by Shona Simkin
Early in the morning on January 22, it was 14 degrees Fahrenheit. But inside Shad Hall’s basketball court it was steamy, a DJ was blasting remixes, and three brothers were leading a huge group fitness class. These weren’t just any brothers, and this was not a standard Shad bootcamp class. This was Rob, Gordie, and Chris Gronkowski, and the workout included HBS students as well as business founders such as Christina Tosi (Milkbar), Matt Van Horn (June oven), and Michael Lastoria (&pizza).
The workout kicked off day two of Moving Beyond DTC, one of nine Short Intensive Programs (SIPs) that ran this year from January 21-24. Now in its third year, SIPs are no-credit, no-fee elective courses, offering MBA students an opportunity to engage deeply in a single subject for four days with professors, practitioners, and experts in the field. We decided to take a closer look at the classes and spent time in four: Moving Beyond DTC, Africa Rising, Agile at Scale, and the Life and Role of the CEO.
Moving Beyond DTC, led by Professor Len Schlesinger and Matt Higgins of RSE Ventures, featured a lineup of 29 principals in the Direct-to-Consumer market, Lori Greiner of QVC, Jordana Kier and Alexandra Friedman of Lola, Christina Tosi of Milkbar, and those Gronkowskis (Rob is an investor and brand ambassador for CBD Medic, Chris is the founder of the Ice Shaker, and Gordie is a partner in Gronk Fitness Products).
In 60-80 minute class sessions, students offered their opinions on where the business should go next and answered questions from Schlesinger and Higgins. Then, each founder presented their own story—their inspiration, dilemmas, questions, and decision (if determined) on where the business was heading next.
In the case of Milkbar, for example, students questioned whether Tosi should maintain the exclusivity of the brand by continuing to only sell the magically-delicious treats (cookie flavors include cornflake marshmallow chocolate chip, blueberry and cream, and chocolate-chocolate) in Milk Bar stores across the country. Or should she have more suburban pop-ups or enter the supermarket as a more traditional consumer product brand? Could the power of a Milk Bar cookie translate to a Whole Foods or Stop & Shop? Would it dilute the buzz, the magic, of the brand? Consumers will find out Tosi’s decision this spring. Until then, you can mull it over with a cereal milk soft-serve at the Harvard Square Milk Bar outpost.
“The lessons from the challenges and decisions faced by founders are applicable to many of our own career and life choices,” said Jayci Blake (MBA 2021). “Len and Matt didn’t just bring us exemplary case studies of entrepreneurial business decisions and marketing strategies, they brought us inspiring, authentic leaders who are pursuing their passions and interests and consciously making an impact.”
Africa Rising, co-taught by Professors Caroline Elkins and Hakeem Belo-Osagie (MBA 1980), introduced HBS students to the complexities of Africa—economic, sociological, and historical—and how these specific trends affect the opportunities and challenges in undertaking ventures on the continent. Now in its third year, the course featured 26 guests, including Temi Adeniji, vice president of international strategy at Warner Music Group; Mzamo Masito, CMO of Google Africa; Amina Mohammed, deputy secretary-general of the United Nations; Teresa Clarke (MBA 1988, JD 1987, AB 1984), president, chairman, and CEO of Africa.com; and Masai Ujiri, president and alternate NBA governor of the Toronto Raptors.
“Our class ethos is two-fold,” explained Elkins. “One, it’s inclusive—there’s no question too big or small—we are here to learn; to demonstrate what we don’t know and to learn from that. Two, we tell the guests that we don’t want a sanitized view of their career. We want a ‘roll up your sleeves,’ unvarnished perspective. We want young MBAs to see that these towering figures really wrestled with failure, with success, with thorny experiences.”
On the morning of our attendance, Martin Nesbitt, co-CEO/Chairman of the Vistra Group and the Barack Obama Foundation, regaled the class with stories about his early days in investment management, the inspiration that launched his career, how he met Barack and Michelle Obama, his experience as Obama’s campaign treasurer, and the Obama Foundation’s leadership role in Africa. Nesbitt’s final advice to the class: “Be straightforward about prioritizing family. I’ll always take a call from my kids in a meeting; I’ll leave early to go to their basketball games. And I’ll be in the office at 2 am if I need to be. Your kids will give the world exactly what you give to them.”
For Victor Williams (MBA 2021), the course was an opportunity to re-examine history. “As a Black man growing up in Jamaica and the US, learning about my history sometimes felt like just learning about slavery. As I got older, I realized that while it’s an important period, it is not the full story of Black people. There is a rich and meaningful history that I can slowly uncover the closer I get to Africa and its people. Africa Rising for me was the first step.”
