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MBA Alumna’s Startup Meets with Michelle Obama’s Approval

Michelle Obama found value in the napkin-sized lessons produced by HBS alumna, Tina Hay

Image: Mel E Brown/Shutterstock.com

'Digestible', 'easy', 'fun'- these are not words we would most commonly associate with the learning of business constructs. Harvard Business School (HBS) alumna, Tina Hay, would have been compelled to fire all manner of antonym at the above back in 2002. Enrolled in a finance course at HBS, Hay observed that her banking and consulting peers strolled through coursework while she, a liberal arts graduate, struggled to break the code. Taking her artistic leanings in a new direction, Hay began to sketch and condense theory into simple visual mind maps, illustrations that were small enough to fit on a standard-sized paper napkin, and captivating enough to later draw the attentions of the White House.

Napkin Finance - student loans

In 2014, Hay re-envisioned her napkin illustrations through the launch of multimedia company, Napkin Finance, which publishes colorful graphics explaining the basics of money, including lessons on budgeting, how to get a student loan, and how to save for college/university. Made freely available online, Hay’s lessons are presented in videos, text and, of course, napkins. Michelle Obama, widely recognized as an advocate for adolescent girls’ education and higher education, discovered Hay’s lessons last year when seeking collaborators for her Reach Higher initiative, a project which aims to encourage more young people to actively seek an education beyond high school. For Michelle Obama, these lessons fit the objectives of the cause perfectly. Hay promptly became one of only 20 partners selected to take part in the White House initiative.

With the promotion of financial literacy at the core of her directive, Hay developed a suite of six lessons - entitled ‘Michelle Obama’s Course’ -  the highlight of which included a napkin graphic and text tutorial on applying for the FAFSA, the government’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (also available to MBA applicants). The substantial rise in student debt in the US over the last decade, has arguably made this joint mission all the more timely and relevant. 

Napkin Finance - FAFSA

Napkin Finance is the third in a series of startups set up by Tina Hay, who has become something of a serial entrepreneur since the time of her MBA at Harvard. In fact, the degree bridged her work as cofounder and president of her first multimedia company, City Tripping Productions (focused on youth lifestyle and trends) to a continued commitment to entrepreneurial pursuits fuelled by a passion for finance. After a stint as a financial analyst after her MBA, and before Napkin Finance, Hay had also launched CardBlanc, a universal payment card for millennials.  

CEO Hay’s advice to MBA entrepreneurs: “Find great people”

Tina Hay - image courtesy of Napkin FinanceThe MBA alumna believes that the market is laden with opportunity for entrepreneurs. “It’s a great time to start a business,” Hay said in an interview last year. “Technology is inexpensive and there are so many incredible resources available to build a company.” While business schools are increasingly keen to facilitate MBA students’ access to the right resources and opportunities, at the heart of it all, says Hay, are angel investor firms, alumni networks, or early adopter groups. For some budding entrepreneurs, the ticket to business success may be securing support from angel investors; for others, it may be encouragement from their MBA class, faculty, or wider alumni network. In whichever case, “the most important message would be to find great people. There is nothing more critical to the success of a business than having good people behind it,” she says.

MBA program offerings for entrepreneurs expanding

According to the 2015 Kauffman Index, there are more entrepreneurial CEOs like Hay launching their businesses than ever before. Business schools across the US are also seeing record figures in the number of students applying for classes in entrepreneurship. The Wharton School’s Goergen Entrepreneurial Management Program has overseen a tripling in its number of applicants over the last four years, for instance. UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Harvard Business School’s Rock Center for Entrepreneurship and  Columbia Business School’s Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center also report sharp rises in the number of candidates applying for places on programs and classes in this field.

Businesses schools, in response to this growth in demand, are aiming to broaden their scope and support the development of innovation hubs whose outlooks lie beyond the limits of their central campuses. New York City, increasingly known as a center for technological innovation and a startup haven is now home to Columbia Startup Lab, and this year to Harvard Business School's Startup Studio. Both centers are designed to bring MBA alumni together to work on new enterprises with the power to further stoke the US economy. With job satisfaction levels for self-employed business school alumni high, according to a 2016 GMAC report, it is probable that we will see even more innovative and quirky ideas like Tina Hay's. We can't be so sure that they'll all reach the White House.

Karen Turtle
Written by Karen Turtle

A content writer with a background in higher education, Karen holds an MA in modern languages from the University of St Andrews. Her interests include languages and literature, current affairs and film. ​

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