A Day In The MBA Life: INSEAD, Startups And Coffee Chats: Interview with Mike Davis, president of INSEAD’s U.S. Alumni Association
"Anyone that is willing to give you 15 minutes of their time, take it. Take the 15 minutes, learn about somebody else, learn about someone else’s career, listen to the decisions they’ve made – it’s the best use of 15 minutes." Mike Davis, co-founder and chief investment officer of student lender, MPOWER.
To call Mike Davis a fast-track overachiever is an understatement. The co-founder and chief investment officer of student lender MPOWER Financing emigrated to the U.S. from Iran with his family after the 1979 revolution, graduated high school at the age of 14 and from Purdue University at 19. Beyond an early career stint at Sapient and a position as director of innovation and strategy at Avon after completing his MBA at INSEAD, Davis has founded some 13 businesses. He was running three successful startups from a rented Manhattan office when he decided to pursue the MBA. In this candid and revealing interview, Davis talks about applying to 13 business schools in one round, his passion for INSEAD eight years on, and the invaluable importance of the “coffee chat.”
Matt Symonds: You’re often described as a serial entrepreneur. How did this impulse begin, and what difference has business school made?
Mike Davis: I remember the first time I was referred to as a serial entrepreneur; it’s a fitting description. Like most curious people, I see a ton of opportunities to improve society, and it’s a real gift or blessing to stand up a business to address those opportunities. I get a lot of energy from it… initially proving out the concepts in terms of what solutions are needed, then standing up the business, and quickly transitioning to others better suited to running them for long-term growth. Post business school it’s taken a different form, from manifesting service-type businesses to more product-focused. MPOWER is my first time taking outside money to help a business grow, being part of that growth story, seeing it through a phase in which a business scales - this is really quite exciting.
Symonds: Why did you feel it was so necessary to pursue an MBA?
Davis: I was self-employed, working in an office I rented in Manhattan. It was a windowless office, and I worked there in a very diligent manner. Some nights I was actually sleeping at the office, there was so much to do. At that point I was a parallel entrepreneur – I was running a construction business, a software business and a photography business, which I started as part of an effort to show other entrepreneurs how to stand up businesses in real time, how to ‘bake’ your startup. Clients were paying me, it was very interesting, but it was just a grind – I can’t even explain it. Spending my daytime hours in the cross-facing business development capacities, then, of course, when others were sleeping, I was institutionalizing processes to make my life easier, and also doing the execution part. All were service businesses, so I had a cadre of contractors and support structures I’d use – somewhat scalable but a terrible lifestyle. By all metrics things were going well, except on one axis, which was my personal life. I wasn’t having very much fun.
I remember talking to my sister, and I was just complaining, ‘when you make money you should be leading a quality life, but the quality of my life stinks.’ And her response was quite frank: ‘It’s because you’re an idiot. You don’t know what you don’t know. You have a pick and a shovel and you can use those two tools. And it’s working well for you at a level that most can’t produce. You don’t know what it means to scale. You need to go back to school…’ The FT had come out with their rankings and I spent hours reading, it was unbelievable – just reading the alumni profiles, reading about their accomplishments – it was impressive, the vocabulary they were using to describe it. I thought, yeah, I don’t do these things – I can’t even see a path to doing them. I think I can learn a lot there.
Symonds: Which part of the MBA experience had the most impact on you at the time?
Davis: Among many things it did for me: it got rid of the chip on my shoulder. I graduated high school when I was 14, graduated college at 19 years old. I was very confident in my skills, certainly academically. Forget about the fact I thought I was a pretty good entrepreneur. All my startups were self-funded, cash was flowing, so I went to the MBA experience thinking, ‘okay, here are the areas I can learn, here is where I can give back.’
I walked into the [MBA] classroom, and I remember the first discussion we had around entrepreneurship, and I thought: I am small time. Let me stop talking and let me start listening. I remember in a class I met a guy that had a fast food concept in Singapore – a Thai concept – and he told the story about how he started it as some Bagel shop, then pivoted into Thai food, then sold it to a Thai private equity shop. It’s a remarkable story! I thought you stood up a Thai fast food chain as a Singaporean, and Thai private equity was interested in buying it? I will stop talking, I know nothing. Why don’t you teach me?
