Back From Harvard

April 29, 2008

On April 17, the OPM37 class of over 150 graduated. It was a gorgeous spring day in Boston and we were thrilled to have our friends and family in attendance.  One of the highlights of the ceremonies was our key-note speaker, Robert Kaplan, interim CEO of the Harvard Management Company and our class Leadership professor for the first two years.  Naturally, he was unable to teach OPM37 this spring, as the call of Harvard’s $42 billion endowment was a little more pressing a  priority than our business education!

Rob is an incredibly impressive individual.  Our first year at OPM was his first year teaching this particular program.  We could tell he was a bit nervous, but it didn’t take him long to prove he was a natural teacher.  He listened, he engaged, he challenged and he laughed.  Not to mention that his career has been a series of fantastic accomplishments that most of us can only dream of, so this adds an infinite degree of credibility to his teaching.

Rob began his address by telling us a little about what he does to manage the $42 billion Harvard endowment.  I worried I would soon tire of this topic, but Rob made it fascinating. He did note that currencies were an area that left him often confused–validating the frustration many in our industry face!  He moved on to the financial crisis currently facing our country, and assured us it would be solved. But, he warned, this was only a temporary solution.  The underlying, root problem in the United States lay in our leaders ignoring critical facts: that the middle class has been losing economic ground steadily for years and that there are 50 million uninsured citizens.  Someone in the audience asked whether Rob was intimating that this year’s election needed to go in a certain direction. “Yes, this election matters. It matters a lot.”  Rob avoided endorsing a particular political candidate, but it was clear on which side of the fence he stood.

He ended his address with a compelling and inspirational statement: “Most of you have not done what you will some day be known and celebrated for.”  He wanted us each to consider what contributions we can make to our world, our communities and our field.

So I left Harvard shortly after the ceremony and headed to New Orleans to participate in the clean-up of Louis Armstrong Park with several ATA team mates.  (See the youtube video on our main blog page.) Not a great contribution–but a start?

Kate Simpson

Bookmark and Share

At Harvard: Part 8

April 16, 2008

I admit I have escaped back home on weekends to get a dose of husband and children during this 3-week stint.  It does one good after living the life of a student–studying until all hours, discussing hot topics with classmates in and out of class, and generally feeling disconnected from the real world, cooped up on a lovely Ivy League campus.

As I was flying home this past Sunday evening, the plane was quite full, but needed some redistribution of weight from the back to the front.  So I was one of the volunteers who moved forward 15 rows and settled in to read my case studies for Monday morning.  The case was about Common Angels, an angel investor group here in Boston.  Along with it, we were assigned two business plans to assess as though we were members of Common Angels.  As I finished one business plan and picked up the other, the woman across the aisle from me asked “May I see that case?”  I passed it to her, she leafed through it quickly and passed it back, saying “that’s my husband’s company.”  We were both incredulous. In fact, so were the women on either side of us.  What are the odds?  Of course, I ended up hearing far too much “inside information” to fairly participate in the class the next day (I was even shown photos of their two children–3 and 6!), but it was fascinating to hear the perspective of the spouse.  The business sells a new software/hardware concept in the architecture-engineering-construction field, allowing blueprints and other documents to be stored on a rugged tablet PC upon which people in the field can take and save notes and send back to the office, ensuring fast and efficient transferring of data from field to office and vice versa. Upon landing, the wife calls her husband and says “Honey, you’re not going to believe this, but I was sitting next to this woman and she was reading your Harvard case study!”  Turns out her husband was coming to class the next day.  In the end, it was an intriguing look at how a concept went from theory to reality and what it took for it to get to a 30-person, successful business today.  Investment aside, It takes a very supportive and committed spouse!

Yesterday, we had two equally enticing cases: Google Advertising and Urban Video Game Academy.  The first showed us why Madison Avenue really has a lot to worry about with Google on the scene.  While Google’s secret is clearly the beautiful simplicity of its search engine, we found that very strength masked its efforts to diversify.  Many of us didn’t realize you can use Google to organize your photos, buy books, write blogs, check out the stock markets, search patents, and more.

