After ten years working on the East Coast, Michael Ross came out West to push his comfort zone as an MBA student at UCLA Anderson. With his first year almost behind him, we asked him how it’s going.
How did you end up at UCLA? And why Los Angeles?
It’s like the admissions interview all over again. I had about nine years of professional experience before I started. I graduated from UPenn with an undergraduate focus in computer science, and I took a couple of classes at Wharton, as well. I was interested in marrying business to technical applications.
I joined an incubation services and information technology firm backed by Kleiner Perkins called Silicon Valley Internet Partners. I was there for four years. It was 1998, and nascent Internet times. And you had a lot of start-ups with venture backing and large companies that wanted to be entrepreneurial and wanted to understand how to use the Internet.
So I was there for four years. I loved it. I was in a product management role, and I worked across disciplines, with strategists, graphic designers, interface designers, technologists. It was an incredible experience, and left me desiring to have that experience I progressed professionally. Unfortunately, those were anomalous times. I progressed, those experiences became fewer and farther between.
I said to myself, let’s try large corporate life, and I joined JP Morgan Chase in a very different role, working on post-merger systems consolidation and process reengineering. I was there for three years, and it made me realize I really prefer the entrepreneurial subject matter.
I had explored transitions beforehand, and I looked at investment banking and consulting. But really, unless you have deep, deep subject matter experience in a specific area, those doors really aren’t open to you. They might acknowledge that you’re a smart individual, but the tendency is to see you as an IT generalist. It sounds cliche, but an MBA can truly open doors in terms of the network.
I came to UCLA Anderson. I loved the entrepreneurship angle, and I wanted to supplement that with areas that I hadn’t been able to focus on academically. A lot of my business acumen is just on-the-job learning. I wanted an academic context. You know, marketing, management analysis, and operational theory. Filling in some of the gaps.
Not only that. You’ve also become the president of the UCLA MBA Student Association.
I was never the person that embraced student body as an undergraduate. But I said I’m going to come to b-school and suspend any cynicism I have, and just immerse myself in everything. I made a conscious decision to spread myself thin.
Why did you decide to spread yourself thin?
Because I want to get the bang for my buck. The extent that you come to school, and you know what you want to focus on, the better you’re going to be positioned to capitalize on your experience. And that’s generically applicable.
More broadly thinking about what you want to do, it’s easy to look at rankings or locale. Pick the most highly-ranked institution in your locale – done! But you’re really doing yourself a disservice. You don’t want to take the rankings at face value. You should lift the covers to see that the schools aren’t just using it as marketing collateral. We have professors that world-renowned for their research, that are committed to not just teaching the basics, but stretching you further, and helping you think about entrepreneurship not just in the start-up setting, and not just focused on tech, because I think that is what is people typically think of.
I’m spreading myself thin to get value for my money. I’m at UCLA because entrepreneurship is innate in everything we do, and I think if you look at other schools – which I did before I came – people pay lip service to it, but then you get there and wonder, “where is the infrastructure behind this?”
What are the hallmarks of a strong entrepreneurship program, in your opinion?
I’d say for any subject matter that you’re interested in, you want to go an look at the student association. Whatever it is, finance or real estate, look to see that there is a strong student association that is already established. A good program will also have a center that has good endowments, good connections to local and global channels to provide you with jobs, guest speakers, and industry insights. And then has a fully fleshed-out program of activities.
So it’s the three legs of the stool: the academics, the social/network, and the extracurricular that’s really going to support your drive toward whatever professional ambition you have.
Is the location also important?
I grew up in Massachusetts, but it’s not just about the weather. When you choose an MBA program, you will extract the most value if you take yourself out of your comfort zone 100 percent. When you are pulled out of your environment, you kind of have to grab onto new people, form new relationships – both social and professional.
You do all these goofy, trust exercises when you get here. You know, climb a ladder or jump on a trampoline. It’s easy to be cynical, “why are we doing this? I’m here to get a job.” But it’s all intermeshed. To the extent that you can throw out your inhibitions and take yourself out of your old framework, find new friends, explore new, interesting areas – you’re really going to benefit.
For me, coming to LA wasn’t about coming to the sun, although that’s a huge draw. Sometimes it can be a negative. Sometimes it’s 78 degrees and gorgeous, and you’re inside doing a marketing project. But at the same time, when you do get time off, you are surrounded by a plethora of activities and culture.
Are you interested in staying in LA?
This is a very anomalous time economically, so you have to look at it like “beggars can’t be choosers.” But depending on your industry, you have a choice. I like LA. If you like LA, there’s caché to the UCLA name. When companies narrow their search, they treat the local schools as their default feeder schools. This is kind of a temporal consideration, but in the event of a downturn, you might want to think about what school location.
How did you prepare for business school?
I could have done it better. I did some refresher courses. I didn’t have any statistics as an undergrad, and it’s amazing to see the extent to which statistics touches everything. If there’s anything, you’d want to brush up on topically, it’s statistics. And you do a lot of analysis on the margin in any class, so I’d brush up on your calculus.
You also need to prepare yourself to become a student again, and learn to deal with the level of ambiguity in time management. There’s no best way to spend your time. You’re not going to be able to do it all. You have to accept that before you come. Get prepared to balance. In the first few months of business school, you’re all over the place. The volatility is crazy. And then you hit an equilibrium, and you figure out what interests, clubs, professional tracks, and recreation activities you’re going to focus on.
So, prepare for uncertainty. Try to narrow it down to a few areas you want to focus on. Take some refresher courses on the quantitative stuff. And prepare to have fun. It’s a lot of fun.
Photo Courtesy: Michael Ross