What graduating Harvard MBAs are really up against

June 5, 2012: 11:23 AM ET

Harvard's annual Portrait Project gives MBAs a chance to abandon their bullet-point approach to communication and reveal some inner truth. Here's some of what this year's writers had to say.

Jake Cusack: "When great sacrifices are made, they do not pass quietly into the night, but call loudly for the rest of us to fulfill their promise, their legacy, their dreams."

By John A. Byrne

(Poets&Quants) -- An honest, personal account of just about anyone's life can offer a rare, powerful view not just of where someone has been, but also where they want to go. For the past 10 years, Harvard Business School has had its own dreamcatcher of sorts run by students who gather essays from classmates that address one rather profound question: "What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

The question was first posed by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver in her poem, "The Summer Day." Ten years ago, an inspired MBA student at Harvard named Tony Deifell borrowed the line and presented it to his classmates, beginning Harvard's Portrait Project. Since 2002, Deifell has returned to campus from his home in California with his camera every year to photograph the winning essayists -- all 432 of them over 10 years.

His stark black-and-white portraits tend to bring the sentences of the subjects to life. Their words, often highly personal if not intimate, are paired with the dramatic photographs at an on-campus exhibition during commencement week as well as online and, for the past three years, in print.

Ultimately, the project is about storytelling. As Betsy Brink, assistant director of MBA communications and marketing at Harvard, puts it, "Storytelling is at the heart of every great community. And the storytelling that happens through these essays reveals our students in a way that no other medium does. These stories leave a legacy among classmates who I've overheard say, 'Gosh, I have known this guy for two years but I didn't know this about him." The legacy also filters out through the world to prospective students and alumni and it smashes the stereotype of the HBS student."

Maxeme Tuchman reflected on losing one of her students before heading to Harvard in her portrait essay.

For students, the Portrait Project is a chance to abandon their bullet-point approach to communication and reveal through prose some inner truth or secret. Sometimes it's writing about a powerful loss that still lingers, other times a public pledge for the future. "I see it as the last statement of the class before we leave: What do we want to say to each other, to our family and friends, and to the classes of students that will come to Harvard after us," says Meredith Cantrell, one of the student co-leaders this year.

The project is also a rare opportunity for MBA students to start a conversation with the wider world. In fact, for the first time, Harvard put note cards and pens under each essay at its exhibit in Spangler Hall this year, inviting viewers to write their own thoughts and drop them in a bowl on the floor. Hundreds responded. Essayist emails were handed out and put on Twitter and Facebook to encourage dialogue.

For HBS applicants, the essays provide a sense of what they're up against -- highly crafted and polished stories that reveal hurdles overcome and lessons learned. It would not be hard to imagine that some of these stories were first written in MBA applications that ultimately opened the doors to Harvard for these students.

Not all MBAs are alike

Inevitably, the photos and words constitute little art pieces that allow the outside world to glimpse the trials, motivations, and imaginings of MBA students. The result is not what you might expect, especially if you buy into the stereotype of what an MBA from Harvard is supposed to be.

"Typically, people think of HBS as a place filled with a lot of bankers and consultants who are type-A go-getters," says Chris Kaleel, a student co-leader with Cantrell. "What the project shows is that there are so many different types of people here."

There's Jake Cusack, the former Marine Corps captain, who did tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I once served alongside men better than I," writes Cuscack. "I watched them give selflessly -- in the small things, offering me the only bowl of hot soup after a cold winter patrol, and in the big things, paying the ultimate price after volunteering to be the first through the door on a counterterrorism raid."

Juan Felix: "'There's more than one way to carry money,' my parents promised me over the phone."

There's Juan Felix, who recounts his journey from an L.A. ghetto to a New England boarding school. "'There's more than one way to carry money,' my parents promised me over the phone," he writes. "It was simple advice. A few nights before, my mother had given me a roll of bills. She told me to stick the cash in my socks rather than risk carrying it in my pockets. With a stash of cash in my socks, I flew from South Central Los Angeles to a boarding school in New Hampshire. I was attending on scholarship, a lanky fourteen-year-old boy 'from the hood' with beady eyes and a barely noticeable mustache. I visited the bookstore upon my arrival. There, I pulled up my pant leg, rolled down my sock, and whipped out the wad of cash. As students snickered, I nervously thumbed through the bills, paid, and fled the store. I called my parents that evening and cried about being different. That's when they assured me there's more than one way to carry money."

Then, there is Maxeme Tuchman, who describes the experience of losing a student as a Teach for America teacher. Recalls Tuchman, "'A kid got shot at the football game on Friday. Is he one of your students?' I was a teacher at Miami Northwestern High School, and my Teach for America summer training had not prepared me for the phone call I received from a friend one Sunday night in September. No one really ever trains you how to handle the loss of a child, and it was then that I realized whether it is your child, or someone else's, the loss reverberates just as loudly."

Sahar Meghani: "I want to live for two."

And there is Sahar Meghani, who tells a heartrending story of losing her sister, Suhaila, three months before arriving at HBS. "I turn 28 this year," she reflects. "It is how old Suhaila was when she was taken from me. I feel both grateful and guilty to have been given time that she never had. Being older than my older sister makes me realize that I want to live each day fully, for myself, but also for her. I want to really laugh again, like we always did."

This year's batch of 32 essayists -- chosen from some 130 entries -- is arguably among the strongest ever. Over the years, says Deifell, the essays have risen in quality, with more graduates expressing entrepreneurial desires and goals of returning home to help make the developing markets more open and productive. "The students are spending more time reflecting on the question so the quality of the stories and essays have become stronger," says Deifell.

Changing Harvard?

When Deifell first pointed a camera and asked his classmates about their future plans 10 years ago, he had super-sized ambitions for his photographic exhibit. "To a certain degree, I hoped it would affect the culture of the school," he says. "That was a little grandiose at the time, but part of me feels it is having the impact I dreamt it could have. I certainly didn't envision that the school would take such ownership of it and make it part of the required curriculum."

Indeed, when Harvard's new MBAs arrived last fall, the school incorporated the project into its new first-year course called Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development (FIELD). First-year students were walked through a special exhibit of 20 of the essays selected through the first nine years of the project. The students then were guided through a reflective exercise by faculty during which they answered poet Mary Oliver's big question.

Aditya Dhanrajani: "I will build."

When Aditya Dhanrajani tackled the essay for this year's project, he recalled the time when he was six and built a car out of a cardboard box, with a pizza tray for a steering wheel. "When I got in, the car gave way to my weight and collapsed," Dhanrajani writes. "Later in my engineering classes I learned that I had executed a 'catastrophic failure,' but I had already learned the biggest lesson that day -- I want to build."

Dhanrajani eventually earned degrees in both industrial and mechanical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology and at Stanford University and worked at both General Electric (GE) and McKinsey & Co. before heading to Harvard for his MBA. Dhanrajani landed a job at Google (GOOG) where he is working in strategic partnership development.

What does he plan to do with his "one wild and precious life?"

"I will build," he writes, "for what I build takes on a life of its own and can have meaning and purpose beyond the time I live. I will build to win, not to define myself but to further ourselves … to unleash our infinite ability.

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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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