The Urban Video Game Academy was a great case to end the session.  It was about a passionate teacher in the Baltimore-DC area who had realized there was a need to create more positive role models in video games for minority children and that under-privileged children spent much of their time in front of screens, affecting their achievement and ability to advance in their education and careers.  So he designed a curriculum to teach video game programming to these kids in after-school and summer programs. His curriculum reinforced the schools’–including science, math, English and more.  This gentleman loved to teach the kids and was confronting a key question: should he grow this organization, as demand from various schools was mounting?

Another important question posed by our professor was: is this a business?  I voted no. This was a passion, a mission. Money was not a motivation. Helping the children advance was.  If he was to grow this as a business, he would need to abdicate power and find another person who was passionate about scaling it up.  Several classmates disagreed.  Some were perplexed by why he wouldn’t want to take full advantage of this opportunity.  In the end, the professor revealed that, indeed, the founder had done nothing to grow this as a business and 3 years later was still doing what he’d been doing at the beginning: teaching a few classes himself. And loving it.

To make her message clear, our professor went on to share a personal anecdote.  Having had a very successful career, always moving upward, she came to the point when she was being offered deanships and presidencies of different colleges.  She went home to her spouse one evening and said “do I need to be Dean before I die?”  She decided not. She loved teaching too much to give it up. An important message for a classroom full of over-achievers who are programmed to grow, improve, succeed, and climb to the top. In the end, follow your heart. Even if it’s not at the top.

Tomorrow is graduation (David Parry and my husband have flown up and even attended classes today!) and then I am off to New Orleans to join Chase and several hardy ATA’ers for some volunteer work with Tourism Cares for Tomorrow.  I will wrap this up when I am back in the office next Monday.

Thanks for tuning in!  Cheers.

Kate Simpson

Bookmark and Share

At Harvard: Part 7

April 15, 2008

We’ve arrived at our final week.  We “graduate” Thursday in a full ceremony with Robert Kaplan as our guest speaker (currently Acting President and Chief Executive Officer of Harvard Management Company and formerly our OPM Leadership professor). One classmate will speak on behalf of the Americans and one on behalf of those from other countries.  Spouses, children and other family members are flying in from all around the world for the event.  The excitement is building, while many are expressing sadness at our imminent parting.

We have studied some interesting cases of late.  Chateau Margaux, the ultimate Bordeaux wine, stimulated great interest in class as we delved into whether or not Corinne Mentzelopoulos, the current thirty-something-year-old owner should consider disrupting a centuries-old distribution and marketing system (established by Napoleon III in 1855) and attempt selling her wine directly, via the internet and other avenues.  In the end, it was clear Corinne didn’t really need our help and is doing very well (considering the rest of the French wine industry).  The antiquated distribution system actually provides value in the chain–bringing cash in before the wine is mature, providing warehousing, and allowing Chateau Margaux to do what they do best, without the distraction of marketing and distribution.

Another European case followed: Real Madrid Futbol Club.  Our marketing professor was delighted when one of our Madrid classmates presented him with a team jersey with his name on it at the beginning of class (I am sure the professor, while pleased, wished he’d gotten a bottle of Margaux in the earlier class!).  He proceeded to wear it for the duration of the session–a heated one at that.  Between the Brazilians, the Chileans, the Mexicans, the Spaniards and a lonely Italian, the debate was feisty.  Soccer is more than a sport in the rest of the world: it is passion, it is life.  All admired the ascendancy of Real Madrid as one of the top revenue-generating “futbol” teams in the world, beating Manchester United for the first time in recent years.

Tune in next time to hear about our angel investing class–fascinating!

