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Carroll Connection

“What struck me was how philosophical he is”: M.B.A. Students Meet the Oracle of Omaha

by tim gray

MBA Students with Warren Buffett

The 20 Carroll School M.B.A. students knew they’d learn something about investing when they touched down in Omaha last month. How could they not? They were slated to spend the next morning with Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor, who’s based there. What they didn’t expect was that the most memorable takeaways from their time with Buffett, who’s no. 3 on Forbes’s list of the world’s richest people, would be his advice on managing their careers—and lives.

“What struck me was how philosophical he is,” said Jen Kaing, a part-time M.B.A. student who’ll graduate in 2019. “He said making money is great, but the really important thing is being able to care for yourself and your loved ones. He said you don’t want to be a captive to your possessions.” Buffett walks his talk: he famously lives in a house, nice enough but no mansion, that he bought in 1958.  

Each year, Buffett, who’s chairman, president, and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, an investment holding company, invites a handful of M.B.A. programs to send small groups of students to Omaha. He hosts them for a two-hour Q&A session and then treats them to lunch at one of his favorite steakhouses.

Boston College students have been invited every other year for about a decade. The Carroll School chooses them by lottery (usually from a pool of 60 hopefuls), and the winning group of 20 includes a fairly even mix of men and women, full-time and part-time M.B.A.’s. This year, they were among 120 students from six schools (including Harvard and Stanford) who met with Buffett.

Scott McDermott, a program director and lecturer of management practice at the Carroll School, leads the semi-annual trip. It’s not a class but rather a noncredit chance for the M.B.A. students to learn from a master. “He’s considered the best investor ever,” McDermott noted.

The group flies out on a Thursday and returns Saturday. Students are expected to bone up beforehand on Buffett and his philosophy of investing. McDermott asks them to read Tap Dancing to Work, a collection of Fortune magazine articles about Buffett and Berkshire, as well as several of Buffett’s annual letters to his company’s shareholders. In investment circles, the letters are holy writ. They lay out, in plain, folksy language, which investments Buffett has made and why. They also sometimes delve into his opinions about such business controversies as swelling CEO pay and the uses and abuses of derivative securities.

Buffett was equally willing to address touchy topics in his Q&A session with the M.B.A.’s, Kaing said. One student asked why there weren’t more women among top investors. Buffett said he didn’t know but encouraged women in the room to pursue an investing career in the same way he did: by creating their own investment company and managing money themselves. “He said if you want to break into the investment industry, your record will speak for itself,” Kaing related.

He likewise took on the question, posed by Sierra Horn, M.B.A. and M.S.F. ’17, of whether the United States is seeing a bubble as the country’s amount of student debt climbs. Buffett said he didn’t think so, but he did express concern about the need to somehow slow fast-rising education expenses, Horn said.   

But the insight that stuck with several of this year’s attendees had nothing to do with current events. Rather, it was Buffett’s insistence on the importance of communication skills.

“He talked about how being able to communicate well can increase a person’s value to a company,” said Geoff Kramer, M.B.A. ’17. “He talked about IQ and said a lot of people are intelligent, but they can’t communicate that in a clear way. He said, ‘If you have intelligence but can’t communicate, it’s like winking at a girl in the dark.’”

Buffett told the students that he’d realized, early on, that he needed to polish his speaking skills and thus took a course based on the principles of Dale Carnegie to improve, said Maura Hogan, M.B.A. ’17. “He said his Dale Carnegie Institute certificate is the only one he has on his office wall,” she pointed out. (Carnegie wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People, one of the best-selling self-help books of all time.)

M.B.A. candidates aren’t the only pilgrims who make their way to Omaha. Every year, Berkshire holds its annual meeting there, and shareholders come from around the world to hear from Buffett and Charlie Munger, Berkshire’s vice chairman, and attend social events. Buffett has called it the “Woodstock of capitalism.”

Mark Zagata, M.B.A. ’17, didn’t go so far as to compare the students’ meeting to a storied rock festival, but he did say that sharing his encounter with Buffett enhanced it.

“Going on the trip lets you experience this with other BC classmates and Scott,” he said. “Friday night, we went out for a debrief, and we were all talking about Warren Buffett and what he’d said. There are extra benefits you get through experiencing something like this together.”

Tim Gray is a freelance writer and a writing instructor at the Carroll School.