Why I Decided to Invest My Money Studying at the World's Finest Universities

by Francisco Santolo
October 2018

In this article, I would like to share my experiences at Kellogg School of Management, Stanford Graduate Business School, Harvard Business School, MIT Sloan and Singularity University. How they influenced my career and the impact they had on my personal and professional life. In doing so, I hope to offer an alternative model to think through the decision of investing your efforts and your money in education. Why do I keep placing my bets on these learning experiences in a world where the educational paradigm has plunged into a crisis? My next target: INSEAD.

Kellogg School of Management, Chicago

I enrolled in my first Executive Development program in the US in 2013, at the age of 31. The program, focused on General Management, was held at the Kellogg School of Management. By then, I had about six years corporate experience working as a Regional Marketing Manager, and later on Commercial Planning for Latin America, at Natura Cosmetics. During that time, I never stopped studying. I had earned a Masters Degree in Economics at UDESA, an MBA at UCEMA and I graduated from a Management Leadership Program at IAE. However, my plan to study abroad had been postponed because of the rapid development of my career – it just didn't seem sensible to risk my position, and tuition costs didn't play in favor of the decision. I was still lured by the idea of studying at the "world's finest", even when I was totally in the dark about what such an experience would represent. But most importantly, I didn't have an adequate model to analyze my predicament. I will try to describe the essence of the experience and hint towards the criteria that – in my opinion – will help you better ponder the decision.

In 2013, inspired by Clayton Pedro, my manager at the time, and by Lorena Sanchez García (MBA and Masters in Engineering, Kellogg), I summoned up the courage to revise my paradigms and invest roughly half of my savings in the aforementioned program at Kellogg, hoping to signal my readiness to climb the next step in the corporate ladder towards becoming General Manager.

My experience at Kellogg was the most radical turning point in my personal and professional life. For three whole enthralling weeks, I shared 16 hours a day with 40 professionals from over 20 different countries. I was humbled to be the least senior member in a cohort of awe-inspiring professionals: General Managers, Directors, Vice-Presidents, CEOs and company owners listed by Forbes among the richest businessmen in the world. Though diverse in our cultures, religions, industries, professions, personal histories, we were united by common values: collaboration, respect, willingness to learn, curiosity about the world views of others. That spirit of collaboration was one of the highlights at Kellogg, a school that cares deeply for its academic culture. What is more, the Program counted on an extraordinary set of contents and an exceptional body of professors. Great value was available to us through infrastructure, technology, communications, literature, databases, sporting grounds, top level facilities, etc – as was the case with the other schools I will review below. Obviously, this contributed to our well-being and to the success of the Program.

In a nutshell: I had the chance to experience three intense weeks of constant intellectual stimulus, ongoing discovery and learning, deepening self-knowledge, immense growth in terms of human relations and plain uninterrupted fun. It is hard to believe that, in such a short time, a group of people can reach such a life-long level of unity, of fraternity. Provided that you truly understand what you're there for (not just secluding yourself in a room to study), that you participate in the activities, respect your peers and be mindful of their needs, give first and be generous, I can guarantee that your fellow cohortians will become your friends, your family, for life.

Even though we had formed close, intimate bonds, we hadn't truly gotten to know each other, which is something we found out on the last day of the program. In his final class, Brian Uzzi, an extraordinary professor and researcher, gave a lecture on Networking. This was a topic that I had repeatedly heard about but never quite understood so I came into the room ready to learn, unaware that Uzzi's lesson would have such a life-changing impact on me. He explained how humans actually never really achieve anything without the help of others, how the most diverse networks with both strong and weak nodes are the most powerful, and how people form strong bonds over activities where one can win or lose, such as sports. By the time he was done with his explanations, the room was completely silent with all eyes staring at him in open admiration. He finalized his lesson by making a bold claim: "I will prove to you, right here and right now, the power of networking". The following exercise changed me forever, I saw my old self vanish and my new self emerge. I was confused and disoriented, but I was ready to experience the advertised power of networking first hand. We were asked to talk to each other and it was during these conversations that I discovered that:

- No one in the group, even with the level of proximity and intimacy we had reached, had expressed to the others their desires, dreams or major “unresolved” problem.

- We all had a long and winding road ahead of us, with difficult intermediate goals that each of us had to reach in order to fulfill our desires or find a solution to that “impossible” issue. 

