In March 2004, I wrote a piece titled ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of yuppieness’. It was a deeply personal 1500 words and inexplicably, touched a chord in many, many readers.
Two key observations I had made:
1) The decision to do an MBA is more about external validation than internal conviction. The first validation occurs when you are accepted into the programme, the second when someone offers you a fantastic salary on passing out.
2) I'm not saying "Damn placement!" But let MBA students also be exposed to non-conventional choices…“ What makes us tick, what makes us passionate, fulfilled and happy? … If the answer is 'leading and managing corporations', are there any challenges beyond our usual frame of reference that we can explore?
Well, Sanjeev Chandran, an IIM A alumnus who currently works for ICICI Bank looks at the other side of the coin. A recent post of mine received this comment:
"MBA's are highly overrated. I wish magazines would cover people who actually make a difference rather than those who pass exams and then sell soap or shuffle money around for the rest of their lives."
Sanjeev wrote me an email which I share with you. He feels such comments are far too common nowadays:
There's a general impression which is conveyed which disparages the MBA community. These constitute two broad thoughts:
1. What a waste of intelligence that you sell "soaps"- as if it were this useless thing and doing nuclear research was the only sensible thing to do.
2. Walking down the trodden path is wasting your life - This has become especially prevalent in the last few years with cases of some IIM graduates choosing to start a business immediately on passing out and OOPSing (Optnig Out of Placement) rather than going to a corporate job. And the general impression given is that by joining the corporate world one
A. is doing something useless which adds no value to anyone
B. has sold out to Mammon and
C. is not repaying a debt to society (which one owes because one was in an IIM) because one earns a lot of money (and sometimes, by implication - hence one should be ashamed of oneself)
Sanjeev’s take on this.
"I never understand why selling soaps is considered such a stupid thing to do. Someone has to do it. And it isn't just about you paying the Rs 10 for the soap - it is about ensuring that you get that soap and that Rs 2 sachet of shampoo in the remotest of villages in India - a distribution nightmare- which those same "selling soap" people in HLL, Colgate, P&G struggle with every day and solve- so that you and I get that soap when we want it as also does "Radha Bai" living in one of the 600,000 villages in India.
Also the point that MBAs work only for money and make no difference to society seems a narrow view point. I work for ICICI Bank. I am not directly involved with retail loans- but the reality is that we have changed the face of consumer lending in India. Sure, we make money on it. But millions who otherwise could not have dreamt of owning a house till they retired today have one when they are 35. Has that not added value to society?
I am involved today, among other things, in rural insurance and we have insured a large number of people - insured their lives, their loans and their health. People have used this insurance to get themselves treated for serious diseases at small hospitals and nursing homes. It has enabled some people to repay loans when an accident occured. Some farmers were not destroyed financially when it did not rain and their crops were destroyed. We have actually made a difference to all those lives.
Yes, while doing this business, I looked at profitability- because if I didn't, this service would not last for a long time. Yes over the last couple of years, I got a salary raise, a bonus and a promotion -for doing a good job in this area. But that doesn't take away from the fact that thousands have benefited because of the work we have done. I have gained personally- so have a large number of the rural populace. What better example of win- win could there be?
I believe as an MBA, now working for almost seven years I have made a huge difference to people's lives. Most of whom I have never even met. And I am fairly certain that most of my batch mates have done the same - directly or indirectly.
Yes, at some times (in fact, I would say quite often) there is unnecessary corporate hype which disguises the actual work being done. Some crazy organizational structures and procedures can often make one pull one's hair in frustration. And yes, people here do make money!! Unfortunately, most people tend to see only the huge salary figures and the comfortable lifestyles- not the actual impact their work makes.
I am proud to be an MBA- and that too from the finest college in India. If I do nothing else but what I have done till today - and if there is a judgement day- then just my work till now will give me enough reasons to hold my head high in front of the Judge."
What I think
Sanjeev has raised some important points Yes, someone has to sell soap, as well as home loans. And this job can be imbued with meaning if you see it – at some broader level - as reaching hygiene to the masses, or making the common man’s dream come true.
