Busting the HBS Bubble Through Service

As I was purchasing my airline ticket for
a weekend trip to Vegas, I actually began to consider whether blackjack, although it has a negative expected return, could actually increase my personal Sharp ratio since it has a beta of zero. That’s when I realized this transformational experience has gone too far – I needed to get out of the bubble. Of course, there are more pure ways than hitting the strip to break free from the HBS mindset…

At the recent Harvard Day of Service, a few of my sectionmates (Munyar Chaunzwa, Jon Grzyb, Alyssa Fernandez-Isla and Tim Ryan) joined with a group of students from HLS to volunteer their time with Project No One Leaves, which works with the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau to help owners and tenants of foreclosed properties exercise their rights. They went door to door in struggling neighborhoods, informing each group of their inhabitancy rights and connecting them with pro-bono legal service. Tenants were told to stop paying rent to the former owners and that they could inhabit the property until the banks went through formal legal proceedings (as the banks would often offer a nominal payment to tenants in return for leaving the property). Owners were told that they could negotiate down the principal and monthly payments by working with Legal Aid.

What initially struck the MBAs was the law students’ lack of awareness with regard to the possible economic impact of their actions. For one, such retaliations against banks could deter them from lending to lower-income communities at reasonable interest rates in the future, especially because No One Leaves did not discriminate between predatory lending and irresponsible borrowing. Also, the organization only helped those who had actually stopped payments and been foreclosed upon, while those families who sacrificed to meet payments were left to fend for themselves. This, of course, only encourages those families to stop paying as well. Munyar, Jon, Alyssa and Tim were able to share their perspectives with the law students, discussing with them the long-term consequences of their work and helping them to understand how they could negotiate the banks’ mortgage terms with economic arguments in addition to legal ones.

The learning, of course, went both ways. Standing at the doorway of a small apartment to face a single mother, with her children standing nervously behind her, to explain that the property had been foreclosed upon and that she would soon have to leave, my sectionmates learned an important lesson: that at the end of every transaction is a human being. Often in LEAD or TOM we say we would fire this person or shut down that operation, which is quite easy to do in class. But as we go out into the world and actually face these situations, it will be real people we are firing and real communities we will be affecting. Though this sounds obvious, I suppose the real point is that we as managers, financiers and consultants should expose ourselves to the front lines of our business, as knowledge is no substitute for experience when it comes to maintaining awareness of the full impact of our actions.

Getting involved in service is just one way to continue to broaden our perspectives and avoid the trappings of the HBS bubble. We, as MBAs, have much to learn outside of Aldrich, and it is only to our detriment that we pass up these kinds of opportunities. If you want to get involved in Project No One Leaves, please contact Danielle Tenner (

As parting advice, I’d stay clear of Vegas. The only thing I learned was not to bring my ATM card to the blackjack table.

November 16, 2009
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