I always knew someone would ask me this question. I’d supposed it would happen sometime after I graduated. Or maybe the question would come from my children someday when I was old and gray– I certainly didn’t expect it in the last quarter of the program, but there it was. The TMMBA Program Director, Tracy, asked the question; “If you could do this whole MBA thing over again, what would you do differently?”
OK, so maybe she didn’t ask the question exactly like that. She may have actually said something closer to “How’s it going?” or maybe just “Hi”. Regardless of what had prompted Tracy’s inquiry that day in the hall, she deserved to know the answer that had plagued me for a solid month.
Here’s the background. About a month earlier my team and I had set up a meeting with the executive director of a local non-profit to talk about a social media project. We booked the meeting to occur a couple of hours ahead our Wednesday class session– and miraculously it finished up a bit early! After treating myself to a second helping of taco buffet, I had found myself in the rare-yet-luxurious state of not having any plans. I recall mingling in the buffet area for a while and then ambling into the Tech @ the Top room after hearing some mention of cheeseburgers in there.
Shortly after I found a seat, Tracy shut the door and introduced Ben Huh, CEO of Cheezburger Network. Then it all clicked for me. Five minutes earlier I had been joking with this guy at the taco buffet, wondering if he was going to take the last chalupa, and now I find out he is a legendary entrepreneur?! The next hour flew by like it was fifteen minutes. I learned about how Ben had quit a perfectly good job to see if he could parlay a funny cat picture into an multimillion dollar internet humor juggernaut (spoiler alert: he did it). Ben gave a fast-paced presentation followed by a wide-open Q&A session. I got an incredible view into the mind of a truly creative entrepreneur with a street MBA and a truckload of wisdom. More importantly, I got to ask Ben as many questions as I wanted about being an entrepreneur and scaling a company, which is a topic that interests me greatly.
A few weeks went by and I still found myself reflecting on Ben’s presentation and several impactful things he had shared. I figured this must have been an anomaly– of course they couldn’t all be that good, right? I secretly hoped so, because I’d been ignoring Tech @ the Top emails for over a year. With small kids at home, a demanding job, a couple side ventures and an MBA-in-progress, I felt like I couldn’t afford to take on anything else. Nonetheless, when the next Tech @ the Top Speaker Series event came along there I was, privately hoping that Jens Molbak, founder of Coinstar, would flop and confirm my anomaly theory.
Of course Jens didn’t flop, he was brilliant. I still don’t know how he crammed it all into one hour, but we learned how he started Coinstar as a secret project during his MBA. Jens told us about how he had interviewed 1500 people in front of grocery stores to refine his idea. We sensed Jen’s pain from the continuous rejection by VCs. Then we learned about the eventual revelation that enabled him to not only get seed funding, but ultimately raise $200m in VC investment (hint: it wasn’t about selling his idea better). In less than 10 years, Jens succeeded in taking Coinstar public, caused the Mint to stop making coins, and enabled the donation of millions of dollars to a litany of charitable organizations. As with my prior Tech @ the Top experience, I was blown away by the openness and accessibility of this inspiring entrepreneur.
So there it is. Not the answer I’d expected it would be, but true nonetheless. If I could do it over again, I would go to every single Tech @ the Top speaker. The absurdity is that I was already there on Wednesdays anyway– how hard would it have been to forgo that extra trip to the buffet and open my mind to meeting a new entrepreneur or business leader? I’ll never know, but what I do know is that I missed the opportunity to get direct learnings and close interaction with senior executives from Costco, Docusign, Concur, Outerwall, PCC, and many others. Here’s my advice to future Foster MBA students: skip that extra chalupa and go to Tech @ the Top!