I also remember some quiz, I got a super low score, and I immediately went to this place of thinking, okay, the quiz was hard. But my group mates? Every single person got all the questions of that quiz correct. I’m going to be quiet now. It was great that it happened early in my time at INSEAD: the rest of my time I focused on getting to know everyone in my class. All 500. Their names, what they had done, what they wanted to do, and asking how can I help them achieve their goals.
Symonds: What’s your response to skeptics who say that business school is a waste of money for entrepreneurs?
Davis: I hear this question in two ways: First, in the capacity as co-founder and chief investment officer, that the degree is expensive – is the ROI really there? Second, isn’t it possible to achieve success without going to business school?
Well, even a broken clock is right twice every single day. There are many ways to achieve success, and people’s definition of success varies greatly. I like to think about how can I stack the odds in my favor, how can I best set myself up for success? And certainly from an academic, network and skills standpoint, I think that business school checks the box in terms of increasing the probability of success. It is a no-brainer for me in terms of ROI.
Symonds: Why INSEAD and what were your business school criteria?
Davis: I applied to 13 business schools, all top-tier schools. I looked at the regular cast of characters, HBS, Wharton, LBS, Columbia, NYU, Booth, Kellogg – some even offered substantial scholarship packages, one a full ride. For the ones that did extend to me the opportunity to interview, I did visit their campuses, and I really enjoyed the conversations I was having.
But for me, the things that mattered were represented at INSEAD. It was the culture, the global-minded community, the international footprint of the program, and the time horizon that I’d be back in the working world in 10 months. When I flew out to France and met with the folks at INSEAD, met with my future classmates, they were really inspiring and global-minded. I felt a sense of belonging, I could see a future at the school. That’s proving to be the case. Eight years out, I give back to the school in a myriad of ways including the role as President of INSEAD’s US Alumni Association.
Symonds: With the benefit of hindsight, would you have changed anything about your business school experience?
Davis: I went into my MBA experience pretty sure about the areas I wanted to increase my depth of understanding in, and pretty sure of what I could contribute. I gave zero thought to my career after INSEAD, I had the idea that I’d come out and be an entrepreneur. So, I came in grossly underprepared in terms of career.
INSEAD career services is an amazing, amazing team. Doing this again, one thing I would certainly do is prepare a resume that’s indicative of my past experience, at least something that looked like a resume. Very smart people come to campus to recruit MBA students. Instead of going there thinking ‘Yeah okay, I don’t see myself having a job in corporate, I’m just going to let this opportunity got to another of my classmates...’, and had I not been so stubborn, a little better prepared for the different aspects of business school life, I would have placed greater importance on my career vision. I was probably a little late to realize, I’m in no better environment to pivot and enhance my career than I am right now.
Symonds: How did your career vision evolve during the MBA experience?
Davis: My first job out of business school was at Avon. They showed up on campus, and if it wasn’t my friend insisting I sit in that meeting, I would not have gone. I sat in that room and just listened and it was one of the most incredible conversations I heard, the caliber of the folks there was so impressive, they were talking about the next generation of Avon, and it was the beginning of what led to a very unique role, which they created for me after several rounds of interviews. They took the time to get to know me and I to know them.
So my job out of business school wasn’t entrepreneurship, or finance or consulting, it was corporate America – I ran innovation in a company that most people think of as a cosmetics company. In fact, I was looking at a 120-year-old business model and seeing how tech and technological innovation can apply – the same process venture capitalists use to vet startups.
Symonds: What part of the MBA program did you find the most challenging?
Davis: For starters, you are in a cohort of 500 equally motivated type A people, every idea sounds like a great idea, every career plan and path sounds extremely credible and exciting. What I found most challenging was to remember why I’m doing this, and that it’s okay for a successful outcome to be different than my classmates. It’s an extremely persuasive environment. I found that to be very, very challenging.
I have a great deal of respect for my classmates. I placed weight on how they saw their world, their career aspirations, the way they thought about work-life balance – there is more than one path to Nirvana. You can craft your own. Especially at a top tier school, especially with classmates that are super intelligent.
