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A Virtual Chat with CEO and EiC of Poets & Quants, John Byrne

By Sanjna Shukla and Deirdre Keane

John Byrne is the former executive editor of Businessweek and founder and CEO of C-Change Media, the parent company of the wildly popular Poets&Quants.com. He has also served as the editor-in-chief for both Businessweek.com and Fast Company. A lifelong journalist, Byrne has written over 50 cover stories for publications such as Businessweek, Fortune, and Forbes. During his time at Businessweek, he became the first person to publish rankings for business schools and has since published several MBA and graduate school-oriented books. He has a BA in English and Political Science from William Patterson of New Jersey and an MA in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

John very graciously accepted our cold email to interview him on Zoom, and we got the opportunity to learn about his experience, talk about his passion for writing about MBA programs, and get his advice on how to maximize the MBA experience during this time. 

Answers have been edited for clarity.

DK: Hi John! Tell us a little about yourself and your background.

I was a big rock fan back in the day. I started my career as a rock critic at my college newspaper. I would interview performers who came to my college, and I would come to New York to go to concerts on a press pass. That’s how I got into writing. It really was my love of music. Then I wanted to become a more serious writer. Not that covering music isn’t serious, but I wanted to have an impact on a discourse. I ended up becoming the editor of the college newspaper for two years. I then went to grad school and majored in journalism. I knew I wanted to cover business because at the time, business was undercovered. Everyone wanted to be a political writer. However, I found business more fascinating. The way we live, work, and play is dramatically impacted by business. So I began studying business and then covering it. That led to jobs at Forbes and BusinessWeek. I became the editor of Fast Company Magazine before returning to BusinessWeek as executive editor, where I stayed until it was acquired by Bloomberg. Then I moved to California and started C-Change Media, which is the parent company of Poets & Quants.

Why Poets & Quants? Because I wanted to do a Huffpo for business, a supergroup of business media, but I couldn’t find funding for it. I decided to do Poets & Quants first, which would be the first of a dozen websites. However, Poets & Quants took off very fast. It became cash flow positive in three months and after the first year, it was profitable. From there I pivoted into more of a higher-education company, with websites for business undergrads, executive MBAs, law students, and social enterprise sites.Ultimately, we want to have sites for med students and computer science engineering students.

DK: How did you get so heavily involved with MBA programs? I know you said that you wanted to focus on the business sector, but it’s a pretty niche area to become so expertised in. 

When I was at BusinessWeek, I was the management editor. Not a managing editor, like you Sanjna, but a management editor. An important part of that feat was graduate management education. Yet, we had done very little to nothing to cover that area. I was fascinated by it. It was a significant booming business. The ROI was a no-brainer. More universities were starting business schools. The number of applicants was rising. I felt the best way to cover the topic was to create a ranking. There was no ranking of business schools back then. US News had started ranking undergraduate programs but no graduate programs. 

While a ranking is, on some level, a gimmick, it allows a journalist to essentially interview thousands of people at once through surveying techniques. I wanted to make it a customer satisfaction ranking. The customers were the students, which is still controversial to this day. Students had three to five years of work experience, were discerning, were spending a lot of money on their education and were investing a lot of themselves into a program. I felt they had the right to evaluate the education they had just received. The other customers were the companies that hired them. It was solely a customer satisfaction ranking. No GMAT scores. No GREs. No salaries. No admission rates. Nothing like that. If you wanted that data, you could go to the school’s website. We collected that data for the students but did not include it in the rankings. It was straightforward customer satisfaction. I did that in 1988. It was the first ever MBA ranking. It attracted a lot of attention. It was the first time anyone had benchmarked the schools and how they performed on everything – from career management; to the quality, accessibility, and attentiveness of the professors; to having the students remark on the quality of their classmates and how that added or didn’t to the experience they had. 

I did that for a couple of years and built out our online presence in 1994, when traditional media went online effectively. Then I moved on and did other things. I came back to BusinessWeek as executive editor and this was one of the areas I supervised. When it came to creating a site [Poets & Quants], I knew there was a great demand for this information and it would attract a faithful audience. 

Journalists tend to write about what interests them and not what interests the audience. I felt strongly that we wanted to make sure we were writing for the audience. What did the audience need to know at any particular time in the admission cycle? We wanted to be creative and do things that others wouldn’t think of, but it was always with the audience in mind. How can we hold the hand of someone who is making the anxiety-ridden journey to business school? There is so much at stake. The opportunity cost is high. Tuition and fees are high, and with all these highly selective schools, the odds of getting in are low. The more information we can give and the more transparent we can make the process, the better for everyone. The more informed you are about where you go, the better the chances there are of you making the right choices for you.

