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Return on Investment: Harvard Business School to Wall Street

Vikram Gandhi, investment banker, CEO of VSG Capital Advisors and founder of Asha Impact, spoke to BrainGain magazine about Harvard Business School and what makes it the best in MBA education.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   30-06-2016

Vikram Gandhi

Vikram Gandhi, earned his MBA from Harvard Business School (HBS), where he was a Baker Scholar. A summer internship while he was doing his MBA at Harvard kindled his interest in Wall Street.

"I did my summer job at McKinsey between my years at B-school and they put me on a study for an investment bank which was my first real exposure to Wall Street and the rest is history as they say," said Gandhi.  

Ivy League schools have institutionalized the culture that makes finance jobs ubiquitous among graduates. Indeed, investment banks regularly send recruiters to HBS for job fairs,  information sessions, and interviews cementing the road between the Ivy League school and Wall Street.

Gandhi has had a successful career in investment banking spanning more than two decades on Wall Street and Hong Kong. He served as the global head of the financial institutions group at Credit Suisse and as the vice chairman of the Swiss bank's investment banking department in New York and Hong Kong. Prior to Credit Suisse, the industry veteran spent 16 years at U.S financial services giant Morgan Stanley in various roles from head of strategy to head of FIG. In the late 1990s, he was the president and country head of Morgan Stanley India.

Gandhi is now the founder and CEO of VSG Capital Advisors which focuses on bringing long-term institutional capital into India.

"I wanted to explore the opportunities around my personal interest in India, Asia and philanthropy,” said Gandhi, who started Asha Impact for business leaders to invest their expertise and capital in scalable social enterprises.

Gandhi is a founding member of Harvard's South Asia initiative. He studied in Bombay's Cathedral School and B.Com at the University of Mumbai.

A chartered accountant, Gandhi talked to about the case method for teaching MBAs and why HBS is one of the top prizes in the MBA admissions sweepstakes.

  1. After getting your B.Com degree from the University of Mumbai you studied at HBS. Did you always want to work on Wall Street?

    Definitely not! I did my B.Com from Mumbai and like many of my classmates, I had never heard of Wall Street, the finance industry or investment banking. But I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go to Harvard Business School. I graduated in 1989, and even at that time more than half the class ended up in the financial services sector, taking jobs in investment banking and consulting.

    I did my summer job at McKinsey between my years at business school and they put me on a study for an investment bank which was my first real exposure to Wall Street and the rest is history as they say.

  2. What is the enduring value of an MBA from Harvard?

    I think there are two or three big things. The HBS Case Study Method in my view is a great method of educating MBA students. Students do 85 percent of the talking in the classroom and it's the best way to learn the fundamentals of management. It's very different from anything that you have in India as professors don't lecture, but steer the classroom conversation by making observations and asking questions.

    Students read and reflect on a case, and then meet in learning teams before class to “warm up” and discuss their findings with other classmates. In class — under the questioning and guidance of the professor — students probe underlying issues, compare alternatives, and finally, suggest courses of action in light of the organization’s objectives.

    The HBS Case Method teaches real-world lessons. It doesn’t make you an expert in anything, but it creates an opportunity for thinking through problems and then coming out with multiple solutions and making a judgment call. Sometimes you take the right call and sometimes you are wrong, just like real life. You do around 1,600 cases over two years and it’s really an exercise in common sense.

    Two, is the network that you build — being at HBS is absolutely fabulous and that kind of stays with you throughout. Even now I’m involved with the business school in different ways and my school friends just like I’ve been successful in certain areas have been successful too. You build a fabulous network and it’s a wonderful experience. If you have the opportunity, go to HBS (I know it’s very expensive), but it is two years well spent in the context of an eighty year life span.

  3. You earned the top academic honor at HBS as the Baker Scholar which is the highest distinction given to the top 5% of the graduating MBA class. As a Baker Scholar did you get an easy passage to Wall Street?

    Not really. The Baker Scholar like you said is the top 5% of the graduating class. Ultimately in any job interview, whether it be Wall Street, consulting or industry, at that level once you finish your MBA, the academic achievement while important, kind of helps you on the margins. It's actually a lot less important in terms of what an employer is looking for: they’re looking for leadership, marketing or inter-personal skills. They are asking what is the long-term potential of this individual as a hire? Being a Baker Scholar will get you on the short list, but will not necessarily get you the job.
  4. In your class was there a disproportionate focus on Wall Street careers?

    A large number of HBS graduates ended up on Wall Street and in the financial services sector, taking jobs in investment banking and consulting. Quite a few graduates also went to Silicon Valley. Those were the big three, they still are nothing has really changed. It changes on the margins in terms of percentages but that’s where the bulk still goes.

    A few HBS graduates went to Microsoft which was one of Silicon Valley’s biggest titans at the time. If you went into Microsoft in 1989 and caught the wave in 1990 it was like being employed by Facebook and catching a whole bunch of stock options in 2012, the year the company went public.

    Occupy Wall Street protests at Ivy League universities like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have called attention to the disproportionate focus on Wall Street careers at Ivy League universities. It's had an impact on the margins.

  5. What was your HBS class profile and has it changed?

    The class profile at HBS has changed dramatically over the years. When I went to Harvard there were four Indians. I was the only guy from Mumbai. There were three other Indians, but they were of Indian descent. Now there are over a hundred Indians in a class of 1,600 between the two years.

    Currently, HBS has a truly diverse student body in background, nationality, interests and ambitions. The dynamics of the school has changed. The class composition has completely changed and there is a much higher female population (42% of the MBA class of 2017 are women). There is also a high proportion of international students.

  6. As a founding member of Harvard University's South Asia Initiative can you talk about its goal?

    Since individual schools at Harvard already have their own efforts in South Asia, the goal of Harvard's South Asia Initiative is to facilitate inter-faculty projects. There is significant room for interdisciplinary efforts, especially in contemporary affairs regarding health issues or social entrepreneurship.

    The South Asia Initiative has significantly raised the profile of studies on India and South Asia at Harvard. In its first 4 years it sent nearly 300 faculty members and students to India and South Asia, conducted high profile seminars, conferences and other research activities. In 2007, Harvard authorized the raising of endowed funds of $20 million for a South Asia Institute.

Uttara Choudhury is Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost news site and a writer for Forbes India. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism at the University of Westminster, in London.



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