networking: reasons for why to bother about your college buddies

Every Thursday night during his two years at the GSB, Dave Maney, MBA ’87, and 20 to 30 of his classmates used to congregate at a large house in Atherton for a raucous game of poker. Admission was a six-pack of beer, and for Maney, at least, the poker game was the highlight of every stress-filled week. “It wasn’t a heavy-drinking group; the focus was on hanging out together and having a good time. You definitely needed a thick skin and a sense of humor,” says Maney, now the CEO of Worldbridge Broadband Services, a telecommunications services company. “Believe it or not, the Thursday night poker game is now my preeminent memory of business school.” A big waste of time? Hardly. The group graduated 11 years ago, but every spring, in places like Bermuda, the Bahamas, and Jackson Hole, the poker gang gets back together. They often bring spouses, and sometimes they bring children. It is strictly informal: People go inner-tubing and hiking; they play golf, tennis, and, of course, poker. But like a lot of ostensibly lighthearted GSB social events, these weekends are also, to some extent, about business. They are about networking. The poker weekends keep alive personally rewarding relationships that can also be professionally valuable. Consider: Four years ago when Maney founded Worldbridge, he got seed money from five members of the poker club. His right-hand man at Worldbridge, Russ Cohen, is an ’87 poker player. Last year when Maney got his first “real” venture capital funding, it was through an introduction by yet another member of the poker club, Kevin Callaghan. “I don’t think people go to the poker reunion thinking, ‘Boy, I want to network!'” says Maney. “But I don’t think there’s a network in the world that’s like it. It’s powerful.” Welcome to the brave new world of management education, in which your classmates are more than casual buddies and the classroom is no longer just the place where you learn accounting. Business school is increasingly viewed as the stage upon which aspiring managers meet and mingle with future colleagues, partners, competitors, employers, and employees, not to mention potential spouses and lifelong friends. “It’s a fabulous network and it was worth every penny of the $40,000 tuition,” says Denise Brosseau, MBA ’93, now executive director of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, with a laugh. But she means it. Christine Herron, MBA ’97, agrees. “During business school, I didn’t get to know anyone outside Stanford and frankly I don’t know if I would’ve wanted to,” says Herron, a senior product manager with an Internet company. “One of the things that happens when you go to business school is you’re paying to build a network.”

