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What Matters in Major Choices: The Double Major

This story was published on Friday, April 30, 2004, in MIT's student newspaper The Tech, Volume 124, Number 23.
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What's Next?
By Ian Ybarra

"What Matters in Major Choices: The Double Major"

Like most things in life, choosing your own major is simple in theory but can be a hassle in practice.

During recent meetings with the freshmen I help advise, I was reminded of many unfounded beliefs that prevent students from writing the number they really want on their course selection forms. Here are three of the most troubling, which I have paraphrased.

I should double major to make sure I have options when I graduate.

If I don't choose a technical major, then I will have come to MIT for no reason.

I should major in [Management Science] because I'm interested in entrepreneurship.

I did my best to convince my advisees why they'll have more work options than Simmons has windows without double-majoring, enough "tech cred" even if they studied coloring books at MIT, and learn more about starting companies by simply talking to and working with entrepreneurs (or from trial-and-error of starting-up by themselves) than they would doing problem sets for Optimization or Statistics. Impressively, my freshmen seemed to realize that the only thing that matters about their major is that they pick it for themselves.

To give the rest of us additional strength to accept that conclusion, I asked Course VI-I senior Christophoros C Vassiliou '04 (call him Chris), for his thoughts on selecting a major and, specifically, the double-major dilemma.

If Vassiliou told you, as he told me, that he came from Cyprus to MIT to study electrical engineering and materials science, you would probably assume he has two majors. At the end of his sophomore year, he was indeed on pace to get two bachelor's degrees. Then he realized the feat would require him to take five or six classes each semester for the remainder of his time at MIT. Showing maturity, Vassiliou thought, "I knew I could do it, but why?"

In his shoes, many would have stayed the course because of a self-imposed fear of failing to reach a goal they had previously set. However, Vassiliou realized that binding himself to superfluous requirements had never been the goal. What he really wanted was to pursue his intellectual interests. His rationale -- "I don't have to get the degree in both to study both." -- was as powerful as it was simple.

Vassiliou is currently on track to graduate from MIT this June and begin working toward his M.Eng. degree later this summer. Does that sound respectable to you? Indeed, and that's about all that matters to the most superficial of potential employers, investors, or mates in a world where perception is reality.

But in the last two years while an aspiring double-major has been pulling off course loads of nearly triple-digit units, Vassiliou has had two terms of four classes and two more of three. Nice! Though, by no measure, is he slacking off.

Benefiting from the extra freedom, he will end his undergraduate career having racked up three UROP experiences in three disciplines, served as an editor of the Course 6 Underground Guide, and consistently contributed his talents to a Hellenic cultural dance group. He hasn't exactly shied away from MIT's rigorous
technical curriculum, either. He chose to take three advanced EE courses outside his degree requirements.

"I'd still stay up late doing problem sets for classes, but it didn't bother me as much," he said. "There's a big difference between thinking 'I have to do this' versus 'I want to do this' -- even if it's for the same class."

Vassiliou also took a couple of Course III classes that particularly interested him, which, combined with previous coursework, fulfilled the department's minor requirements. He points out that earning a minor turned out to be a great compromise, because he will have something to show for the time he already spent by studying things that truly intrigued him. The minor requirements, which allowed him to pick any combination of classes from a broad offering, gave him something a second major's requirements would not -- the chance to exclusively stimulate his unique intellectual curiosity. He was able to enhance his educational development, not overload it.

The bottom line, according to Vassiliou: "Whenever someone says to me that they want to double major, I say 'Don't do it.' "

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This article originally appeared in The Tech, issue 23 volume 124. It may be freely distributed electronically as long as it includes this notice but cannot be reprinted without the express written permission of The Tech. Write to archive@the-tech.mit.edu for additional details.

Posted by Ian Ybarra on 30 April 2004 Permalink

A New Market for Self-Interest

This story was published on Friday, April 23, 2004, in MIT's student newspaper The Tech, Volume 124, Number 21.
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What's Next?
By Ian Ybarra

"A New Market for Self-Interest"

Let’s make no bones about it: StartingBloc President Martin Smith certainly doesn’t. “StartingBloc operates on the basis of self-interest,” he said. Companies want to show they aren’t evil. Universities want to make up for students missing what’s taught almost exclusively in “soft” liberal arts majors like International Affairs -- the full spectrum of the effects of capitalism. And students want internships to boost their chances for post-graduation employment. The upstart non-profit StartingBloc simply helps each party get what they want.

