by Matt Symonds,
Thousands of MBA hopefuls are waiting to hear from Harvard Business School. They are not still holding out for a phone call from the MBA admissions office that confirms an offer of a place for the class starting this September – hopefully that good news is still to come. This is the next generation of business school applicants, eager to throw their hat into the ring to secure a place in Boston for next year.
HBS traditionally kicks off the MBA admissions season with the announcement of deadlines for the year ahead. Through the school’s Admissions blog, Direct from the Director, the Managing Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid, Chad Losee shares details of the R1 deadline that is traditionally the first among M7 schools at the start of September (last year R1 was set for September 5), and a R2 deadline in early January (hold off on those plans for New Years revelry).
In addition to these dates to mark in your calendar, Harvard should also confirm the essay (or essays) included in this year’s MBA application. For the past five years, the admissions office in Dillon House has asked, “As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA Program?”
As my colleague at Fortuna Admissions and former HBS Associate Director, Karla Cohen explains in a fascinating video interview, “What Does Harvard Business School Really Want?,” the business school has no shortage of academically gifted, fast track professionals in the applicant pool. For Cohen the essay is the make or break factor for HBS. “It’s the essay that sets your overall application apart and earns you the interview amid so many applications with impressive credentials. You can’t expect to compete on credentials alone at any top tier business school, let alone Harvard, because HBS has seen it all.”
It’s not that GPA and GMAT or GRE scores don’t matter. “Your credentials are incredibly important, but they only get you to the threshold,” Karla Cohen explains. “But once you’ve reached a certain level in terms of being brilliant, dedicated and driven, it’s about your story.”
If that feels intimidating, Cohen encourages you to remember this. “No one else has lived your story but you, so you’re the one best poised to tell it. Think of it like drafting a movie trailer for your life – your essay should be engaging, interesting, dramatic and fast paced.”
So as you think about the habits of leadership that you have displayed through college extracurricular activities and business achievements, reflect about how you have grown, and how those characteristics and experiences have supported and developed the opportunities of others. HBS is assessing how your level of past community engagement demonstrates the future contribution you could make to the MBA program, teaching as well as learning from your future MBA classmates.
When Maya Chorengel applied to Harvard Business School in the mid 1990s, the school had nine essays – you can see the full list of questions here. Twenty years later, she is a partner at the world’s largest impact investment fund, The Rise Fund, and co-founder of the innovative impact investing firm Elevar Equity. A graduate of the HBS Class of ‘97, Chorengel has dedicated her career to tackling the world’s toughest problems with the meticulous rigor she honed during her 20-plus year career in private equity, venture capital and investment banking.
She has been an instrumental force in proving that delivery of positive impact can exist alongside competitive financial returns, mobilizing the investing market to advance social and environmental benefits at scale. Her perspectives are shaped by her German-Filipino upbringing (and the unusual distinction of being raised between the Singapore hotel that her father managed and her mother’s gritty Manila).
In an interview with Fortuna Admissions, Chorengel speaks to the value of business school, importance of mentorship, breaking cycles of unconscious bias, bringing more rigor to impact investing and being a frustrated novelist at heart.
Matt Symonds: How would you describe the promise of impact investing to the next generation of venture capitalists and PE professionals?
Maya Chorengel: I think that impact investing as a category is at an inflection point. The Rise Fund is currently at the leading edge, and Elevar was one of the early catalysts, of bringing institutional capital, discipline and quality to the table, both in terms of investing and also impact underwriting. One of the key drivers of our work is the fact that the amount of capital required to tackle some of the world’s great problems – and tackle them with optimism – is so great. Those of us who wanted to play a role in creating change knew that we had to move beyond philanthropy and government aid and “crowd in” commercial capital, because commercial capital is more abundant…
What I see going forward are two trends, and part of the reason why I became part of the Rise Fund journey was to make these two trends a reality: Increasing the rigor on both the investing and the impact side, so that more capital can be drawn into our sector. Unless we can establish a very strong track record in both, we’re not going to draw in the capital needed to solve the world’s great problems. I’m very excited about the higher level of rigor that we’re driving in understanding what generates impact and how to further progress in the sector.
Symonds: Looking back, what has been the most valuable thing you’ve gained from business school?
