Harvard Business School: Ain’t No Party Like an HBS Party

The economy’s in the toilet, but at Harvard Business School, the tycoons of tomorrow have different concerns. Like finding the perfect getup for the big cross-dressing bash, and fitting in a little learning amid the nonstop schmoozing and boozing.

harvard business school party

Photograph by Christopher Harting

The sound system at the Fort Point Channel warehouse is blasting power ballads on a Friday night in October, and the future titans of industry are wasted. This is understandable, because the future titans of industry are wearing pink feather boas, fishnets, and amateurishly stuffed bras. It’s the night of Harvard Business School’s Priscilla Ball, an annual rite that calls for the men to dress up like women, and the women to dress up like whores. There are some variations among the sea of cross-dressers: French maids and cheerleaders, uniformed schoolgirls and Hooters waitresses. But there are more constants: botched mascara applications, abbreviated swatches of skirt over hairy legs. And frantic attempts to slam as many Jack-and-Cokes as necessary to make the outfits bearable.

Throughout the night, the students—many of whom have never set foot inside a public school of any kind—behave in a manner that would no doubt win respect from their counterparts at some of this country’s harder-partying institutions of higher learning. Former Marines, men who not long ago might have led platoons into war, are clad in tiny orange shorts. They mingle with international students who first set foot in the United States three months ago but have quickly realized the need to acquire cheap Marilyn wigs and 5-inch heels for “networking” purposes. The ball passes in a blur of Journey scream-alongs, public vomiting, and at least one brush with the law, when police officers confront a student and his wife who, after losing their keys, attempt to break into their second-floor apartment back in Cambridge.

And so it goes on this, just another night out at Harvard Business School. (Mission: “We educate leaders who make a difference in the world.”)

 

Six months later, the same students are once again celebrating. This time, however, the Miller Lites have been replaced by nonalcoholic drinks, the pleather and feathers by lightweight merino. It’s 4 p.m. on April 8, 2008, exactly 100 years after Harvard Business School was founded, and the students, faculty, and staff are raising their glasses to a century of accomplishment. Like most HBS initiatives, the centennial celebration is sweeping in scope. “Anniversary party,” in fact, doesn’t cover it: Call it, instead, a grand fete of capitalism. Today’s reception—complete with a mammoth cake in the neoclassical likeness of the school’s Baker Library—is just the beginning of a yearlong extravaganza featuring alumni galas from New York to Tokyo and academic conversations about topics ranging from venture capital to healthcare. (The festivities will culminate next month in a summit concerning “seminal topics facing the global community,” with a speaker roster that reads like the Forbes 400 list and includes the finance minister of India.)

At a time when few business interests in this country have reason to revel, HBS has plenty. Those rumblings from a few years ago—when the colossal paychecks pocketed by 26-year-old hedge fund hotshots, sans advanced degrees, stirred talk that an M.B.A. was becoming irrelevant—have quieted. Last year about 91,000 students earned M.B.A.s from American business schools. For the record, that’s about 30,000 more than the number of medical and law school graduates combined, and demand is only growing: Registration for the GMAT, the business school entrance exam, is up 12 percent over last year. Despite the occasional poll indicating recruiters’ preference for b-school grads from places like the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon, HBS continues to reign supreme in this rarified universe, orbiting on a separate plane with no real direct competitors. (Well, except for Stanford. Maybe.)

The students the school draws are the brightest of the bright young things, many of them already clutching at least one Ivy diploma. They come from investment banks and management consultancies, from political campaigns and Teach for America classrooms, and especially from the military. (HBS loves ex-Marines.) And they come in ever increasing droves, seeking refuge from the rocky markets, flooding the admissions office with 8,600 applications for 900 slots in the class of 2010—a record total that reflects a 16 percent spike in applications over last year.

They also come because, despite the hefty price tag and the two years of forfeited salary, a Harvard M.B.A. is as close to a golden ticket as an ambitious twentysomething can find. The HBS alumni register includes the president of the United States, the secretary of the U.S. Treasury, and the CEOs of JPMorgan Chase, General Electric, and Procter & Gamble. Those alums, joined by scores of other grads who are nearly as powerful and just as rich, have helped drive the HBS endowment to almost $3 billion, making it the nation’s wealthiest business school.

Until the early 20th century, most leading thinkers found it laughable that the rough-and-tumble world of business might be worthy of academic pursuit on par with respectable fields of study like medicine or law or agriculture. Rooted in Progressive-era social goals, this new discipline of corporate management sought to establish a body of knowledge beyond merely the technical skills needed to make it as a businessman. It was a daring experiment. And a hundred years later, the philosophical underpinnings of this founding debate remain. HBS students and faculty still contemplate the soul of the place, and they still struggle to identify the responsibilities and goals of the business community in a changing world economy. They trot out timely, well-funded initiatives in response to various challenges of the day: With an eye toward the pressures of globalization, the school has unveiled executive education programs in China and India to train those countries’ fast-growing corporate ranks.

