A History Lesson on Booth’s Pay-it-forward Culture

A History Lesson on Booth’s Pay-it-forward Culture

Inspired by a virtual event I attended entitled “Booth Alumni Perspectives: Building Resilience in Times of Crisis,” I recently began a mission to better understand the history of Chicago Booth’s legendary “pay-it-forward” culture.

As prospective students, everyone encounters the phrase “pay-it-forward” in reference to the nature of Booth’s community and people. I, myself, remember my journey with the concept. I first read about it online and was admittedly a little skeptical. What made Booth’s culture different from any other business school? Wasn’t this just another group of smart and nice (albeit perhaps more analytical than most) students?

Then, I met several current students who told me about their personal experiences benefiting from and contributing to the school’s pay-it-forward mentality. They spoke of informal mentorships between first- and second-years, limitless interview prep and mock casing, and a Slack culture where any question you could possibly dream of gets answered, from “where can I get a good haircut for someone with medium-length curly hair?” to “what’s a good quant-y class for someone who has no intention of being an i-banker but wants to get a decent feel for what an i-banker has to do…but also hasn’t taken a math class since high school?”

I remember that I started to feel like I both understood the pay-it-forward culture and was even beginning to experience it myself a little, perhaps through osmosis in talking with these current students, as well as in their generosity in answering my myriad of questions.

It wasn’t until the fall of 2018, however, that the extent of the pay-it-forward culture really came alive for me. From the first day of orientation, there were examples of it everywhere. I had a second-year “Squad Leader” from LEAD who took it upon himself to introduce our squad and sister squad to everything Booth had to offer. I had second-years in the Private Equity Group sending emails volunteering to review resumes and talk through recruiting strategies. I had professors, who were not even my professors yet, like Chris McGowan, running additional Career Services seminars for people interested in the various facets of the investing world.

These were basically strangers, who had no obligation or directives to help me—yet, here they were, reaching out, because they were eager to offer their various insights and advice, and I, a naïve first-year, was in much need of help. (It is, in Booth style, a pretty efficient market.)

But, I digress. Given my “field research,” there’s no question that the pay-it-forward culture is a real and ubiquitous power. However, to answer my burning question of how it came to be, I went to the most reliable source: Deputy Dean Stacey Kole.

Within two hours, Dean Kole emailed me back with her take on “Booth history.” She wrote:

While the introduction of LEAD strengthened the relationships within each Full-Time MBA class (1991 onward), and the Harper Center gave the program a home (2004), I think that the financial crisis in Fall 2008 galvanized our community into its pay-it-forward self.  At the time, Lehman was the hot investment bank and 22 of the strongest, most respected members of the Class of 2008 were to begin work there.  When the government (Treasury) opted not to bail out Lehman, these 22 students were left stunned and unemployed.  Without much of a plan, Julie Morton (head of Career Services) and I flew to NYC to gather the group.  In what I recall as a family-style gathering, our students showered us with Lehman-logoed gifts and appreciation for our presence.

The next step went something like this: we sent an email to the Class of 2007 and other finance-focused alums with the subject line, “Let’s get these talented grads a job.”  In the body of the email we listed the names of the students who were immediately impacted and, in much the same way as we are reaching out to our “friends and family” now to identify opportunities for students still seeking internships and post-MBA roles, we watched job posting after job posting roll in.  We had never seen anything like this.  At that moment, it was clear that the student culture had changed.  The Class of 2007 knew those 2008 MBAs—they had done mock interviews with them, they had tried to hire them, and even those students outside of finance recognized their names.  It was incredible and it gave us the boost we needed to work through an incredibly challenging time.

So, there you have it. While the pay-it-forward culture existed far before 2008, in that year, a crisis resulted in a call-to-arms, and the Booth community rose to the occasion and irrevocably imprinted upon the DNA of the school a closeness and “one team” mentality.

As I sat and read through her email, a sense of gratefulness washed over me. In the final quarter of my MBA, as I reflect on my time here, I could not be happier to have wound up at Booth, a place where the past, present, and even future community converge as one. A place where faculty, staff, alums, and peers come together every day to raise us up, fight for us, support us, challenge us, and empower us to not only be great business leaders but also to be great people. Yes, Booth is full of “smart and nice” individuals, but we are so much more than that. The Booth community is a family who looks out for each other, and I am lucky to have found a lifelong home in it.

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