Signing off from Baker Hall dorm,

Kate Simpson

Academic Travel Abroad

Bookmark and Share

At Harvard: Part 6

April 11, 2008

We are winding down on our second week at Harvard Business School.  The Class of OPM37 is starting to realize that this may be the last time we see each other for a while (though a reunion in India next February is already in the works!).  Classmates are taking time after studying to spend evenings with each other.  Some gather over wine in the living rooms of the dorms, others escape the cafeteria to explore North End Italian restaurants.  Others still are diligently working and re-working their strategies, though the exercise was over several days ago.  As our brilliant and highly intellectual strategy professor reminded us today: “You want living strategies–not dead ones!”  The message is clear: keep at it!

Our bouncy Finance professor finished his last class with us today.  He has led us through an Italian Leveraged Buy-Out case, an Indian-Russian brewery’s joint venture option, and an Indian auto parts manufacturer’s PIPE (private investment in public entity) deal.  What struck me in each class is how a group of 70+ business leaders (the larger group is divided in two for classes) with decades of financial experience can all hold such divergent (and strong) opinions about whether a business is successful or not, what the options are in each case, which options are good and which are bad.  Inevitably, the professor will ask us to give him a show of hands on two to three very different views, and invariably, the class is divided evenly across the board.  It confirms what I have always thought: numbers, too, can be interpreted in myriad ways.

The big excitement today came when the final winners of the strategy exercise were announced in an auditorium large enough to fit us all (150+).   The first winner was the owner of a chain of Mexican pet stores (+KOTA). His concept is brilliant and sets itself apart with such differentiation as the publishing of 4 pet magazines, locations in high-traffic indoor malls, a one-stop shop for all your pet needs, community involvement, a very warm and caring environment, and much more.  The second winner was a coffee roaster who has left his family’s coffee business to establish a new company that will feature low-cost, Fair Trade, organic coffee and allow customized labeling.  It was clear that both winners had put their hearts and souls into their businesses.  I have no doubt they are headed for greatness.

For fun, I attended an elective on Family Business (the vast majority of the OPM class are in family businesses), but only because the case was about Katherine & Don Graham of the Washinton Post.  I had read Katherine Graham’s book years ago and loved her story, so was curious to hear the business perspective.  The professor had interviewed the Grahams a year or two before her death and we were able to watch the video he taped.  The class, asked what we had observed in the interview, noted how deferential each Graham was to the other, how professional they remained throughout, and how modest and lacking in artifice they were.  What struck me is the way the Grahams have managed to work in partnership with non-family executives at the top for decades. This would appear to be a wise way to ensure that the business can survive a long time and is not dependent entirely on the qualifications of the next rising Graham relative. One sweet anecdote told by Don Graham described a family dinner years earlier where everyone was asked to share their life’s regret.  When it was her turn, Katherine Graham readily admitted that she wished she had gone to Harvard Business School.

Off I go to prepare my negotiation session for tomorrow’s class!  I can’t tell you what role I will play, as it’s confidential, but will reveal all soon…

With spring (finally) in the Boston air,

Kate Simpson

Bookmark and Share

At Harvard: Part 5

April 9, 2008

Since my last entry, it’s been busy!  If you recall, we had voted for the winning strategies and 20 classmates had risen to the top.  These winning strategies were critiqued during 3-hour sessions by assigned groups, then the next day each winner presented their strategy in class before their classmates, and was followed by the prepared critique of their strategy.  Each presenter had 5 minutes, carefully monitored and enforced by a forceful German-Venezuelan classmate who enjoyed his role as time-keeper tremendously.

We each voted for what we considered the strongest presentation and critique.  It was difficult!  There were many impressive contenders, including a Chinese pharmaceutical company (led by a woman!) that is now listed on the NYSE and plans on being one of China’s top 5 in a few years; an ambitious New Zealander who is jumping into the cement business; a brand new Free Trade, organic coffee producer from New England; and a high tech business whose presentation was seriously sophisticated (and a little beyond me, to be honest).  In the end, after struggling to decide between cement and coffee, I decided in favor of coffee, as the presenter’s passion came through loud and clear.