Yet while some HBS-ers (like Philip Delves Broughton, who chronicled his two years in the recent book Ahead of the Curve) ponder the school’s fundamental beliefs, a good many students would just as soon have another drink. Or a dozen. Because as overachievers to the very core, they’re going to enjoy their years at the school with the same single-minded zeal that landed them there in the first place.

Reared on Wall Street in that recently bygone age of gargantuan corporate profits, many current HBS enrollees cultivated a taste for good living, toasting each other over extravagant dinners when deals closed and making their way home from the office each night in chauffeured Town Cars. Despite that golden age’s swan dive into a post–Bear Stearns era of reckoning, the belt tightening taking place across corporate America hasn’t yet trickled down to HBS’s Allston campus. The only thing that has come down, in fact, is the average age of the students. Until a few years ago, top schools typically required an applicant to have more than four years of experience at a blue-chip company. Now, schools like HBS are encouraging applicants with far less experience. The face of the Harvard M.B.A. student, you could say, is changing. It’s a bit less furrowed, a bit more wide-eyed—with those eyes probably puffy and bloodshot to boot. While the Dow slumps, it’s a fine time for a two-year vacation.

 

The Harvard Business School year begins each September, when 900 very smart and very ambitious first-year students, most in their mid-to-late twenties, descend on the campus across the Charles River from Harvard Yard. They spend their time frantically attempting to learn 899 names, making it to corporate recruiting presentations, listening to speeches by visiting dignitaries and business gods (who are often alums), hosting a dinner party (with homemade crème brûlée) for six friends, stopping by Daedalus for Wednesday-night drinks with their classmates, hitting Rumor with the European students on Thursday, joining the Social Enterprise Club and the Venture Capital and Private Equity Club and the Marketing Club, brainstorming ideas for the annual Business Plan Contest, eating preternaturally perfect cherry tomatoes from a cafeteria that makes Whole Foods look like a shoddy convenience store, using the oak squash courts at the Shad Hall fitness center, and—oh, yeah—finding eight hours a day to actually study business.

Every day, there are so many pages to be read, so many concepts to be digested, so many groups to be joined, so many cocktails to be consumed—and to blow anything off might mean forfeiting a friendship with the next Mike Bloomberg or Meg Whitman. It’s called FOMO, the Fear Of Missing Out, and it’s long been a campus cliché. FOMO’s immediate effects—the manic activity, the constant analysis of every possible social invitation for maximal networking opportunities—reveal a kind of insecurity, wrapped though it is in shrouds of club-joining, binge-drinking bravado. According to students and recent grads, that insecurity is precisely what drives 28-year-old first-years to act like college freshmen.

Alex Godden, class of 2008, summed things up nicely in an article for the HBS student paper, Harbus, titled “50 Reasons HBS Is Better Than Real Life”: “You can relive college life, only with more money, less parental interference, and a better cafeteria.” Other students acknowledge the unequivocally undergradesque dynamic. “Everyone gets dropped into this ‘I have to make a good impression’ mentality when they first arrive on campus,” says Joey Castillo, a second-year student from the Philippines.

“So people may seem insufferable for a few days. But after you’ve all gotten drunk together, everyone gets over it.” The one thing many never seem to get over, though, is an affinity for libations. “The drinking here blows my undergrad days out of the water,” says one second-year student.

Said drinking, it turns out, does not involve the brandy snifters and ascots that an outsider might envision. Brian Dutt, a second-year student from New York City, was instantly struck by his classmates’ embrace of a decidedly unpretentious style of entertainment. “You’re surrounded by incredibly diverse, high-achieving people, but they’re all totally game for a jarty.” (This, for the uninitiated, is a party at which attendees clad themselves exclusively in denim.) Plenty of wild parties “involve a keg and Beirut tournament,” he says. “You look back at some nights and you could say it happened at the University of Florida or you could say it happened at Harvard Business School.”

In true collegiate fashion, HBS fosters a peculiar predilection for costume parties. Current students advise incoming first-years to dig out the ridiculous getups that have languished at the back of their closets since the end of their undergrad careers. In addition to an obligatory Halloween party and the Priscilla Ball, there’s an annual April cruise around Boston Harbor that inexplicably demands Austin Powers dress-up. Regardless of the actual motif, as Godden points out in another Harbus article, there’s inevitably “a group of girls who seem to have been told that the theme is ‘Slutty.'”

Befitting a campus full of type-A go-getters, competitions extend beyond merely conjuring up the best costume. A recent graduate recalls two über-achiever classmates from the class of 2007. One had a consulting and private equity background, and the other worked at a hedge fund. The pair apparently set high standards for themselves across the board: For the first three and a half months of the fall semester, they went out drinking every single night. On the 101st consecutive night, to commemorate their accomplishment, they threw a party to which some 250 of their classmates showed up. “A lot of students egg each other on,” the graduate says. “A lot of them studied really hard in undergrad and now are looking to redefine their image a little bit.”

