"It’s not a business opportunity, it’s a f*****g crisis"
A Harvard Business School reunion inspires and unsettles in equal measure
I’ve just returned from the twenty year class reunion of Harvard Business School, buzzing with new ideas, new contacts and a discomfiting sense of being on the wrong side of history.
The time has gone in a flash. It seems just moments ago I was sizing up my fellow classmates and learning to avoid eye contact with the eagle-eyed and rapier-minded academics prowling for prey for a cold call.
The two-day reunion was full of genuine emotion, rekindling old friendships and even creating budding new ones. All of us have been shaped by the intervening years, most kindly, some less so. Around half of our Section turned up. The mood was upbeat, family-focused and less frenetic than the go-go career centricity that dominated past reunions.
However, few people in coffee conversations or the professors at the podiums (podia?) seemed to notice the marauding memory of elephants in the room - the crises rocking the world outside the walls. And more important, what were we, the privileged minority, actually doing to fix them? From an actual hot war just a few hours from where I am in London, to an ignored climate catastrophe, stagflation, decline in democracy and ongoing institutional - and potential societal - collapse. We’ve come to expect our lightweight media to obsess about celebrities over substance, but Harvard should presumably know, and do, better…?
“It’s not a business opportunity, it’s a f*****g crisis”
These were the exact words that a fellow exasperated classmate used when she sat down next to me a park bench in the dappled evening sunlight of the serene quad outside a lecture hall. We had just left one of the few talks on the topics of impact investing and sustainability at the Reunion. The message was, “Don’t miss out!” and “ClimateTech will be the new Tech, the new get-rich quick opportunity…!”. 20 years ago we graduated into the bottom of the cycle just as the Web was dusting itself off and starting to reinvent itself as Web2.0. We were being offered a chance to make amends in case we missed the ride last time.
Now there are a lot of people who say that climate is the next big opportunity, and for sure there will be fortunes, made or lost. And I’d much rather we encourage people to focus on fixing the mess rather than making it worse, shilling products we don’t need or tailoring ever-more addictive adverts. (I should also admit my hypocrisy up front - I flew rather than sailed to the event and do own a car). However, to frame it as primarily a business opportunity is as distasteful as war mongering. This is an existential war waged by the young, and the as yet unborn, against externalities, apathy, vested interests, greed, corruption and our worst impulses.
There were a few notable exceptions to the lack of focus on our problems. Rawi Abdelal’s message was as bleak as his delivery was spellbinding (ours was one of the first classes he taught at the school two decades ago, and he’s become a truly first class presenter). His narrative was (to crudely paraphrase) that a broken economic model in the West neglected fulfilment and purpose, fuelled resentment and a decline in dignity, leading directly to societal instability in the US and an emboldened Russia. He pointed out the American dream was in tatters due to low intergenerational mobility and ossified social structures. The expansive historical and political sweep allowed him to (finally!) expound on one of this favourite topics, the history of Ukraine (I was unfamiliar with the 1654 Treaty of Periaslav). What he didn’t do was prescribe any solutions, or give us an easy way out, other than suggesting the period of turmoil and deglobalization we’re entering will be, erm, exciting. May we live in interesting times indeed.
On the upside, one of the most inspiring moments was a short presentation given by fellow alum Daniella Ballou-Aares, who shared an update from Leadership Now, a business-run organisation committed to fixing democracy. This is a grassroots organisation committed to reducing direct attacks on democracy: the system itself, voting, attacks on officials and retributions against businesses (such as Disney) who may find themselves in the crosshairs of populist politicians.
With the collective brainpower, and frankly wealth (Harvard has a $50bn+ endowment, HBS’ is about $3bn), there’s so much more that could be done to turn the ship around and HBS has been a poster child for a broken shareholder-focused, profits-first mentality that has been responsible for many corporates excesses over the years. The most inspiring event was run by a student, not the School, and I didn’t get the sense that the School was grappling hard with these crises.
It was a salutary event realising that not only are we in turmoil, but the leadership of one of most best business schools isn’t focused on them. Have not given up hope as there are ways that companies and economies can turn on a dime (the talk about the Covid response by Moderna CEO and HBS alum Stéphane Bancel was one such example). Harvard is a magnificent institution that I am proud to call myself an alumnus of. I’m looking forward to them applying their impressive resources to fixing the world we’re in.