But, I suspect, this is organization specific. ICICI Bank is a company which topnotch MBAs join for quality of job and exposure – not because they offer the best pay packet or post you to London/ Singapore. Moreover, it was originally a development finance institution, which metamorphosed into a bank. And I think this gives it a unique DNA.
The question is – would Sanjeev feel similarly had he worked for Citibank, ABN Amro or Lehman Brothers? Honestly – I think the answer would be no. In fact, had Sanjeev been associated not with rural insurance but credit cards, I doubt he would be feeling as good about his job. The simple reality is credit cards are a convenience but they are ruining a lot of people’s lives.
And that’s the story with many a company MBAs choose to work for. What’s more, you are generally doing a job which has been done before. Systems are set, the wheel is turning…increasing the market share of soap X or paint Y by 2% in northern region might be my achievement of the year. And I don’t think that is achievement enough.
Even in home loans, I think really bright minds must find a market solution to the biggest problem urban India faces today: Slums. People who can afford prepaid mobile phones - and haftas to slumlords – can pay installments for their homes. And I am sure it will happen one of these days…
And it may be an MBA like Sanjeev who finds an economically feasible way to make this a reality. In an organization that encourages innovation and can see ‘wealth in waste’, so to speak.
On the other hand, I'm not saying MBAs have to serve only the bottom of the pyramid. Look at the contribution Phaneesh Murthy made by joining an Infosys at a time when marketing software was about as unglamorous as Ajay Devgan before he married Kajol.
This article in Businessworld some years ago, sums up the story:
When he left IIM-A, FMCG was big. The Nirma versus Hindustan Lever battle was drawing to a close; most people from the top of the class headed for a Lever or a Britannia. Phaneesh made the first unconventional decision of his life. He chose Sonata Software, a start-up in a tiny industry.
To put things in perspective, TCS, a $1-billion company today, had a turnover of $15 million in 1987. "I did not find soaps intellectually stimulating. I wanted to do product management. In soaps or industrial products, most of the product definition is rarely changed. In software, you can use the customer feedback to improve the product," says Phaneesh.
In Sonata, he also started on his first Mission Impossible. Design and sell a software for the Indian market. All the heroics were in vain though. The Indian IT industry was undergoing a disruptive change.
Apparently an ad in India Today caught his eye:
It was a two-page recruitment advertisement for a company called Infosys. There was a small line at the end of the ad: "We also need a marketing manager for the US. Should be willing to relocate and travel extensively." The position did not require major qualifications. "I said this is a company that needs some serious marketing help. For every other post advertised they had at least a paragraph of qualifications!"
The article credits Phaneesh with creating the 'two cultures' of Infosys. The process-driven, conservative software developers... and the more customer-facing culture that he developed, which resulted in Infosys being able to command a far higher price for its work
In 1996, that point was proved. For the first time Infosys went head-to-head with a formidable consulting firm - Cambridge Technology Partners (CTP). The contract was for about $9 million. CTP bid $8 million. Phaneesh and his team's math: total cost, including profits, of $4 million. The majority was for quoting this price.
The sales team figured it would be a mistake: the client would think they had no idea of the project's complexity. So the team doubled the bid to $8 million. Infosys got the project. It was a crossing of the Rubicon. Infosys could beat the heavy guns at their own game.
OK - we all know the Phaneesh Murthy @ Infosys story had a sour ending but it seems to be a great example of an MBA 'making a difference'. And not necessarily in the social sector. There are, of course, many others.
The bottomline is I have nothing against MBAs earning a lot of money (if their work results in profit for their companies, they certainly a share of the spoils). But I would disagree with the notion that ‘most of my batchmates’ have made a huge difference to people’s lives. At least not yet.
But I know many are thinking about it.. and that’s a start.
Lastly, one can argue that the notion of 'making a difference' is pretty arrogant to begin with. I mean, who are MBAs, to stake such a claim anyways?
But then arrogance is ... natural to MBAs. So kindly don't mind it!