Monday, September 6, 2010

capstone [monday] - mentoring incoming mbas

This year, the Saïd Business School is introducing a "mentoring" scheme to incoming MBAs. I registered my interest, and indicated that I was willing to help up to five MBAs. I thought that other (prospective) students might also find this advice useful, so I've posted it below:

Welcome to Oxford! Congratulations on getting accepted into the MBA program. I'm your MBA mentor. I just arrived in Oxford this morning, as our concluding 'Capstone' course began today, and ends with graduation on Saturday.

This past year was one of the best experiences of my life! As a member of Exeter College, I was 32 y/o when I started the program. It was actually my second time here, as I studied abroad at Oxford during my junior year at SUNY Stony Brook. I'm also engaged to be married this October, but my fiancée stayed in New York to work while I completed my MBA. I would say that half of the MBAs bring their spouses, and the other half do not.

Before coming to Oxford I worked as a FINRA Registered Principal (Series 7, 24) at Citigroup Smith Barney, where as a financial advisor, I constructed investment portfolios for retail clients. I had also owned my own coffee shop in New Jersey, and spent several years during college managing my brother's chain of cafes in the Hamptons.

I also serve on the Board for the Microfinance Club of New York, and teach financial literacy to high school students. We have a very diverse MBA class, but I think that in general, you will find that all the MBAs accepted have the following characteristics: entrepreneurial background (or ambitions), leadership, and volunteer work.

Homework assignment:

Yes, in addition to Tomo Suzuki's Financial Accounting assignment, I'm giving you some additional homework. Many incoming MBAs have already found my blog on the web: I've also linked to Andrew Bergbaum's blog (06'-'07), which I think is terrific. For either blog, I suggest starting your reading in August, and work your way forward, so that you'll get the most applicable information to your current situation first. For example, you'll learn about getting a bank-account and cell phone in my 'pre-MBA' and 'Michaelmas' term blog entries, whereas issues such as electives and the Strategic Consulting Project, only become relevant during later terms.

In conclusion, welcome to Oxford. Enjoy your time here, because it will go fast. This email was 'heavy' on biography, because this way you'll know how I fit into your life, and how I might be of better help to you. I encourage you to email me questions at:

I'll leave you with some good parting advice that I received when I started my MBA:

(1) Essentially, you'll never need to leave SBS. You'll probably live nearby, plus SBS serves three meals daily, and they have a library, and showers! Knowing this, trust me...make an effort EARLY ON to get involved with your College by: playing sports, attending bops, and dining "in-hall."

(2) What's the purpose of an MBA? Yes, it's true that you're here to learn new skills, to learn how to work under pressure, etc. I think that more importantly, however, is that you're here to network with a group of bright and ambitious classmates. At the Turf tavern, there's a sign that commemorates how an Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke (and former Oxford student), drank 2 1/2 pints of beer in 11 seconds. Go out and have fun; you never know what position you and your classmates may one day rise to.

PS: On that note, out of 238 MBAs in 2009-10, I hold the record for having invited 120 MBAs to dinner at Exeter College at a cost of £5 per person. One of my friends was close behind me with 80 invitations. Dining 2nd Hall in College is the least expensive and most sumptuous 3-course meal served in the most idyllic setting. If dinner is too expensive, then invite your friends on the weekend to brunch in College for about £2 each. Mmmm...delicious full English breakfast. Take advantage of this subsidy, and make some new friends, too.

(3) Business school is a good lesson for life. No one will just give you what your heart desires, rather you have to go out and get what you want. Career Services will not offer you a job. No one will make sure that you squeeze every experience out of Oxford as possible. This is all up to you. So, come to Oxford with a plan.

(4) You can only do two out of three things well: grades, social life, sports. No one has accomplished all three. For example, the students who made Dean's List were also voted as having spent the most time in the library. There is indeed a correlation. But if you're spending all the time in the library, then you're also not waking up at 5am to go rowing. And if you're rowing that early, then you're probably not partying until 1am at Fuzzy Ducks in Cowley either. You can begin to see the tradeoffs, right? Make your choice, and be comfortable with it.