And what does StartingBloc want? According to its mission statement, “StartingBloc seeks to help outstanding university students understand that a socially responsible career is not an oxymoron and that business can and should improve society as well as create private wealth.” (These are actually the words of Dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management Richard Schmalensee) Ultimately, StartingBloc hopes that undergraduates who come to understand this today will remember it when they’re running this joint in the future.

Isn’t the whole idea just crazy? You’ve probably heard of Nobel laureate Milton Friedman who wrote, “The one and only business of business is to maximize profit, playing within the rules of the game.”

But then there’s “The Blended Value Proposition” by Jed Emerson, a professor formerly of Harvard Business School and now of Stanford Business School. The proposition states that “all organizations, whether for-profit or not, create value that consists of economic, social and environmental value components and that investors (whether market-rate, charitable, or some mix of the two) simultaneously generate all three forms of value through providing capital to organizations.” So it follows: if it’s possible to measure other value types than monetary, then it’s possible for leaders in business and society to make decisions to maximizing their cumulative amount.

Makes sense, but it still seems like a tough sell. Why would Smith undertake the project? For the most part, Smith is just like you and me. He grew up here in New England. His mother runs a non-profit that reconciles prisoners with society and his father is an Episcopal minister. He attended the University of Chicago, studied computational neuroscience for three years, and even started becoming attracted to the ruthless money game governed by Friedman’s guidline.

But Smith watched too many of his peers at the University of Chicago’s become consumed with making money “within the rules of the game,” which in this era seem to be simply “don’t get caught.” He knew there had to be a better way, and he found it when he read Emerson’s work in the summer of 2002. Then, instead of chalking up his agreement with Emerson as a warm and fuzzy good deed, he decided to do something about it. He left school before graduating and founded StartingBloc. Smith isn’t crazy; he’s remarkable.

Considering how commonplace corporate scandals seem these days, there is hardly a more urgent cause than developing better leaders for business and society. Something needs to be done now. But what about Smith’s career, you ask? I doubt he makes a fortune running StartingBloc, but considering the impact he’s making, I also doubt he’ll have problems finding another job when he wants one. Then again, why wouldn’t he just create another one for himself?

Will StartingBloc really work? Well, it certainly won’t be touted as the savior of the world, but I think it has potential.

StartingBloc is a unique marketplace for the trade of self-interests between companies, universities, and undergraduates. In this world of “hype, lies, and spin,” to quote author Os Guinness, StartingBloc’s message is even fun to spread because its idealism seems anti-establishment. And, perhaps most importantly, it has a bit of glamour.

At StartingBloc’s “Globalization: Free vs. Fair Trade” seminar on April 4 in E51, the keynote speaker was William Greider, author of The Soul of Capitalism and a former editor at Rolling Stone magazine and The Washington Post. And at the very least, StartingBloc’s success will include the many people who are inspired by Martin Smith’s gumption to attempt something so difficult when the safe and most socially-acceptable move would have been to keep plugging away at school.

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This article originally appeared in The Tech, issue 21 volume 124. It may be freely distributed electronically as long as it includes this notice but cannot be reprinted without the express written permission of The Tech. Write to archive@the-tech.mit.edu for additional details.

Posted by Ian Ybarra on 23 April 2004 Permalink

Got ICE? You're Not the Only One

This story was published on Friday, April 9, 2004, in MIT's student newspaper The Tech, Volume 124, Number 18.

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What's Next?
By Ian Ybarra

"Got ICE? You're Not the Only One"

We currently have no test for the disease. Until now, we didn’t even have a name for it. Yet it’s safe to say that it affects nearly every undergraduate throughout this campus and, perhaps, beyond. It causes almost all students who aren’t extremely passionate about pursuing careers in science or engineering, as well as many who actually are, to act irrationally when they hear the names of two industries -- finance and consulting.

