July 18, 2019
Looking back at the Stanford MBA essay that made me one of the first admits never to take the GMAT
This week is my 10th year MBA reunion at the Stanford Graduate School of Business where I am coming in with both excitement and anxiety. I had also a chance to be so grateful to be given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to attend such an institution I would have never dreamed of attending.
Just a background that maybe not everyone knows. I applied to Stanford three times before my MBA application — first for undergrad transfer for engineering, second for a PhD in engineering and a last one for a masters in engineering. All rejected.
So in 2006, I applied to Stanford business school by accident and without much hope. They announced that they for the first time in the history of the school, will experiment to admit students who did not take the GMAT, but will accept people who have taken only the GRE. For most b-school hopefuls, the GMAT is the prerequisite to applying to school — a make it or break it exam. I had the GRE because I had to take it for my application in 2004 for my masters at Cornell for engineering. I reused my scores and applied with my scores that were dismal, it was 760 in math and 400 in my verbal in the GRE. For people not familiar, the highest score is 800 for each. I did fine in math, but I was in the 30th percentile in verbal, think of it that 70 percent of ALL applicants had a higher score than me.
I wrote my essays within a span of three weeks in the plane on the way to and from Washington D.C. when I was in a business trip for Raytheon Company where I was working as an systems engineer at their space and airborne systems division. The theme of my essays — “Partying like a rockstar.”
After a couple of months of my application, I got an email saying that I have an interview with an angel investor named Dave Witherow, and he then interviewed in the Starbucks in Santa Monica beach in Los Angeles. He was an entrepreneur and sold his company to Dow Jones. He told me that he would wear jeans and a leather jacket and not to be more overdressed than him. After our conversation, my view of business changed forever after that meeting and fell in love with the school a bit more — that business can be kind, informal and authentic.
In a few weeks, I got a call from a Palo Alto number, a call from Derek Bolton, the admissions director of the GSB congratulating me to be admitted to the class of 2009. 5 years after graduation during his visit in the Philippines, Derek confirmed that I was the first if not one of the first admits in the history of the GSB never to have taken the GMAT.
Fast forward to this week, 10 years after, I am excited to see and catch-up with some of my closest friends, the ones that knew me when I was a bright eyed engineer trying to learn about business. At that time, we didn’t have owners of startups or venture funds, we didn’t have billionaire classmates yet, and no big fancy corporate titles, we were all students and friends.
I am anxious because not because I will compare myself to the accomplishments of my classmates, but more so, how I compare myself to the dream I set out to achieve when I applied and committed to my mission when I attended Stanford MBA school. Even at the application, they ask you already the proverbial question — what matters to you most, and why. I remember on the first day of school, the head of admissions challenged us — “You’ve been selected, what will you do to help make an impact to the world?” and the dean iterated the mission of the school — “Change lives, change organizations and change the world — and you all can change the world” — instilling the belief that you indeed in your lifetime change the world.
I have re-posted my essay word for word, even with grammatical errors, here to remind me of what my dreams were when I was 24 and for the world to make me accountable to see if I have stayed true and authentic to this dream. With an open heart and the risk of being vulnerable here it is:
Essay A: What matters most to you, and why?
Three months ago, I got to see Bono, the lead singer of U2, give a speech in Dallas about the problems in Africa and he said something so profound that it really made me think. He said “we as a citizens of the world need to solve the problem of global poverty — because poverty leads to the elimination of hope, with out hope there is despair, in your despair you will commit crime, and with the natural evolution of crime is in terrorism.” Wow… if only all of us in the world eliminated the human nature of selfishness then the world would be a better place. Since I was young, my parents exposed me to the harsh realities of poverty.
Growing up in the Philippines, a country at which 90% of its population is below the poverty line, I was exposed to this fact everyday — and being part of the upper 10%, it is easy to shun away and ignore this fact, but something inside me always said that “your life should have meaning and its your obligation to give back.” Who you want to be when you die? If you had a chance to inspire the common person to try to be future leaders and dream more than they are right now, wouldn’t you want a chance to do this?
Over the past months in my quest to answer my quarter life crisis, I have tried to answer the basic questions regarding “what is my purpose in life? What is the meaning of living?” Through out my soul searching, I have looked and reflected on my past, try to look for who I want to be, and what is important to me. While reading the classic book “Good to Great”, Collins talked about the hedgehog concept – which is, in his words, how a company or an individual can be great. The 3 things are: what drives your economic engine, are you the best at what you do, and what is your passion? This struck me, often thinking… of yes… what is my passion? I had to dig deep and looked at my core values – the things that really really matter to me.
While in a career planning session at Raytheon, I wrote down my four main values: the pursuit of excellence, see the world and party like a rock star, having a lasting impact in everything you touch, and making the world a better place.
