How HBS Developed a Program to Peek Into Life as an MBA Student
How HBS Developed a Program to Peek Into Life as an MBA Student
Up Close: People have long been curious about what it’s like to be a student at Harvard Business School, and increasingly they are also interested in how the best-known school of management manages itself. This is the fourth installment of a new series called Up Close, featuring the day-to-day work of the School and the people who do it.
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20 Sep 2017   Carol Mervis

Here is an Up Close look at how Peek Weekend hosts and inspires a wide range of nontraditional business school candidates.


When rising senior Minwei Cao opened an email from the career center at Williams College in 2016, she scanned the details about a summer weekend program at Harvard Business School and thought, “Oh, this is so not me. Business school? That’s for consultants and bankers.” As a biology and English double major, business school was not even remotely in her future plans. Despite this, she pushed herself outside her comfort zone, applied, and was accepted.

She never expected that this three-day, intensive, HBS sampler would leave her with a new intellectual mindset and career goals that were far different from what she’d ever imagined.

Peek Weekend, which launched in 2015 as a program for students at women’s colleges, is an educational experience designed to help rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program understand what business school is all about at a time when they’re thinking about the next steps in their lives. In 2016, the program expanded to include two other groups of applicants-- those majoring in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (the so-called STEM subjects) and those coming from a family-owned business background.

Although the name of the program may give the impression of scratching the surface, students find that their Peek Weekend at HBS is really a deep dive. Enrique Luis Gonzalez (who attended the University of Michigan and participated in the family business cohort in 2016) describes the extended weekend as “packed with a wide range of activities, including many hours of individual and group case preparation, in-class case discussions, guest speakers, and lunch and dinner events. We met incredible people such as professors, alumni, and current HBS MBA students. While different interests, schools, and countries were represented, curiosity and eagerness to learn were the unifying forces that drove conversations and amplified the impact of the Peek experience.”

“TO KNOW HBS IS TO APPRECIATE HOW ONE SEED OF AN IDEA CAN BE RAPIDLY PROTOTYPED INTO A SUCCESSFUL PROGRAM.”

While the program’s effect on participants like Cao and Gonzalez is impressive, the story behind how this program came to be and how it’s managed is equally so. It’s an ode to innovation, dedication, and the commitment of HBS faculty and staff to providing a transformational experience to those who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to business school.

Professor Felix Oberholzer-Gee, senior associate dean and faculty chair of the MBA Program, was the driving force behind the creation of Peek Weekend. As he explains, several years ago he was on a plane to New York with former HBS professor Debora Spar, who was then president of Barnard College. They were talking about leadership capabilities and career opportunities for students from women’s colleges like Barnard. They hypothesized that providing a view into graduate business education would expose students to new viewpoints and a greater understanding of how a career in business could align with their goals.

To know HBS is to appreciate how one seed of an idea can be rapidly prototyped into a successful program. A short time later, a group of staff members set about executing Oberholzer-Gee’s idea. Drawing on their experience in running the MBA Program and another offering for college students called the Summer Venture in Management Program, the team planned a weekend that provided an immersion into the MBA experience specifically tailored for students with limited exposure to business or business-related fields.

They called upon expertise from many other groups within the School as well. MBA Admissions and Financial Aid created a need-based financial aid structure to offset the program’s fees (which were kept to a minimum), while the HBS Operations staff lent a hand by resolving housing and other logistical issues.

Other innovations were also introduced. For example, to encourage communication in a way familiar to these students, staff quickly adapted an app used for an event for the new accepted classes of MBA applicants to allow Peek participants to learn about each other and staff to communicate details about the Peek Weekend program.

Recruiting other HBS professors to teach over the weekend proved to be easy for Oberholzer-Gee. Without hesitation, they gave generously of their time to prepare for and teach in the program.

Faculty members who have taught during Peek Weekend include Jill Avery (who will chair the program in 2018), Mihir Desai, Frances Frei, Jonas Heese, Youngme Moon, Kristin Mugford, Tsedal Neeley, Ryan Raffaelli, Sophus Reinert, Len Schlesinger, and Ariel Stern.

Having completed a third summer of running and scaling Peek Weekend, and with the help of brand ambassadors from the previous programs, the School plans to continue to innovate to seek out those who are exploring career options and want to understand how an MBA can help them achieve their long-term goals. While there will be no formal eligibility requirements for next summer’s Weekend, preference will still be given to students who have not had academic or professional exposure (including internships) to business or business-related fields.

The objective of the program remains the same, however-- to deliver an unforgettable experience that is thought-provoking and transformative. In Minwei Cao’s words, “During the whole weekend, you are pushed to think introspectively about yourself as a leader, which was tremendous for me, because I saw how my mindset can adapt and be flexible to incorporate new learning.” As Gillian Tisdale -- a participant from Smith College -- added, “I gained a flash education on leadership and now have a much deeper appreciation for what an MBA education can offer, with a broader perspective on what a collaborative, interactive learning environment can provide within a business context.”

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