Sophie Kin Seong









By Sophie Kin Seong

Under the Polished Veneer

“Why do you go to work? To increase shareholder value? What a load of b**l. Lots of people go to work for family, to get away from family, because they enjoy it, but nobody goes to work to increase shareholder value!”

As I smoothed down the lapels of my blazer, berating myself for not having the forethought to bring a lint roller, I nervously stepped into the lobby of Saïd Business School into a burst of excited chatter.

And then it started.

The waves of “Where are you from?” and “What did you do?” We had a mass communication app used by the 300-strong cohort to share information from setting up a bank account to gif battles. Within the first week, we had guest speakers, career and networking sessions, and a discussion on our leadership and teamwork styles based on our personality test results, just to name a few. Every night, there was another social gathering of at least 30 people.

All of that found me on Friday night, gasping for the safety of my room for a moment of silence. Here I was, 3 continents later, with 2 bursting suitcases, and the 1 golden question – is all this time and investment worth it? Did we really want to ‘increase shareholder value’, as Milton Friedman so eloquently argues?

Well, I found that once you get past the seemingly polished answers to “what do you want out of the MBA” and over the intimidating casual use of buzzwords like ‘impact investing’ and ‘private equity finance’, most MBAs…don’t have a clue. We were all there to find gateways into industries we had only dreamt, answers to questions we hadn’t yet thought to ask, and maybe some vague headstart on self-actualisation.

So when Professor Kurt April challenged our textbook answer with that question in a session called ‘Leading from Your Own Diverse Narrative’, I appreciated the honesty. I recognised Oxford Saïd’s attempt to not spoon feed us the latest best practices, shove us into executive suit moulds, and churn us out into the corporate world with shiny new Powerpoint skills.

With 328 students representing 58 different countries, there was no norm to conform to. We were handed a blank slate and the tools to define the landscape we wanted. It meant that the best thing you could do for the class to benefit from your diversity was to celebrate being you. I found so far that the MBA has been as much about learning from others as it has been about looking in. With the number of positions to hold, talks and parties to attend, conferences to organise, and so many other competing things, I’ve had to take a step back and prioritise what I truly stand for, what really gets my blood pumping.

It’s been an incredible journey in what Dan Pallotta calls “audacious authenticity…heroic humility that allows us to remove our masks and be real”, in his TED Talk on daring to dream.

How many more times in my life will I spend almost every waking minute in the company of so many who not only are determined to make a positive impact in this world, but also challenge me to do the same?

About a month ago, I attended an Open Session for all Oxford students in Japan. Over cocktails, someone said, “Too bad you’ll be there only one year. MBA students never truly get to experience Oxford.”

Indeed, a year isn’t nearly enough if you imagine yourself wandering the ancient corridors of all of Oxford’s over 100 libraries and 38 colleges or if you want to attend all the fascinating lectures given on topics you’ve never heard of. Then there’s course work, recruiting events, and the endless availability of resources to explore any connection or field you want. And not to mention the effort it takes to block out the invasive voices in your head to pursue finance or consulting.

The extreme FOMO already gives me heart palpitations.

But one year to challenge the boundaries of what I can do with my time? To use the flurry of activity as an opportunity to isolate what truly matters and therefore discover what I have to give to this world? One year to have deeply enriching conversations with lifelong friends in the making and take home lessons learned from every encounter?

That…that I can do. That’s what Oxford is really made of.

“Somewhere that transcends all of the wondrous things we can and will and must do lies the domain of all the unbelievable things we could be.” – Dan Pallotta


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