As far as cases in the past few days, we have looked at Shouldice Hospital in Canada, a hernia specialist clinic established after WW2 by a doctor who discovered early on that recovery is accelerated when the patient becomes active shortly after surgery.  His hernia repair technique proved highly successful, and he managed to create a very unique hospital where patients would come from all over the US and Canada.  He managed to infuse such a sense of well-being in the post-op recovery period that patients would reconvene for “hernia” reunions on an annual basis!  The business is still going today.

In Negotiation class, we enjoyed a 6-party exercise, where the class was divided into groups of 6 where there was a seller, the seller’s management team and four buyers.  I was one of the buyers.  We each had our own confidential role which we read through and prepared for 20 minutes. Then we spent an hour negotiating among ourselves and the seller.  The end results for the entire class were fascinating and all over the map.  The sellers were able to obtain prices between $275 million and $745 million for their company!  Now that’s quite a range.  Those that figured out that by having the buyers cooperate, there would be more value to bring to the table, ended up with the higher prices.  Alas, my group was not one of these creative ones.  We decided that, in the real world, the seller would dictate what would happen and would likely not allow the buyers to talk. Many lessons to be learned!

Kate Simpson

Academic Travel Abroad

Bookmark and Share

At Harvard: Part 4

April 6, 2008

After some very late nights working on our “OAS” (Objective, Advantage, Scope) statements, we met in groups of 8 at 8:30am to review each company’s OAS, comment, question and challenge the strategy declared. In my group, we had a software provider who works with logistics companies Down Under, a Nigerian mobile bank and payment system, a Panamanian home appliance distributor, a US-Indian jewelry manufacturer and distributor, an American pharmaceutical developer, a Belgian osteopathic doctor setting up unique clincs in Italy, an Austrian software company serving the automotive industry and myself, a study abroad and educational tour provider. Our mission: to vote for what we considered the best strategy. It’s a fascinating exercise to zero in on what differentiates you from the competition and to boil it down to a couple of sentences. Here is what I came up with:

To become the leading provider of 1) study abroad programs for American college students and 2) luxury , educational group tours for top donors of American non-profit organizations. Our programs are custom-designed, built on a proprietary network of contacts, featuring experiences not available to the average traveler or student abroad, and augmented by concierge-level service. Our 58 years have solidified a tried-and-true risk and crisis management system that protects our students and adult travelers in an ever-changing world.

I voted for the Belgian doctor. Confidentiality agreements preclude me from sharing the details of his competitive advantage, but suffice it to say that he’s got a golden concept that I hope takes off.

We learned late in the day, once the votes for 20 groups were tallied, that our doctor had won within our group. So from 150+ of us down to 20. Next week, the competition is further narrowed. In the end, there will be only two winners.

It’s the weekend now, and we get a little break after Saturday morning classes, to recover and read up on next week’s cases.

One tired student,

Kate Simpson

Academic Travel Abroad

Bookmark and Share

Add to Technorati Favorites

Share on Facebook

At Harvard: Part 3

April 4, 2008

Today, we explored the case of Mid-Missouri Energy’s ethanol production and decisions they faced in late 2007. Frankly, the case was 17 dense pages of grueling facts and 16 pages of graphs and data charts. I know more than I ever thought I would on the issues confronting this energy form and the challenges inherent in its continued production. One classmate suggested algae were a more efficient source of energy and could one day be the country’s total energy solution!

And yes, we did a Finance class on a “Contract Research Organization” (CRO) about to do an IPO and buy two smaller companies. We’re fortunate that our professor loves to bounce (literally, with hands above his head at times) and run (really) around the classroom to ensure we stay engaged and enthused about Weighted Average Cost of Capital, multiples and market valuations. When the projector wouldn’t work, he tore out of the room yelling “Help! Help! Help!” No worries. A techie classmate solved the problem before help arrived.

Tomorrow we start to present our strategies within groups. It’s a competition that lasts several days, and we will vote for the winning strategies until there are only two winners out of 160. Should be lots of fun!

Signing off in my dorm room in Baker Hall,

Kate Simpson

Academic Travel Abroad

Bookmark and Share


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 32 other followers