When Californians talk nervously about the "next big one," they usually mean the next big earthquake. People headed to business school in "the Golden State," however, are more likely focused on another kind of big one - that is, the next breakthrough technology or industry.
"For me, coming to LA wasn't about coming to the sun, although that's a huge draw," says Michael D. Ross, a first-year MBA student at UCLA's Anderson School of Management.
After ten years of working on the East Coast, Ross came to UCLA partly because its strong entrepreneurship focus; partly to make a fresh start outside of his comfort zone. Looking at California's history, Ross and students like him aren't the first to come out West seeking to start something new.
"Part of it is this entrepreneurial and pioneering spirit of the West," says Lisa Giannangeli, director of marketing for MBA admissions at Stanford Graduate School of Business. "I think the West has always had a personality that challenges the status quo."
The legendary growth of California's high-tech sector is a good example. The Silicon Valley south of San Francisco is home to companies like Apple, Yahoo, eBay, Sun, Adobe, and Google, and is a magnet for MBA students from across the country.
"The Silicon Valley is this incredibly innovative place," says Giannangeli. "If you think about life sciences, technology innovation, and green tech, a lot of that is happening in this space and area."
True, California b-schools don't have exclusive access to these companies. But since Stanford is just down the road from local venture capitalists, companies, and start-ups, it is easier to host guest speakers and successful networking events. Stanford MBA students also benefit from collaboration with other departments on campus, such as the science labs, design school, and law school.
"I think that cross-pollinization leads to more innovation," says Giannangeli. "Maybe there's a PhD student that has a wonderful tech idea, but they don't know how to take it to the next step, and they find the MBA students who recognizes the great idea, and together they work on it."
On the green
Combined with a growing concern for social and environmental issues, this kind of cross-disciplinary teamwork has shaped some innovative approaches to problems like water shortages and poverty. According to Giannangeli, MBA students are increasingly putting their minds towards solutions.
One famous example is Kiva.org, a website begun by a Stanford MBA grad that allowed users to make interest-free loans directly to small businesses in the developing world. The website has now generated 70 million dollars in small loans, which has helped thousands of small business in over 40 countries.
The same kind of thing is happening at UC Berkeley in the area of "clean tech." Teams of graduate students - including MBA students at the Haas School of Business - are working with the nearby Lawrence Berkeley Lab, looking how various clean energy technologies can be commercialized.
"One of the problems at the lab is that you have all these scientists working on things, and they don't have enough lab resources to evaluate is there enough money in it," says Naveen Sikka, a second-year MBA student at Haas.
"It's a great symbiosis, and a huge success. People ask how are you preparing yourselves to be the next generation of energy leaders? That's the perfect example, right there."
Two years ago, Sikka was a NYC-based consultant looking for the ideal gateway into the clean energy industry. Now that he is close to finishing his MBA, he is sure he made the right choice in coming to northern California.
"I probably didn't appreciate the importance of geography as much as I do now," he says, noting the maelstrom of research facilities, state policymakers, start-ups, and venture capital firms in the area.
Proximity to all this action is key to tapping industry networks, which are crucial for landing a job after business school. Whereas many MBA students find finance and consulting jobs through traditional recruiting channels, Sikka says that "it just doesn't work like that" in emerging sectors like clean tech.
"You have to build relationships," says Sikka. "You have to meet people, and have them feel comfortable with you before you can do things with them. That's more difficult if you're anywhere else besides the Bay Area."
"In five or ten years, it might be different because it's getting more spread out, and companies won't be afraid to go to Wharton to hire people for the summer," he says. "But right now, no way."
Finally, there's the famous California climate - the kind of sunshine that inspired the song "California Dreamin'" (and about a thousand others). But with his busy schedule as a first-year MBA student at UCLA, Michael Ross isn't convinced that beautiful weather is always a plus.
"Sometimes it can be a negative," says Ross with a smile. "Like when it's 78 degrees and gorgeous, and you're inside doing a marketing project."
For more information about the schools mentioned above and other California business schools, please click one of the links below.
Photo: M. Filtz