Where We Earn Our Honors

I’ll start this story at the end and say that the most rewarding moment of my summer internship at Sloan occurred in an alleyway in the company of five former Panamanian gang members. The lesson: life is more rewarding when you push yourself just a little farther, and MIT Sloan will ask you to do just that.

Now for the long form. In a past life, as a hopeful MBA applicant, I came across something in my research on schools that struck me profoundly, and that has stayed with me every moment since. I read that at MIT as a whole, Sloan included, students do not graduate with any special academic honors. Why? Because graduating from MIT is honor enough.

The nuance is small, but the significance isn’t. While some might dismiss this as the boastful cliche of an overly proud organization, perhaps a dressed up version of the horribly trite “we give 110%”, I can say without hesitation that this small detail is a microcosm of what makes MIT, and transitively Sloan, amazing. It embodies a simple yet hugely important ideal that, I now believe, is core to the attitude that I love most about the environment at Sloan: MIT asks you to be more.

If you’re here or at any other top business school, it’s understood that you’re smart and accomplished, and it’s expected that you will continue to succeed. Commonly, the standard of success is set at “perform well academically” and “get into a prestige company”, and understandably so, as those are hard things to do. Yet Sloan says, “we already know you’re going to do that, so now tell us how you’re going to really push yourself to be exceptional”. It is an ethos that at once demands the most of you and yet simultaneously says, “relax, you’re here, it’s not a competition anymore, so go take some risks”.

For me, this mentality was what led me to spend my summer working in Casco Viejo, the colorful, lively, and rapidly revitalizing old town of Panama City, Panama. Midway through spring semester, with a few offers from big brand name companies on the table, I was presented with the opportunity to take a Sloan Sustainability Internship working with a small, Panamanian real estate development company that is a living experiment in a new model of socially focused real estate investing. The company wasn’t a brand name anyone outside of Panama would have ever heard of. The project was complex. The responsibility was significant. The environment was unfamiliar. The pay was less. In short, it was a risk. And thanks to MIT and all their little pirate ship stickers (you’ll understand when you get here), it was a risk I took.

Over the course of two months in Casco, I was tasked by my host company and its visionary co-founder, KC Hardin, to develop from scratch a business plan to be pitched at the end of the summer. This business was to be a logistics and distribution company that would at once solve for the issues created by the poor quality services currently available while also building in solutions for the neighborhood’s congestion, pollution, and waste removal issues. So we made that happen. Along the way, I also became closely involved with Esperanza, a group founded by KC and other Casco residents that effectively acts as a local impact investor, seeding former gang members from the streets of Casco with money to start businesses and then working with those businesses to achieve financial sustainability. The group of guys I worked with, who now go by the name Fortaleza, had an idea to create and launch a line of merchandise to further grow the tour businesses they had started. So we found a way to make that happen, too.

At Sloan, we earn our honors outside the walls of our school. For me, one of my honors was having multiple owners of major local businesses come shake my hand at the end of my pitch presentation and thank me for getting the ball rolling on such needed work. Another was working with a company that is having such a profound positive impact on this community. The biggest honor, though, was watching the guys sell those first few shirts in the alleyway where Fortaleza’s tour culminates. There won’t be a sticker on my diploma for that, nor a prestigious sounding title I get to attach to my degree on my resume. There is just that feeling of knowing you pushed a little further, tried something a little different, and ultimately made a positive difference because of it. Whether that happens in a Panamanian alleyway, in the team room of your summer consulting gig, or during the 3am code fest at your startup, it’s an amazing feeling. And I promise it will make you smile more than any formal honor ever did.

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