Scenes From Harvard’s Super Rich MBAs
Michael Hess isn’t an ordinary member of Harvard Business School’s Class of 2013. After all, he’s a legacy graduate of both HBS and Harvard University and the son of John Hess whose net worth is estimated at north of $600 million. His father is chairman and CEO of the Hess Corp. which was founded by Michael’s grandfather, Leon Hess.
Hess also lived the good life at Harvard Business School, spending lavishly to travel to exotic spots around the world and party as if he were an undergraduate while an MBA student.
Indeed, Hess was identified by The New York Times in a follow-up article to its Harvard Business School treatise in Sunday’s Times. That story explored the social class divide at HBS between the very wealthy and the rest of the students.
The newspaper singled out Hess as one of the spoiled rich kids at Harvard and a possible member of Section X, a secret society of HBS students known for their decadent parties and travel.
According to the Times, “In interviews, some students mentioned the Instagram feed of Michael Hess, a member of the class of 2013, who has posted photographs of Mick Jagger close-up in concert, courtside seats at a Knicks game and stops on his trips around the world.”
HBS party-goers under the caption “#nerds by day, #lads by night. Last class and party”
Within hours of the article’s publication, the numerous photos in Hess’ Instagram feed–documenting a good deal of excess–went private. Those previously public photos provided an unusual glimpse into what it’s like to attend Harvard Business School when you are filthy rich–photos of trips to hot spots all over the world, photos with beautiful women, and photos of plenty of partying and drinking on yachts, in clubs and bars, and even in a swimming pool for what is called a “customary late night post vodka dip.”
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being among the wealthiest members of a community. Many people who lack that wealth go to Harvard Business School in the hopes of tapping into the network of power, prestige and money that is part of the Harvard brand. But it’s another thing, say students, to flaunt your family wealth on Instagram or Facebook and use it to isolate you from others. Yet, that’s exactly what a small group of highly privileged students and their minions are apparently doing at Harvard Business School, according to former MBA students who have commented on the Times’ website.
The problem isn’t Harvard’s exclusively. Stanford B-School Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer says he has seen similar behavior at his school and believes it is endemic to most top business schools. “Students from all social backgrounds who gain admission to top schools all have the intellectual horsepower to effectively compete with their classmates in academics,” says Pfeffer in an essay published by Bloomberg BusinessWeek. “Not all students have equal ability to compete when it comes to participating in and throwing lavish parties…Business school has become way more about the parties than about the course work, which has left poorer students at a social—and professional—disadvantage.”
At this year’s Harvard Class Day ceremonies, Student Association Co-President Kunal Modi noted that some graduating MBAs might even measure their Harvard experience by “the number of stamps in our passport” and the number of likes on an Instagram post. “We measured ourselves before we got to HBS with our GMAT, our GPA, and job promotions,” said Modi. “And there certainly have been a number of quantifiable elements of our HBS experience: the number of cases, the number of job interviews, the number of stamps in our passport and the number of likes on that last post on Instagram.”
If those metrics reflect success at Harvard Business School then Hess was clearly a highly successful Harvard MBA. Among the pictures is one of the tuxedo-clad groomsmen at classmate’s Alex Blankfein’s wedding this past March. Blankfein is the son of Goldman Sachs Chairman and CEO Lloyd Blankfein and Hess was one of his groomsmen. One photo, of several HBS classmates swimming in a pool, featured the caption: “Last #ladz standing Customary late night post vodka dip.”
Yet another picture, apparently a shot of the last pre-graduation party, captured the guys in a black-and-white photograph, with the caption: “#nerds by day, #lads by night. Last class and party.” Wearing a bow tie without a shirt in the photo is HBS classmate Hayk Sarkissian who called Hess his “Instagram daddy.” Sarkissian, an ex-attorney who claims proficiency in Armenian, Russian, French and English, had worked in London and Hong Kong before going to Harvard.
Hess as a groomsman at the wedding of HBS classmate Alex Blankfein, son of the chairman of Goldman Sachs
After posting a photo of himself graduating from HBS on Instagram, Hess was offered a public congratulations from socialite and fashion model Nicky Hilton. Hess had gotten party-girl extraordinaire Paris Hilton, described as a friend, to come to Harvard when he was an undergrad and treasurer of the Lampoon.
There are no photos of anyone actually studying for a class, giving the impression that the group was at Harvard for a two-year-long party. The feed brings to mind the famous line from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Let me tell you about the very rich,” he wrote. “They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them…”
According to the Times, the men at the top of the male hierarchy at Harvard Business School most typically work in finance, drive expensive luxury cars and advertise “lavish weekend getaways on Instagram”–just like Hess and a few of his friends. “Some belong to Section X, an “on-again-off-again secret society of ultra-wealthy, mostly male, mostly international students known for decadent parties and travel,” according to the Times account.
One commenter on the story noted that Section X is largely composed of about 100 MBA students from South America, the Middle East and Asia, out of a total enrollment of more than 1,800, “most of whom were making up for the fact that they did not have a ‘college experience.’”
The Times said that even though Section X is hard to pin down — some students said they did not believe it existed at all — it is a source of significant resentment on campus. Every HBS class is organized into 10 sections labeled A through J, and the name Section X suggests a separation from the broader HBS community. “The Section X dynamics really deteriorate the section togetherness,” said Kate Lewis, a 2013 graduate who edited the school newspaper, in an interview with the Times. “By the end of this academic year, Section X had become an adjective on campus for anything exclusive and moneyed, with one student talking about a “mini Section X dynamic” within her real section,” according to the Times.
One Class of 2013 MBA spoke publicly about the section. “Someone made the decision for me that I’m not pretty or wealthy enough to be in Section X,” said Brooke Boyarsky, at the time a first-year MBA Class of 2013 MBA at Harvard. She told her classmates this at a discussion about sexual harassment. “Until then, no one else had publicly said ‘Section X.” They organize “the real parties, the parties where it’s a really limited list, the extravagant vacations — I mean really extravagant,” she told the Times.
According to the Times, the room quickly came alive. “The students said they felt overwhelmed by the wealth that coursed through the school, the way it seemed to shape every aspect of social life–who joined activities that cost hundreds of dollars, who was invited to the parties hosted by the student living in a penthouse apartment at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Boston. Some students would never have to seek work at all–they were at Harvard to learn to invest their families’ fortunes–and others were borrowing thousands of dollars a year just to keep up socially.”
Pfeffer notes that at Stanford, the partying atmosphere began with an event called FOAM (Friends of Arjay Miller, a former Ford Motor senior executive and dean of the school). “As sort of a joke, a group that originally called itself the 11 Percenters and then became known as FOAM began with a Tuesday-night bar scene—since there are no classes on Wednesday,” he writes in BusinessWeek. “Some students thought it would be cool to go to Las Vegas on a Wednesday during the winter quarter—hence, Vegas FOAM—with a Tuesday-night departure, and some people dressed in costumes. Then people began going to the Sundance Film Festival—a majority of the student body now make that trek. And, of course, there are the ski houses and ski weekends, the rental houses in tony Atherton and Woodside that some second-years live in, the various charity fundraising balls, and the numerous other events and trips that I can’t even keep track of.”