(5) Let's face it, many people choose Oxford because of the great "sweatshirt equity" (name brand). Few schools, in fact, are more famous and well known than the elite top four universities in the world (in chronological order): Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale. Congratulations for having been accepted to at least one of these schools. It is now your responsibility to represent Oxford well. Start a blog, run for student politics/OBN/SIG, and dress/speak professionally when recruiters come visiting. PS: I'm involved with the New York OBA chapter, and I'll be helping running the table at the September NYC MBA World Tour. Do the same in your country.

(6) Yes, £36,000 for tuition and college fees is a lot of money. There are two ways of looking at this. Some take the short-term perspective: they attend 17 classes a year that meet 3 hours per week for 8 weeks, which means that 408 hours are spent in class. When divided by total tuition, you are paying approximately £88 per an hour of instruction. So, why would anyone miss a class!? On the other hand, someone with a long-time horizon might say: they plan to live until age 90, and are currently 30 y/o, therefore they have 60 years to go. When multiplied by 365 days a year you discover that you have 21,900 left to live; pretty morbid. This calculation means that you pay about £1.64 per day for the rest of your day for the right to call yourself an Oxford graduate whether you attend class, or skip class to attend Wimbledon, or the Royal Ascot horse race. That's less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks each day; just think of the silly things we spend money on. Regardless of your approach and time-horizon, make the most of your time here.

Friday, July 2, 2010

trinity [week 10]: wimbledon

Every academic term at Oxford culminates with final exams during Week 10. During Michaelmas we sat for 6 exams over the course of just four days. Hilary lightened up, only in the sense that some courses required final papers rather than exams. But Trinity, as heavy as the work load was, consisted of very few final exams, depending on which electives you chose. Having only one final exam to take, Financial Risk Management, I was free to write my papers during Weeks 9 & 10, and also enjoy the rare bright sunshine in England!

One of the best ways to enjoy British life is to go to Wimbledon, which this year lasted from June 21st to July 4th. Tickets can potentially get very expensive. I remember reading advertisements in the Financial Times newspaper back in May that offered Centre Court tickets for the whole tournament for several thousand pounds. Individual tickets seemed to cost at least £300. The goods news is that Wimbledon sets aside over 1,000 tickets for each day of the tournament. All you need to do is to wait in line. Queueing for Wimbledon tickets for the same day has become a sort of sport in its own right. People camp over the night before, and cook BBQ, so that they can be the first in line to get Centre Court, or Court 1 tickets (second best).

To give you an example, I went on Wednesday for the quarter-finals men's matches. The top four men were all playing: Federer, Nadal, Djokavic, and Murray. We took the earliest possible Oxford Tube bus to London (Victoria Station), which left Gloucester Green at 4:10am. We arrived in London at about 5:30am, which was the exact time that the London Tube starts running. We took the green District Line toward Earl's Court, and got off at the Southfields stop, whose platform was made to look just like a tennis court! From there you can walk about a half-mile to the field where you queue, or just take a taxi for about £11.

We were on line at 6am, despite that the grounds don't open until 10:30am, and the first match wasn't played until 12pm. Nonetheless, we were #1,500 in the queue. You're only allowed to buy one ticket per person. We just barely managed to get tickets to Court 2, which means that all we got to watch were doubles matches. But the tickets were only £32, and we were just happy to be there. Plus, if you're a HSBC customer, you get free strawberries & cream! If you were interested in waiting in line to get Centre Court or Court 1 tickets, then my advice would be either to go earlier in the tournament when more matches are being played, or stay in a hotel in London the night before, and then take a 2am taxi to Wimbledon.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

trinity [week 9]: scp bonding

Every year, Oxford MBAs have three options during the summer to satisfy their academic requirements: Strategic Consulting Project (SCP), elective courses, or Master's thesis (10,000 words). Next year, SBS will start counting internships for credit for the first time, too. Traditionally, most students opt for the SCP. The b-school has staff solely dedicated for sourcing, and administering SCPs for you. They're very helpful, and approachable. This year there were approximately 60 SCPs to bid for, some with big names such as Citigroup or De Beers, and some with decent packages, such as a salary, or free travel and accommodation. MBAs compete as teams of four for these more desirable SCPs. You can, of course, just circumvent the entire process by "sourcing" a SCP all on your own, which is what I did.