And lastly and most importantly:

- Our classmates, these people that had become our friends and family, held the key to make our desires come true and solve our pains through their networks of contacts, talents, experience, resources or knowledge. Something we had been struggling on our own could be easily solved in the blink of an eye with the help of others.

After that wonderful and transformative experience, I returned to Buenos Aires, where I decided to further explore networking and apply it to my own life. This was something I hadn’t previously trained for, so I used my intuition and decided to start by talking with a different person every day after work. First, I met with friends, then with friends of friends, then with acquaintances, friend’s acquaintances, until I came to random “strangers”. I would invite them for coffee or dinner with the aim of getting to know them, and at a certain point I would bring up my experience at Kellogg. I would go into detail about my experience with networking and by the end of our conversation, I would always end up asking them the same question: "There has to be something I can do for you, something that’s easy for me to achieve while meaning something important to you. How may I help you?" And almost immediately, without even thinking about it, people would typically answer: "Help me with my business", "help me create a product", "help me create a company", or "help me estimate the value of my business and sell it".

I was determined to explore and conquer the world of networking by helping and giving to others first. I felt that by helping other people reach their dreams or solve their problems while asking for nothing in return (i.e., building non transactional relationships), something good would come of it in the future, even though I had no idea what that would be. I started to feel increasingly happy when I was able to help others. Connecting with diverse groups of people, seeing them grow and move towards their purpose and achieving things through collaboration became a source of deep satisfaction for me – my pride and joy. 
Stanford Graduate Business School, Palo Alto

After such a positive experience at Kellogg, I decided that I wanted to keep learning in order to be better prepared as an entrepreneur. Having already taken a course abroad, and with little to no savings left, I applied to an online Executive Development program, the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Certificate at Stanford Graduate School of Business (one of the most prestigious universities in the world, located in Silicon Valley).

The experience was phenomenal. It radically changed my business paradigms, and gave me powerful tools to use in the world of entrepreneurship. I immediately came to realize how business literature and resources for entrepreneurs were going through a process of absolute renovation, which was generating disruption and changing the game within most industries. At thirteen, I had already founded the mIRC chat client HoCuS PoCuS, the second one to be ever released in Spanish, and monopolized the market for several years. That experience came to an end ten years later, when I sold a group of entertainment websites I had developed jointly with the mIRC platform. At nineteen, I was given the wonderful chance to coordinate the Entrepreneur Center at CEMA University, which offered support to entrepreneurs through mentoring by MBA Graduates and a business-plan competition. But any knowledge and understanding I thought I had about business was called into question when I later encountered Steve Blank, the father of modern entrepreneurship, during the Stanford program. His Customer Development theory, evolving from the diagnostic that "business plans don’t survive their first contact with the consumer", was a game changer, and threatened to obliterate any historically established paradigms and practices in the entrepreneurial world that were reluctant to change.

Applying these new tools to help other entrepreneurs, I discovered their great power. It was at this point that I experienced the ‘magic’ of Networking. Four months after having helped businesses for free, two groups of entrepreneurs spontaneously decided to offer me 20% and 25% of shares in their companies, so that I could become a strategic advisor and lead the Board, holding meetings two hours a week. Shortly after I left my corporate position at Natura, a company that I loved and greatly respected (for its vision, its people-centered culture, commitment to sustainability, and for everything it taught me), I decided to devote 100% of my time and efforts to helping other entrepreneurs while becoming an increasingly trained and resourceful entrepreneur myself. 

But the ‘fruits’ of networking continued to land on my lap. I received an unexpected proposal from BRF, one of the largest food companies in the world, to move to Dubai and work as the Head of Trade Marketing for Middle East and Africa. I already felt fortunate and extremely excited about my career, but rewards kept coming in. After juggling work and study for months, learning uninterruptedly and avidly, I became the 100th graduate of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Certificate program at Stanford. I was invited to travel to Palo Alto and was humbled and honored to give the keynote speech at graduation, where I was introduced as – this made me smile – ‘the serial entrepreneur of Dubai’. Stanford also published my first article on Entrepreneurship and Networking, which encouraged me to keep writing, developing a hitherto unexplored skill.

