The Harbus interviews SA Ventures CEO, Alvin Mok

1. Is it true that you get paid for being the CEO of SA Ventures?
No, absolutely not. CEO of SA Ventures is a volunteer position just like the other executive committee positions-SA Co-presidents and CFO. I typically work 10 hours/week as both SA Ventures CEO and SA COO. There are definitely no problems with executive compensation ($0), per hour or otherwise!

2. How come all the SA Ventures staff is so good looking?
I would like to emphasize SA Ventures is an equal opportunity employer. However, given most of our applicants are HBS Partners and they are all so good looking, good looking staff is an inevitable result.

3. What does SA Ventures do?
SA Ventures was formed by the Harvard Business School Student Association in 1997 as a non-profit organization to manage the various concessions on campus. By consolidating these concessions and combining the purchasing power of our community across the different lines of business, SA Ventures is able to achieve significant cost savings which we pass on to our customers. Funds raised by HBS Ventures are used by the Student Association to fund campus-wide student initiatives.

4. How do all the disparate arms of your business fit together?
SA Ventures’ products can be segmented into three categories-customized products that enhance student’s HBS experience, products created for student’s convenience, and products designed to generate a profit for the Student Association. Custom products include section fleeces, business cards, Baker plaques, yearbook, and section panoramic; examples of convenience products are binders, airport shuttles, and conference goods for clubs. Finally, the products that generate the majority of our profits are targeted at non-HBS students, such as recruiter distribution in Aldrich mailboxes and advertising in Survival Guide.

5. Have you learned anything in class that applied directly at SA Ventures?
Absolutely! I never thought I would use FRC’s Activity Based Costing (ABC) in my life, but it turned out to be one of the most useful tools in the office. By applying this tool, we are able to much better understand our costs, which helped us immensely as we scaled up our business this year. LCA has taught me to think beyond a narrow set of financial metrics when evaluating business decisions. This has led us to substantially shift the focus to providing service to students and derive profits from external sources. I am proud to report that 55% of our profits are now from non-HBS students. Finally, LEAD’s Erik Peterson is also constantly on my mind, as what not to do…

6. In your RC year in NJ you were a big proponent of outsourcing to Asia to cut costs. How’s that working out at SA Ventures?
In the interest of reducing costs, we have aggressively renegotiated existing contracts and went into multi-source arrangements for various product lines. These initiatives have resulted in a significant decrease in cost of goods, which allowed us to invest in other areas to benefit students. We haven’t outsourced anything to Asia given that we need a rapid turnaround in our supply chain and we aren’t at the Li & Fung scale yet!

7. Why do section photos cost $80? Do you make a profit? Where does it go?
Yes, we do make a profit on the photos. However, the margins are lower than most students imagine. For the $80 Section Plaque you mentioned, it includes the photo, an HBS shield medallion, nameplate, double matting and a frame. First, to ensure the highest quality photo that can be cherished for years to come, we use a professional photographer and pay a license fee per photo. Secondly, we encourage students to check out framing prices at nearby framing studios so they can realize the significant cost savings SA Ventures is able to provide (due to SA Ventures’ bulk ordering and vendor relationship).

8. What’s changed this year under your leadership?
I recently asked the SA Ventures staff this question and they expressed that SA Ventures has seen a significant increase in financial organization, in addition to more structured processes and a more creative work environment.

9. Who else does SA Ventures service besides students?
We serve admitted HBS students (Survival Guide), HBS faculty and administration (Apparel and Specialty Goods), recruiters and local advertisers (Survival Guide, Aldrich mailboxes), Executive Education (Apparel), Harvard Medical School and Kennedy School of Government (Apparel, Stationery) and HBS Alumni (Apparel and Specialty Goods).

10. What new project(s) did SA Ventures take on this year?
One major addition this year was the Second-Year Career Night Guide that was offered complimentary to assist all second-year students with fall recruiting. Also, SA Ventures is now regularly providing stationery for dual degree students, creating double-sided business cards in multiple languages, offering embroidered fleeces to Harvard Medical School and Kennedy School of Government students and assembling conference good materials.