Graduates in gown and caps celebrate their graduation at the HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management in Leipzig, Germany.
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Most MBA grads make this common mistake, says billion-dollar start-up founder


For many, an MBA seems like a surefire route to a high-powered career with a hefty pay packet to match.

According to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), 89 percent of recent business school graduates secured full-time employment this year. The majority of them were in traditional industries such as services (24 percent), finance and accounting (14 percent) and consulting (13 percent), according to the survey. Almost half of those jobs offered salaries of $125,000 or more, according to a separate study.

Commencement ceremonies at the Harvard Business School campus in front of Baker Library, in Boston, MA.
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But that could be where many grads are going wrong, according to Steven Lam, co-founder and CEO of billion-dollar start-up GoGoVan, an on-demand van-hailing app which aims to solve logistical problems in big Asian cities.

The 32-year-old, who graduated from the University of California-Berkeley's Haas School of Business, said too many students fall into tried and tested MBA careers — namely finance, accounting and consulting — when they could instead use their skills to shake up the business world.

"There are a lot of things out there," Lam told CNBC Make It. "You don't need to be fixated on accounting or finance."

Around the world there’s thousands and thousands of companies ... The greatest ones are not accounting firms, financial firms or consulting firms.
Steven Lam
co-founder and CEO of GoGoVan

It's a realization he reached on his first day at the prestigious business school. Having worked hard to earn his place after dropping out of high school in his native Hong Kong, Lam might have followed a similar route if it weren't for a business ethics class from Professor Alan Ross.

"He said: 'We are here to give you guys education. But education means building society, the world, in a lot of different angles,'" Lam recalled the professor saying.

By that, Lam said, Ross wanted to open students' eyes to the idea that an MBA can be put toward other avenues that address some of society's biggest issues. According to GMAC's research, in 2018, just 11 percent of MBA grads went into governmental or nonprofit roles, while 6 percent went into healthcare.

"That was the first class and I remember it so well," said Lam. "So when I graduated I just wanted to do something meaningful."

For his part, Lam went on to build a multinational on-demand logistics platform, which provides delivery services across six countries in Asia. The company directly employs 2,000 people and supports a network of 8 million drivers.

But, he said, working for a major company can also provide a real opportunity to drive forward industry practices and society more generally.

"Around the world, there's thousands and thousands of companies out there. The greatest ones are not accounting firms, financial firms or consulting firms. The greatest firms are called Fortune 500. Each of them sell different kinds of stuff, have different types of business," said Lam, citing the likes of Caterpillar, Walmart, Apple and Google.

The world has thousands of problems — poverty, environment — things that need good people, smart students to help to solve.
Steven Lam
co-founder and CEO of GoGoVan

"More than that, the world has thousands of problems – poverty, environment – things that need good people, smart students, to help to solve," he continued.

Last year, Lam's five-year-old company crossed a major milestone and became Hong Kong's first unicorn — a start-up valued at $1 billion. But, he said, money was never his motivation. To be sure, the company's impressive valuation is not reflective of his own personal wealth.

"I needed to make some money for me to survive," said Lam. "But, at the same time, if I can build something on my own —as a company that we create jobs or change an industry — for me it's very, very interesting."

"That mentality, I think, is very important," Lam added.

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