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The Ivy League Paradox

A lot of people believe that going to an elite school opens doors that pave a golden pathway to “success.”  That can be true.  However, one of the most counter-intuitive things about elite colleges and business schools is that their students often graduate feeling extremely limited with regard to their professional options.  Medical school, investment banking, consulting, law school, hedge funds, and a venture-backed start-up become the only socially acceptable career paths.  Everything else is highly suspect. 

It’s no surprise.  Until graduation, these people have done everything “right.”  They are not just smart, they have also worked hard, gotten excellent grades, been class leaders, and done noteworthy extracurriculars.  They have been conditioned to believe they are the future leaders of the world.  Impressive indeed. 

There’s only one tiny problem—having future-master-of-the-universe as a baseline life expectation paradoxically makes taking risks difficult.  For many elite school graduates, the perceived career stakes are now extremely high.  What if you make the wrong decision and mess it all up?  What started as a path toward boundless opportunity can quickly become a narrowly defined corridor of “acceptable” career options.  With this backdrop, we enjoyed a recent speech Nvidia founder & CEO Jensen Huang gave to the Stanford Graduate School of Business: 

“I think one of my great advantages is that I have very low expectations … and I mean that most of the Stanford graduates have very high expectations. People with very high expectations have very low resilience and unfortunately resilience matters in success.  I don’t know how to teach it to you except for I hope suffering happens to you. To this day I use the phrase pain and suffering inside our company with great Glee – ‘boy this is going to cause a lot of pain and suffering’ and I mean that in a happy way because you want to train, you want to refine the character of your company you want greatness out of them – and greatness is not intelligence. Greatness comes from character and character isn’t formed out of smart people, it’s formed out of people who suffered.”  

Becoming a CEO for Chenmark is highly competitive.  We get applications from all of the world’s top colleges and business schools, and we have a 3% acceptance rate for our “GVP” CEO-in-training program.  Chenmark CEOs are a special group of people who juggle multiple priorities on a daily basis, think long-term, act strategically, and do whatever is needed to take care of their employees, their customers, and their P&L. In short, all the things we’re on the lookout for when it comes to CEO leadership qualities.

While some Chenmark CEOs have fancy schools on their resumes, most don’t.  We screen hard for baseline aptitude and alignment with our core values.  There’s little correlation between these screens and educational pedigree.  In a recent CEO meeting, we all shared our life stories in an effort to find commonalities that might help our recruiting process.  We found no discernible pattern other than a) many of us had been self-described “dipshits” at some point in our youth, and b) most of us had overcome some type of difficult personal situation in our formative years.  To Huang’s point, our collective group has some resilience, which is probably the secret sauce of success in SMB.  That means that whatever comes our way—and trust us, there’s a lot of pain and suffering in the world of SMB—our group should be able to open our minds, enjoy the adventure, and figure it out.

Have a great week,

Your Chenmark Team

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