As a young undergraduate, Alex Slusky did things a promising professional was not supposed to do. When he was an economics student at Harvard, an ad in The Crimson caught his eye: Microsoft was looking for summer interns – from the Business School. But Alex applied anyway and in 1987 became “the only non-MBA product management intern at Microsoft.” Then, as graduation approached, he broke the mold again, applying for deferred admissions at HBS; the school accepted him as a direct admit, “but,” says Alex, “I took year off to build a deeper base of business experience at McKinsey before I started the program.”
The best simulation of business experience
Alex pursued the MBA because he had an interest in venture capital and wanted “to find a way to combine technology and strategy – how do we go up a level in business? Where can you see the bigger picture?”
The case study method sold Alex on HBS. “It’s the best simulation I know of real business experience,” he says. “With more than 800 cases over two years, you see a variety of situations and problems to solve – it forces you to synthesize your understanding into a practical business approach. Without the case method, I couldn’t possibly have the perspective and skills to address the business problems I faced when I graduated.
His classmates were a huge influence as well. “Not only did I have a terrific experience getting to know them, but through them, I learned about so many other kinds of businesses vicariously. The clubs and speakers are another highlight. HBS attracts business leaders who share their thoughts on a small group level – an immediacy that enriches your experience beyond ways that can be measured on tests.”
Turning MBA insights into a new way of doing business
One thing HBS did not change is Alex’s maverick inclinations. As graduation approached, and despite being twenty-five with little business experience, he was determined to break into the West Coast venture capital world. “I applied to forty firms and received thirty-nine rejections; but the one ‘yes’ came from Art Marks, an HBS alum and partner at New Enterprise Associates, then and now one of the largest VCs in the country.”
After three years with NEA, Alex “got bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.” The technology industry, however, had taken a beating. And Alex recognized that the traditional venture capital model was inadequate for guiding new enterprises through slow periods.
“There were plenty of VC firms,” says Alex, “but not private equity firms that had deep technology expertise that could be used to restructure and turn around companies that had fallen on hard times.” The insight inspired Alex to found one of the first West Coast PEs focused on technology. “With Vector Capital, I brought my HBS training and perspective to the West Coast technology landscape.” In its first round of institutional funding, two-thirds of the investment capital came “directly or indirectly from contacts I made at HBS,” Alex says.
The gambit has paid off. “By differentiating ourselves from the ordinary VC,” says Alex, “we have grown from a nascent start-up in 1997 to a partnership that now manages $2 billion in assets today. If you look at the West Coast PE industry, you’ll see that it is disproportionately dominated by HBS grads who combine deep, strategic business perspectives with technology experiences acquired through years of work in Silicon Valley"