Deferring MIT to live out of a van

I was originally admitted to the MIT Sloan Class of 2017, but I deferred one year to live out of a van touring with a documentary film I produced called Poverty, Inc. Supporting hands-on entrepreneurial endeavors is what MIT is all about.

This is how my 2015 round 2 application essay to MIT Sloan began:

I never thought I would apply to MIT. I looked into it simply to stay in Cambridge as I support my wife in her Ph.D. work at Harvard Medical, but my first choice was HBS. My official visit changed that.

I was struck by the person-centric approach of Sloan’s customizable curriculum and I appreciated the heavy emphasis on learning-by-doing. More than any single data point, it was the intangible quality of MIT’s distinctive entrepreneurial culture that drew me in. This I experienced beyond the official visit in interactions with Sloanies, including Chris Mitchell (MBA ‘10), who shared with me his “Constructive Capitalism Manifesto.” I could see that Sloanies weren’t just out to get prestigious jobs or even to just start new businesses; they were out to create entirely new categories.

This second paragraph may sound like admissions brown nosing, but this past year has edified my belief that MIT really is a special place.

I happily accepted MIT’s offer to join the class of 2017, but by July of 2015 I was feeling conflicted about enrolling. I was the co-producer of Poverty, Inc. and the film was really starting to take flight, attracting investment from distribution companies and earning a coveted spot in Michael Moore’s invite-only Traverse City Film Festival. One of our distributors was especially keen on doing a filmmaker screenings tour. But that would entail a major commitment.

I had been working on this film since 2010, albeit in parallel with other projects. We had already won over 30 international film festival awards (now over 50), travelled with the film, and spoken at Harvard, MIT, and numerous universities. There was a strong temptation to celebrate the film’s positive reception as the completion of the venture, put the awards up in the trophy case, write them down on the resume, and move on. But I couldn’t shake a nagging sensation of incompleteness. One day I wrote in my journal: You don’t make documentaries to win awards. You make them to change culture.

I felt torn. Personally, I felt ready to begin an exciting new adventure at MIT. Professionally, I felt a sense of duty to deliver on the investments being made in the film, and in me by extension. Aspirationally, I felt a sense of being “three feet from Gold,” that walking away might forever burden me with a wonder of what could have been. I decided to write Rod Garcia to request a deferral. MIT Sloan doesn’t technically grant deferrals, but true to the person-centric entrepreneurial spirit I had highlighted in my essay, the admissions team found a way to make it work.

With a full year set aside for Poverty, Inc., I called up a buddy who had DIY converted a white utility van into a mini-camper. In the fall of 2015, I embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime screening tour covering 7,570 miles by road and 10,042 by air in just 50 days, doing a screening and Q&A pretty much every night of each week. I was blown away by the passion and energy of screening organizers and participants in the dozens and dozens of cities I visited, with lengthy post-screening discussions ranging 30-75 minutes following the 91 minute film. I was struck by how big and diverse the United States really is.

Poverty, Inc. premiere in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Poverty, Inc. premiere in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

To date, I’ve been honored to present over 100 guest lectures and Q&A’s (avg. 45-75 min.) to over 12,000 people. The film has screened in well over 200 cities, 16 countries, and 300 universities, high schools, and nonprofits (these are just the ones we know of). In 2016 it earned a Netflix deal, a successful release on numerous other platforms worldwide, and TV in 12 countries, and successful launch on iTunes, Amazon, and other platforms.

I don’t know how much of this would have been possible were it not for the support of MIT Sloan admissions. Furthermore, during my deferral year the school’s professors and my would-have-been classmates in the Class of 2017 were incredibly welcoming despite my non-student “affiliate” status. I audited a couple of classes and collaborated on a blockchain technology project that led to a position at the MIT Media Lab’s Digital Currency Initiative, where I now work.

When you’re researching graduate schools, it’s hard to get a feel for culture without experiencing it first hand. MIT is already top notch school on paper, but it’s the entrepreneurial, person-centric culture that make it truly special.

I haven’t even begun my formal studies, and MIT has already helped me achieve my goals. Now, as I again prepare for my first year at Sloan, I am even more excited to begin what is sure to be another amazing year.

Watch the Poverty, Inc. Official Trailer

Mark Weber

Mark R. Weber is a polymath with a penchant for political economy and i. innovation. As a project manager at the MIT Media Lab's Digital Currency Initiative, Mark is focused on harnessing blockchain technology to help governments create more inclusive and transparent economies. Mark is the co-producer of the award-winning documentary film, "Poverty, Inc." (available on Netflix), which has earned over 50 international film festival honors, the $100,000 Templeton Freedom award, and critical acclaim across the political spectrum. An avid reader and traveler, Mark has given over 100 public speaking engagements for universities, high schools, companies, and nonprofit organizations.

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