When I applied for Harvard Business School Online’s Credential of Readiness (CORe) program in the summer of 2015, I had no idea that my classmates and professors would become a community that continues to influence my professional and personal growth. The last time I found such a large, tight-knit family was during my undergraduate studies at Duke University.

It’s clear that HBS Online’s philosophy is built around helping people thrive together with purpose. I believe that spirit was summarized by a particular quote from Harvard Business School Professor Bharat Anand, Senior Associate Dean of HBS Online, during his opening remarks at Connext 2019:

“When the 46,001st person sits down to take the online course, the fact that many other people took it is irrelevant for their learning experience.”

As past and present students of HBS Online, many of us have helped shape each other’s learning experiences. While this was my third time attending Connext, it was the first for many others. I decided to play a role in shaping how my peers experienced the weekend by organizing a Friday night social at John Harvard’s Brewery & Ale House in Harvard Square. It was a great way for all of us to connect before the event, since Connext is more than just a gathering of people from different cohorts, courses, and countries who met online.

One major commonality that my fellow Connext attendees and I share is having completed an HBS Online course, which required support and encouragement from each other. Because of these shared experiences and our team spirit, the event felt like an alumni reunion.

Watch the opening remarks and keynote below: 

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Saturday morning started off with immense energy, as we met many of our professors and classmates face-to-face for the first time. We were, and continue to be, each other’s reasons to dream, do, and achieve.

Related: My Journey from CORe to Connext 2019

“Be skeptical of conventional wisdom if you’re not aiming for conventional results.”
—Professor Jeffrey Rayport

One of the biggest highlights of every Connext has been the case discussions. This year, I was assigned a case led by Professor Jeffrey Rayport about Chewy, an online retailer of pet-related products. The dilemma at hand was that the company’s finances were already teetering, but the founders wanted to massively expand its logistical system and outpace incoming competitors. Doing so, however, would require an immense amount of capital expense and risk their relationships with clients.

Having started my own educational nonprofit, Tech Tree Root, my instinct was to continue pushing the pace of operations, but I couldn’t figure out how to generate the necessary finances. Watching Professor Rayport swiftly move around the room to gather various ideas from my classmates and choose an unexpected, yet successful, strategy was amazing. Although most of us had scaled down expectations, he reminded us that how we think greatly affects how we perform.

“I enjoyed bringing all of you together, but you all helped each other grow.”
—Professor Ethan Bernstein

After our case discussions, it was time to eat. Shortly before Connext, those of us who completed Developing Yourself as a Leader or Managing Your Career Development were invited to have lunch with Professor Ethan Bernstein. We were amazed that he was taking the time to meet with us because the cases and people in his course had inspired us in many ways.

At lunch, we discussed the concepts and business leaders we remembered studying during his course, as well as what he had inspired us to do. He pointed out that we also played crucial roles in shaping each other’s development as leaders.

One classmate in particular, Jean Claude Benga, was a driving force in pushing us to dream big. He helped shape my eventual decision to establish an educational nonprofit that mentors and generates opportunities for students interested in technology and entrepreneurship by creating on-campus events that combine a technology conference, a career fair, and an entrepreneurship competition.

Over the past two years, with immense support and encouragement from another classmate, Maggie Sin, I have established Tech Tree Root and launched the inaugural editions of these recurring academic events—popularly known as “hackathons” in the tech world—on 10 university and high school campuses throughout Texas and Oklahoma, doubling the size of repeating editions to host nearly 1,000 participants at the largest ones. The number of events held annually has tripled this past school year and helped many students secure internships and launch startups. I will always remember Professor Bernstein’s excitement when I told him about my results.

Next, we attended breakout sessions, which included panel discussions, tours of the HBS campus, and an interactive space centered on the HBS Online Community. As a Community Organizer, I spent most of this time meeting with peers to help them understand the goals of our various Chapters. Beyond the social aims of Community, my fellow Organizers and I want our Chapters to become involved in volunteer efforts.

Related: How the Community Makes Learning with HBS Online Unique

“Over 600 people have filed papers to run for President of the United States in 2020. But I assure you that there is one issue that none of them—and I mean none of them—have discussed to our knowledge. That is hunger.”
—Catherine D’Amato, President and CEO of Greater Boston Food Bank

One issue that most of us will never fully understand is food insecurity.

