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'The single most important thing for aspiring MBAs is to be ready to learn'

Only around 6% of applicants get into the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Dean Jonathan Levin talks about what the school looks for in students, and what it offers them.
BY Uma Asher |   08-09-2017

Jonathan Levin is the Philip H. Knight Professor and Dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He has been a faculty member at Stanford University since 2000, and served as chair of its economics department from 2011 to 2014. He is known for his scholarship in industrial organization. His research has spanned a range of topics, including auction and marketplace design, the economics of organizations, consumer finance, and econometric methods. His recent work has focused on internet platforms, the health care system, and ways to incorporate new datasets into economic research. Among many other honors, he received the John Bates Clark Medal (2011), one of the highest in economics. He earned a BS in Math and a BA in English from Stanford in 1994, an M.Phil in economics from the University of Oxford in 1996, and a PhD in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1999. He chatted with BrainGain Magazine during his recent visit to India. Edited excerpts are below.

Jonathan Levin, Dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Business
  1. You are an economist, with undergraduate majors in English and Math. Please tell us a bit about your academic and professional journey.

    I grew up in an academic family. My parents taught at Yale University, and my father was president of Yale for 20 years. So I grew up loving being around universities… I went to Stanford as an undergraduate, and that was when I got interested in being a researcher. I was a good student growing up, but not necessarily a really passionate student. At Stanford, I took a class in my first semester with a famous math professor. The first day, the class had 90 students. The professor came in, looked at the class, and didn’t say anything. He went to the board and started writing math theorems. I had no idea what he was doing! Second day, he comes in, same thing. There’s about 60 people. On the third day, there’s 30 of us. He looks at the class and says, “This seems like the right size for this class” and then he starts teaching us!

    I had never been in a class where I didn’t understand anything. Everyday I’d go home and try to figure it out. I realized I loved that feeling of not understanding something, working really hard, and figuring it out. That’s what research is about: you find a problem you think is really important in the world, you don’t understand it – hopefully no one does – and you try to figure it out. I eventually went to graduate school, studied Economics and became an academic at Stanford.
  2. Please tell us about your experience as an international student.

    I was an international student after I graduated from college. I went to Oxford where I started studying Economics. Studying abroad was transformative. First of all, I started studying economics, so it changed my professional trajectory… But it was also broadening in terms of meeting people, being exposed to a completely different set of ideas and culture…

    That’s what we get from having lots of international students at Stanford. About 40% of the MBA students are international students, and it’s an even higher percentage in our one-year MSx program… It brings this incredible richness and vibrancy of different backgrounds and perspectives… people form a global network of friends who carry you through your career.
  3. Stanford GSB has about 1000 students and an acceptance rate of around 6%. How does the school pick the best from thousands of applicants?

    Our goal is to get a set of diverse students... So we start by trying to raise awareness about the school – we do over 100 informational events globally… and try to make sure we’re getting people from around the world… even people who might not necessarily think they’re interested in business school because they come from a non-traditional background, but have great leadership potential. And then we’ve an incredibly difficult problem because we have more qualified students than we have room for. We’re a small school, and that’s part of the beauty of the experience – the small, intimate environment.

    We look for three things in admissions. We look for people with strong academic backgrounds, which you absolutely need, because it’s a rigorous program. The second has to do with work experiences where they’ve demonstrated leadership potential. And then we look for personal character – people who have integrity, who are going to be principled leaders, good members of society as well as great business leaders, and are going to try to do a lot of good for their communities.
  4. What role do scholarships play in admissions? Surely there are lots of good applicants whose only hurdle is that Stanford is expensive.

