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Extreme Networking: MBAs Show the Way

And you think you know how to work a crowd? Incoming B-school students from Harvard to Stanford use Web-based communities to get to know each other, to make group deals for cell phones, and to launch business plans — before they attend their first class!

Read Part 2: Students already walk the plugged-in talk. Can Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton catch up?

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In late July, an empty U-Haul truck will leave Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square bound for suburban Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania and the giant IKEA store at the mall there. On board: nine incoming graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania. The mission: score furniture and housewares for lackluster apartments and dorm rooms, and do a little team bonding before “math camp” starts in August.

The excursion isn’t so different from what enterprising students have always done when faced with a common problem and the energy to fix it. But few such groups are recruited via an international virtual call to shopping, nor organized courtesy of an electronic spreadsheet, cross-matched by date, address, and skill at operating a manual transmission.

Given the nature of this band of shoppers, a supply-chain logistics approach to the dilemma of not having a comfy chair is hardly surprising. The students are all fledgling MBAs at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania — which means that networking, problem solving, team building, and spreadsheets are already second nature.

Yann Pavie, head of the investment-banking operations in the Middle East for National Bank of Kuwait, says that he hopes to buy all the furniture he needs for his new one-bedroom apartment next to Philadelphia’s city hall. “When I say everything, I mean everything — from a bed, desk, sofa and chairs, to plates, glasses and forks,” he writes in email from Lebanon. “Apparently, years have shown that I am the kind of guy who likes one-stop shopping solutions!!!”

Welcome, Class of 2003

What distinguishes the IKEA sofa seekers and their peers at other top-flight business schools from their predecessors is the velocity at which they’ve already begun meeting, greeting, swapping virtual business cards, striking group deals, organizing exotic team-building trips, and mapping business plans — long before they’ve even shown up for the orientation picnic.

This is the incoming Class of 2003, most of whom have yet to meet each other. But thanks to the B-schools’ password-protected Web portals for admitted students, they started networking months in advance of their arrival on campus. “When I started as an undergrad at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill nine years ago, I didn’t know anybody,” says Amy Gura, who will enter the University of Michigan Business School in September. “But I feel as if I know all these people from Michigan already, and I haven’t even been there yet.”

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Gura, a former project manager at Wells Fargo’s online brokerage group, will be perfecting her organizational-behavior skills by detouring through Machu Picchu before heading to Ann Arbor. She’ll be hiking the Inca Trail with a dozen other future Michigan MBAs in an outdoor adventure trip organized via the Web and led by a second-year student.

Meanwhile, at Harvard Business School (HBS), a group of pre-MBAs is spending the summer planning a book on how to navigate the business-school admissions process. With the savvy of crack New York literary agents, they’ve already vetted several concepts (a “bible” treatment that would include tips on surviving the first year versus a simple admissions guide), tossed around potential titles, divided up the work (from interviewing to writing to marketing), and debated potential beneficiaries of royalties (fund a new dorm or scholarships for underprivileged children?).

And, since this is Harvard, they’re already demonstrating the confidence that’s as much a legacy of an HBS degree as a six-figure starting salary. “I’m thinking of a comprehensive guide that every applicant and B-school student will want to own and will refer to throughout their B-school lives,” wrote one organizer. “We can write it as we live it, and, truth be told, we’ll have unmatched credibility.”

Not to be outdone, 3,000 miles away, prospective MBAs at the Stanford Graduate School of Business — who wouldn’t yet recognize each other if they were elbow-to-elbow at the bar at Il Fornaio — are already tossing around ideas for business plans via that school’s site. “People have already been sending emails about writing business plans early, while we’re at Stanford,” says Jeff Wong, a young venture capitalist who will soon join the Class of 2003. “I can sense the eagerness. One of the attractive things about Stanford is the spirit of entrepreneurship. It’s a culture that doesn’t penalize you for taking risks.” Wong himself used the site to cull recommendations for trekking in Asia and hopes to hook up with fellow Stanford B-school students traveling in China this August.

At Kellogg Graduate School of Management, students use the site to figure out the best cell-phone service provider in Illinois, to help find work for their spouses, and to unload graduating students’ gear on incoming ones. A site like this is “an absolute necessity for a top business school,” say Greg Lief, a London-based consultant for a health-care consulting group who met his future roommate at a happy hour organized via the site. “It would be a real detriment if business schools didn’t have these things sorted out very well.”

Your Network, Yourself

While other preprofessional schools keep in touch with incoming students via email lists and plan mentoring programs to address their questions about housing, banking, or course selection, business schools seem to have the edge when it comes to serious preadmission networking.

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“Business schools are much more tech-savvy than we are here at the law school,” says Rene Post, associate director for admissions at the University of Pennsylvania’s law school. Angela Gaffney, assistant director of communications for the MBA program at Harvard Business School, concurs: “The B-school tends to be in front of the curve in marrying technology to the educational environment.”

The reason B-schools have embraced this medium may have less to do with their fondness for technology than with the philosophy of business schools themselves, says Maureen Phalen, assistant director of MBA admissions at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “Business schools think networking is a good thing, a real advantage to you in terms of job seeking.”

When it comes to soliciting job offers, it helps to be able to tap into an extensive — and networked — group of alumni. The sooner students start forging those bonds, schools realize, the more likely they are to reap the rewards. “Some 80% of HBS alums find jobs through networking,” says Robert Gardella, assistant director of alumni career services at Harvard and author of The Harvard Business School Guide to Finding Your Next Job (Harvard Business School Press, 2000). “We have one of the most powerful networks in the world, and one of the reasons people come here is to plug into that.”

Linda Tischler (ltischler@fastcompany.com) is the Fast Company managing editor of new media.

Read Part 2: Students already walk the plugged-in talk. Can Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton catch up?

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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