07 Aug 2020

Masters of Memes


by Ashley Wheeler

The Beginning of B-School Funny

It was February 12, 2019, and Dear Harby, a new mysterious Instagram account, had just published its first post—a video highlighting the number of times Dean Nitin Nohria said “Harvard Business School” in a short 30 second clip (spoiler: 13). Another post followed shortly after—this time, a carousel adding a few extra items to Professor Michael Porter’s 5 Forces framework. No one could figure out who was running this new account, but one thing was for certain; it was the laugh the HBS community didn’t know it needed.

Instagram meme accounts offer cultural commentary and carry ideas, symbols, and practices across groups of people—and none more astute than over 1 billion monthly active users of Instagram. Yet, no one would expect the hallowed halls of HBS to be ripe for a comedic commentary. “Most people would have never associated Harvard Business School with comedy, but we think this place is a goldmine,” said the Dear Harby team.

Founded by Billy Tabrizi (MBA 2020) and Ratnika Prasad (MBA 2020) during their time at HBS, the Dear Harby Instagram account is named after the advice column in the student run-run newspaper the Harbus, and managed by a mostly-anonymous, rotating crop of first and second-year MBA students with a passion for not taking life at HBS too seriously.

“In a good way, many students and professors are so earnest,” noted Dear Harby. “They really believe in the place and the mission. It’s a much dorkier institution than people on the outside realize, so there’s a lot of fun to be had with that.”

Despite the laughs, it is a struggle to find willing and capable managers. “Our biggest obstacle will always be recruiting new students,” said Dear Harby. “HBS students are very busy, and sometimes...not as funny as they think they are. We need people who can be funny, but not mean, and that’s not always easy.”

Managers try to limit their Dear Harby time to three to five hours a week, not including their text-based joke and rumor brainstorming sessions. Though this mysterious trio creates a majority of the content you see on their page, community members occasionally submit content. “Funny photos of things around campus, like when someone tried to drive right up to Baker Library, or random Dean Nohria sightings. We love those,” said Dear Harby.

A mere 18 months later, Dear Harby has posted more than 200 memes and gained an audience of almost 3,500, with one of the account’s biggest fans being Dean Nohria’s wife, Monica Chandra—and of course their fellow MBA students.

“A lot of students, as much as they love HBS, also sometimes need an outlet to laugh at the absurdity of it all,” Dear Harby commented. “HBS is such a performance and I think Harby became very popular with the students (and a lot of the faculty!) because it tapped into that feeling that we don’t always have an outlet to express ourselves.”

Laughing Through COVID-19

Spring semester 2020 was no joke when COVID-19 forced the School to finish the semester online. “It was really hard at first,” Dear Harby acknowledged. “Posting about something other than COVID felt insane because it felt like the only thing happening in the world.” During the early phases of the pandemic, Dear Harby shared posts like “The 5 Stages of FGI Cancelation Grief,” “5 Ways Zoom Classes Will Be Better Than Regular Classes,” and “Zoom Bingo.” But Dear Harby admits it wasn’t all memes and butterflies.

“The school was shutting down and everyone, including us, were really, really sad about it. A few of our posts around that time probably got a bit darker than usual, but that was very much the mood.”

Through the pandemic, Dear Harby has helped the HBS community laugh through the first ever virtual HBS Show, virtual finals, and the uncertainty of summer internships. They seem to know that if the community isn’t laughing, it might be crying.

“If by running this silly little meme account we’re able to brighten someone’s day, make it a little less stressful, and contribute to the community, we’ve done our job,” said Dear Harby.

Getting Down to Business

Business meme accounts aren’t a new concept. With accounts like MBA Mikey or HBS MBA Class of 2019’s Crazy Management Consultant (CMC), business and b schools seem to be rich with opportunity for humor.

“Inspiration comes from daily life in my work as a management consultant—everything from funny conversations with my team and clients to buzzwords we use that everyone likes to make fun of,” said CMC, who also wishes to remain anonymous. “The mission of the account is to help professionals make fun of themselves and not take everything so seriously.”

No business school or current event is safe from MBA Mikey’s memes, but he is also seen as an information source for those interested in pursuing an MBA. “In a way, I think people come to me for the inside scoop—what they don’t get from other sources that are dependent upon the schools' marketing budgets,” he theorized.

MBA Mikey and Dear Harby say that putting together memes “takes maybe five minutes,” but browsing other memes, checking the news, and watching trending videos for inspiration can be more time consuming. Business meme accounts have been leveraging their sizable followings in the wake of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement to not only dissect New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature PowerPoint presentations, but to also share important information and keep the business community informed.

“During early days of the pandemic I’ve received a lot of concerned direct messages from recent grads looking to recruit, so I’ve used the platform to share news on firms’ responses and recruiting updates, which people really appreciated,” CMC noted.

As consumers of content on Instagram, we may not realize how the light-hearted humor of meme accounts can, in a small way, help us get through these uncertain and often scary times. If you are looking to add some businesses humor to your feed, definitely follow @dearharby, @crazymgmtconsultants, and @mba_mikey—and here are a few more suggestions:

    - Mrs Dow Jones (@mrsdowjones): Haley Sacks shares memes and videos using pop culture to illustrate financial terms and concepts.

    - MBA-ish (@mba_ish): Want to know what work is like post-MBA? Look no further. MBA-ish shares satire from the workplace.

    - MBA Confessions (@mbaconfession): Anonymous MBA student confessions.

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