September 1, 2008

Learning to Be Rich

By KING, David

WHAT THEY TEACH YOU AT HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL: MY TWO YEARS INSIDE THE CAULDRON OF CAPITALISM by Philip Delves Broughton. Penguin/Viking, 304pp, $37. Reviewed by David King.


Ever wondered what the heart of capitalism, the school where captains of industry are nurtured, looks like? Philip Delves Broughton found the heart at Harvard Business School and he turned what he discovered into a great read.

Broughton was a British journalist who had a career crisis after getting worried about falling circulations, the rise of the internet and the inability of his bosses to handle change. So he got out, sat the entry exams and raised the $278,000 it costs (including fees and living expenses) to complete a two-year Masters of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (HBS).

He went up against more than 7000 applicants for one of the 900 places on the big daddy of MBA courses around the world. Once you're in HBS it is almost impossible to fail and graduates are sought after, with a poor starting salary in banking starting at $285,000. Graduates include George W. Bush (how hard can the entry test be?), New York mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg and Jeffrey Skilling, the financial whiz jailed as part of the Enron scandal.

I did wonder after the first few chapters about how interesting 283 pages about a 33-year-old hack's university course would be.

At the outset, he says he did not attend Harvard to write a book about it, but his detailed descriptions of lecture theatres, luncheon menus and the merits of the case-study teaching method had me wondering whether he was being disingenuous. But after getting over the chapter-three hump, I was hooked.

I'm a fan of capitalism because it works. It empowers people to work hard and get rewards. Delves Broughton bores into the nub of the contradictions of capitalism and of HBS.

HBS takes the brightest - often people who have already made fortunes and careers - and teaches them to become business titans. But can it teach ethics or morality? Since the Enron scandal the school is trying to teach not only the skills of making and building wealth and learning to work the system, but also how to have a moral compass.

Delves Broughton paints sharp profiles of his classmates who range from Indian tycoons to former stealth-bomber pilots who grapple with learning, each other and often get disillusioned with what was always their dream, achieving a Harvard MBA. He also evaluates the academics and some come out pretty badly.

The power of the book is the picture it draws of the people and the system, as illustrated by the carpark mystery. Delves Broughton, who struggles financially, with a family to support, while he pursues his dream, drives an old car. He wonders why the Harvard carpark is full of the latest and best, while his classmates ostensibly struggle as students for two years.

The answer: cars were not considered assets when you apply for financial aid to attend HBS. So the whizzes worked out a way to qualify for aid from HBS's endowment funds by investing in a luxury Lexus or BMW.

From the outset, they were learning how to manipulate the system, and HBS is there to turbocharge their abilities. And that's what it's all about.

* David King is an assistant editor at The Press and editor of


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