Sara Jane Ho, HBS Alumna: A Humble Eagerness to Learn

Sara Jane Ho, HBS Alumna: A Humble Eagerness to Learn main image

Ask MBA alumni what the most valuable lesson they learned while at business school was, and you might expect the answer to be something like technical expertise, leadership skills or an ability to think strategically.

However, for Harvard Business School alumna, Sara Jane Ho, the most profound thing she got from the Harvard MBA was a sense of humility. While Ho was at HBS, Professor Clay Christensen – who taught a course on building and sustaining a successful enterprise – was diagnosed with cancer.

Faced with this, he was moved to remind the class of the importance of humility, asking them to identify the most humble people they knew. For Ho, the results were enlightening: “[The Harvard MBA class] concluded that humble people have a high level of self-esteem. They know who they are, and they feel good about who they are. Humility is defined not by self-deprecating behavior or attitudes, but by the esteem with which you regard others. Good behavior flows naturally from that kind of humility. For example, you would never steal from someone, because you respect that person too much. You’d never lie to someone either. To me, this is the spirit of etiquette!”

Possessing humility of this sort is particularly important, she continues, to Harvard Business School alumni. In terms of educational attainment, these graduates will be among the world’s academic and professional elite. However, this does not mean that they cannot learn from others who may not possess such rarified résumés.

“By the time you make it to a top graduate school, almost all your learning has come from people who are smarter and more experienced than you: parents, teachers, bosses. But once you’ve finished at Harvard Business School, or any other top academic institution, the vast majority of people you’ll interact with on a day-to-day basis may not be smarter than you. If your attitude is that only smarter people have something to teach you, then your learning opportunities will be very limited. But if you have a humble eagerness to learn something from everybody, your learning opportunities will be unlimited.”

Harvard Business School: Aesthetic and academic appeal

Of course, one place where one will be inundated with learning opportunities is at Harvard Business school, and like many others, Sara Jane Ho was first drawn to the Harvard MBA by the opportunity of learning from her peer group: “I have never been so impressed as I have by students at Harvard. Whether it was the students I met when I toured the school, or HBS alum that I had met throughout my life, I felt that they were motivated, energetic and inspiring. They are also quite visionary,” she adds, “perhaps a self-selecting group since HBS is known for grooming future CEOs.”

Being able to draw on the Harvard Business School international brand cachet also played a part in her decision, particularly as she intended to work in Asia after graduating, as well as the simple romance of studying at this most venerable seats of learning. “I fell in love with the red brick, wood floors, and twining ivy. Harvard’s campus is simply charming and Boston is the perfect university town.”

Though she found there was no shortage of claims on her time, between her academic and social lives, she found being free of the relatively constricting pressures of professional life extremely liberating. “My most treasured memory was how carefree and wholesome life was. I loved walking across the quad that had fresh grass and carefully tended trees, under Boston’s clear blue skies. Being able to sit outside and relax in the sun or walk to Cambridge Square for a coffee with friends, or step into a cute boutique. These are my most treasured memories of my time at HBS.”

Bringing the finishing school to China

Prior to her MBA, Ho – a true renaissance woman – had worked across several industries, functions and even geographies prior to her MBA. The Hong Konger began her career as an investment banker in New York before moving to China to work for a non-profit organization in Beijing, where she led business development and fundraising.

Post-MBA she founded Institute Sarita, China’s first high-end boutique finishing school, based in Beijing. Sara Jane Ho herself attended a Swiss finishing school, where she attained a diploma in international etiquette and protocol (she also writes on etiquette for the Chinese versions of The Wall Street Journal and Vogue). It was there where she first had the idea to bring savoir-vivre (knowing how to live) to China.

“What is particularly challenging for me is that I am the pioneer of etiquette – a new space – in China. I am often forced to make decisions in the face of uncertainty.” Luckily, this is something for which she feels her Harvard MBA has prepared her.

“Before my MBA, as an analyst on Wall Street, and today as an entrepreneur, I have to make big decisions with limited information. The difference HBS training gave me was their renowned case method system. In class we heard different perspectives from different people, and in real life it is the same, people often give me different advice.  HBS’s classes put me in the seat of someone with lots of responsibility: this is what you do or do not know, and what do you decide? Doing this repeatedly, over and over again made me feel comfortable in an uncomfortable setting.”

On the subject of incomplete knowledge, is there anything the finishing school founder wishes she had known before enrolling on the prestigious MBA? “Not really. I am a tediously thorough researcher and had enough friends who were already studying at HBS to tell me everything I needed to know! I was very well prepared.”

Are you ready for the Harvard MBA?

She believes everyone should do an MBA if given the opportunity, but – while we’re on the subject of preparation – it’s essential to have a career on which to reflect to truly derive the full benefit. “In order to make the most of an MBA, you need a few years of work experience. The MBA will help you to digest and better understand your career to date, and only after maturing personally and career-wise can you make the best decision for yourself after the MBA.”

This can occur at different stages during one’s career. Sara Jane Ho was relatively young, entering Harvard at 24 years of age with three years’ experience under her belt. For others, it could be more.

She also has advice targeted at fellow Chinese students. While she attended a boarding school in the US in addition to the Swiss finishing school, other Chinese students who have not enjoyed these advantages may struggle to integrate with their peers. “Many Chinese students have difficulty engaging in the community and end up isolating themselves by only joining the Asian student clubs, or hanging out only with other Chinese. In order to take advantage of all the resources and diversity around you, be confident to leave your comfort zone every now and then to engage more the community.”

This is one of those occasions, she adds, where etiquette lessons may come in handy. “If it is your first time going overseas, enroll in a cultural etiquette course to better help you adjust when you arrive.”

But be prepared to make the most of it and you can most certainly leave business school with a little savoir-vivre of your own!

Written by Mansoor Iqbal

Mansoor is a contributor to and former editor of TopMBA.com. He is a higher and business education specialist, who has been published in media outlets around the world. He studied English literature at BA and MA level and has a background in consumer journalism.

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