We cover it all. We are very geeky when it comes to stats. We love provocative coverage. It is very important to us to cover the whole gamut of the business community, even if it’s negative at times. It is important to basically tell people “hey, this is what your experience is going to be like if you go to business school.” There are a number of set features that do that. However, through putting together rankings and wallowing in data, you learn a lot about data collection and limitations of the systems. Everyone is obsessed with rankings but news outlets are not reviewing and writing about other paper’s rankings. This presented a valuable opportunity for us. These publications are well read. When an outlet publishes a ranking, it barely writes about it. Its coverage is skimpy and it never discounts the credibility of the ranking. We love to point out flaws of every ranking system and really get into how silly they often are. That probably became the number one area of coverage for Poets & Quants, right from day one. 

SS: You recently wrote an interesting article called “Why You Should Apply For An MBA In The Midst Of COVID.” I know this topic is on the top of everyone’s minds, who are currently applying for and/or are in business school. Do you think the ROI is still very high and business school is worth applying to at this time? 

Totally. The way the recession is impacting business is by making upward trajectories that are much more difficult, if not impossible. Before the recession, if you had a job in a company in an economy that was growing, there were probably many more job opportunities in front of you, without having to go to graduate school. The recession has, for many people, put a halt to that. It may be a temporary halt but still a halt. A lot of people are no longer employed through layoffs. Then you have a whole other group of people, who were personally affected by Covid, either directly or through their families or friends. That is an incredibly traumatic experience for them, and it has made them leave their companies. 

I think that opens a door at this time, if you are in the right age bracket, to get a graduate degree, upgrade your skills, and learn more about how you can make yourself more effective in the world of work. That’s number one. Number two is if you apply now, you won’t matriculate until the fall of next year and God willing, there will be a vaccine and things will have gone back to normal. You will have in-person classes with normal experiences and when you go for your internship, you shouldnt have any trouble because we will be walking into recovery. When you graduate, the economy should be fully recovered, and there should be plenty of opportunities for you. 

In the meantime, what you’ve done is upgraded your skills, learned a lot more than you knew before, and sanded down many rough edges, in terms of your professional and management development. You’ve created a network of people, who will be your friends for life. And if you go to a really good school, you will have surrounded yourself with people who are very smart, aspirational, and who will become very successful. It’s not merely a network of friends. It’s a network of people who will be influential decision makers in their careers, which makes it a much more valuable network than we have traditionally thought of networks. 

The other thing is there is a lot of scholarship money out there. I know the price tags on these programs are daunting and scary for people, but there is a lot of money out there, more than ever before. So, there really is a two-tier pricing system going on. There is the sticker price for those who can actually afford it, and then there is the discounted price for those where it’s a stretch. Because of the income bump most MBAs get, along with the signing bonus, when you do incur debt, it makes it easier. Don’t get me wrong, it is never easy to pay down any major debt. But it is a lot easier when you are getting a major sign-on bonus of $35,000 if you go into consulting. It’s a lot easier when you are making a high six-figure salary. It can constrain career choices but the jobs are out there. They do pay well, they are with world class companies, and you will be working side-to-side with people, who are as smart as, if not, smarter than you. I think that is an incredible experience. 

The other thing about an MBA is there are a lot of jobs in companies that are literally impenetrable without an MBA. The degree opens a lot of doors that would otherwise be closed. For those reasons, I think it’s a really good time to get an MBA. I think very few people, who have gotten MBAs in the past, have regretted the experience. Very few people have any remorse about it. When you look at the research, you find the vast majority of people, and by vast I mean upwards of 85-90%, are glad they got the degree, have no remorse they paid for it, and believe that it has really made them a better person, and also a better professional. 

SS: That makes complete sense for people who are coming into the program, but on the flip side, for MBA2s or people who are going to graduate soon, what would your advice be to us? How should we make the most of our last few months?

You’re going through an unprecedented time, and because most of the learning is remote, you are not getting the experience that you signed up for. On the other hand, you’re all going through this together. What I have found in life, is that when people go through something together, and it’s tough and it’s not what they bargained for, they bond in ways they could never have otherwise. While it’s frustrating and disappointing, particularly when there is no discount on the tuition *hmph* for something you didn’t sign up for, years will pass and you will look back at this and think, (chuckles) “I hated this at the time, but man am I glad that I did it, because my relationships with my classmates are closer than they otherwise would have been and it all worked out.” 

And yes, the job market is a little more compromised, but schools have been really good at mobilizing their alumni basis to help current students, with both internships and full time offers. I think that it’s been pretty good in comparison to what’s going on in the real economy. 