Meanwhile, the learning curve at my corporate position in Dubai was beginning to plateau and the two startups I left active in Argentina (continuing to lead the Board remote via Skype) were experiencing significant growth. This, together with graduating from Stanford’s transformative Entrepreneurship program, helped me summon up the courage to once again step out of the traditional and "sensible" decision-making model based on a linear career projection (more responsibilities, benefits, etc.), thereby paving a new and unexpected path for myself. I was determined to tackle new challenges and swiftly found my way back to Buenos Aires to set up a “Startup Accelerator”.
A what? If someone had asked the question at the time I could not have given a precise answer. I was basically operating on intuition, but had the certainty that the lesson on Networking I treasured since Kellogg was magical (I never stopped meeting new people, although I was forced to switch to a weekly rather than a daily basis) and that the tools and methodologies I learned at Stanford worked.

The history of Scalabl, the first Argentine company in Entrepreneurship and Intrapreneurship to become global, deserves a chapter in and of itself. From its original conception, through its endless transformations and rapid growth – the creation of new companies and business units, the uncountable iterations, pivots, paradigm shifts… it is a success story that can only be explained by magic, i.e., by an alchemy of networking (constantly meeting different people, being vulnerable, giving first, helping others) and continuous learning (reading, pursuing education, deepening self-awareness, learning from diversity and promoting collaboration over competition). In less than three years we have started over 200 companies and created a community of over 500 entrepreneurs and business professionals, who are continuously reaping the benefits of networking, seeing how collaboration helps them achieve their dreams and conquer their ‘impossible’ goals.
Harvard Business School, Boston

In 2017, having achieved a repeatable, scalable and sustainable business model for Scalabl, I started driving the company towards “firing its founder” (myself), the most relevant milestone for successful companies according to the startup methodology that underpinned our every effort. “Relieved” from my responsibilities in execution, I would then be able to set out on the path towards global expansion. With this in mind, I once again decided to invest (not just ‘bet’) roughly half of my savings and apply for Harvard Business School’s General Management Program. The experience at Harvard was immensely powerful in every possible way. The prestige of said university is well deserved, and the power of its brand makes it stand out against other educational institutions. The program was very comprehensive and I faced it with a different level of maturity due to my previous experiences and acquired knowledge. 

Once again, I found myself to be one of the most junior members of the program (both in age and in achievements), grateful and humbled to be able to share four months (two online and two on-campus) with extraordinary people (remarkable because of their diversity, experience, trajectory and talent, but, above all, because of their humanity). This time, however, I felt I had something truly valuable to offer. In a program where the greater percentage of the alumni had reached the top of their corporate careers, I was in possession of an in-depth knowledge of entrepreneurial methodology and had developed the skill to shape a community through the ‘magical’ art of networking – two rare finds among the members of our cohort. 

This detailed program helped expand my own theoretical knowledge, deepen my understanding of strategy, finances and accounting and gain a comprehensive macroeconomic vision. As a result, I was able to work on the strategy for Scalabl, organizing the company in functional areas, hiring executives to run operations in Buenos Aires and devising how to finally ‘fire the founder’, so I could tackle the challenge of global expansion, bringing Scalabl to countries such as the UAE, India, the UK, Chile, Brazil, Hong Kong, Singapore and Portugal, among others.   
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge

Cambridge and Boston are two wonderful, peaceful cities, whose temper and infrastructure serve one purpose only: studying. These cities were built around ideals of education and community. The wide campuses of their main universities spread out all over the city. And close to Harvard, there’s another one of the world’s leading universities: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). My belief that every single dollar invested in studying at these centers of learning and social capital has a multiplying positive effect (bringing rewards not only economic but also personal, as they enrich one’s experience and knowledge and aid our discovery of life’s infinite possibilities) encouraged me to apply for two MIT programs focused on Platforms (product-based and marketplaces), models which I had constantly been working on with entrepreneurs enrolled at the Scalabl Startup Academy.   