Photo by Bob Holmgren
IN CALIFORNIA: (From left) Forum for Women Entrepreneurs board members Noosheen Hashemi, Sloan ’93; Polly Arenberg, MBA ’94; and Jennifer Gill Roberts and Denise Brosseau, both MBA ’93.
Ask just about any graduate of the GSB from the 1980s or 1990s what are the most important things they took from their Stanford years and they will invariably include the people they met. “I went for the academic experience and the credential,” says Joe Judge, MBA ’96, director of market research for AlphaMetric, a consulting firm founded by Fujiyo Ishiguro, MBA ’94. “But it turns out what I value most is the network.” “I was naive about connections. But I bet there are 40 people from my Stanford class I talk to regularly,” says Maney. “Overwhelmingly, the most valuable part of the experience has been the people, both for what you learn from them individually and also in a flat-out sense for the network. Most of my career has involved GSB networking.” This is a relatively new phenomenon that reflects profound changes in the world of business. Listen to alums of 41 years ago: “Coursework was the whole story,” says Allan Tate, MBA ’57, a retired investment banker-broker. “It was fun knowing those people, but the term ‘networking’ wasn’t present then.” His classmate Tom Arnett, a retired management consultant, agrees: “In our era there wasn’t that kind of emphasis on networking. A few people may have networked for business, but most of us have gotten back together simply to reminisce and see what we can do for the School.” A lot more than reminiscing and fundraising is going on among recent alums of the GSB. It is nearly impossible to get a handle on the vast, growing, and infinitely complicated web of relationships that has emerged from the GSB over the last 20 years. Certainly official programs–the 45 alumni/ae chapters everywhere from Portugal to Puget Sound, the conferences and reunions–help it flourish. But like any living, thriving organism, the network has blossomed far outside organized channels. Scores of spontaneously organized, unofficial events are constantly bringing together GSB alums. A book club of women from the MBA Class of 1988 meets every month in the San Francisco Bay Area. Women from the MBA Class of 1992 get together each spring at a beach house to talk about their lives and careers; a handful of their male classmates meet for a regular golfing weekend. The Sloan Class of 1973 has been meeting every two years in cities from Helsinki to Williamsburg, Va. The Sloan Class of 1994 has met every year, most recently in London. “We cook together, we spend time together, we recement the bonds,” says BJ Hardman, Sloan ’94. Why do so many recent alums say the ties formed through the GSB are among the strongest and most enduring of their careers? Why do they seem to value these relationships so deeply? Probably the most basic purpose of the GSB network these days is employment. “The main way people find their jobs is through the informal Business School network,” says Robbie Baxter, MBA ’96, director of product marketing for MindSteps, a software company founded by Shirzad Chamine, MBA ’88. And at least to begin with, the people in a position to offer jobs aren’t classmates, but alums who’ve been out of school a few years or more. Maney’s first job was at Chronicle Publishing in San Francisco, where then-CFO Leo Hindery, MBA ’71, hired him on their first meeting. “He didn’t know me at all,” says Maney. “That’s how powerfully he was attracted to the fact that I was from Stanford.” It wasn’t exactly blind loyalty: The GSB is a pretty effective screening system, selecting out motivated, entrepreneurial types, and Hindery and Maney went on to form a close working relationship. But it has always been true that old school ties can open doors. What has changed–and the reason people seem to cultivate those ties more assiduously–is that nowadays doors may need to be opened again and again. For a variety of reasons–corporate downsizing, the allure of startups–careers have become dissociated from companies. “A lot of my classmates have stayed in the same job since Business School,” says Hobart Johnson, secretary of the MBA Class of 1966. “It’s not like that anymore. People change jobs a lot more and I think they rely on Stanford connections for support.” The more people you are in touch with, the better your chances of being able to make a move when you want to. Or need to. Joel Podolny, associate professor of strategic management and organizational behavior at the GSB, has studied networking and says that research shows that the people who have the greatest success finding good, lucrative jobs are those with the most numerous ties dispersed the most widely across fields and companies. And as friends from business school fan out into different industries and companies, they can become just this kind of ideal business network. Consider the way this network has figured in Miriam Rivera’s career: In 1996, Sara Frankel, a classmate of Rivera’s who shared her interest in the nonprofit world, suggested Rivera become involved with a battered women’s shelter in San Francisco. Rivera was intrigued and joined the board. “It was a great experience,” says Rivera, JD/MBA ’95. “It was the first time I was able to guide the strategy of an organization rather than just be on the staff.” She ultimately considered taking a job as the shelter’s director. But then she took an abrupt right turn and founded a software company instead. In the process, she has tapped into a very different branch of the GSB network: the venture capital community of Silicon Valley. She has regularly called alums in venture capital asking for advice on valuing and funding her startup. “I didn’t approach business school the way some people did. I went for the content,” says Rivera. “I definitely feel a lot of people were there to meet other people. That’s why there were seven people sharing a house and paying $1,000 each. By comparison, I was in a studio for $400 a month and my place wasn’t party central. But it’s been surprising how useful the network has been, given I didn’t go there to do that.” The network isn’t just about getting jobs, of course. It’s also about filling them. Earlier this year when Mark Breier MBA ’85, became CEO of Beyond.com, an online software superstore, he was charged with assembling a management team virtually overnight. “In the Internet world speed is everything, and half the folks I brought in were from my class,” says Breier. “The friendship and the Business School background made them instantly eligible.” The fact that Breier was able to staff the company so quickly was crucial in those early weeks. Quite simply, having a robust network can make people more effective at what they do. Historically, says Podolny, the term “network” was prefixed by the words “old boy” and suggested a small clique of white men trying to monopolize resources and avoid competition. But old boy networks haven’t proven very efficient in today’s world. The idea of a network as a secretive, unfriendly club has been replaced with the vision of a network as an open-ended chain of people who can communicate, collaborate, and learn from one another. When Joe Judge took a summer job helping a company market its services over the Internet in 1995, he found himself constantly on the phone with classmates working on similar projects. “It was so new, we were literally inventing it as we went along,” he says. “I’d heard about the network, but you never truly understand it until you’re in the middle of it. I realized that knowing these people can be valuable as well as fun.” “We use each other as support systems and sounding boards,” says BJ Hardman, director of insurance consulting services for KPMG, of her Sloan ’94 classmates. “Whenever you have a question or issue, there’s someone in the class who has the skill. It’s like having your own extended informal consulting group. You can chew ideas around with these people.” All of this works so well because people from the GSB often get along personally, as well as professionally. The people who make their way, by whatever circuitous route, to the GSB typically share very similar passions and drive. “I’ve never made friends like I did in business school,” says Herron. “Look at the funnel you go through from high school to college to work. You’ve got a lot of common interests and personality traits, like a desire to build stuff. And even if the specific way you do that is different, there’s an understanding.” For someone like Conrad Prusak, MBA ’80, the network has been the perfect melding of the professional with the personal. In 1989, at a San Francisco alumni/ae chapter meeting, he met Julie Johnson, MBA ’88. A year later they got married. Today they run Ethos Consulting, an executive search firm in Greenbrae, Calif., and have placed friends and acquaintances from the Business School. They also help alums who are looking to hire. “Never underestimate the value of who you knew and who you can get to know once you leave the School by remaining associated with the University,” says Prusak. Says Dave Maney: “Absolutely without qualification, if I made a list of my 10 best friends in the world, it’s 10 Stanford guys. I don’t know what it is about Stanford, but it creates incredibly strong and close relationships.”

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