Plenty of them were also pretty broke while undergrads, and now, after a few well-compensated years in the working world, have the resources to re-create a better-off version of their halcyon days. “A lot of these people are 26, 27, have half a million dollars in the bank, and are completely burned out from all the 90-hour workweeks,” says a recent grad. “They really just want to have a good time.”

 

Even among students who didn’t make six figures before entering b-school, the knowledge that incomes will jump considerably after graduation—combined with good old-fashioned peer pressure—produces a willingness to spend whatever it takes on partying, networking events, and travel. The HBS financial aid office suggests incoming students budget $26,320 a year for room, board, and personal expenditures (on top of about $50,000 required for tuition and fees), but most don’t stick to that recommendation. Grads responding to a BusinessWeek survey in 2006 estimated their annual living expenses at $37,000 a year, with more than 40 respondents reporting $80,000 or more. Harvard’s affiliation with Citibank’s private student-loan arm, CitiAssist, lets M.B.A. students borrow as much as $130,000 a year. The financial aid office doesn’t track CitiAssist loans, but several students I spoke with said that they and plenty of their classmates took out the full amount.

The HBS academic calendar is packed with five or six long weekends each semester. The intent is to allow time for job interviews, but for some they prompt quick getaways to South Beach, where two nights at the Shore Club Hotel, dinners at Prime One Twelve, and drinks at Privé and Mansion (along with the purchase of appropriately scandalous tops) can set students back two grand. There are three-day trips to Munich for Oktoberfest; to Rio de Janeiro in February for Carnaval; to the Cayman Islands a few weeks later, ostensibly to learn about the financial services opportunities there; to St. Vincent and the Grenadines for sailing during spring break; and to Reykjavík whenever, just because it’s the Ibiza of the North.

Some of these trips, called “treks,” are more easily justified as educational junkets. A trip to Saudi Arabia—a country that doesn’t offer tourist visas and prohibits alcohol—”really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says a recent grad. “You’re not going to meet the Saudi Arabian foreign minister traveling by yourself.” There’s also a school-sponsored community-service trip to New Orleans, where students work with Habitat for Humanity and provide career coaching to local community college students. On the other hand, the annual Japan trek is known to be a party trip. “You go on a half-day visit to Hiroshima,” the recent grad says. “Otherwise it’s 180 people roaming the streets of Kyoto getting wasted.”

Each of these excursions runs as much as $4,000, but the cost is generally not a deterrent. Brian Dutt, the second-year from New York, took out an extra loan to finance a spring break trip to Costa Rica. “The interest is killing me, but I follow the prevailing mindset that you should take out as much debt as possible to do these kinds of things,” he says. “You’ll never have these opportunities again, and you’ll pay the money back eventually.”

That now-or-never attitude, a corollary to FOMO, prevails because most students view the immediate post-HBS years as a time of crushing, possibly soul-sucking work. A two-year reprieve from a life sentence is no time for moderation. But the resulting excess, all in the name of fun, can take its own toll. “I continuously say that Harvard Business School is fostering a culture of identity crises,” one student wrote on a blog. The lifestyle—with its implicit assumption that HBS-ers can study the hardest, party the hardest, land the most prestigious job, and save the world in their spare time—
leads to constant disillusionment, the student wrote. “To make it worse, I was even an inadequate bar-hopper. I couldn’t even be the best at drinking anymore.”

This month, a new program called 2+2 begins ushering in a fresh generation of even younger HBS students who are even less removed from their collegiate habits. The plan allows undergraduate students to apply to the school at the end of their junior year, and guarantees their spot in a future class after two years spent working. Up to 90 students, or a 10th of the class of 2013, will be selected from about 630 applicants who have very recent, if not very lucid, memories of their 21st birthdays. The aim, says admissions director Dee Leopold, is to attract nontraditional students (read: women) who want to expedite their careers (read: leave time for child-rearing). Critics, especially current students, claim the move will strip some value from a very expensive diploma by diluting the quality of classroom discussion. Ah, but drinking with a bunch of 24-year-olds? That could be fun.

For now, the 27- and 28-year-olds will have to do. Already they’re arriving in Harvard Square, anxious and eager. Within days they’ll be pros: beginning their evenings with school-sponsored cocktails on the campus lawn, moving on to the TechMedia Club’s networking dinner, dropping by Grafton Street for drinks with their close friends, heading to Tommy Doyle’s for a few more rounds with second-tier acquaintances, and somehow winding up drinking scorpion bowls at the Hong Kong with some random undergrads before deciding that an after-party at that French kid’s apartment is definitely a good idea. They’ll stumble back to the HBS campus, and into their beds. Five hours later, they’ll wake up to do it again.

Vacation though it may be, HBS is nothing if not exhausting.

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