Harvard Business School VCPE 2021

Yesterday was one of the longest days of my life. But, it was all worth it.

Yesterday was the last day of class for the course I teach on Venture Capital & Private Equity at Harvard Business School (details here). It’s a custom that instructors on “the last day” can offer life advice to their students.

Back when he was unknown and a new professor in his second year, Clay Christensen did just that for me and my Sectionmates. It was unforgettable, and the content later became the popular article called How Will You Measure Your Life? He was upfront, emotional, and honest.

I decided last year and this year to do the same with my students.

I went through my mother’s history, my own childhood, the twists and turns of my life, and what I’ve learned from all that. It was a gut-wrenching talk. But I think it’s the most important one I can offer. I have to psych up to give the talk. Even today, on Saturday, my hands still shake a little bit from all the nervous energy. I am grateful that friends, family, and some of last year’s class were present to give support.

To be honest, I’m unqualified to teach at HBS. The school does a great job of training us to teach the case method, but I have no doctorate, have done no academic research, and have no experience as an educator. But I do have a secret weapon. When I teach, I try to channel two of my former professors: Clay and Bill Sahlman.

William A. Sahlman

Students of my vintage remember well Clay and Bill. Clay pushed through the sessions, but he brought real-world experience as an entrepreneur to the classroom. And, we knew without a doubt that Clay loved us. Teaching for him wasn’t just a job. It was a calling. (It was a very sad day when he passed away.)

Similarly, we all knew that Bill cared for us. And, what a maestro he was (and still is) in the classroom! Thoughtful, funny, and graceful. He was the most highly-rated instructor at HBS back then, and he co-created the school’s entrepreneurial management program. Over the decades, we kept in touch. And, he was the one who invited me to consider coming back to teach part-time.

The case method is not like lecturing. The latter requires less incremental work each year: you dust off last year’s presentation, modify it, and then you talk “at” the students. The former is wild because anything can happen: the students direct the conversation. So, as a facilitator of the Socratic method, you have to prep hard before each case and be ready for any scenario. As one professor told me: “You have to earn it each time you walk into the classroom–nothing is a given.”

As I told my class, classmates often ask me what it is like to come back to teach at HBS. I tell them all the same thing: other than my marriage and my children, it has been the most emotionally rewarding work I’ve ever done in my life.

Thank you, VCPE 2021, for incredible effort, insights, and sincerity! I look forward to keeping in touch. Thank you, VCPE 2020, for coming back for The Last Day–see you in Utah for our ski reunion! Thank you, Bill, for being such an incredible role model over many decades!

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