This was written about my experience as an MBA student at NYU when 9/11 happened. I offer this as part of my own tribute to those who lost their lives when our nation changed forever a decade ago. --JD
Bringing Order to Chaos – A B-School Tale
Stern’s Langone Program for Working Professionals is unlike any other in the nation. US News and World Report has awarded its Number One Ranking for Part-Time MBA programs to NYU. It has always been competitive to get into the program … years ago the GMAT’s were even highrt than the full-time program. Virtually everybody who gets into Stern’s part-time program attends. This power, I submit, is due largely to the number of working professionals on Wall Street who make up the student body and adjunct faculty. Instructors often comment that their job is more facilitating education among these men and women than it is lecturing.
As a member of the part-time student body I have struggled at times in the past four years to feel “a part of Stern.” Mostly we show up at 6:00 pm … or slightly later … and leave at 9:00 pm often facing a long commute home, only to start the entire grind in less than 12 hours. Group projects are done via conference calls and web-conferencing as many group members travel for work while also trying to complete their degree. If we are on campus on Thursday nights (Beer Blast night at Stern) we usually have to rush past the celebration to quickly print an assignment and get to our classes.
The events that unfolded in the week following the World Trade Center tragedy, however, have done more to make me feel important and critical to the Stern community. It also provided lessons beyond what any MBA text could imagine on organization, spirit, order and chaos.
Wednesday after the tragedy happened I had nowhere to go. My firm, a dot-com survivor that sells online training to financial services firms, was in disarray losing many of our largest clients and suffering from an already tough economy within which to sell eLearning. I could not make myself consider making cold calls or prospecting on a day like this. Scanning through my email from Stern I learned of an 11:00 am meeting of students who, like me, were trying to figure out how to make a difference just blocks north of the smoldering rubble that used to be the World Trade Center.
A group of roughly 70 students gathered in one of the classrooms and offered addresses for blood donations, suggested items that were needed for rescue workers. I choked back tears. While moved by the generosity I was deeply concerned about my fellow part-timers. I raised my hand and shared my concern. I asked how many part timers were in the room and a few other hands went up. I explained that we had over 1900 working professionals who come to NYU only at night and on weekends and that many of them worked in this area, quite possibly in these very buildings.
This group, composed primarily of full-timers, mobilized immediately. The Office of Career Development turned over 20 interview rooms with phones to us. The Langone Program Office ran lists with home and work phone numbers. The IT department put up a message board for students to check-in. I wrote a phone script and began to train my fellow students on what to say. We could not be “MBA’s turned Grief Counselors” . . . we just needed to verify the safety of our student body. Nikki, a fellow part-timer, stepped in and executed flawlessly on my original vision. (Her favorite line has become, “I’ve never said God Bless You to so many people who have not sneezed before.”)
Shortly we hit the phones. My cold-calling training was paying off in a way I never dreamed. Students found what element they could do. Doug, an excel wiz emerged and took control of our now mounting list of found students. Gigi took over the growing list of volunteers. Too many others to mention stepped up and took on all sorts of tasks to ensure our student body’s safety. By the end of the afternoon 865 students had been verified secure and over 745 messages had been left. By nightfall we broke 1000.
Tearful part time students began to post on the website messages like, “God bless you for calling to see if I was okay. What can I do to help?” The campaign continued for five days and at this writing over 97% of our part time students have been determined safe and secure. In the process we uncovered a lot of grief . . . harrowing stories of students as high as the 89th floor escaping; one student’s father was the first fire chief to respond, another lost his girlfriend, and a small but growing list of students at risk emerged with dimming hopes that they will ever return to study cash-flow analysis or entrepreneurship with us again.
This tragedy brought the two student bodies together in a way that no beer-blast or scavenger hunt ever could. Inside it all four lessons seem particularly poignant to me:
1. Don’t let ‘Perfect” Get in the way of ‘Good Enough’ – there were many times we could have been stopped by inaccurate phone lists, differing opinions of administration on whether to post what we were finding, and disagreements on how exactly to proceed. If we waited for consensus on a ‘perfect strategy’ not a single phone call would have yet been made.
2. Always have a Contingency Plan – Nobody could have dreamed the atrocities of September 11th, but many students said our school was more organized than their firm’s were in verifying our student’s safety.
3. Life’s Short – tell people you care now, before it’s too late. Other more gifted writers have said this in more prolific ways, but it is clear . . . you cannot tell people you care too much or too often.
4. Contribution Matters – We all do what we can, when we can. It may take a while to find a way to share your specific skills, but search for ways that your contribution can make a difference.
New York and New York University is slowly coming back to life – albeit a different life than we went to bed to on Monday, September 10th, but life nonetheless. I doubt US News has a category for ‘Disaster Response’ or ‘Concern for Fellow Students’ but I know which school would make this short list. As I type we have fewer than 60 students that have not been located and the list keeps diminishing. We know however it will end on a number that is more than we can bear of classmates who have given their lives to terrorism.
The mobilization effort is now asking “What next? What can we do to further put our skills to use as part of the solution?” We may not be able to operate a back-hoe or perform first aid, but we can certainly utilize our networks to raise funds, offer consulting or staffing services, and help with the rebuilding of Wall Street’s human capital.
We will start interviewing soon . . . there will be a graduation . . . there will be another incoming class of full and part time students . . . but life will never be the same in B-School. A compassion and concern has emerged amidst the competitiveness.