Miho Sakuma (MBA '20) is from Tokyo, Japan and graduated with a major in history at Williams College. 

At the Class of 2020 welcoming reception last year, Dean Nohria told us that HBS will transform us in three dimensions – academics, social, and career. It was difficult to recognize the changes during my first year, but reflecting back now, my first year surely brought transformations and growth in all of those areas. These expreiences are all valuable and to be honest, some are painful too. Sometimes life can be much simpler when I was just happy doing what I was "supposed" to do but there is no going back now! As my section-mate describes it, these are my "growing pains," and I am happily embracing them. 

Academics: from “what am I supposed to learn?” to “what do I want to learn?” 

I initially approached academics as if I was checking things off my to-do list. Read cases. Check. Say something in class to hit the minimum participation requirements. Check. Review course concepts before finals. Check.  

While I learned a lot by simply following instructions, I realized that I have the responsibility and ability to shape the learning to make it most valuable and meaningful for me. To achieve this, tried to be more intentional and deliberate about my learning. For example, one week, I had a post-it to remind myself not just to say something and relax afterward, but to make sure to listen for the comments and overall conversation that resulted.  

I think this kind of intentionality is essential in a complex and ambiguous business world as well, where you cannot control the outcome. Even if you satisfy everything that you should be doing and make sound decisions, you can still encounter a disastrous result. Therefore, I would like to focus on doing things in a way that I can be proud of instead of trying to climb up the ladder in the most efficient manner possible. The goal is to accept and learn from whatever the outcome is. 

Social: from desperately looking for "best friends" to cherishing small moments

Having a small circle of friends that you can really trust and connect with makes life much richer. However, to be honest, I sometimes found it difficult to form the kinds of close friendship I had before because everyone is so busy engaging in so many kinds of activities at HBS. But I learned that different types of interactions can have a profound impact, even if they are not with what I used to define as my best friends.

The most memorable moment for me came on a typical case day. To give a quick background, I used to have a mindset that I needed to cover my identity as a Japanese and try to be an American to fit in. During college, I was the only Japanese person in my school. I did my best to fix my accent, I did not hang out with other Asians, and I joined the predominantly white varsity crew team as a rower. Consequently, when we read a case about Rakuten’s “Englishinization,” I said that it was a great idea because it would facilitate changing Japanese hierarchical culture. Then, after the class, my Syrian section-mate came to me and said, “I wish you defended Japan more. My home country also has a hierarchical culture, and there is a beauty in it. I don’t think the Americans way is always the right way.” This was the moment that I realized that I can be proud of my own culture, and in fact, it will be of more service to my classmates if I communicated how I was different, rather than try to conform to the majority out of a sense of inferiority.  

I think the reason why such short but meaningful conversations happen a lot at HBS is because we all agree to be vulnerable and candid for each other's learning. This is not easy. You need to overcome the fear of judgment to be vulnerable, and the fear of not being liked to be radically candid. Sometimes we fail - but the trust we develop over the course of the year enables us to keep trying.

Career: from blind trust to critical thinking 

As someone who is not looking to switch careers after pursuing an MBA, I did not think transformation in my perspective of my career would happen as much for me. However, I realized that transformation is not just about the actual job you have before/after business school, but more about the attitude and perspectives you have about your career.

I used to think that consulting was the best job for me. I really love the people I worked with and the work we did. However, learning about so many different careers and about the business leaders in classes and from friends, I started to see consulting in much more relative terms. When I met with former colleagues, I found myself being much more critical about what they were saying and the things they were doing. I perceived them differently and more questions came to my mind than agreements.  

At the same time, there are many things about my previous firm that I appreciate much more now. I worked with the consultants from my previous firm as a client during my summer internship, and through that experience I realized how crucial it is to have a unified identity as one firm. For instance, no matter which office you belong to, we can work as a team from day one because we have common values that guide our decision making and culture that makes trust as default. It was difficult to see non-tangible values as an asset at my previous firm until I saw it as an outsider.   

Because of this shift in perspective, I feel that I am choosing to go back, rather than going back there by default. I would like to carry this mindset after my MBA to remind myself that I am working because I want to, not because I have to.

Looking ahead

The mission of HBS is to develop leaders who make a difference in the world, and I believe RC year was a year where I saw a difference within myself. My goal for my EC year is to build a system that enables me to sustainable experience such transformative moments outside and after the carefully designed HBS environment. How can I be intentional about my education outside Aldrich classrooms? How can I create an authentic and candid relationship with people outside my section and HBS? How can I maintain healthy perspective about my career? I believe developing a system for my own transformation is a first step in making a difference for others.