Back in April, I organized a student-led Trek to New York and Boston. During one of the company visits, with SecondMarket, I could sense that they had a lot of projects that they wanted to follow-through on, but since they were still relatively new and short-staffed they just didn't have the man-power they needed. So, during the Q&A portion of the presentation, I asked our host if he was interested in having a small group of Oxford MBAs come back during the summer to help. And happily, he agreed. I remember Donald Trump once writing, "It never hurts to ask, because the worse that can happen is that they say no."

Since April, I've been in contact with the New York office to iron-out the details. I had to draft a proposal for SBS to receive approval for academic credit, and I had to find a team of four MBAs in total. This was all difficult, considering that during this time I was still running the Finance Club, and taking 6 elective course, such as Corporate Valuation, Entrepreneurial Finance, and Financial Risk Management. Now that all the administrative work is out of the way, though, I thought that it would be a great time for the team to bond. And what better way to bond, then to spend a sunny weekend afternoon in Trinity term punting on the Cherwill with Pimms? Good friends, and good times. We learned a lot about each other, and spent time discussing the fast-approaching SCP with SecondMarket. I'm very proud of our team, too. After I tell people who's on our team, they usually raise an eyebrow, and simply say "Wow. That's a good team." Both Platt and myself were nominated for the "John Nash: MBA who can crunch numbers like kit kat bars" award, so that's when you know you've got the cream of the crop, or at least a tasty candy bar.

trinity [week 8]: royal ascot

This was my last week of classes. Some people measure their investment in an Oxford MBA by the price per class, which in this case would be approximately £242 per class [ £31,000 tuition / (16 courses x 8 classes each) ]. It's interesting how so much comes down to valuations, and how equally good rational can be used to support any number of valuations.

For example, on the first day of orientation our MBA Director told us something like "Welcome to have 30,000 days left to live...better make them count." Based on this definition of time-horizon, I calculate the MBA to cost me about £1 per day for the rest of my life. I like my definition best, because it allowed me to skip my last MBA class EVER on Thursday without moral reservation, so that I could dress in my "morning suit" replete with English gentry grey top hat, and attend the Royal Ascot.

What makes it so Royal? Well, the Queen leaves her estate in Windsor, and makes the ride in a horse-drawn carriage to Ascot where she then parades around the race track. The British love their queen. On the way home from the Royal Ascot, someone was actually more concerned with the Queen than the horse race, they asked me, " did you see the Queen, how was she, did she look, well?"

If you come to Oxford, then you simply must attend the Royal Ascot. Women love it the most, because they can wear the most gaudy hats. This year the race was held from June 15 through June 19. We went on the Thursday, because that was when the Queen was coming. Tickets to the Grandstand cost £66, and I rented my morning suit at "Walter's on Turl Street" for just £55. The morning suit rental included the grey top hat, black jacket with tails, grey vest, and grey pants with black stripes. I supplied my own white dress shirt, black shoes, and tie. Beware that Moss' on the High Street tried charging me £89, so it's definitely worth shopping around, or at least go to Walter's - it's like stepping into the magic wand shop in Harry Potter.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

trinity [week 7]: mind-the-gap

I've attended 7 college dinners in the past 8 days. And this next week looks just as busy. It's natural, of course, that with our final term ending we all want to connect with classmates who we've lost touch with, and visit colleges that we haven't had time to yet see.

