Go West, Young MBA

With nearly half a year to go before they're available for summer internships or full-time jobs, 500 Harvard MBA candidates descended upon Silicon Valley in the first week of January to find out how the Internet Economy will provide them with opportunity.

The student-organized WesTrek brings Harvard Business School students to the San Francisco Bay Area for a week to meet with high-tech employers. Since it began in 1996, WesTrek has grown like Yahoo's share price - from 75 students and 40 company participants to more than 200 companies and 500-plus students this year.

"The roads are so crowded with H.B.S. students that I'm surprised that one student hasn't hit another," says Steve Wardell, class of 2000.

Wardell, who attended WesTrek last year, was struck by how many dot-coms have spread beyond Silicon Valley into other parts of the Bay Area. Previously, beating bridge traffic over to the East Bay (where Oakland and surrounding suburbs are located) was not a typical part of the students' itinerary.

This week, Wharton and MIT students will follow the wagon train west. Students who once would have moved naturally into investment banking or financial consulting now eagerly eye business development posts at dot-com employers, or even consider launching a Net company straight out of business school.

Because the number of attendees has nearly doubled since last year, organizing WesTrek was a colossal undertaking, involving 50 student coordinators and months of planning. Between September and January, coordinators put together an online database of company participants. WesTrek attendees bid on the companies they most wanted to meet. Students were given 10,000 points with which to bid, but many used up a fat slice of those points on a single company in hopes of assuring an appointment.

Students typically meet with eight to 12 companies. Sarah Endline, WesTrek's VP of marketing, explained that although students bid very differently, this year's group showed particular interest in wireless, broadband and new media companies.

Endline interprets the diversity of interest as part of the spirit of WesTrek.

"Students make WesTrek what they want it to be," she says. "Others may be at the point of starting their own companies. Maybe they bid on companies that they consider potential partners. They want to know about the competitive landscape."

High-tech companies have been drawing greater percentages of Harvard's graduates, according to William Sahlman, who teaches entrepreneurial finance at the business school. He estimates that as many as 25 percent of the school's graduates will go to high-tech jobs this year, up from about 10 percent four years ago.

Moreover, there is an increasing correlation between students interested in high-tech careers and those who want to start their own companies. Of plans generated by students who took a course in starting their own business last year, 90 percent were for dot-coms - and more than 30 of those plans received funding. Ariba, Chemdex and Guru are among the dot-coms incubated by H.B.S. students in various years.

The number of students who have garnered venture capital dollars straight out of business school has not been lost on students signing up for WesTrek.

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