Chorengel: One of the most valuable classes was our first-year course, LEAD, which was HBS’s foundational organizational behavior course. People might have thought of LEAD as light or fluffy relative to, let’s say, finance or the competition and strategy course. But, as you get older and more seasoned in your career and begin to understand the importance of all the dimensions of organizations – culture, structure, how you hire people, how you factor in diversity and inclusion (which is a big topic now) – you realize that companies are only as good as the people within who are executing…
Second, the HBS network has been an incredible resource. The beauty of having gone to HBS is not just having gotten to know my classmates, but also other alumni and faculty and staff. I feel that because of HBS I have reach to almost anyone on the planet, not just to the upper echelons of business, but also to many interesting individuals doing really remarkable things outside of C-suites or the tops of hedge funds or banks, for example folks working in the public sector or the philanthropic sector. The variety of people, the global reach, and the enthusiasm that my classmates and other alums have for helping each other – being available to brainstorm, mentor, reach out – that is an incredible resource… I can go to any country in the world and find a classmate to help me if I need to find someone or something in that country.
The third was the faculty. I didn’t take as much advantage of this resource while I was there, but I’ve taken advantage of the HBS faculty after the fact. I have reached back out to, and have ties with, some faculty members doing interesting work. Today for me this happens primarily through the Harvard Business School Enterprise initiative, which I’ve been involved with for many years. There are a number of finance professors who I’ve maintained conversations with on interesting issues. For example, as we were building out our impact underwriting methodology for The Rise Fund, being able to go back to a few of the finance professors at HBS to talk through our methodology and ask, “what do you think?” was extremely helpful.
Symonds: Why did you feel it was so necessary to pursue an MBA?
Chorengel: When I left undergrad, my sense was that the smartest people in business all had law degrees, so I thought I should go to law school. I worked for a year as a paralegal because I felt that before I go to law school, which is a three-year commitment and pretty hard-core, I should see what the legal world is like. I quickly realized it was not the right experience for me, and so I pivoted to investment banking. I knew I wanted a graduate degree and I was fortunate enough that graduate school was in scope for me. When law didn’t seem to be the right fit, I went back to one of my old professors from undergrad, Professor Henry Rosovsky, for advice. He’s one of the elder deans who’s done everything at Harvard and is extremely well respected – he’s in his 90’s now. When I told him I was thinking of law school, he said, ‘oh, for you? That’s ridiculous, you should go to business school.’ Having an important mentor who I trusted, who knew me really well, and who was unabashed in his opinions, and understood the education one would receive at those schools – it made a huge difference… I’m so happy and so grateful for having had his advice.
Symonds: What role has mentorship played in your career path?
Chorengel: I think mentors are extremely, extremely important. The one thing I look back on – it’s not something that I regret, but I’ve noted – is that most of my mentors are men. That may be a little bit of a function of the finance world. There were one or two women one generation senior to me in investment banking, even fewer in private equity, and none two generations senior to me. But my mentors were all men, with the exception of one individual. I think about that, and I wish it had been different, but there were so few women in senior positions. I hope that changes. It makes me think about my current role… now that I’m becoming more senor in what I do. I think it’s important, especially in finance, where fewer women are in senior positions to mentor others, and not just younger women but also the younger men.
Symonds: Can you speak to why gender parity among the elite b-schools and C-suites is still so elusive and what it’s going to take to achieve?
Chorengel: I think there are a lot of reasons. One is subconscious bias, especially because many firms were created many years ago, generally by men. Even as women entered the workforce and started to gain seniority in greater numbers, organizations feel comfortable hiring and promoting people who seem familiar, so if you have more men at the top, they may be more naturally inclined to hire men who look like them, think like them, and behave like them and they may be subconsciously less open to diverse points of view.
The second issue is there hasn’t been a network of support for women in the way that there should be, historically in corporate America or finance. Considerations about how to handle maternity leave or how to accommodate a parent of young children are often lacking. The thing is, these are issues that are also relevant to men… It’s only in recent years, with movements around diversity and inclusion, that there’s been more culture change. Systems and processes need to be in place to advance that issue. For example, when recruiting, having it be a requirement that ‘X’ percentage of candidates are women or ethnically diverse, is important. Having the right kind of maternity and paternity leave policies is important. Also nurturing cultures that respect and value those issues is critically important. The finance world was missing a lot of that, and corporate America was missing that and we’re trying to change that.