Conversation at dinner varies, but for the most part we reflect on our year at Oxford. The majority of the conversations are positive. Some are negative, such as the amount of student loan debt we must now pay back, and the poor (but improving) job market. I'm most interested when the conversation turns toward the future. How will the Oxford MBA be viewed in 5-years? What can alumni do to help? What is our class legacy that we leave behind to future incoming classes?

The one-year MBA makes these issues even more pertinent. We even have an elected "Mind-the-Gap" representative whose express purpose is to help transfer knowledge from one class to the next. In my capacity as Finance-OBN Chairman, and Vice President of Finance for the Student Advisory Board, I also try my best to help others. Mostly, I do this through my blog. But sometimes, when I find an equally motivated group of incoming students, or MBA applicants, my job is made that much easier.

For example, Mayank from the 2010-11 MBA class has done a wonderful job organizing a Facebook page for incoming students. Similarly impressive, I've been in close contact with Shamik who kindly organized a visit to Oxford for roughly 10 incoming MBAs last week. Members from our class met with next year's MBA cohort outside SBS where we then embarked for Exeter College for a full English breakfast. Later we headed toward the Oxford Retreat for drinks to share experiences, and answer questions.

Meeting the incoming MBA class made me feel very proud that Oxford continues to improve each year. I've even heard rumours that next year's average GMAT may be above 700 for the first time! The Oxford MBA clearly represents to me a huge growth story, and it's better to get in early, then wait until our acceptance rates dip below 15%. Look at all we've achieved so far:

  • FT ranking improved to #16 (tied with Yale, and 5 spots ahead of Cambridge (Judge)
  • BusinessWeek ranked us #10 for "Best International B-School," supplanting Cambridge
  • FT ranking for Executive Education improved to #15
  • MFE program is more competitive to get into than LBS with an average GMAT of 720+
  • Our undergraduate Economics and Management program continues to be ranked #1 in the UK
  • Most importantly, we've attracted another £25 million investment from Wafic Saïd, which along with a £20 million matching contribution from Oxford University will help complete our "Phase 2" building by 2013. This will provide another stream of MBAs and MFEs

I hope that MBAs reading this will find time in their busy schedules (as I did) to help future years of MBA students and applicants. In addition to meeting with new MBAs, participating in this year's MBA Class Pledge, and having an occasional Skype call to go over interview preparation, I'm also looking to:

  • Raffle off my bike: I bought a nice Trek bike from Halfords for £90 in the beginning of the year. Rather than sell it, I'm going to raffle it off to an incoming MBA studying at Exeter college (my alma mater). I've encouraged other current MBAs to do the same.
  • Order books in college: I've also approached my Exeter College librarian to order enough sets of business books for each of the incoming Exeter MBAs, so they don't have to compete for the limited number of copies at SBS. And if Exeter won't order all those books, then I'll offer to match them through a charitable donation, by having each of us buy 4-sets of books for the 8 MBAs that typically study each year at Exeter College.
  • OBA involvement: When I return to New York I will become actively involved in helping the New York OBA chapter, including creating a Finance-OBN website that will offer interview training, alumni contacts, and job application for NY finance jobs.

I share these things with you for one reason, and one reason only. I want to set an example, as others have done before me, that it is our moral obligation to help each other, and to help improve the young Oxford MBA brand. It's important to ingrain in the MBA culture a sense of giving; that we all have an equity stake in the future of SBS. I hope that as an incoming student, or an MBA applicant, you find ways to play forward to other classes whatever kindness you have received from previous classes.

Friday, June 4, 2010

trinity [week 6]: oxford & cambridge club

A few MBA friends have recently asked me how my trip to the Oxford and Cambridge Club (founded in 1821) in London earlier this week went. They were curious to learn what the club had to offer, how much it cost, why join if you weren't working in London, and in general what my motivation was to join. What better way to answer those questions, then by blogging about it?

