Thinking About Thinking

Harvard Business School Is Taking Over Boston VCs – For Better Or Worse?

Posted in Venture Capital by larrycheng on October 18, 2009

Take a look at the middle tier of most Boston VCs – and what will you find in abundance?  Harvard Business School (HBS) grads.  Here’s a smattering of folks you can find with HBS degrees, including two of our own:

  • Rob Go, Spark Capital
  • Jon Lim, Polaris Venture Partners
  • Ryan Woodley, Polaris Venture Partners
  • Irena Goldberg, Highland Capital
  • Amanda Herson, Highland Consumer Fund
  • Jesse Feldman, Battery Ventures
  • Dayna Grayson, North Bridge Venture Partners
  • Cali Tran, North Bridge Venture Partners
  • Matt Witheiler, Flybridge Capital Partners
  • Geraldine Alias, Fidelity Ventures
  • Sean Cantwell, Fidelity Ventures
  • And on and on….

Now let’s look at the graduate school education some of the more established VCs in Boston:

  • Todd Dagres, Spark Capital – MBA, Boston University
  • Scott Tobin, Battery Ventures – no MBA
  • Dave Tabors, Battery Ventures – no MBA
  • Rob Soni, Matrix Partners – no MBA
  • Bob Davis, Highland Capital – MBA, Babson College
  • Dan Nova, Highland Capital – MBA, Harvard Business School
  • Dave Barrett, Polaris Venture Partners – no MBA
  • Joel Cutler, General Catalyst – JD, Boston College
  • John Simon, General Catalyst – MA, Oxford University
  • David Fialkow, General Catalyst – JD, Boston College
  • Mike Zak, CRV – MBA, Harvard Business School
  • Anne Mitchell, Fidelity Ventures – no MBA

Over the last 10 years, venture capital has become a more mature industry (meaning more job opportunities) and a highly desired career path for business school grads.  When I joined the venture industry in 1998, there were probably <10 non-partner positions in the Boston VC community altogether.  Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to find individual firms with 5–10+ non-partner positions.  Back in 1998, the typical HBS grad probably wanted to do investment banking or consulting.  These days – it’s hedge funds and private equity (VC & LBO).  Put that altogether, and it makes logical sense that HBS grads are far more prevalent in the Boston VC community than they were 10 or 20 years ago.  It’s the end result of every Boston VC firm that has a job opening going to HBS and aiming to hire the best of the best.

But, what does this mean for how the Boston VC culture will change over the next 10 years as opposed to where it came from the past 10–20 years?  What does it mean if a preponderance of Boston VCs all have the same educational training?  My guess is that both generations will find their own success, but perhaps their success will be for different reasons.  Perhaps the “HBS Generation” will succeed due to pure analytical horsepower and smarts.  Perhaps the present/past generation found success due more to creativity and courage.  It’s hard and ultimately unfair to generalize, but I have to think that things will change – maybe not better or worse – just different.

12 Responses

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  1. julespieri said, on October 18, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    OK I am allowed to say this, being an HBS alum myself. I would take creativity and courage over analytical horsepower and smarts–any day. I have seen VC’s with the former and I love it. (And it is usually borne of deep entrepreneurial experience…not just a personality predisposition.) And I have seen the younger ones with only the latter and it is very disconcerting. Like watching a med student doing a life or death medical diagnosis after only reading Gray’s Anatomy.

    Beyond that, having the same training–any training—Ringling Bros, or HBS, is a dangerous thing.

    Jeff Bussgang just wrote a post about VC’s only hiring people who look like themselves. Comfort with familiarity, and all. That’s evident in your list.

    When I interview an HBS grad, I actually am twice as hard on them….I am uncomfortable with what I know of the place. Even though I liked it and greatly benefited from it. But it is not a hotbed of creativity or courage, for sure.

    • Rylan Hamilton said, on October 18, 2009 at 11:43 pm


      I think the recent financial crisis actually spurred HBS grads to follow their entrepreneurial passions in a good way. Maybe we have a little more courage since the safety net of traditional career paths is being challenged (this is a good thing).

      I graduated in 2009, and some of my classmates are mentioned above (and not mentioned (Alex Taussig at HCP and Ann Dewitt at Flagship). What is great about the HBS experience is the variety of tracks students take right after school. Granted, many prior consultants went back to consulting, and many prior bankers entered consulting in a bleak job market (sarcasm intended). That said, we still have many gutsy entrepreneurs living the dream right now (and some are funded)- and are two good examples.

      My point is, like in a HBS classroom, you need all types of people to make successful startup ecosystems. You need the super-bright, analytical types to do the due diligence. You need gutsy and fearless entrepreneurs sticking their heads out to test ideas. You need work horses to do the behind-the-scenes work. I think HBS produces all three types, and this has helped our fellow alumni be successful in the Boston area. Now our challenge is to connect with other people of disparate minds and education.