As of now, my core mission is in helping educate and create a dream for young people who might not have had a dream before. My personal belief is that education is the great equalizer, where in a university, it is really not how much money you have but rather what is in your head and how to use this potential to create more opportunities to uplift yourself and your family. As of now, I am a true believer of the mentoring process. I realize that when talking to people younger than you, you have to be careful of what you say or do. Why is that? Because every word and every action you do can impact someone’s life forever. I personally am involved in trying to be a mentor, not just through being a Big Brother, but more so to my peers and younger or older folks that may need some guidance in life or their careers. I enjoy giving career talks and advice to middle school and HS student, and also would never shun away a conversation from any student that asks for my advice. I am always involved in such activities as career panel discussions or giving a leadership talk, but what I really enjoy is having a one-on-one with someone and just trying to inspire and get them to have goals in life to reach. I was also fortunate to be invited to sponsor five less fortunate students to shoulder their high school tuition in the Philippines, and why not? I had a chance to meet them, and some of them are single moms, or taxi cab drivers, or waiters, and just seeing the tears in their eyes when they found that their $200 tuition was covered, touched me a lot. For some of us, we take education for granted, some of us we believe that it’s a right for every citizen of the world to get, but for most of the world, it is a privilege. If only I can make the world a better place by helping more people get the opportunities that I have been luckily presented with, I will do that.
So knowing my core mission, how does this tie into one of my values of excellence. I have to admit though that I am not this super organized person that has his palm pilot always on, pristine office desks, or nicepressed clothes… but the excellence that I am talking about is deeper… beyond physical… it lies with ambition. I love just “believing” in the future and who will be and will become “one day.” Maybe this is one of my weaknesses, that I sometimes get frustrated at people who “just want to be an ordinary worker.”
I truly believe that all of us can be extraordinary. As what one passage said… “it is better to be hot or cold than to be lukewarm.” I believe that only when you have this drive or ambition always burning inside you, then you will always stay positive. We live in a cynical world… always people who try to put people down. I believe that with this common cause of uplifting people from poverty through education… you should have the core fire of trying to lift people to great new heights.
I have to admit, my goal is to be CEO of a Global 100 company in 15 years. Why? It is not based on a hunger for greed or power… but it’s because of the opportunity. When you are in a position, you have influence in more countries than one, and having the respect and leverage of an institution to back up your cause — you can truly make a macro level impact. I believe that I could create a win-win situation at which the corporation would be able to be recognized a great global corporate citizen and be able to have more kids go through school. My goal is to be a Warren Buffet or a Bill Gates — great corporate thought leaders — but adheres to the values of education and social responsibility. I believe that their example has inspired me that true leaders are indeed true givers — and I would want to be like them in the future.
Lastly, and on a lighter note, one of my core values is to “party like a rock star.” Although I may not be good in instruments, I believe that my life can always be a constant song at which each day is another son to be written on. I am a big believer in crazy parties and in traveling the world. I realize that these are some of the few times that you are real – you usually laugh a lot, dance like you don’t care, and being able to just be you. This translates in being me. Sometimes I feel that I am the most transparent guy that people would talk to. I usually tell people what I’m thinking and try not to have any hidden agenda at all. I get irritated by people who have these agendas in mind, and always putting on a façade to reach the next career step. I treat life as it is… and usually try to put on a smile all the time. The one advice that one of my mentors in Florida told me before I left is “the trick to making it to the top is to always keep a positive attitude.” I realize that although people can try to fake people positive, it is not the voice tone or the choice of words that make the difference, but more so, your “aura” will just be there.
Travel is also one big thing on my list. I really believe that the world is so big, so interesting, so many places to go to, that a lifetime is too short to see it all. Why is travel, particularly to a foreign land, so big for me? I think this is one of the greatest leadership training that one will ever get. I went to Prague last year, not knowing what it looks like and how to get from the airport to the hostel, and not knowing anyone at all. I realize that everything in life is like this… uncertain of the future. But like me, and I am still alive now and back in the US, the only way to learn something new, is to take risks. I believe leaders are people who don’t settle for the status quo and people who are willing to risk their lives or careers for something they truly believe in. Also, in traveling, you get to learn. As what the Japanese Minister of Education told my dad when he was doing graduate school in Japan said “if you love your kids, make them travel.” I totally agree because you would be able to learn about so many cultures, see so much history and meet very interesting people. For example, I learned from a traveler that people in Denmark usually “kicks out” their sons and daughters for 2 months when they turn 16. They expect them to travel to other countries, at a minimum go around Europe, try to live on odd jobs, and stay in hostels. This culture recognized something fundamental early on: that travel is a great maturing process for their youth.
I think that I can sum up what matters to me in one word… DREAM. I believe that by helping people to dream by being a mentor or creating a scholarship for them or by holding on to your own dreams and keeping a positive attitude and take good risks will create better and future leaders for our truly global world and will shape to create a brighter and better future for the generations to come.
Earl Valencia is a strategy and transformation executive, speaker and venture adviser. He is currently the managing director of Digital Transformation for a Fortune 500 company and has advised hundreds of start-up companies, incubators and VC funds in multiple continents. He is a Stanford MBA graduate and honored as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. He was also awarded by the President of the Philippines as as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the country. Find out more about Earl at earlvalencia.com and his podcast “The Digital Mindset” that you can download from iTunes or Stitcher.
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