Great Business Idea? Wait 'Till Next Year…

I have been working on a business plan since last fall that has recently enjoyed much success in several national business plan competitions. As a core founder of the company, I have been presenting the business plan in competitions and to venture capitalists. However, when the first round of the HBS Business Plan Contest took place last Friday, I was prohibited from presenting the plan. Why? Because I am an RC student and the contest is only open to EC students (and to all students at any other Harvard school or anyone outside the university). Why? Because “the time demand of the workload required may interfere with the required curriculum,” according to the official policies and guidelines.

Doesn’t this strike you as bizarre? Students are allowed to devote as much time as they see fit to club activities, volunteer initiatives, sports, and countless other events around HBS, but somehow RC students just can’t find the time to write a business plan? So I decided to do some research. Stanford, Wharton, Chicago and MIT Sloan all allow first-year MBA students to participate in their respective business plan contests. In fact, I could not find a single school that prohibited first-years from participating. What is so special about our first-years that we can’t possibly have the time to devote to this activity, while students at other top schools seem to manage just fine?

As an RC student, I’ve somehow managed to start a club, maintain grades well within Baker Scholar territory, and write several business plans, spending enormous amounts of time with various startups, yet I’m not allowed to participate in the HBS business plan competition. The point is that as individuals, students at this school are responsible enough to maintain academic standards while allocating their time to efforts that reflect and even stimulate their passions. It is simply unreasonable to assert that no RC student should have the time to enter into this contest.
Anyone who has written a business plan knows that tremendous learning takes place each time a business plan is written and feedback is received from experienced VCs. This learning is complementary to our coursework and allows students to test skills learned in courses ranging from LEAD to Negotiations, while still in school. My desire to change the contest rules is not designed for my benefit – in fact, if RCs are allowed to participate next year, it will only diminish my chances of success as an EC student. But the broader purpose of our time here comes to mind.

We know that the mission of HBS is, “To educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” If our education may be enhanced through opportunities to gain real world experience during our time at this school, then it seems that allowing RCs to participate in the competition is the appropriate plan for HBS.