I was floored when Catherine D’Amato, President and CEO of the Greater Boston Food Bank, told us during her closing keynote that 820 million people go to bed hungry every night. She then closed her address by tasking our Community with a special challenge:

Develop an innovative, cost-effective, scalable way for pantries to deliver food to clients. Strategize how GBFB could increase access to nutritious food by meeting those in need where they are, and outline how this solution might help end hunger in your own community.

Watch the closing keynote below:

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The first time I truly witnessed food insecurity was during my undergrad at Duke when I served as an academic tutor and basketball coach at the Emily K Center. Kids were allowed to take home one snack at the end of each day, but on my first Friday, many of them were stuffing their backpacks to the point that fruit was falling out. Confused, I turned to the center's director, who quietly told me that whatever those kids brought home was all the food they and their younger siblings would have until their subsidized breakfasts at school on Monday. Although I grew up poor, many people have been there for me, so I know I should do more for others.

Connext 2019’s mission was to bring our Community together through a common purpose. Many people have already begun to brainstorm ideas for the challenge D’Amato proposed, and it’s on us Community Organizers to galvanize our Chapters and maximize our impact. Part of me is also trying to think of ways for Tech Tree Root to partner with food banks, since all the hackathons end up with some excess food that could go toward serving the homeless.

“Finding a purpose that’s authentic, worthy, incites your passion, and motivates you to find your strongest self because you really believe this is the North Star for you, is everything. It is the gas. It is the resilience. It is the discipline to hone your gifts and use your experience to squeeze the very marrow out of this turbulent, extraordinarily promising—and equally perilous—world that we live in.”
—Professor Nancy Koehn

While this statement by Professor Koehn was made during the opening keynote, I felt that it would be the perfect closing for my thoughts on Connext. Toward the end of her discussion about leadership and management with Professor Joe Fuller, moderated by HBS Online Executive Director Patrick Mullane, she drew a deep breath and leaned forward. During that pause, I knew right away that this would be one of the defining moments of the event. The monologue she delivered did not ask for greatness or perfection, but rather perseverance in finding the North Star for our lives and helping others to find theirs.

Here are some examples of HBS Online learners who have embodied this idea:

  • Maggie Sin is an analyst in San Francisco. She gives talks at universities and helps students build up their skill sets to find opportunities in tech and entrepreneurship. In fact, her marketing expertise and encouragement made it possible for me to establish Tech Tree Root.
  • Austin Johnson works full-time in Colorado and is an online student at Penn State. He’s been using his personal struggles and lessons from books he reads to build up his website Philosophy for Success and create opportunities for others to find their own pursuit of excellence.
  • Janine Yoro is a network pricing analyst in Los Angeles who has published a book of poetry called Cntrl, Enter and is currently working on a second. At the end of Connext, she spoke with Catherine D’Amato and has been brainstorming ideas for increasing access to nutritious food.
  • Aalok Rathod is an award-winning short film producer and a Master of Science in Media Management candidate at The New School in New York City. He also hosts a weekly podcast called “The Afflatus” that showcases how ordinary people persevere until they find a mission in life.
  • Mona Molayem is a professional travel blogger, lifestyle influencer, and digital strategist who teaches social media marketing classes at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles. She’s also a Community Organizer and recently coordinated a tour of Northrop Grumman and NASA’s James Webb Telescope.

While it sounds like my peers and I have “made it” in life, the truth is that we are always seeking to create opportunities for others. It is not those who cannot do who teach, but rather those who can do who teach.

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A purpose that inspires us to become the best versions of ourselves is our North Star in life. I can’t fully describe how each of my peers has affected me, and I may never know how much I’ve influenced them. But we have all been part of each other’s growth and evolution, and we can continue doing that for others. That commitment has been my greatest takeaway from Connext 2019.

Are you interested in more Connext-related content? Subscribe to our blog and check out all of our past coverage of the event.

Scotty Shaw

About the Author

Scotty Shaw is the founder and president of Tech Tree Root, an educational nonprofit that mentors and generates opportunities for thousands of students interested in technology and entrepreneurship by creating on-campus events that combine a technology conference, a career fair, and an entrepreneurship competition.