DK: John, out of curiosity, since you’re so heavily involved with business schools and graduate programs, did you ever consider getting an MBA? We know that you have a Master’s in Journalism. 

I regret not getting an MBA. I am a first-generation college grad. My mother never graduated grammar school, couldn’t even read or write. My father graduated high school and that’s it. I am an only child. I had no nearby role models, who had gone to college and worked in  the professional world. Both my parents were unionized factory workers, and my grandparents were immigrants from England, Ireland, and Italy. I never knew there was a hierarchy of universities. I never had an appreciation for how important higher education was, and then, when I unveiled it for myself, almost by accident, I still didn’t have a sense of how you could effectively use it. 

That’s why this is more than just a business for me, it’s a passion project. Back then, before the internet, there was very little information around. It’s a different world today. Information is at our fingertips. But still, there are a lot of people who come from backgrounds where their parents are not college educated. Or they may come from family backgrounds where college education is not only a must, but the only way to gain social mobility. I think we celebrate the value of education overall, but particularly business education, where the ROI is indisputable. If I was more knowledgeable when I was younger, I think I would have, without question, gone for an MBA. I really regret that I wasn’t advanced enough to have made that decision at the right time. 

DK: It seems like you did find one of your passions with journalism. To bring it back to Poets & Quants and your experience, you said that being assistant city editor of the Columbia Missourian in grad school was one of your favorite jobs. Why? How do you think it prepared you for the next step of your career? 

When I was in the graduate program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, the standards for journalism were higher than anything in the real professional world. It was incredibly demanding and because it was so demanding, it was a great experience. As a graduate student, I got to work with a lot of undergrads that basically formed the bulk of the newsroom. So literally every semester, there were hundreds of students, who would descend on this small town in the middle of Missouri and would cover it like Woodward and Bernstein. (chuckles) God help those poor people in the town council, on the governing board, and in every business. You had all these investigative young people out there, and my job was to help direct them, give them advice, read and edit their work, and shape it to form a daily newspaper. It was a commercial enterprise that competed with the other daily newspaper. It was a very aggressive and competitive news town, given where it was. As assistant city editor, I had a great experience in a leadership role, teaching and mentoring these younger people, and having to uphold these incredibly high standards in the newsroom. It was challenging but really a great learning opportunity.

SS: Based on  that experience in your graduate school newspaper and all your infinite wisdom, what advice do you have for a growing graduate paper?

You’re in an unusual situation because I don’t think you want to be provocative. Journalists are trained to be provocative and that’s an important part of my role. I like to think about what value I am adding to society and the world with whatever I do. I feel that can be accomplished by making people think more deeply about their lives and their decisions. I always felt when I was being provocative by asking tough questions of people and holding them to high standards, part of that was to get people to think about things in a deeper and more engaged way, and not on a superficial level. 

So, if you want to be a little provocative in covering the news, and you can do this in a positive way, you might do things like celebrate your best professors. Which ten professors get the highest student evaluations and why? You don’t have to name the bottom ten, but if you did, it would make it a lot more provocative! (laughs) And frankly, I think if you are in the bottom ten, you should be ashamed of yourself. You know what, shame is a powerful motivator and maybe you’ll try and get out of the bottom ten and that is going to benefit the students. That’s a positive. 

Because NYU is a private institution, you may not have access to this, but I think it’s fascinating to see who makes what salary. In many educational institutions, you can find out what the faculty is paid. If you are able to report on their salaries and correlate it to their student evaluations, you can see what the best teachers get paid in correlation to the overall salaries. Now that would be a provocative story, because I can guarantee the best teachers are rarely paid the most. In business school, professors’ salaries are based on the amount of research done and the status the research conveys. 

Another provocative story would be how much academic research is really worthwhile. All these things require some real reporting, thinking, and analysis. They are often difficult to pull off. You get people angry at you, but you get people reading the website and talking about it. It goes back to the desire of wanting people to think more deeply, in an engaged way, and that’s what you’d be doing. I think that’s a positive. 

In terms of other things, there are so many wonderful stories of the personal journeys of MBA students. They are endless, fascinating, and inspirational. We just published 50 profiles on first-generation college students from all over the world – what it took to get there, who inspired them, and what it has meant to them. That story is all good news, but it is meant to inspire others who may be disadvantaged or come from a place where people question whether they should be spending a lot of money on a college education. Because, believe it or not, there are still a lot of people who question whether or not everyone should have a college education. I don’t question it. Everyone should be college educated. It’s not because it gets you a better job or makes you more money. It’s because it makes you a more fulfilled and productive person in our society. That is the number one reason why you should get a higher education. It gives you the ability to reason, to think, to read and absorb at a higher level than you otherwise would be able to. 