I first heard about the Club from an Oxford EMBA alumnus (and now a friend), whom I originally met at an Oxford "Open House" event in New York back in February 2008. One day he invited me to the Harvard Club to go over my MBA application. I was surprised to learn that as a member of the Oxford and Cambridge Club, he was also entitled to visit the Harvard Club (founded in 1887). Then, before coming to Oxford, I read an MBA blog that mentioned an annual Club presentation in Oxford. At this point I was fairly convinced that I would join once the invitation came. But I almost missed the opportunity.

There was a 6-day lag between the time my college received the email from the Oxford and Cambridge Club, and the time it was forwarded on to the Exeter students (important to note that the invite comes from your college and not the business school). Even though I tried to RSVP the same day, the reception at Rhodes House on May 21st was already over-subscribed. Thankfully, the Club also hosted an event in London on June 2nd, which I attended. You must attend at least one of these events to find current Club members who will sign your application as your "proposer" and "seconder".

The Oxford and Cambridge Club has well over 100 reciprocal agreements with Clubs from over 35 countries (visit their "reciprocal clubs" page). When I return to New York this summer, I plan to visit not only the Harvard Club, but also the Yale (includes University of Virginia, Dartmouth), Princeton (includes Columbia, NYU, and Williams), Penn (includes University of Chicago), and Cornell (includes Brown, Stanford) Clubs. As a precautionary measure, I emailed each and every one of these Clubs mentioned, and they confirmed the reciprocal arrangement. In general, they will allow up to 30 visits each year. I don't believe this will be an issue, though, because with five clubs in New York, I certainly won't be visiting any one club more often than twice a month.

To join the Oxford and Cambridge Club you must pay an annual fee, which is based on your age and geographical proximity to the Club. The cheapest rates tend to be for overseas. For example, I would have to pay £460 every year. Now this is definitely more expensive than the £198 "Life Membership" fee to join the Oxford Union, but I think that if you can afford it, then it's definitely worth it. One way to look at is as an investment. All of the most exclusive "gentlemen's clubs" are located next to the Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall - within earshot of Westminster and Trafalgar Square - yet unlike the other clubs, no amount of money will buy you entry into Oxbridge, which let's face it, makes it even more exclusive than the others.

So, what can you do as a member? I think that the main benefits of joining the Oxford and Cambridge Club are the chance to dine there (breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served 7 days a week), the squash courts, the library and reading rooms where you can recline in an old burgundy red leather armchair with a nice glass of scotch, and the overnight accommodations, which can cost as little as £100 per/night for a single bedroom. To compare, I've paid that much to stay at a budge Premier Inn in the London hinterland (Tube Zone 4).

It's still hard for me to understand why only 10 out of 238 MBAs (4%) decided to attend either of the two receptions. To use my old stockbroker lingo, I would say that MBAs tend to "underweight" the networking potential of joining an elite gentlemen's club, and "overweight" the price tag. I think, however, that just like Long Term Capital Management in 1998, that they might be on the wrong side of the trade. Of course, it's also necessary to address the persistent image of a stuffy old club of pretentious Oxbridge grads. To dispel this rumour, it's interesting to note that nearly 20% of the Clubs 4,000 members are under 40 y/o, and an increasing number of women are also joining. I think that the Club is undergoing a positive transition to more accurately reflect the greater diversity found in Oxbridge today. Hopefully when you come to Oxford you'll choose to be part of that change, too.

trinity [week 5]: running of the bulls

A lot of readers want to know what it's like being an Oxford MBA. What is it really like to condense two-years of coursework into just one-year? The trick, of course, is to not only complete your work and pass the course, but also to make the most of your short time here by making new friends, breathing in all Oxford has to offers, and taking the occasional trip to London (and elsewhere).

It's a fine balancing act. What this invariably leads to for all MBAs, at one time or another anyway, is the ritualistic mad dash to hand in their assignment at the Examination Halls by 11:59AM and 59 seconds. Only in Pamplona, Spain with the "running of the bulls" will you witness a comparable event, and that only takes place in July! Any assignments handed in after noon will be summarily marked down 10% - and don't even bother being a half-hour late, because that will net you a zero.

