Madeleine Diagne is an International Business student at the University of Houston – Downtown, and a Summer Venture in Management (SVMP) 2022 alum.

Graduating high school during the height of the pandemic was yet another obstacle threatening to set me back. Growing up in one of the tougher, under-resourced communities of Houston, Texas, I encountered innumerable challenges early on in my life. I felt prepared to navigate this reality. I wasn’t always this confident. Before I attended SVMP, I had begun to question my own worth and capabilities. I never considered applying to an Ivy League institution given some of the negative stereotypes I had heard about them. It also did not help that as a woman of color, I did not feel I had the right support system coaching me throughout my adulthood. I was constantly told to "settle for less" and "be realistic" with my choices regarding my journey toward success. I was perceived as stubborn and impractical simply because I refused to live inside the box I was put in by my close-minded family members. If I was not going to get the exposure and insight from within, I was determined to find a way out.

I discovered the Summer Venture in Management Program through a Google search for educational opportunities for undergrads, and knew that I had to try, even if I thought I felt like it was out of my league. I received an acceptance letter (yay!), and after 6 breathtaking days, 15 insightful class sessions, and meeting 10 professors and 180 scholars from all over the world, here are my top 3 misconceptions from my experience at HBS.

Myth #1: I don't deserve to be here.

I initially struggled with imposter syndrome in the first few SVMP cases, feeling like I didn't have the seemingly prerequisite academic pedigree and brand-name work experiences to succeed. I excelled despite these doubts. I found the atmosphere to be positive and supportive, with diverse and accomplished students who were not competitive, but rather sources of support. Everyone was different and talented in their own ways. The openness and welcoming nature of the SVMP cohort led me to embrace my differences and speak confidently (and humbly) about my accomplishments.

Through discussion groups and networking sessions, I formed close bonds with members of my cohort, bonds which have persisted beyond the program completion. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of building a strong network and seizing opportunities to connect with and learn from others. Each one of my program peers – most of whom I aspire to be lifelong friends with – I believe, will go on to be leaders in their respective fields. I even met an HBS alum while on campus who offered to mentor me, and I am still in contact with him today. Overall, I uncovered that imposter syndrome is best defeated by speaking up, asking for help, believing in oneself, and regularly practicing some form of affirmations.

Myth #2: The classroom and professors are intimidating.

The HBS professors I encountered were not intimidating at all, as I initially thought they might be. Instead, they were real people with a wealth of knowledge and connections, and most of them were quite funny and charismatic. Class sessions were interactive and insightful, and there were no "wrong" answers. Each professor leveraged a unique way of keeping students engaged and challenging them to dig deeper when problem solving. Overall, this made every discussion topic very interesting! My favorite part of the classroom environment was the debates between classmates as we defended our perspectives on a case. This was not my traditional academic setting and hearing different/opposing viewpoints prepared me for what would occur in a work environment.

My favorite case, led by Professor Anywhere Sikochi, focused on the development of African leaders. This case resonated with me. I lived and studied in Africa for four years, and I was able to share nuanced points about the case and continent with my peers. I felt empowered like never before to share my personal and professional experiences. Throughout my coursework that week, I gained insight into the different problems that industries face and developed a range of transferrable skills, all without fear of being “wrong.”

Misconception #3: I don’t need an MBA.

Navigating through SVMP was fulfilling, and although I had not seriously considered this option before, I have decided to pursue an MBA. The insight I gained from this experience has proved me and my preconceived notions wrong. I enjoyed the opportunity to be my authentic self without any pressure to dim the light of my character. This has been a journey that sparked my personal development and ignited the flame to become a well-rounded, influential leader.

SVMP has had a significant impact on how I view my future and has helped me challenge the misconceptions that I previously held. I have created memories and built connections throughout this program that will last a lifetime. I am more confident now and eager to accomplish the “impossible.” Along the way, I plan to pursue a Master of Business Administration degree to further my aspirations of becoming an influential leader in African American society. I am grateful to Harvard Business School for providing me with this opportunity to adapt, rebuild, and propel myself toward unrestricted heights.