Symonds: What role has mentorship played in your career and success?
Davis: The meetings I enjoy the most are the ones where I am the dumb one in the room. I want to be surrounded by people who are smarter than I am. Mentorship absolutely plays a tremendous role. I was the chief tech officer when we founded MPOWER Financing, for the better part of three years. Then the board asked me to be the chief investment officer. The first thing I did was to establish a brain trust, a group of folks that I quickly made sure could contribute to my understanding of the profession, help me understand the finer points of raising equity, raising debt, and the importance of understanding the difference in strategies between the two.
I attribute my success to two things: one, surrounding myself with mentors and being humble enough to listen when they suggest things. Also, just hard work – I outwork a lot of folks. It’s easy to tell a story that’s impressive in hindsight, no one wants to hear about the day to day block and tackling, but that’s a lot of it.
Symonds: You are president of INSEAD’s U.S. Alumni Association. Why is this important to you?
Davis: After I graduated from INSEAD, and landed at Avon, I’d just moved back to New York and was trying to plug myself into the New York scene, and what was happening in the city. I had this view that I’d just met 500 extremely capable people, there’s got to be more, I’m addicted! I started by being a consumer of the INSEAD Alumni experience. Then, I thought, it would be interesting to have a panel on this, or get this group of folks together, then the scope of my involvement quickly expanded. I became vice president of social events in New York, and a few times when leadership positions opened up at NY level, I’d pursue them. Even when I didn’t get selected for the leadership positions, I received very constructive feedback on my growth areas – I was still in it, I was still committed.
Then what I noticed happening was I had the opportunity to interview people interested in INSEAD, so I’d give these extremely thorough evaluations, plugging in at the institutional level, reading more about where INSEAD is going, where their roadmap is going, how I could be helpful there, when they throw galas or forums I’d attend, then the presidency role opened up, and I was familiar with way the organization and the institution were structured, and it felt very natural to assume this role. Yet another pathway by which I engage with the school – two years ago, my wife and I decided we would financially support the school, and I was so excited to do a stretch goal, to do a five-year pledge… It’s an opportunity to have a seat at the table when they talk about the future of this school, being invited to participate, giving the time, opinions, money, and being able to affect outcomes.
Symonds: What advice do you have for someone going to business school to get the most out of the experience?
Davis: In school, there are three things that compete for your time: academics, career, social stuff. In my limited understanding, the way I prioritized is, I can’t do full justice to all three. There’s only 24 hours a day and sleep is not optional. I brought it down into two categories real-time stuff and post-facto stuff. I have PDFs of my lecture notes, I refer to them occasionally, so don’t worry about the post-facto stuff as much. I zoomed in on getting the most out of the real-time stuff - showing up to class, lectures, and asking questions. Do the math on what you pay per lecture. I don’t think I ever missed a class or lecture.
The social pillar was probably where I derived the majority of the outcomes. I have 500 very smart friends and that number is growing every week. I started a habit of asking, What is it you did before business school, what do you want to do after, and how can I help? When you flip a conversation from what can I get to what can I give, you will be included in the conversation. Especially if you do over time, and you do it consistently. You develop a reputation. You may not be able to help every single person. That’s where I buried all of my chips, I am all in, I became class president, I had an incredible cabinet to help me… And then from class president to post-graduation - same question: How can I be helpful to you?
Even now, in my professional career, I’m laser-focused on understanding the increasingly complex relationships – among my MPOWER family, my alumni family, my own family. It is really a gift and a joy when all three of these things intertwine.
Symonds: Any parting thoughts?
Davis: Anyone that is willing to give you 15 minutes of their time, take it. Take the 15 minutes, learn about somebody else, learn about someone else’s career, listen to the decisions they’ve made – it’s the best use of 15 minutes. I don’t even know how many coffee chats I attend/give on a regular basis. It’s probably the single best use of my personal time – helping others looking to craft their careers.
Anyone that would like to discuss attending INSEAD or starting a startup, I’m here, and willing to take calls or emails. As MPOWER demonstrates, you can achieve your potential by getting a high-quality education. Education remains the highest return on investment out there.