inspirational poem, "The Summer Day." Their often-moving answers, accompanied by stark black-and-white photographs of the essay-writing students, go on display at Harvard this week for commencement exercises.

This year, 34 Harvard MBAs weighed in for the so-called Portrait Project, chosen from more than 130 submissions from the class of 2011. The MBAs opine not about dollars and titles, but rather their desire to do some good in the world. They belie the stereotypical view of the MBA as a sharp-elbowed climber, singularly focused on a high-paying, career-stepping job.

Consider Austin Johnsen. Three months into his MBA program, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. After undergoing surgery and chemotherapy, he returned to class and will graduate with his classmates this week. But the experience, he writes, altered his life's goals. Rather than returning to finance, his career before Harvard, he plans to spend the next year in China working for the World Wildlife Fund.

"My life going forward is about one thing:  living life -- without fear of failure -- to its fullest potential," says Chad Hufsey. In his essay, Johnsen invokes a famous quote from Horace Mann: "Until you have done something for humanity, you should be ashamed to die." Adds Johnsen, "I won't waste this gift I've been given. I will make a difference. I won't die ashamed."

A bit of pie-in-the-sky idealism? Shahar Ziv, one of the student organizers of the project, doesn't think so. "It shows a different side of HBS students," says Ziv. "It really fosters a heightened self-awareness. There is a lot of talk in the business school community about how analytical the schools have been but one of the big shifts is getting people more focused on leadership. You can't understand others without understanding yourself. To me, this project really does that, and people will measure their lives against these words."

Chad Hufsey

The nearly three-dozen portraits and essays tell a different story than one would expect from Harvard Business School. There's Chad Hufsey, another Harvard MBA, who concedes that his fear of failure prevented him from accepting a football scholarship toHarvardCollege, a decision that has informed his goal to not live a life of regret. "I was afraid that I wasn't good enough," wrote Hufsey. "Afraid I couldn't handle the academics. Afraid to take a chance."

Laila Kassis, a Palestinian female MBA student, recalls how a day spent with her father harvesting olives has led to her desire to encourage entrepreneurship inEgypt.  "I want to give aspiring entrepreneurs the skills and courage to try and to fail, to learn from their failures and to emerge stronger, empowered to building lasting endeavors that contribute positively to their communities."

And there's Mike Lynch, whose 200-word essay begins with these dramatic words: "I never saw the rocket-propelled grenade that was meant to kill me that morning. I just heard it scream over my head and erupt in a deafening explosion behind me. On Sept. 16, 2006, at a dirty, long-forgotten intersection in Tikrit, Iraq, I was given a second chance…I want to earn my second chance at life by building and leading organizations that fulfill the commitment to serve, support and strengthen this generation of America's wounded warriors."

"I hope I will always find (tradeoffs and conflicts in health care) as painfully heart wrenching as I did" in Tanzania," says Lorrayne Ward. Ward, who will be working for an internal consulting group at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, recalled a memory from when she worked for the Clinton Foundation at a health clinic in Tanzania. She was behind the counter when a woman wanted to buy medicine for her son who was at home with malaria. The woman was sent away because she didn't have enough money to pay for the drug. ""I was overcome by the chilling realization that I had denied her son lifesaving medicine…," wrote Ward. "I didn't foresee the terrible consequences that arise when the profit motive directly clashes with doing what's right."

Lorrayne Ward

Ward was drawn to the project, she says, because she was inspired by hundreds of other Harvard MBAs who participated through the years. "The vast majority of my classmates do want to live a positive life," she says. "Instead of reducing it down to who made the most money five years out, a project like this shows that there are many different metrics for success."

The project was originally the brainchild of Tony Deifell, a professional photographer and a class of 2002 MBA, who has since returned each year to photograph the writers of the winning essays. "In the first year, I had to twist some arms to get people to do it," he recalls. "Harvard students were more likely to know how to write a business plan than an introspective essay that could reveal vulnerabilities or even a grand ambition."

"I will speak up and speak honestly. I will ask questions that disrupt the status quo," says Dominique Bailiet. That has changed, according to Ziv, a former consultant who is going to work in the strategic planning group at American Express. "There is a lot of vulnerability in the essays. And one of the things I learned in authentic leadership development was the power of vulnerability. When you open up and share something that is quite vulnerable about your self, others reciprocate."

Indeed. That is the real gift of the Portrait Project.

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John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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