MBA students take stock amid troubling times

By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY

PALO ALTO, Calif. — The unsparing tsunami of bad news created by the collapse of storied Wall Street banking firms has made its way 3,000 miles to the palm-studded campus of Stanford University.
“Every day, it only seems to get worse,” says Ben Sloop, 29, of Atlanta, one of 740 students seeking an MBA at an institution known for incubating tomorrow’s business stars. (Think Google’s founders.) “You wonder, ‘Wow, if I get laid off at one firm, it’s not like I can now go to another.’ ”

With his elite schooling, New York firms were an option. But now Sloop likes the feel of a job grounded in reality. So he’s thinking small.

This past summer, he worked for an online company in nearby San Francisco that helps consumers manage their bills. The fit seems right.

“This crisis has reinforced that I want to get back to fundamentals,” he says. “I want to be a part of something I believe in.”

That ’60s sentiment has supplanted the ’80s mantra “Greed is good,” famously uttered by Michael Douglas in the Oliver Stone parable Wall Street. Pursuing lucre doesn’t have its old shiny ring.

“I hope this shakeout will cause people to start doing what they love,” says Garrett Miller, 26, of Cherry Hill, N.J., whose pre-Stanford résumé included a stint in Broadway’s Beauty and the Beast.

Fellow MBA candidate Kate Jackson, 26, of Kettering, Ohio, spent the past months working for her family’s educational company, Rhythm, Rhyme, Results. “With less money in finance, maybe the right people will go into it,” she says. “It’s not about yachts, but living well and liking what you do.”

Whoa. Have today’s twentysomethings killed greed?

“Well, no, but let’s just say greed is on a long hiatus,” says Andy Serwer, managing editor of Fortune magazine, who recently co-wrote an analysis of the financial meltdown for sister publication Time headlined “The Price of Greed.”

“Greed tends to visit us in cycles,” he says. “Cars are the perfect example. In the ’70s, we drove big boats. The oil shock hit, and suddenly dinky Toyotas were cool. Gas prices went down again, and the ’90s brought us the ridiculous Cadillac Escalade. The key is to have time in between. You can’t go from austerity to greed in one step, because it’s horrifying.”

Serwer says today’s business school students will resurrect greed but in kinder guise.

“For today’s Type A person, the ideal is to create a viral non-profit website that helps poor people and allows you to get rich in the process,” he says with a laugh. “I admire this generation, they’re much more socially conscious than mine. But they do want to be rich. Or at least have a great house in the suburbs.”

Author Po Bronson witnessed Wall Street’s wildest days firsthand as a banker in the late ’80s. He says there will always be room in an economy for sharks.

“Institutions like Lehman (Brothers) may be going away, but I have a hard time seeing that cowboy mentality disappearing,” Bronson says. “We’ve been burned again and again, and nothing seems to change. There’s always somebody who thinks a little money is never enough.”

That said, Bronson does see a shift in the culture away from celebrating greed and toward embracing personal fulfillment.

“I think Sept. 11 changed things for a lot of people,” says Bronson, who told those stories in 2003’s What Should I Do With My Life?. “From that point on, people gravitated toward wanting both a connection to community and meaning in their life.”

That movement is apt to be accelerated by the current financial mess, says William Greider, national correspondent for The Nation, whose political essays were a longtime staple of youth-culture chronicler Rolling Stone.

“I’m not celebrating what’s happening here, but we have a chance to rescue the country from the brutally indifferent values that reigned on Wall Street,” he says. “This is a liberating time for twentysomethings. It’s their chance to stop and do what they really want. You only live once.”

Less greed, less cynicism

There’s evidence this generation figured that out before the recent implosion. They came of age during the dot-com boom and bust; none seem fazed by the prospect of having three or four careers in a lifetime. They have ringside seats to mounting concerns about the planet’s environmental stability. And though their Boomer parents reveled in a luxurious lifestyle that may now be the stuff of legend, most of them find consumerism uninteresting and unfulfilling.

“CEOs realize that in order to get the best and the brightest, they need to show their companies are socially engaged,” says David Eisner, CEO of the national service program AmeriCorps. “Some companies pledge to use employees to provide skilled assets to non-profits, while others spin off for-profit entities that help the disadvantaged.

“The accelerant to greed is cynicism. You can’t change things, so why bother?” he says. “We’re all a little bit greedy, but we’re seeing a lot less cynicism.”

Robert Fogarty heard greed’s call loud and clear a few years back when he traded his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Oregon for a headhunting job on Wall Street.

“All I wanted was to make a lot of money and play that game,” says Fogarty, 25. “But then I had nightmares in which I was 60 and only had a bank account to show for 40 years of my life.”

He quit not a year into the job, signed on with AmeriCorps and today coordinates volunteer efforts out of the New Orleans mayor’s office. His salary has dropped from close to $80,000 a year to $10,000 (plus free housing), but he’s thrilled.

“In the finance world, the only thing tangible to me was the number at the bottom of a spreadsheet,” says the Omaha native. “Here, it’s different. I just spent 36 hours recently helping people help others when (Hurricane) Gustav headed this way. I was exhausted and elated.”

Emily Schiller, who grew up in Detroit, is wrapping up her MBA degree at another highflying business institution, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Her interests dovetail with this new profit-while-doing-good ethic: She wants to help corporations tackle efficiency issues while remaining admirable corporate citizens.

“Sure, I’m worried about the economy and finding a job that’s substantive vs. one that just pays the bills,” she says. “Hopefully I can still can have it all.”

Back at Stanford, MBA students echo that sentiment — chagrin mixed with hope.

“What used to be a stable thing, going into banking, now feels like going to work for a start-up,” says Lindsey Maynard, 26, of The Woodlands, Texas, a suburb of Houston. She worked for Morgan Stanley last summer, and will join the troubled firm’s Houston office after graduation.

‘Not great timing for us’

But for most business school students, the future will require adjustments to cope with the shrinking options in finance.

Former stage actor Miller and Roshni Jain, 26, from Milwaukee, are aiming at consulting giants Bain & Co. and McKinsey & Co. respectively, firms that stand to gain from the shift. Meanwhile, ex-Google business analyst Aldo King, 29, of Brownsville, Texas, will be working for Facebook next summer.

And some are even looking beyond the jobs their Stanford MBAs net them. Jain and Maynard both are pursuing joint MBA/education degrees that will allow them to shape higher ed at an administrative level. “I want to be in that world,” Maynard says.

But until then, it’s time to bear down. Even for this lucky lot, it’s going to be a tough ride.

“We sensed this Wall Street run wouldn’t go on forever,” says Mike Armstrong, 26, of San Diego, who worked at J.P. Morgan last summer. “So, it ended. Not great timing for us. But we’ll re-enter the job market with the skills we need. It’s no longer about making the big money, and that’s fine. It’s more about having a passion to help. I’m excited.”

That’s the rose-tinted view. King offers a more sober assessment of the challenges facing the MBA class of 2010.

“Every generation has things they need to fix from the generation that preceded them,” he says. “That’s just the way it is.”