8 min read

Why and How I Became a Stanford Student

Pausing one’s active career to return to school is a step outside of comfort zone. I know people who have done this as a way to “hard reset” and completely change direction afterwards, and some just hitting a corporate ceiling unless they get an MBA diploma to hang on a wall.

I don’t think I’m either of those people. Yet, I’ve decided to take a sabbatical and go back to school.

As “ahem… why?” has quickly become a recurring question from friends and colleagues who have heard the news, let me try to share some of the thought process here. Besides sharing my personal case I hope this could help someone else contemplating a similar move.

Why back to school?

I founded my first startup just weeks ahead of becoming an undergraduate at Tartu University. A few semesters later my company was really taking off and I had to choose between CEO and student roles. It was a somewhat tough decision coming from a family of a few generations of PhDs in Physics, but no real regrets, even if I have secretly looked back a few times since. I later also learned that “dropout” can even be a badge of honor in some startup/tech circles (high five, Steve, Bill, Larry, Zuck etc).

Even that brief 3-semester stint as part of the somewhat disorganized, first ever class of PR & Communications at UT taught me to be demanding for the content the school is able to offer. Learning has to be a dialogue – high standards of an academic program are really the only justification for the school to demand a lot of time and attention back from students.

In my 15 years as hands-on entrepreneur and executive I’ve accumulated a box of puzzle pieces: tips and tricks of management, practical finance, balancing your gut instincts with demanding data, hiring and firing, motivating talented people from disciplines ranging from hardcore engineering to visual design, building bench and growing yourself out of a job, communicating with a colorful mix of stakeholders, making bold tech investments and running R&D processes, bridging cultures across borders and timezones, etc.

Some of these experiences and particular situations at Skype and before feel quite unique and others mundane – but I lack verification either way. I have had a real luxury to work with, for and next to some of the most amazing leaders and technologists in the industry, but when I pause and honestly analyze, I am not really sure where in my career I’ve spent unnecessary time re-inventing a wheel and where I’ve accidentally had to invent a creative new solution to a problem that is not that common at all in business.

I am lucky to have a very diverse group of friends: by profession, geography and views on life. But again, when spending time with them I rarely end up digging into “work stuff” – and if I do with someone, then those friends again tend to be in tech industry too and most often – also my direct colleagues.

I’m taking a year in business school to shake the box and see how all these puzzle pieces land. I am looking to learn where they click and fall into places, and more importantly, where are the gaps and which of those are worth filling further. A classroom full of smart people from very different backgrounds and industries, out of my ever-so-comfortable internet software zone should be one of the most effective environments to do this.

Why Stanford?

After committing to the school idea, I went on to research mode. When life has given you an opportunity where you don’t have to constrain yourself with much and can really aim for “the best in the world”, it usually tends to feel both as an undeservedly fun, yet also taunting exercise at the same time.

For my first list, I looked at about top 20-30 business schools globally. Ranking methodologies vary and there can be quite a bit lot of subjectivity and bias (especially for North America) in a few of them, but in a way they are self-fulfilling: ranking high will probably lead to higher competition between both teachers and students for a seat in the school – which in turn helps you to rank high. These lists could be about perception and prestige, but they still work for enhancing probabilities.

Now, look at the lists from The Economist, Forbes, Business Week or Business Insider. Top50 of any of those presented are Very Good Schools on global scale. Most of the names you’d probably recognize no matter if you’ve ever researched a business school or not: Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Cambridge, University of California system (Berkeley, UCLA), London Business School, MIT, Columbia. And then a whole number of others highly rated in business cricles, like INSEAD, Wharton, Booth, Kellog, IMD, IESE, …

Therefore, I had to start narrowing my personal requirements down:

  • Tie-ins with other disciplines. I downprioritized “pure” independent business schools, ones which do not co-inhabit a larger university campus or don’t display co-operation with other schools as part of their DNA. Coming from software innovations background I believe in interdisciplinary approach to ever more complex business and thus also look for it in modern education. Having strong schools of engineering, design, social sciences around increases the likelyhood of a business school mindset to be broader than excel sheets and mathematical risk analysis. Spill-over of ideas can be achieved either formally and officially in curriculum and electives, or just by whom can you meet at a local coffee shop or pub near campus. Surprisingly, this criteria worked quite a bit against Europe with LBS, IMD, IESE and INSEAD (the latter with its Singapore-France split campus and high recommendations from personal friends who have attended recently). Unsurprisingly, MIT, Cambridge, Stanford and Harvard gained.
  • Intensity of the program. At this stage in my life, taking 2 full years for an MBA just sounds too much for gear shifting and reflection. 12-month Sloan programs in MIT & Stanford caught my attention here, but also Kellogg, Cambridge, Oxford, Babson (in Boston) offer one year options among others.
  • Composition of class. I consider the breadth and real life experience of my peers equally important for the quality of discussions in class as the skills and academic credentials of the professors. Again, Sloan programs highlight their special focus on students with 12-14 years of executive experiences, while some other MBA programs can have up to 30-50% of their class come directly from undergraduate level, having never worked for more than a few internships. As I am looking for as diverse mix of viewpoints as possible, anything above 50%+ of the class being not local is a strong plus.
  • Location. Switching the continent should work even more forcefully for the idea of gear shifting – thus European schools dropped a notch, but not much. I really wanted to keep Asian options on the table, but as far as international recognition goes, Hong Kong and Singapore seem to be the few considerable options. Neither really have globally recognized Top10 schools… yet. But this raise to limelight is in progress, as with everything else in that corner of the world.
  • Industry presence and local startup scene. Some business schools (with Harvard topping the list) get more hat tips and mentions in the context of feeding purely financial circles on Wall street or in London City, or top consulting firms. As these are not interesting directions for me I started looking at locations with more active tech & startup scene as a leading sign for more entrepreneurial school vibes: Northern California, Boston area, New York, Cambridge in the UK.
  • Family experience. As we have decided to take on this adventure together as a family, English based locations (US, UK, Singapore) earned a slight edge, as did schools who acknowledged childcare, kids schooling and partner support in their communications. We also decided that this winter away from home should have a little less snow than Estonia — sorry, University of Alaska and Novosibirsk State University of Economics and Management.

Based on the above criteria, after talking to alumni (you know who you are – thank you all!), reading forums and Quora threads I shortlisted MIT Sloan, Stanford GSB Sloan, Cambridge Judge Business School.

After almost a year of busy GMAT prep and exam taking, essay writing, recommendation letters (more thank you!-s are due) and form filling I was extremely happy to receive a letter from Stanford Graduate School of Business this January, congratulating me on admission to Sloan Master’s Program, Class of 2013.

So there, Silicon Valley won again. Since my junior year in high school as an exchange student in Cupertino, I’ve kept spiraling back through the Bay Area on business 1-2 times a year – and even held a lecture at Stanford’s European Entrepreneurship series once. Despite of all the pride and excitement I feel from helping world-changing companies pop up from Europe, Nordics and Estonia in particular – you can’t argue the Valley is still a very special for the internet industry. And of all schools in the world, Stanford is the one most intertwined with this ecosystem.

(Interlude: just sent in from a friend, titled “Sten arrives at Stanford”: )

What happens after school?

I am very thankful to Skype, and extremely proud that I’ve had my part in building the kind of company that returns such support for my development as a leader and as a person. I am not leaving Skype, but taking an academic sabbatical. In the summer 2013 I will return and we will sit down to discuss what our next venture together could be.

If past 7 years have taught me anything is that it is pointless to try to predict what happens inside Skype, and now let alone in entire 90,000-person Microsoft in the 12 months ahead. The only two things that have always proven to be true are: Skype will change and it will be somehow better. I hope the same will be true about me.

UPDATED: Click here for all writing on the Stanford year that followed.

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