For most Chinese students, attending Harvard Business School is just a dream, not only for its high academic requirements but also because of its costly tuition. Zhao Feifei reports on a group of Chinese graduates who actually lived the dream and have written a book about their experiences at the elite American university.
A slogan blazing across the auditorium at Shanghai Jiao Tong University reads "The way to Harvard, the way to success." Such a statement creates excitement among the approximately 500 students packed into the room.
Their excitement is understandable as the stage of the auditorium features a star-studded cast with the appearances of business czars Shao Yibo, CEO of EachNet, an eBay-style online-auction site; Tan Haiyin, president of EachNet; Huan Yiming, CEO of EtoneNet Inc; Huang Jingsheng, managing director of Softbank Asia Infrastructure Fund Venture Capital (Shanghai) Ltd; Xin Yuesheng, director of Citic Capital and Wang Haipeng, CEO of Prient Corp.
All of the group are Harvard MBAs and models for those ambitious hotshots in the audience, eager to make their own mark in business when freed from their studies.
Recently the elite six, along with four other 1999 Harvard graduates, penned the first-hand book Experience Harvard (in Chinese, Publishing House of Electronics Industry, 25 yuan) about their lives on campus at the famed Boston-area university.
At the seminar held late last month, students bombarded their paragons with questions for more than two hours. Popular topics revolved around the guests' time at the university and if it was worthwhile to pay so much to attend the Harvard Business School.
What Harvard is to MBAs is comparable to what West Point is to military cadets. Its MBA degree is akin to a blank check. Students receive multiple job offers and graduates envision being millionaires in a matter of months when technology companies heap stock options on them.
Harvard has also become a mecca for the cream of elite schools in China when seeking education abroad.
"To go to Harvard is to broaden your horizon and to get knowledge you need in your future career," says Shao, once a high school mathematics prodigy. "The experience can't ensure success, but it ensures a higher percentage of success."
Shao skipped grades in high school and went directly to Harvard to study physics and electronic engineering on full scholarship.
After finishing his MBA study, he passed up lucrative job offers in the United States and came home to start an online auction Website. Now he controls one of the biggest C-to-C (customer to customer) online trading houses in China.
To take a master's degree in business administration at Harvard, the first exclusive graduate business school and still, on most measures, the world's leader, is not cheap. Tuition is US$25,000 or so for each of the two years; other bills and living costs add up to another US$20,000 a year.
None of the six speaking at Jiao Tong came from wealthy families. So surely only students with great confidence, and for this matter great wealth, would take such a financial risk to attend.
As the demand for MBA graduates may not quickly return to the heady days of the 1990s, why have so many students charged off to Harvard to acquire a general understanding of business principles at a great expense?
"The Harvard MBA program gave me a sense of security against losing a job," says Huang. "It was like a rock of stability in an ocean of change. In the classroom with a learning model based on the case method, students have a responsibility to teach as well as learn from each other. The interaction between students motivates you a lot. You have to play the role of a problem-shooter, a solution-finder."
"Besides, you can meet the upper crust of the business world, such as Warren Buffet, Steve Case and Michael Dell, and listen to what they say. They are very encouraging," he adds.
Harvard has long been an obsession for Huang whose brother is a professor at Harvard Business School. He went to Stanford in California to study sociology in 1985 and then worked as a marketing analyst for Dataquest Inc.
He experienced the high times of Silicon Valley and co-established General Wireless Communications Inc. A year later the company successfully raised nearly US$2 million in funding.
He then went to Singapore as the regional director of Asia for the Gartner Group. Increasingly bound by a prospering career and growing opportunities, it was difficult for him to cut short his work to go back to school, especially with two children in tow. However, he made it.
He credits his college sweetheart and wife of 20 years for his success. "Without her, I would never be here," he says.
After 17 years of living in the US, Huang returned to China to expand his career like the other members of the panel.
A student raised the question of whether companies were in favor of an "overseas tortoise" - a well-educated returnee from overseas - when they recruited.
Diplomatically, Huang says that compared with a "local tortoise" who had abundant experience, an "overseas tortoise" knew little about the regulations in the game played here. What they favored most were those who had worked in China but held a foreign diploma.
At Harvard, the graduate school experience is unique. Learning extends beyond the classroom in every dimension. Every student tries to "make an impact while having fun."
One of Harvard Business School's most powerful assets is its alumni network: a group of more than 60,000 business leaders in over 130 countries.
Alumni are often the protagonists in the class cases, and whenever possible, the faculty members bring them back to class to share their experiences, insights and challenges during the case discussion. More than 35,000 alumni volunteer as advisers, working closely with students to explore career opportunities.
(Eastday.com April 9, 2003)