If I look at my Elevar experience, which was the impact venture fund that a few friends and I co-founded after I left Warburg Pincus and before I joined TPG – we had four founding partners, two of whom are women, and two of whom are men. Elevar’s investment team was always at least 50% women, and this felt absolutely normal at Elevar. I think this was largely because there were two women founders, so for us, hiring other women seemed incredibly natural. But when you have founders of a firm who are all men, there may be bias and it’s not as obvious to them to bring on a high percentage of women. You need to have countervailing practices.
Symonds: Any advice you’d offer to other women, in particular?
Chorengel: I’d say that seeking mentorship and looking for mentors who represent the possibilities for what you might want to be in the future is really critical. Paying a lot of attention to organizational culture when you join a company, but not being afraid to be create change is important. And when you join a company, standing up for your values and being very thoughtful about how to engage within the company to create the kind of organizational culture that you want is important… Stand up and make it known and explicit what you expect corporate culture to be like. Don’t just accept the culture as a given but make sure it’s moving in the right direction.
I’m a huge believer that life is an apprenticeship. I’m half-German, and Germans are great believers in the apprenticeship model. Especially during the early parts of you career when you’re building skills, hopefully skills that will be transferable, you should be working with some of the best practitioners. Look for people to work with who are good at their craft.
Symonds: With the benefit of hindsight, would you have changed anything about your b-school experience?
Chorengel: I think the one thing I would have done more of is to spend more time with faculty. I happened to attend HBS when an extra course load was added to the schedule, so we were extremely busy, worked extremely hard and had very little extra time. But if I had it to do over, I would have spent more time with professors – perhaps I would have done an independent study in a field where a class wasn’t offered. I should have taken the initiative to craft something interesting. If I could change one thing that’s what it would be.
Symonds: What part of the MBA program did you find the most challenging?
Chorengel: Marketing, as far as classes are concerned. In terms of the experience – especially because of the extra course load – it was time management. I slept very little during my two years of business school because the course load was quite demanding. We had to prepare our cases the night before class, everyone wanted to do some form of club activity, and people in business school, at least at HBS, tend to be quite social and more extroverted, so we also wanted to spend time with each other and hang out and explore and do different things. Time management, wanting to do everything and having the sense that, ‘I only have two years here to get the most out of this,’ was challenging. And the way most of us dealt with it was just by not sleeping very much.
Symonds: What advice do you have for someone going to business school to get the most out of the experience?
Chorengel: I am a fan of individuals taking a little bit more time rather than less to work before going to business school. In my era, there were a lot of students who came out of undergrad, worked for two years, then went to business school. I think you get more out of the education the more experience you have, and you have a better sense of what classes might be interesting or how to branch out based on that… I’d walk in with an openness to experimenting with a few classes you might never have thought you would be interested in, especially if the professors are good. The same mantra applies, regardless of subject matter: if it’s a good professor you’ll probably take away a lot. Folks who were out of undergrad at least three-four-five years as opposed to two years seemed to get more out of the business school experience.
Symonds: I read that you hope to one day write a novel. Do you have a favored genre in mind?
Chorengel: I do. I would write what I’d call “fictionalized nonfiction.” I’m definitely a frustrated novelist. I tend to write best or be most inspired by actual experience, either my own, or people I know well, but I like to fictionalize the stories in some respect. I’ve written a little bit about my family – I have a colorful family, my father’s German and my mother is from the Philippines – and there are really interesting stories and vignettes from their lives or the lives of friends around us. That would be my genre, and I’d be really focused on whether my writing is of good quality.
Relating this back to the impact space, the impact world right now lives more in the world of stories than it does actual rigorous data, and we’re making progress collecting more data points. But the stories are what inspire. I think the data is very important, but we can’t go so far along the curve of being rigorous about data that we forget the stories altogether. Well-written and well-conveyed stories and good writing can really inspire action.
With the upcoming publication of the Harvard Business School MBA Application for the Class of ’21, I hope Maya’s story will inspire you to find the power of your own.