Alongside the Golden Gate Bridge, the world’s biggest Chinatown and the crazily steep sidewalks of Russian Hill, the students of Berkeley’s Haas School of Business should be up there on your list of must-see things in and around San Francisco.
What kind of people choose to study business at a university known for its 1960s radicalism and ultra-liberal students and faculty?
The ones I met (all guys, though they have women there too) were a smart, successful, yet laid back bunch, exhibiting “confidence without attitude”, which is one of the School’s four guiding principles along with “students always”, “beyond yourself”, and “challenge the status quo”.
With stellar resumes, they could probably have had their pick of several top schools, but chose Haas for a variety of reasons including the School’s proximity to the venture capital (VC) firms and tech businesses of Silicon Valley, and the opportunity to combine the MBA with other degree programs. The sunny, outdoors-y California lifestyle is definitely up there too: if you’re a gray-skinned consultant when you arrive in the Bay area, you definitely won’t be when you leave
Brandon Yahn is a former management consultant who is currently co-President of the Entrepreneurs Association.
Yahn, 27, spent four years as a consultant with Accenture and then Mars&Co, after graduating with a degree in Industrial Engineering from West Virginia University. He was doing what most MBAs dream of: advising Fortune 500 firms on high-level strategy. What's more, his last employer Mars&Co didn’t even require an MBA of its senior conusltants.
So why did he quit a successful career and drop his own savings (an eye-watering $53k per year in tuition fees) on the two-year Haas MBA? The main reason was to switch out of consulting and into the world of technology start-ups. Yahn has had an entrpereneurial streak since he won a $10k prize in his senior year at college for a business plan involving an automated bar-tending system.
He’s keen to get back into the tech business, either as an entrepreneur, a VC or a consultant to start-ups, so business school in the Bay area was the obvious choice (Yahn also had an offer from Kellogg). The Haas program has helped him build a great network, and this summer he landed an internship at Evernote, a software firm based in Mountain View, CA with backing from investors including Sequoia Capital, Morgenthaler Ventures, Troika Dialog, and DOCOMO Capital.
Omair Azam’s path to Haas was more unusual. Azam, 29, a native of Manchester in the UK, studied Economics at Edinburgh University. He followed this up with an MPhil in Chinese studies at Cambridge University, during which he spent eight months learning Chinese at Beijing university.
In 2006 he landed a job with a British market research firm in Beijing, specialising in the pharmaceutical sector, and found himself rapidly becoming an expert in China’s healthcare markets, while working out of an office that was nearly all-Chinese (there were only two Brits).
That experience helped Azam, who also speaks Urdu, Punjabi and Spanish, and plays piano too, become confident wth Mandarin very quickly. He also became addicted to the “buzz and energy” of Beijing, something he thinks San Francisco and London and pretty much everywhere else in the world lacks.
“Everyone wants a piece of the China pie,” he says, “There are business people there from all over the world”.
“There are a lot of companies there that have no clue what to do,” he adds. “The thing about China is that it isn’t a short-term goldmine, it’ a long-term opportunity.”
He started thinking about an MBA in early 2007, influenced by Americans he met in Beijing. He says there are many more Americans there than British students and business people. Azam chose Haas when he discovered that that he could earn an MBA and an MPH (Master in Public Health) by spending just one extra semester in school.
Azam will graduate in December 2012. This summer he interned with Seattle-based PATH, a non-profit global health organisation where he focused on neglected diseases, particularly river blindness in Africa.
His short-term goal is to work in health care or pharmaceuticals consulting in China, but in the long--term he’s interested in global public health organisations such as the Gates Foundation.
Berkeley is a 25-minute train ride outside downtown San Francisco, so a lot of Haas students live in the city during their second year. I finished up my encounters with the Haas MBA class of 2012 by bumping into a bunch of them at the BusinessBecause MBA drinks at trendy resto/bar Foreign Cinema in the city’s hipster Mission district.
They included Sam Filer, a smooth-talking private equity guy from London making moves to enter Hollywood; ex-management consultant John Holgate, who has worked on billion dollar antitrust litigation cases such as AMD v. Intel; Bruce dos Santos, a former L.A. school teacher and director at non-profit online tutoring group Learn To Be; and MBA class President Panpan Wang, born in a town he described as the “Missouri of China” and raised in Kansas and California, who has traveled the worked as a consultant at elite firm Monitor, picking up insulting words in various languages along the way.