    Both Stanford University, and in particular the business school, focus on financial aid so that finances aren’t a barrier for people who want to come to the school, and they’re not a barrier for us to get the best class. We admit people regardless of their ability to pay, and then we try to figure out how to make it work for each person, whether that’s through fellowships or loans… In addition, we have a number of programs where we offer full fellowships. In India we have the Stanford Reliance Dhirubhai fellowship, which is a competitive process. We also have an Africa fellows program, and a USA fellowship program, one for military veterans. These are all programs with really generous financial aid.
  5. Stanford business graduates are top earners among fresh MBAs. What makes it so, and what distinguishes a great school besides high starting salaries for new grads?

    The first thing that distinguishes Stanford is the place. For anyone who walks into the campus… you have the feeling of possibility and opportunity. You’re there to make things happen, everyone around you is there to make things happen, and they will happen. Part of that is Silicon Valley – the center of entrepreneurship, technology, and innovation. And part of it is the people – incredibly talented students, world-class faculty from all over. And then, a lot of thought has gone into constructing the MBA and MSx programs, into thinking about how we can educate people to be really rigorous analytical thinkers… to be great leaders who can inspire people and be empathetic.

    As for the salaries, I think it’s a testament to the quality of the students and the educational program. A lot of companies would love to hire our students. There’s a second piece as well, which is that the job market has been very strong for our students in recent years. But the overall macroeconomic job market goes up and down, and our students always have great opportunities.
  6. Could you say a bit about how empathy and personal integrity make you a better business leader?

    When you think about what makes for a great business education, part of it is being able to be analytical and strategic in tackling business problems. But part of being a great business leader is about being able to manage your employees in a way that they look up to you, that you inspire them and provide a vision for the company, and that they feel good about the organization they’re working for. When we think about what types of leaders we want to produce at the school, we want people who are going to be successful in business, but we also want them to be leaders in society. People who can set an example as business leaders that we can look at and say, “Proud to have that person as an alum!” because they’ve contributed something great to the world as well building a great business. That takes being empathetic, being able to listen to people, having personal integrity, being principled. It’s all part of educating the whole person.

    Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business (photo by Nathan Hughes Hamilton)
    Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business (photo by Nathan Hughes Hamilton, used under CC license)
  7. How can aspiring students prepare themselves for graduate studies in business? What should they bring into a program?

    The single most important thing is to have a great mindset toward learning… to show up and be ready to learn, and to have that after they leave as well. To be successful in anything, you have to be a lifelong learner. You have to always be thinking, “What do I not know, and how will I learn that?” You want to be open to other people so you can learn from them. There’s other things, like doing well in school, being successful in your career, having references, all of those practical things. But having a great mindset towards learning is probably the most important thing you can do to get an education.
  8. The Indian education system tends to be segmented early on, so the traditions of exploring majors and interdisciplinary work are not there. That’s a constraint many students bring with them.

    That’s one of the very powerful things about the US higher education system: it’s set up in a way that doesn’t force people to specialize early. US universities are set up to facilitate people exploring broadly across different areas. At Stanford, 20% of the students who come to the business school get a second degree somewhere else at the university. At Stanford University, all of our schools are world-class. That’s a huge asset for us at the business school, and it’s great for our students.
  9. How do student entrepreneurs find support?

    There are two parts to it. One is that entrepreneurship is in the water when you get to Stanford and Silicon ValleyEven people who come in not being interested in entrepreneurship get interested in it. They may not become entrepreneurs, and that’s fine. Most of the students don’t become entrepreneurs. But they become aware of the possibility that if you see an opportunity, you can just do it. You don’t have to wait for someone else to do it.

    And then there’s part of our curriculum that’s focused on entrepreneurial skills – classes that are more traditional and classes that are experiential. For example, we have a class called Startup Garage, where students work in teams – often interdisciplinary teams with engineers and scientists – to develop ideas for companies. Some of them don’t turn into companies, and some do. Another class, which is similar in structure, is called Design for Extreme Affordability, with the Stanford design school and engineering school, where instead of the students coming up with their own projects, we give them a problem to solve. The problems tend to be difficult, mostly in the developing world or emerging economies, maybe in public health or agriculture. That class has produced many for-profit and non-profit companies.


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