Levels of Meaning

Ben Gettinger, MBA 2016

Ben Gettinger
My business history courses posed...higher-level questions that one may not address on a daily basis

In my first year at HBS, a lot of the emphasis was on the Required Curriculum (RC), with courses like accounting, marketing, finance, strategy, and operations. I assumed the Elective Curriculum (EC) year would be more of that type of coursework. To be honest, I was unaware that business history courses were even offered at HBS. But I decided to take Entrepreneurship and Global Capitalism (EGC) and The Coming of Managerial Capitalism because I wanted to balance “hard skills” courses with classes that broadened my perspective on the business world.

In my RC courses, I learned skills like how to project inventory needs over the course of the year. My business history courses posed questions like, How did an entrepreneur build his or her business over time? What choices did they make that were fundamental in making the business a success? What trade-offs did they make as they scaled their business?  What were the institutional foundations in the United States that allowed for economic growth?  What makes the entrepreneurial spirit and history of entrepreneurship in this country unique?  These are much higher-level questions that one may not address on a daily basis, but are important nonetheless.

I think we put a lot of emphasis today on entrepreneurs being a single person who drives an enterprise. In contrast, history is replete with examples of successful founders whose initial decision of who to build a business with was the decision that fundamentally allowed the venture to be successful. In many cases, the complementary skills that business partners bring to the table are instrumental in helping founders guide their businesses forward. In EGC, we studied examples like Christian Dior, who built a skilled team around him that included a young Yves Saint Laurent and Serge Heftler-Louiche, former manager of Coty. Another example is I.M. Singer, namesake of the Singer sewing machine empire. Singer himself was an odd, eccentric character, but his partner, Edward Clark, had the regimented business mind. And Clark’s choice to empower geography managers and listen to the ideas of his people on the ground led to innovations like door-to-door sales and extending credit, components of consumerism that we take for granted today.

From these courses, I have gained a greater appreciation for the impact businesses can have. One can get lost in day-to-day decision making, but it’s important to remember that as I progress through my career, the decisions I or other MBAs make will have lasting impact, both on company employees and the customers and communities that company serves.