I don’t want to get political on you, but I will. Why is it that the only segment of the population who supports Trump is uneducated white males? What does that tell you about the need for higher education? Facts matter. Your emotions may matter, but facts are ultimately more important. People who are uneducated, and people who encourage them to be uneducated, are denying themselves a full, productive, and fulfilled life. 

You are going to meet people in school, whom you otherwise would not have met. Their aspirations will become your aspirations. You’re going to be living life on multiple dimensions than you otherwise would have if you didn’t have a higher education. That’s why I believe in all this, why I do what I do, and why I do these first-generation college stories. I think there are still a lot of people out there who are like me. They had no role models around them who went to college. They were pretty ignorant of the opportunities around them and how to make their lives richer. Not in a materialistic way, not even in an intellectual way, richer because you can appreciate the wisdom of the ages; you can learn from history; and you can understand the importance of culture, art, books, and music. That’s what higher education does. It allows you to appreciate the gift of life at levels that would be inaccessible to you otherwise. 

DK: Wow. You verbalized that sentiment very well. Your rhetoric is just incredible. 

Well, thank you. I believe in that, so it’s easy. 

DK: Let’s talk about logistics of how you discover individual students when you’re looking to do one-on-one interviews or profiles.

A few different ways. One of the series we do every year is called “Meet the Class.” We’ll cover one particular school’s MBA program – what’s new in it, how it’s differentiated from every other program, and what the latest class statistics looks like in comparison to other peer schools. Then we feature usually a dozen of the new students and have them talk about their journey to that business school, why they chose it, why they’re getting an MBA, and what they’ve done in the past. We typically reach out to administration and tell them our pitch and have the school nominate people for us to survey. A lot of times, when it comes to these big list stories, the information will come from the school. Alternatively, people will also come to us directly. However, students are our best sources, particularly when it comes to stories the schools don’t want you to know about. (laughs) Students are great. There were a lot of petitions that were made in the spring at many schools where students were asking for refunds because their education had been moved online.

DK: At The Oppy, we are trying to promote Allyship on a continuous basis. Have you seen any programs or other interventions by business schools to promote allyship during these times of racial reckoning and advocating for social justice?

I think social justice is one of the biggest issues on business school campuses right now. A lot of business schools have formal programs for diversity inclusion. But in terms of allyship programs, I would say nearly all of them are initiated by students. There are some proactive school administrations, Stanford is one of them. Stanford was the first to publish a full report on where it was with diversity with stats that didn’t necessarily reflect well on the school. I think we are going to see a lot of schools doing that to hold themselves accountable. But ultimately, students have driven this agenda and have created programs and organizations to highlight diversity issues in their environment and to celebrate diversity in their communities. This has allowed allies to emerge with diversity groups. 

In general, business schools define diversity in a different way than others would. For example, diversity can be defined by industry background. However, younger people look at diversity from the lens of LBGTQ, underrepresented minorities, and the international student body, which leads to a much richer experience. This is one of the biggest issues right now, as it should be, seeing what happened in our country and what is continuing to happen. I think it’s early days for a lot of schools but there’s hardly any schools that haven’t taken some steps to move forward. Even if there is a lack of concrete numerical goals expressed by most schools. 

SS: Out of all the schools you have profiled, what are some of the most interesting programs and/or clubs you have seen and how have they made those programs/clubs successful, whether it’s professional-related or affinity? 

I think Stanford and Berkley have done good jobs. There were court decisions in California that prevented Berkeley, as a public institution, from partaking in affirmative action. Therefore, Berkeley was competing to have underrepresented minority students with their hands tied behind their back, essentially. A few years ago it led to a very small group of Black students being accepted into the MBA program. This group became very active on campus by getting involved in the recruitment process, hosting coffee chats, webinars, and conferences to make the program’s diversity initiatives widely known. Stanford promotes a lot of allyship from administrative and student standpoints. When people are open and vulnerable with each other, their peers gain an appreciation and understanding of what they had to go through, and that makes a huge impact on how their peers therefore support and ally behind others.

SS: We have a similar series to that on campus called Stern Speaks, which establishes intimacy quickly and we definitely feel a lot closer to each other afterwards.

If you have never been exposed to growing up in an American ghetto, or a poor rural community in India, or many places in the world, and if you bring your story to others, that’s another way to open hearts. A lot of people have led relatively privileged lives, if not from wealth then because they were brought up in a safe environment and had educational opportunities. It’s helpful to be exposed to that.


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https://poetsandquants.com/

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