Over at Agile at Scale, Professors Euvin Naidoo and Suraj Srinivasan brought the concept of Agile practices, which have roots in the tech and software development world, to MBA students. “The Agility concept combines strategy execution with performance management in the context of companies trying to be nimble,” said Srinivasan. “How do you learn and work across teams effectively and cross-functionally? Agility pulls together different streams of organizational effectiveness in the context of what we read about every day: It’s speed, not size, that is the determinant of success.”
“Many organizations—be they large multinational, startups, or entrepreneurial ventures—are finding that they’re having to do more and more with less and less,” added Professor Naidoo. “We wanted to unpack what the Agile movement is, and hear from practitioners about their successes and failures. These are new ways of working—co-creating, reaching across silos, and forming partnerships. In many ways you have to unlearn everything, explore new elements, and ask new questions. It’s considered one of the easiest methodologies to understand and one of the hardest to implement.”
Set in the Hives, which fostered movement and interaction with its open format and wheeled tables, the sessions featured panel discussions and immersions with global leaders from Salesforce, McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Bain, Renault, and more, including Zynga founder Marc Pincus (MBA 1993) and Jeff Sutherland, one of the pioneers within the Agile movement and the inventor of its Scrum framework.
Select sessions implemented Agile concepts in action, with Lego projects and paper snowflake making, designed to encourage cooperation and the discovery of new leadership styles. “The experiential aspect of these exercises is a very powerful way of illustrating these phenomenal concepts, paired with the experience of alumni and practitioners who are engaged in this cutting edge work every day,” said Srinivasan.
During several ‘deep dive’ breakout sessions, leaders at BCG discussed their implementation of Agile best practices across such areas as human resources and funding and governance. For Debbie Lovich (MBA 1994), partner and managing director at BCG, it was a chance to engage with students and give them the day-to-day reality of how Agile has shaped her role and team, and specifically how it functions in change management. “I was delighted to come back after 25 years,” she said. “The students—tomorrow’s leaders—asked great questions about the most important decisions facing business today, and enabled a very rich dialogue. It was so energizing!”
Srinivasan and Naidoo are currently developing the SIP into a standard MBA elective course. “The SIPs format allowed us to innovate, to bring new material into the curriculum, and to test what really works,” said Srinivasan. “The support of the SIP team helped us translate this vision into a program that both energized and took all of us on a learning journey,” added Naidoo. “It allowed us to use multiple modules and explore by testing and learning in real time. That in itself is the essence of Agile.”
On the final day, Dean Nohria and Professors Trevor Fetter and Kevin Sharer (co-teacher Gary Loveman was not present) capped off The Life and Role of the CEO with a panel discussion on integrating life and work, with GE CEO and former HBS professor Larry Culp (MBA 1990). Students, who had heard from CEOs such as Wes Bush of Northrop Grumman, A.G. Sulzberger of the New York Times, Beth Mooney of Keycorp, and Steve Squeri of American Express, lobbed questions to the panel about tough decisions, sacrifices they’ve made for their careers, lessons from failure, and the strengths and experiences that make them right for their job.
Asked for their personal definitions of success, Culp declared it as pride in his family and having all of his young adult children being in a good place in life. For Fetter, it was finding a balance between life and work and having the people and places in his life better for having him in them. Sharer stated it was asking the tough questions: “Have I been a person of character and done the right thing even when no one was looking?” and “What is the nature and strength of the relationships I have with those I love?”
For students, this SIP offered a unique chance to examine the actual day-to-day challenges, successes, and career path of a CEO. “Few other places in the world have the resources to put together such a stellar group of current and former CEOs to talk to us about their jobs and personal lives,” said Paulo Molinari (MBA 2020). “I am going to do a search fund after graduation. If everything goes well, I will be a CEO in a few years. Although it will likely be a company many times smaller and less complex than those of the CEOs we met, I wanted their perspectives on leadership, strategy, organizational culture, and the impact of the job on their personal lives to further inform my perspectives on what I am getting into.”
Closing out the final session, panelists offered overarching words of wisdom. “Be optimistic. The opportunity is bigger than you can possibly imagine, and your ability to grow and seize that opportunity is also bigger than you can possibly imagine,” said Sharer. “Watch the scoreboard, don’t watch the clock. Everybody is ambitious, everybody wants to get somewhere fast. What matters most is whether you can deliver,” said Culp.