MIT, another amazing center of studies concerning business, is also recognized for its entrepreneurial power and above all its development of technological innovation and its engineering department. Although I consider that the entrepreneurial methodologies utilized by Stanford are more forward-looking and I feel more represented by their teachings and methodologies, what MIT is doing at a community and entrepreneurial networking level with the Bootcamps it holds in various parts of the world is remarkable, and I highly recommend taking part in them.
Singularity University, California

I had become a part of both the Argentine and the global entrepreneurial ecosystem and this drove me to travel, visiting diverse entrepreneurial ecosystems around the world in the spirit of continuous learning, a cornerstone of Scalabl's philosophy. I visited Silicon Valley, New York, Tel Aviv, London, Berlin, Lisbon, Dubai, Bangalore, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Tokyo, etc. As recommendations about Singularity University kept piling up, and I avidly read through Abundance by Peter Diamandis and Exponential Organizations by Salim Ismail, the appeal of the course on Exponential technologies, Organizations, and the Future at Singularity became increasingly irresistible. In January 2018, knowing that, in doing so, I was not neglecting but rather empowering Scalabl’s globalization, I decided to enroll in said university’s Executive Program at Silicon Valley.

The experience was otherworldly. And not only because it takes place at former facilities of the NASA. The concept is simple, but not easy to grasp: every technology that becomes digitized enters the path of exponential growth. But what does this mean? Humans experience an enormous difficulty in understanding and perceiving this phenomenon in terms of the speed of evolution, its implications and ramifications. At Singularity, for a whole week you were transported to the ‘future’, to discover that in many ways it had already arrived – ‘future’ technologies are being developed at this very moment. The program included wonderful lectures and presentations by orators well-versed in the most diverse disciplines and even about subjects unknown to most students (such as the fascinating microbiome, linked to recent discoveries on the importance of bacterial diversity in our bodies, with massive implications on our health). There were many lessons focused on future technologies: Robotics, AI, Blockchain, Crowdfunding, Crowdsourcing, Space Colonization, 3D Printing, Human Genome and its implications, among others. 

As a result of this brief but intensive program, you gain the ability to “see into the future”: although it remains unpredictable, you are now better equipped to understand the endless possible ramifications and implications of the exponential curve. It is incumbent upon human beings to think about the massive opportunities and existential risks these technologies are bound to elicit, which must be taken into account in the ethical decisions (by action or omission) that guide our individual – more impactful than ever before – and collective behavior. I consider these insights to be fundamental and provide a significant advantage to any executive in a leadership role.
Before making a decision you might want to consider...

By sharing my story, I try to portray the degree of transformation that this educational experiences can have on you, provided that you open up to the new, to the diverse, to the unexpected, to radical change. Let me close with the following argument, which might help you come to a decision, if it ever comes the time.

From my point of view, the decision to embark on an educational journey similar to the one described above must be pondered knowing that the results of said journey are likely to be exponential – so you should make your best effort to stray from the traditionally linear decision-making model. An analysis based on expected monetary return (how a certain program or certificate would pave the way for a promotion with a juicy increase in pay, minus the tuition fees and opportunity cost while you're out of the office, etc.) may be highly appealing to an economist but it misses the point, showing a total lack of understanding on how to model investment and experience. 
Considering a linear result for any investment we make in human capital or social capital implies ignorance of the imminent future, driven by exponential technologies and organizations. The future that's almost upon us will be anything but linear, and the same applies to our "careers". 

From the basis of a vision of an exponential future, of a dynamic, extremely fast and unpredictable world where the impossible will become possible, we cannot project our decision with a precise model but we can anticipate with a fair amount of probability the development of which skills and educational opportunities can help us maximize our results in any number of possible scenarios. Without conventional paths or clear pre-established guidelines, it will all come down to strengthening and nurturing both our social capital (the most valuable asset in an increasingly globalized and diversified society) and our human capital. This means: working on our adaptability, flexibility, and openness, being able to quickly formulate and modify strategies in the face of new information, having a macro vision of the world and possible future ramifications, drilling down on self-knowledge, managing difficult situations and negotiations, developing interpersonal skills and leadership, having the capacity to build social capital through networking and the determination to strive for continuous learning.

Finally, let me emphasize this one more time as a reminder (and with the benefit of hindsight): the linear decision-making model does not contemplate or consider adequately the massive impact in terms of life experience, nor the openness to diversity, intellectual stimulus and global outlook, nor the game-changing influence of professors, classmates and acquaintances, nor the profound mental, emotional, perceptual and intellectual changes (the unimaginable amount of hitherto neglected variables that make up ‘reality’!) that educational experiences of this sort almost always entail. Nor can it foresee or even begin to value the intimate friendships you will build with people from all over the world, who will forever become part of your global family.

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