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Culture at HBS: A Response to Jodi Kantor


The people for whom I have the most respect and admiration on this campus are not written about in The New York Times and are often not celebrated in graduation speeches.  What Ms. Kantor seemed to overlook in her recent piece about gender equality and culture at HBS is simple: the majority of people I know at HBS are thoughtful, caring, courageous, inclusive, and remarkably intelligent leaders.  The majority is passionate about gender equality.  The majority is dedicated to developing a new work/life paradigm for modern day business and families.

While they don’t make for dramatic or sensationalist stories, I wonder why we didn’t read about my classmate that volunteered hours each week as a Leadership & Values Representative to establish a safe and positive culture in section?  Why didn’t we hear about the female colleague who by being so down-to-earth, centered, and strong inspired me to be kinder and more giving with my own friends and family?  Why didn’t we hear about my finance section mate who volunteered over 5 hours each week coaching his peers on DCF valuation and multiples?  Why didn’t we hear about my colleague who has more wealth than I can imagine, yet never advertised it and offered support to me in my job search when there was no apparent quid pro quo?  Why we didn’t hear about my section mates who thanked one of our amazing female professors by writing and performing a song with the lyrics: “teach us how to be more like you!”?

What we often see, both within HBS classrooms and from afar, is a culture defined by the outliers.  When classmates, administration and the media focus on the individuals who have either committed severe offenses or have in some way remarkably beat the odds, these outliers in turn define our culture.  This is unsurprising – the business community is often characterized negatively as a result of notable but essentially isolated scandals such as Enron, the London Whale, or Bernie Madoff.   In no way would I recommend ignoring the negative parts of our culture.  I think we should continue to shine light on our weaknesses and vigorously hold individuals accountable for misdeeds.  However, it seems that in order to improve our culture, it’s important to dedicate at least as much as our energy, if not more, to celebrating the positive.  Although we cannot control what the media decides to sensationalize, we can spend more time acknowledging, encouraging, and embracing the amazing elements of our community.

In my view, the students, faculty, and staff who consistently go about their day with kindness, strength, conviction and respect, are the pulse of HBS.  And while this pulse is strong, I know we can do better.  With hard work and dedication, we can work together to make an already extremely special place an even stronger and more vibrant community.

Tactically, how can we do this?  If you haven’t been to a “My Take” presentation, I recommend attending the next talk. This is a forum in which some of HBS’ quiet, humble, and sincere voices are given a platform.  Where we can hear stories of courage and conviction.  Where we can listen to what people are passionate about and what motivates them to do great things in the world.  Where we can discuss what makes us unique.  Our section norms are another potential avenue.  Instead of just reading the “kill, f—, marry” anecdotes, we could also discuss profiles of individuals who have struck a healthy balance at HBS: those who have been able to socialize and party, while at the same time maintaining strong relationships with family and significant others; those who work tirelessly in high-paying jobs, while also giving back to their communities.  These stories may not be as dramatic as their conflict-filled counterparts, but they may go much further in providing the role models and reference points we all need during times of uncertainty and insecurity.

And, last but not least, most of what we can do falls on us as individuals.  When we see a classmate who is promoting a positive atmosphere, we can celebrate this by either talking about them positively with others, modeling their behavior, or telling them directly about their awesome contribution.

Almost all great teams have weaknesses.  Yet the teams that end up winning championships are those in which a balance is struck between addressing shortcomings head-on while leveraging and celebrating the strengths of every team member.  I am constantly inspired by “Team HBS”, and hope the leaders in our community (which includes all of us) continue to prove each day that Ms. Kantor’s characterization of HBS is, at most, an exaggerated relic of the past.

Eric Lonstein is a second-year student at Harvard Business School. For more information about this and other articles, email us at general@harbus.org.

Photo Credit: Emma Toshack, 2013. //emtoshack.com/


September 11, 2013
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