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Notable Alumni-Ronald Cohen, MBA '69

Chairman of Great Britain’s Social Investment Task Force, Bridges Community Ventures, and The Portland Trust. Cofounder and former chairman of the venture capital and private equity firm of Apax Partners L.P. MA in Politics, Philosophy, & Economics (PPE) from Oxford University.

What was your most memorable experience as a student at HBS?
My most memorable moment was a huge meeting that took place in the ice hockey hall when the university decided to go on strike. Opinions at HBS were that we should just stand by and not participate in the strike. I was one of a handful of people that made a speech stating that the HBS should stand up and be counted along with the rest of Harvard. The speakers were positioned very high up and the microphone went dead as I was giving my speech. Truly a surreal and extraordinary experience and unfortunately, HBS decided it wouldn’t participate.

What influenced you the most while at HBS?
I think it was my experience of being in the US at a time when Europe was down on its knees, both industrially and financially. This was particularly true of the UK at the time. The sense of vibrancy and entrepreneurship at HBS – a ferment dynamism and tolerance for risk – was hugely refreshing. It completely contrasted to Europe at the time.

Additionally, how do you think HBS has changed?
Well, we worked harder in those days! I think the “pressure cooker” aspect of things has moved to a lower equilibrium – I remember how we just work all the way through some Saturday nights. It was difficult at first, but you got through the drill.

While I wasn’t one of the hardest working students at HBS, I sense that students today have it easier – in my day, it really was a trial of endurance!

Apart from that, it’s great that HBS has become more international and has more women. The network is a lot stronger now than it was then. In Europe in my day, it was viewed as an out of reach institution. Now it is much more recognized, and really is a place for leaders.

I also welcome the heavier emphasis on social and personal responsibility – a lot of these issues then were considered to be outside the remit. It creates more rounded professionals. Certainly, when recruiting for Apax, HBS graduates were always the more rounded compared to those from other business schools, but that is even more so now, when there is more focus not just on management skills, but also on the social issues. There is more focus on “social entrepreneurship” as well as entrepreneurship, and that’s great.

Why did you attend HBS, and in what ways has it helped or influenced your career?
I remember speaking to my parents after I’d just finished being President of the Oxford Union, and not really knowing what I would do. My father suggested I apply to HBS, so I picked up the phone and started looking for scholarships. The Kennedy had gone, but I won a Henry Fellowship, and that sent me to HBS. In those days, you could go to HBS straight after university. Part of the reason for doing it was that I felt it would prepare me for careers in business or government, which I was hugely interested in during those days.

HBS seeks to develop leaders who make a difference in the world. What advice would you give students at HBS today?
I believe that you are better prepared for an entrepreneurial career than you think you are. The business school training for this is tremendous.

I would also advise people to be conscious of the whole area of ethics in business. In my days at Oxford, we did a lot of moral philosophy. At the business school, we did none. Now HBS’s emphasis on ethics and personal accountability is very strong – the LCA course is to be applauded.

Providing people with a moral compass is an important part of a proper business education today: just as the image of the entrepreneur has shifted from a swashbuckler to a more sophisticated individual with a range of skills and better assessment of risk. So I think attitudes to what make a successful business have evolved. As I have said in my book, principals have a cost: there is often a trade off between getting ahead in the short term, and doing the right thing. But, because business is a long-term game, in the long run, having principals and morals will leave you better off.

How do you define success?
Each person will pick a different criterion.Certainly, financial success is important, but it is by no means the only one. Success to me is really about the personal satisfaction. It’s about fulfillment: some social, some financial. At the end of the day, you need to look at the mirror and be proud of yourself.

April 22, 2008
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