Relationships: the overlooked ingredient of a top university


A professor once said to me that the entire university education boils down to several key ingredients: admissions, class study, professor relationship, peer relationship, test taking/exam, and ultimately a degree. An admission and graduation from a top university simply is a stamp in your passport of life stating that you are intelligent. For our parents, the underlying point is that we should have an easier time getting a job should we graduate from these schools. Specifically for us Indonesians a degree from a first rate university would also give us an advantage should we ever decide to move back home to our country. I emphasize what this blog already states: a good university gives you a better opportunity for a better career.

However, what is often overlooked by students in these universities is actually a great portion of what a university education provides: the relationships we build during our time there and how helpful these connections can be. We should dedicate as much effort and attention to building our network and relationships there as much as we do to other parts of our educational pursuits.

I was fortunate enough to experience this at the University of Chicago and later on at Stanford for my MBA. Both schools had very different cultures – Chicago is known to be “easy to get in” but “impossible to get out”. My first school assembly was a memorable one. A professor came out and exclaimed : “Look to your left and now look to your right. One of you will not be here in four years”. That set the stage for the Chicago experience – survival of the fittest and that defined the relationships formed in the university. As I learned along the way, Chicago had the moniker where “Hell comes to Die” and I had the full experience for four long winters where I came out barely standing.

Now how did I survive such tough conditions? I did a very un-Indonesian thing: I joined a fraternity. A fraternity/sorority is a sub-culture within universities, where a group of guys/girls join an organization based on brotherhood and for social reasons. In another blog entry, I can write about the fraternity experience, but in short, it fills the most important element that I found to be lacking in the University of Chicago outright: social relationships. Through these four years, my frat brothers provided me with teamwork in the classroom and social support outside of class. We celebrated both successes and failures together. I made lifelong friends and, believe it or not, they have been very helpful both personally and professionally throughout my career after school.

The Stanford culture, on the other hand, was “impossible to get in”, but once I was admitted, it was the best university experience I have ever had (small caveat: I got an MBA, which most of the other graduate students consider to be “grad-light”). The experience I had was one, which emphasized teamwork and explored a diversity of opinions. Similar to my Chicago experience, I tried to set a different social experience for myself. In my last year at school, I rented a house with 4 friends from very different backgrounds: a Jewish athlete from New York, a son of Thai conglomerate, an Indian-American Goldman Private Equity turned entrepreneur, a Yale Vietnamese who did construction contract work, and a Japanese investment banker. The result of this social experiment resulted in a lot of awkward and funny moments, which sparked deeper friendships with other members of our program, since each of us had other circles of friends. The house we lived in became a popular hang out, a unique nest for friendship building. If it were not for this housing setup, I would not have met, befriended and built relationships with such a diverse group of people at Stanford.

As described by my two experiences, I cannot emphasize how helpful friendships and building a diverse network have been for my life. After my first job as an investment banker, for which I had to apply and go through an admissions process, my subsequent career moves afterward all came through the relationships I built. I worked at a top Private Equity firm in New York due to my UChicago relationship. In fact, I was the first MBA intern they hired in the history of the firm. When I moved back to Indonesia to grow a company from a private family run business to a public company, many Chicago/Stanford relationship came into play. When the company had its first financing, the CEO of the bank came from Stanford and his deputy CEO came from UChicago. When we took the company public during the most difficult time for IPOs, the main global investor that pulled through were from my relationship with Stanford.

As Indonesian professionals who decide to come back home, we tend to emphasize the Indonesian relationships much more, rather than the relationships with our non-Indonesian friends, as we assume our Indonesian friends will be the most helpful to us in the future. However, I have found that as Indonesia grows to become a bigger, more important economic player globally, the relationships we build with our non-Indonesian friends will take a far more important role. I never intended the relationships I built to have an economic benefit when I was in school. However, as we all grow professionally and personally, these connections gave far more depth and meaning to my Chicago and Stanford experience. So, in closing, do not forget to always cultivate friendships wherever you are, particularly when you are studying in a top university. They may be the key ingredient to your experience as you pursue this important stamp in your passport of life.


Photo credit: Networking function  – Wikimedia Commons

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Pandu Sjahrir has significant experience in international capital markets in both buy-side and investment focused roles. Mr. Sjahrir is currently the Finance Director of PT. Toba Bara Sejahtra Tbk, a leading coal mining company in Indonesia, where he's responsible for capital raising (including the company's first IPO and loan facilities ) and acquisition activities. Mr. Sjahrir was an investment professional at MatlinPatterson, a global investment firm based in New York, where he was directly responsible for investing the firm's capital in the public markets. He has also held positions at Byun & Co and Lehman Brothers as an investment banker. Mr. Sjahrir received his BA from the University of Chicago and his MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.


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