You may have seen the infected, after being exposed to the aforementioned industry names, experience one of the following symptoms: flocking to career fair booths with swiftness they usually reserve for free food; tripping over their own feet and stuttering while talking to people in Banana Republic clothing; walking through the Infinite in black suits less than thirty minutes after walking the same path in overpriced jeans and t-shirts.

The Irrational Career Election (ICE) disease makes me sick. Yes, there’s a double-meaning to that. It disgusts me and it infected me. After almost three years of preparing to work in consulting after graduation, last spring I decided I was done with consulting for good.

I had figured out that my passion was in writing, speaking, and entrepreneurship. I had learned that most personal wealth is created outside of work and was planning my path to financial freedom. And I had enough exposure to the industry to know that I didn’t like it. I thought I had beaten ICE. Then the summer came and went, and the fall recruiting season began.

After successfully fighting the urge to talk to consulting recruiters, I received a request from McKinsey & Co. to apply for their entry-level analyst positions. My ICE relapsed, and I applied. It will forever be the career-related decision from my undergraduate career that I regret the most. I think I could have avoided it had I been disease-free, but ICE made me vulnerable and caused me to go against all that I believed.

It is important to note two things about the disease. Firstly, it is a precursor to an even more powerful one that affects MBA students (which remains unnamed). We’ve all heard the message that business school is not only a chance to receive some formal management training and connect with others who have demonstrated ability and desire to make impact, but also an opportunity to step back from one’s career and find one’s field of passion in which to deploy those resources. The latter, though, seems to amount to a large, yet precisely calculated, pile of crap.

About half of a typical Harvard Business School class worked in consulting or finance immediately before attending HBS. And over the last five years, an average of 62 percent of job offers accepted by HBS graduates were in those two industries. If there’s been any change in student interest, it’s been an increase. And it’s simply ridiculous to think that the passions of over half of Harvard MBA students lie in consulting or finance. It’s not just HBS, either; the statistics for MIT’s Sloan School aren’t much different.

Secondly, ICE seems to spread virally because the anti-biotics known as truths have so far been ineffective against it. One truth is that the life passions of most people do not lie in consulting or finance. The opposite is simply statistically impossible. Granted, most MIT undergraduates don’t know what they really want to do with their lives. But that’s due to youth and lack of opportunity to think about it during infrequent, brief gasps for air between drowning in the MIT fire hose.

Another truth is that entry-level jobs (and curiously, even post-MBA ones) in these industries are not always the highest-paying. A quick browsing of the Web sites of the MIT Careers Office and Harvard Business School shows this.

Yet another truth is that finance and consulting jobs aren’t inherently better or more glamorous than any other. Sixty-plus-hour workweeks, more spreadsheets than spam, and fill-in-the-blank PowerPoint presentations aren’t that exciting. Furthermore, a job’s sex-appeal is ultimately determined by an individual’s confidence and creativity, as well as the spin she puts on what she chooses to let the public know.

Despite these truths, ICE has become an epidemic. Undergraduates continue to battle for finance and consulting jobs, with illusions of doing it for the love of it, for the money, and/or for the glamour. Sadly, there goes more brain power toward making rich people richer and less to making impact in areas close to their hearts.

However, there might be consolation. Martin Smith, President of StartingBloc, is experimenting with a method to manipulate the epidemic for the greater good, by fighting the symptoms rather than the disease itself. As ICE Disease continues to inexplicably usher undergraduates (and others) toward certain industries, Smith and his StartingBloc team are trying to create a mutant of the virus responsible for ICE.

They are exposing undergraduates to the ultimate truth -- that doing good, making money, and enjoying glamour don’t have to be separate activities. The ultimate goal? To ensure that as these undergraduates take the fast track to the uppermost echelons of business, they will make decisions that maximize the economic, social, and environmental value their organizations are capable of producing.

Is the idea just crazy? Does it have a chance in hell to work? Tune in next week to learn more.

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This article originally appeared in The Tech, issue 18 volume 124. It may be freely distributed electronically as long as it includes this notice but cannot be reprinted without the express written permission of The Tech. Write to archive@the-tech.mit.edu for additional details.

