Business Schools

Ebele Okobi-Harris A Global View in Paris


I cannot BELIEVE that I'm going back to school!

I remember stumbling out of the bowels of the Jacob Javits Convention Center after taking the New York State Bar Examination. I was trembling, shattered a mere shadow of my former self. I stumbled home and immediately exorcised my apartment by removing the stacks of Barbri manuals and lugging them to a recycling bin blocks away. I wanted to burn them, but it was a really hot and sticky New York summer, and I figured that a raging bonfire might attract the wrong kind of attention. Was I that confident that I had passed to throw away $1,600 worth of test preparation? Um, no. The only thing I DID know was that no matter what happened when the results were posted in November, I wasn't taking the bar EVER AGAIN. Law school was fine (often great!) but cramming thousands of rules and interpretations into my head for two months to take the bar was a singularly wretched experience.

In November, my work schedule was ridiculous enough that I was actually at my desk when the bar results were posted at midnight I passed!! No more tests, ever again, forever this was the promise I made to myself between rounds three and four (or was it five and six?) of celebratory cocktails.

As I studied for the GMAT almost eight years later (The product of two negative numbers is a positive number? Get OUT! Laugh if you must, but I'd really forgotten this.), I thought of this promise many times. So why am I going to business school?

Would you believe that I'm going to business school because I want to change the world? I will pause to allow the snickers and eye-rolling to subside...

Throughout my career, I've been motivated by the need for my work to have impact, to mean more than a paycheck. So after USC (Fight on!), I went to Columbia Law School and took a lot of public-interest courses, including a clinic that helped prisoners stay connected with their families. I went to Davis Polk & Wardwell and worked in New York and Europe as an M&A and corporate securities associate, but billed many hours on pro-bono work for political asylum applicants and battered women.

In my third year, I quit so I could travel and volunteer for women's rights organizations in New York and Senegal. Toward the end of that year, 9/11 intervened, and, like many New Yorkers, my priorities became clearer as a result of that loss. I've worked for non-profit organizations since then, most recently for Catalyst, a research and consulting firm that focuses on advancing women in business. At Catalyst, I became increasingly interested in the power that business has to effect social change. I'd give speeches about how senior leadership commitment to gender diversity could create a better company for everyone, and I'd think about all of the other social issues that senior leaders with a social conscience could solve.

I began working for Catalyst in Northern California. In August 2004, however, my husband and I moved to Europe (Amsterdam!), and as a result of a proposal I wrote, I became the first Catalyst employee in Europe. I loved the increased entrepreneurial, operational, and strategic responsibilities in addition to my work as a consultant. I also found that in Europe the concept of corporate social responsibility is more widely accepted than in the U.S. Many companies openly deplore a business model focused exclusively upon quarterly earnings and the relentless maximization of shareholder value. I found this fascinating, and I was really impressed by those companies where corporate social responsibility was aligned with the business.

Ultimately, I decided to pursue an MBA so that I could move into strategic and operational roles in a company that is committed to doing well while doing "good." I want the tools to go beyond philanthropy to understanding how to create and sustain organizations which make social responsibility and sustainability absolutely integral to company strategy. It's a fascinating challenge, and one business will soon be unable to ignore.

HEC-Paris is the only school to which I applied! I want a global role, and global leaders must be diplomats as well as savvy businesspeople. As such, cross-cultural experience is critical. HEC's prestigious grande école tradition, the bilingual option, its truly international student body, and its thousands of alumni in diverse careers all made for a perfect fit. I liked the fact that the students were older. I'm beginning the program at the advanced age of 31, so I wanted to learn with and from classmates who had more experience and maturity. I also look forward to someday having a role in West Africa. My parents are Nigerian, and I've always felt that as a daughter of the continent, I have a responsibility to make a difference there. Since the languages of business in much of Africa are English and French, I want the benefit of a French business education with a global outlook.

I should also add that I love France! After I took the Bar, I spent four weeks in France, three of them on a bike. As I had not ridden a bike since fifth grade, it's probably best to draw a protective veil over my first few days on the trip. I spent most of the beginning of the trip either falling or getting up from a fall. By the end, I'd improved dramatically I'd learned to fall much more gracefully and AWAY from traffic. The trip also solidified an enduring love for France, and I'm thrilled to be returning!

Since I decided to get my MBA, I've had many experiences that have helped to remind me of why it makes sense for me. In May, I ran with senior women from Nike's Europe, Middle East, and Africa region in a 10K race in Casablanca called "Courir pour le Plaisir." Nawal El Moutawakel, the very first African, Muslim, and female Olympic medalist, founded the race seven years ago to empower women in Morocco through sport and education. The race has grown to 20,000 women! It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. There were women in veils, women in their 70s and 80s, girls, people running barefoot. It was an unstoppable wave of women, and for that day, they owned the streets. We also visited L'Heure Joyeuse, a nonprofit in Casablanca that cares for babies, children, and homeless teens. The women who run it are Moroccan community and business leaders who volunteer their time and expertise. It was amazing to sit in a room with these women, and with Nike's senior women, and to hear them using their business acumen to create social change.

As I sat in that room, and as I ran in the race, with my impromptu personal escort of five little girls, I thought, "This is exactly what I want to be when I grow up! A force for change!"

So, that's my story. During the application process, I learned a couple of things, which might be useful to you, my dear reader.

Advice is always interesting, but sometimes it's more about the adviser than about you. I heard a lot about where to apply and what to say when I applied, but ultimately it wasn't useful if the person giving the advice had different goals or values than mine. I only applied to one school, which is madness (madness!), according to most. But HEC-Paris was the only place I wanted to go, so for me that made sense. Since I want to work globally AND in the U.S., some people wondered why I would choose a school in France, global reputation or not. Again, that's the choice that made the most sense for me. I say take it all in, then decide what fits your life, your goals.

Message boards can be really helpful! If, however, you are NOT going to business school to learn how to make a gajillion dollars while crushing the souls of subordinates and stabbing colleagues in the back, then spend as little time as possible on any message boards with posts such as "780 GMAT, how to create plausible community-service history for adcom?" or "Is cheating wrong if it gives you a competitive advantage?" You may lose all hope for the future of humanity, and run screaming in terror from the entire enterprise.

"Padding" your resume is a lot like wearing those bizarre silicone "breast enhancers" advertised during afternoon talk shows. Not only does it call your judgment into serious question, you must ask yourself, "If I really feel I must do something this odd/humiliating/insane, then is this really right for me?" The application process helped me to become even clearer about my motivation, by forcing me to articulate it ad infinitum. This is a difficult discovery to make if you are lying. Ahem, padding.

Bon Courage! And your mother is right just be yourself!


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