No flexibility whatsoever. This is not a Saïd Business School rule, but rather University regulations whereby any challenges must ultimately be heard and approved by the Proctors who have no sympathy for you whatsoever. This whole process has led me to the following questions: Do we MBAs have, in fact, too much work, why is this so, and is this the best of all possible worlds?

First, some perspective: You arrive fresh to Oxford in late September, settle in, and start classes a few weeks later, often for the first time in many years. The workload is intense, but over time you learn how to leverage your work groups. The term flies by and next thing you know you have to sit for six exams over four-days wearing sub-fusc. Finally, you return home to celebrate the Christmas holiday, fully aware that you must relish this brief respite, because you know that they don't call the upcoming Hilary term - "Hell-ary" - for nothing.

Hilary term is just as bad as everyone says it is. Although you only have five classes, you now have to spend more time sorting out the different personalities in a myriad of new work groups that you've formed, and on top of that you have this Entrepreneurial presentation and report that you'll work on throughout the Easter break. But it's all worth it, because you may have heard rumours that the weather during Trinity term is beautiful, and since you get to choose all electives, this will finally be the term where you can relax and enjoy yourself. Wrong! Trinity term is back-loaded, so this may seem true initially, but in actuality you'll have about twenty assignments due (1,500-3,000 words each) compared to only eleven in Hilary term. So, what does a typical week actually look like for an Oxford MBA?...well let's take a look:

Sunday, May 23rd
Prepare for Real Estate and Corporate Valuation class tomorrow
Host friends at Exeter College for dinner and a tour

Monday, May 24th:
Class all day from 8:45am until 4:45pm
Pull all-nighter working on Real Estate assignment

Tuesday, May 25th
Class from 8:45am until 12:15pm
Finish Real Estate, and pull all-nighter working on Corporate Valuation assignment

Wednesday, May 26th:
Class all day from 8:45am until 4:45pm
During lunch attend a student government meeting (SAB) on the 2010 MBA class pledge
Help an MSc student with his research by volunteering to participate
*Real Estate assignment due by 8:30am
*Corporate Valuation assignment due by 12:00pm

Thursday, May 27th:
Class from 8:45am until 12:15pm
Pull all-nighter finishing two assignments due tomorrow

Friday, May 28th:
Meet with sector consultant Steven Todd to review my SCP strategy for the summer
*Managing the Project Portfolio assignment due by 5pm
*Marketing Innovation assignment due by 5pm

Saturday, May 29th:
Mid-term "Garden Tea Party" at the Perch Inn in Binary
Dinner and tour of Mansfield College courtesy of CK

Sunday, May 30th:
Dinner and tour of St. John's College courtesy of Nick
Pull all-nighter working on Entrepreneurial Finance
*Entrepreneurial Finance assignment due by 12:00pm tomorrow

With the help of my iPhone, I think that I do a fairly good job of organizing my life, and squeezing every last drop of productivity out of it. Nonetheless, this up-tempo life-style has both a good and bad side. First, learning how to operate for prolonged periods of time in a heightened nervous state with an endless onslaught of tight deadlines is good training for the business world. We can honestly take anything that our future employer may throw at us.

The downside to this, besides possible burnout and fatigue, is that it leaves little time to prepare for class, and read the case studies. This results uniformly in poor attendance. Part of the reason is that attendance and class participation aren't graded in Oxford, and I'm not sure that they could be even if the Saïd Business School wanted them to be.

In contrast, when I attended class at HBS during the finance Trek to New York and Boston, 50% of their grade was based on class participation, and every seat was filled, and everyone had (apparently) done the reading beforehand. But I'll bet you that they didn't have twenty other assignments due that term that existed outside the class' normal reading list. It will be up to the next administration to choose which assessment regime they want within the constraints set by the University. As for me, I'm well on way to finishing this race.