Posted by Ian Ybarra on 9 April 2004 Permalink

Pioneering on Purpose

This story was published on Friday, April 2, 2004, in MIT's student newspaper The Tech, Volume 124, Number 16.
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What's Next?
By Ian Ybarra

"Pioneering on Purpose"

Next time you’re in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, know that nearby on West Bryn Mawr Avenue, there’s an MIT alumna running a $1.5 billion business.

Ilene Gordon ’75, President of Alcan Food Packaging-Americas, works from a standard executive corner-office-with-a-view in one of several silver towers which house the headquarters of such corporate giants as Alcoa and Wilson Sporting Goods. Inside, on dark wood cupboards, sit stacks of empty packages for products like Capri Sun and Keebler cookies. And on Gordon’s mind sit multi-million dollar decisions, like a recent one involving $5 million and the flimsy label on Dasani water bottles. Did she grow up dreaming of directing a gigantic manufacturing company? Does anyone?

Gordon attended MIT at a time when the world was just beginning to let women pursue jobs other than Secretary, Teacher, and Nurse. As a self-described “math whiz” in high school, Gordon’s plan was simply to pursue Course XVIII and become a math teacher. Everything changed, though, when she met a few bold women at MIT who were determined to be not nurses, but doctors (gasp!). From then on, Gordon sought out the toughest of challenges and attacked them with an almost superhuman vigor.

We certainly can’t understand exactly what Gordon’s MIT experience was like years ago. A telltale sign of that: I hardly recognized her brass rat because of its protruding shanks. However, we can learn a few timeless lessons from her career.

-- You don’t have to know exactly what you want to do; just know a little bit.

As Gordon’s undergraduate studies came to an end, her only career insight was that she loved solving problems. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to get started. Upon a professor’s recommendation, she enrolled in a one year Master’s program at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, hoping to prepare for the complex, open-ended problems that all organizations face. As one of only 20 women in her class, Gordon excelled at Sloan and decided what she wanted next...sort of.

“I liked intensity. I wanted to be in an environment where people worked really hard,” she recalled. At Sloan, people naturally recommended she go into consulting. So she joined the Boston Consulting Group. While she enjoyed her time with BCG -- meeting her husband in the Boston office, working for a stint in London, and opening a Chicago office -- she grew tired of advising companies on how to run their operations. She wanted to run her own.

-- You can experience success and fulfillment in the most unlikely of places.

Initially, I thought it was coincidence that Gordon ended up in manufacturing. It’s hardly the industry to put women in power. Gordon set the record straight. “I always wanted to be a pioneer. In industries like consumer products, I saw lots of women. But there were none in factories.” To me, it sounded like she was looking to pick a fight she wasn’t supposed to win. I was correct.

“It’s almost like I wanted to stack the deck against myself,” she said. It worked, though. A few years after leaving BCG, Gordon found herself doing corporate development and strategy for Tenneco, a manufacturing giant. Finally, with the real responsibility for a company’s success that she lacked in consulting, she flourished. She acquired companies and grew them from $50 million businesses to, say, $100 or 200 million. She climbed the ladder at Tenneco for 17 years, eventually becoming vice president of operations.

-- There will always be more.

You can’t go much higher than Gordon has in the corporate world. In the Montreal-based Alcan Inc., a perennial Fortune Global 500 and Global Most Admired company, Gordon is merely two levels below President and CEO Travis Engen ’67. Contrary to the perennial joke, the Harvard alumni are working for her. Gordon also noted her roster includes several Northwestern MBAs, largely due to her office’s proximity to the Kellogg School of Management.

More proof she’s reached a coveted position: She’s served on the boards of six multi-billion dollar corporations and she’ll never have to write another resume in her life (the media does that for her). She clearly enjoys her job, but what’s her ultimate goal? “I decided a long time ago that I want to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company,” she said.

I think she’ll do it. Though given her passion for solving problems and penchant for picking fights she’s not supposed to win, I don’t think her path will stop there.

As for the paths we are just beginning, Gordon advised, “Find a challenge. Then pick the people. And don’t ever let yourself be pressured into a particular industry.”

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This article originally appeared in The Tech, issue 16 volume 124. It may be freely distributed electronically as long as it includes this notice but cannot be reprinted without the express written permission of The Tech. Write to archive@the-tech.mit.edu for additional details.

Posted by Ian Ybarra on 2 April 2004 Permalink