      However, even with all the work of Scott Kirsner and others, I still think Boston is a bunch of university/ company centric bubbles which limits Boston’s potential and makes areas like San Francisco more conducive for startups. Just look at Kirsner’s comments on Innovation Day at the State House. Clearly not a legislative priority for MA:

      In short, I have hope that recent HBS MBA grads will do great things; however we have a lot of work ahead of us.

    • larrycheng said, on October 19, 2009 at 1:18 pm

      Jules – you strike me as a really creative person – it never registered to me that you went to HBS. Does the HBS experience help further foster that creativity in any way, or was it shelved for a couple years as you went through the curriculum?

      • Rudy said, on October 21, 2009 at 2:48 am

        Jules prior education was in design. Which leads into how I delineate between people with MBAs and why Jules is one of the cool ones in my book.

        You have one subset that follows the path of elite secondary school (St Paul’s, Horace Mann, etc.) -> Ivy League college + liberal arts degree -> consulting / i-bank associate -> Harvard/Stanford MBA. They’ll take out that Citi loan for 180k so they can maximize their networking while in school with lavish trips to exotic places around the world with other well to do classmates.

        You have another subset that genuinely wants to learn about business. Those folks usually have engineering or science undergrads, or maybe even art or design. To them, the MBA is more an opportunity to round out their knowledge base, not to hob-knob with future neighbors on the Cape.

        The latter I find have less apprehension towards working with people who don’t look just like they do.

        The former, I find to be dangerous component in society because of the influence their concentrated wealth has over governance and the exclusive walls that they create which ultimately bar entry only to the wealthy.

        /end populist diatribe 🙂

      • julespieri said, on October 21, 2009 at 8:43 am

        I’m sitting in a guest house in Savannah–I came down here to speak at the Savannah College of Art and Design. It cracks me up to find I missed this conversation. And it is especially notable since I did just spend the last two days hanging out with design students, not MBA’s. MY message to them was–partly–start a company! Don’t let MBA’s have all the fun.

        Rudy– Glad to know to know I got past your red flag meter, and that I somehow managed to stay there. I love your populist diatribe BTW. I think you and I pretty much spent my first interview on that theme. It’s a good one. I know I am harder on HBS MBA’s in an interview because I assume they might be conventional thinkers if they went there. OF course, there are exceptions.

        Larry–I am pleased you did not know I went to HBS. I did shelve the creativity thing for two years while at HBS, but that’s not a big deal. I was at HBS to do what Rudy described….be able to hang with the “suits” and ultimately have the analytical and vocabulary arsenal (and external cred) to go mano a mano. And, I really wanted to be a buisness person in a position with enough influence to really make good design happen. I did that in a bunch of corporate settings, but it’s even better to do it in my own company.

  2. Rudy said, on October 19, 2009 at 1:00 am

    I made the decision to work with Jules despite her Harvard MBA. I’m glad I was willing to look past that black mark on her resume. Actually, I think McKinsey is a far scarier thing to see in someone’s background, edging out Goldman on my red flag meter.

    • larrycheng said, on October 19, 2009 at 1:12 pm

      Hey Rudy, hope CA is treating you well. I just had to forward your comment to one of my colleagues who is McKinsey, Goldman, and HBS! Pretty hilarious.

  3. Larry Concannon said, on October 19, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    VC’s come from HBS for the same reason offensive linemen in football seem to come from Boston College. It is the training and foundation that makes them attractive to their employers. I have worked for many VC funded companies in the 20+ years since I graduated from HBS and the best relationships with VC’s that I have seen is when one gets some valuable guidance along with the investment. I wouldn’t trust that guidance from someone who worked a few years before HBS and then went right into VC. There is no substitute for the real world experience of founding and growing a company…

  4. Rob Go said, on October 19, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    Interesting post Larry. Actually, I think that you could attribute much of the increase in non-partner positions to increase in fund sizes. Larger funds mean more focus on later stage deals, which require more support on the sourcing side and on due diligence. In a way, these larger funds start looking more like middle-market buyout funds, which do have a bunch of analytical MBA’s at mid-level roles.

    I think that early stage venture capital firms today still look quite similar to early stage firms of the past (which by the way did have their fair share of HBS alumni). So I don’t really think I see as much of a generational shift happening, in my opinion.

  5. Tom Riordan said, on October 19, 2009 at 5:25 pm


    Interesting observation and you seem to be setting up for a claim that the current monoculture is not a good thing but back down in your last paragraph to avoid offending your colleagues. Each individual is different, but in general getting an MBA goes against three characteristics that make a good entrepreneur and I think VC. This is the ability to take risk (MBA is a career risk hedge) desire to do something different and innovative (if there is an HBS MBA monoculture it ain’t different) and working for your passion instead of making money (who spends $100k on an MBA to not make money?). that said I have known many good HBS grads who were excellent employees.

    Of course, I have even known a few vampire squid types from goldmans that were tolerable in small doses. very few

    the real struggle I have seen with the HBS MBA is that they tend to have a very abstract analytics view of organizations. this may be OK for wall street, but can be a big liability in the people intensive work at startups

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