IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

A look inside the 'West Point' of capitalism

For 100 years, it's been one of the most influential schools in the world. But what's it really like to go to Harvard Business School? CNBC takes a look in this special report.
/ Source: CNBC

The road to Harvard Business School can begin anywhere. 

For Lisandra Rickards, the first person in her family to go to college, it began in Kingston, Jamaica.  In August she said goodbye to her friends and family and became one of Harvard Business School’s select few. Just 900 students were admitted to the Class of 2010, out of more than 8,600 who applied.

“I was really ecstatic because it was the only university I applied to in the U.S.” Rickards said, “My mother was in love with the idea of Harvard University.  So that was her dream, and she's ecstatic that now I'm getting to fulfill her dream for me.”

That dream has a price tag – a big one. Tuition and housing run about $80,000 a year.  For Lisandra, most of that will be covered by scholarships. 

After earning an undergraduate degree in economics at the University of Chicago, she spent this last year back in Kingston at the Ministry of Finance. 

“I got an amazing opportunity with the minister of finance to work on a project setting up Jamaica as an international financial center.”

Once she’s armed with her Harvard education, Lisandra hopes to return to Jamaica to help turn around its troubled economy.

“The No. 1 inhibitor to economic growth for Jamaica right now is our debt level,” said Lisandra.  Her goal is “to develop the business sector so that there's more tax revenues for the government so that they can pay off their debt faster.” 

In September Rickards joined the other new students for orientation at Harvard Business School’s Boston campus.  Dean Jay Light, an alumnus of HBS, prepared the welcome speech.

“The idea is to set the tone at the top,” Light explained.  “It's going to be a lot of hard work. It will be like drinking from a firehose. There's going to be many more than 24 hours of work that has to be done every 24 hours."

Light knows how they feel: “I was very nervous when I was in their shoes many years ago.  I said to myself: 'Oh my goodness: what have I gotten myself into?'"

That sentiment is shared by alumni all over the world, including some of the nation’s most successful business leaders. 

“It was scary — there's no question about it,” Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay and Harvard Business School alumna remembers.  Whitman, of course, ended up doing pretty well. And as the class of 2010 assembles for the first time one can only wonder who among them will become part of a new generation of corporate superstars.

Will they be like the Class of 1982 with heavy hitters like Jamie Dimon, chairman of JP Morgan Chase and Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric?  Or perhaps 1970, the class of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson?  Or 1966, the year New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg graduated? Pick almost any year and there’s a Harvard Business graduate who has made a big impact on society, has become extremely rich - both.

Beyond fame and fortune, Light reminds the incoming students what their time at the school is all about: “The most important lesson to learn is that individually you can be good, collectively if you put your mind to it you can be great.  That's really what the next two years is all about and the secret of success here at HBS.”

Mastering group interaction is the core of the Harvard Business School philosophy.  So even before classes begin, Lisandra meets her learning team. 

“This will be an incredible opportunity,” she said.

The academic equivalent of a platoon, a learning team is a six-person study group that meets almost every day before classes for the entire year.  Whether they struggle or soar, it will be together. Their friendships will likely last well beyond their Harvard years.

Michael Fedor, a member of Lisandra’s learning team, is a former business consultant from North Carolina. Fedor says he got mixed reactions when he told people he was accepted at Harvard Business School.

“The first person who congratulated me when I got into HBS said, 'You know, congratulations.  Don't become a jerk,''' he said. "And I kind of was taken aback by that. And I think that, you know, it's hard for people on the outside looking in understanding kind of what it's about.”

All the students — Michael, Lisandra and their classmates — are just beginning to figure out what this experience will be like: what they’re made of and how much learning, stress and competition that can handle.  On top of all of that, the current financial crisis adds another degree of uncertainty.

Light believes this will be a pivotal time for Harvard Business School.

“It is I believe, a quite dangerous time," he said. "It's quite clear the old financial system is gone, and I think the business school will be very different going forward.”

It’s too soon to tell just how different the school will be.  But it was a time just like this one, in 1908, when Harvard created the business school. Markets were crashing and banks were going under. 

“This school was founded to produce the kind of managers and the kind of leaders that could be effective in those times and beyond,” said Light.

By the early 20th century, large enterprises had sprung up and people were just beginning to think about corporate leadership. Harvard created the business school to train business leaders with the same demanding standards found in Harvard’s medical and law schools. 

But the fact that Warren Buffett, America’s most admired investor, didn’t have to go to Harvard Business School to become Warren Buffet raises the question: Does anyone need a Harvard MBA in the first place?

"What is the value of these places if Bill Gates didn't go there? If the founders of Google didn't go there?” said Philip Delves Broughton, a journalist who took two years out of his career to get an MBA at Harvard. He questions the value of an MBA.

“If so many great business people didn't get an MBA, what is the point of it?" he said. "And I think business schools struggle with this all the time. They're always trying to justify themselves in a way that law schools, medical schools, just don't have to.”

Steve Schwarzman, class of 1972, is arguablyone of the most powerful men in finance.  As a billionaire many times over and founder of private equity giant The Blackstone Group, he argues an MBA is a necessity for anyone who wants to become a true player.

"When younger people hit somewhere between their fifth and seventh year, and they haven't gotten their MBA, somehow they stall out," Schwarzman said. “You start dealing with more senior people, and you need a more comprehensive view of the world.  People who haven't gone to business school really miss that dimension, and they have trouble not in every case, but in many cases, getting through that glass ceiling.”  

But the financial disaster of 2008, triggered in part by a climate of greed and dubious ethics, raises questions about just what kind of graduates business schools like Harvard are turning out.

A wave of white-collar crime that snared Harvard Business graduate Jeff Skilling of Enron, among others, led the school to consider changes in its curriculum.  In 2006 Skilling, class of 1979, and former president of Enron, was found guilty on 18 counts of fraud and conspiracy and one count of insider trading.

“We are proud of having a very low market share of people who got off the track and did inappropriate things,” Light said.  “But obviously he made some serious mistakes.”

Light says the Enron scandal and findings of white-collar corruption influenced changes in the school's curriculum.

“I think that era did, in fact, galvanize our view that we really needed to make this effort even more important than it was,” said Light.  “And that's what led to the leadership and corporate accountability course.”

Dimon, class of 1982 and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, one of the banking giants still standing, doesn’t think business schools bear responsibility for greed on Wall Street.

“I put that in the absurd category because they don't teach people to be bums or crooks, or to be greedy or stuff like that,” Dimon says. “They teach people a lot of things.  And there's a lot of lessons that come out of this … and I'm sure Harvard Business School will be writing cases about it for years."

Despite the bad news on Wall Street and Main Street, the class of 2010 is cautiously optimistic.  Lisandra says the school has met her expectations, but she is rethinking her future plans: “I originally was thinking about going into finance, and now I feel that there are going to be a lot more limited options.”

Even the superstar alumni know that this class has reason to be nervous:

“If I was a student I would be concerned, what would I be doing after graduation, where would I go to work?” Whitman said.  “What is the state of the economy? Will entrepreneurship still be alive and well? Will risk taking be alive and well? Will the things that make America great still be alive and well? I think they will be, but it is an unsettled time.”