Originally published in The New York Times on June 18, 2000.
By David Leonhardt
THERE is little unusual about a pair of ambitious students trying to start their own Internet business these days. Relatively few of them, however, have access to anything that resembles the Harvard Business School network of 37,000 living, schmoozing alumni.
Consider the story of Tania Yannas and Benjamin Gordon, two aspiring entrepreneurs who graduated from the business school earlier this month. Their path to the campus was typical: first an Ivy League college, then a job in consulting or investment banking. During their first week of business school, in January 1999, they found themselves in assigned seats next to each other in a ”section,” as Harvard students call it, of an organizational behavior class.
Within a few months, Mr. Gordon, lanky and intense, was telling Ms. Yannas of his ambitions to create a company; by the start of their second year, he had written a summary of what the business would look like. His great-grandfather had started a horse-and-buggy business in New York in 1904, and his grandfather founded and still runs a truck-leasing business in New England. Mr. Gordon had worked there during college and had done some transportation consulting before coming to business school. So he imagined a business-to-business Web site that would allow shipping agents to communicate better with both truckers and shippers.
Mr. Gordon showed the summary to Ms. Yannas, a former McKinsey & Company consultant, who agreed to join him, and they approached Lynda M. Applegate, a management professor at Harvard. Professor Applegate arranged for them to meet for 15 minutes with Dave P. Perry — a co-founder of ChemDex, a business-to-business Web-based company (now part of the Ventro Corporation), and a member of the Harvard Business School class of 1997.
Mr. Perry was intrigued, the students said, and he agreed to serve as an adviser — so long as he could buy a stake in their company, called 3Plex.
Then things really began to move quickly. Carl S. Sloane, the professor who had taught the class where Mr. Gordon and Ms. Yannas first met, put them in touch with several transportation executives, three of whom are now on 3Plex’s advisory board.
After a venture-capital newsletter reported Mr. Perry’s investment in the company, two bankers with Harvard M.B.A.’s — one at Morgan Stanley and one at Goldman Sachs — called Mr. Gordon. That led the banks to take equity stakes.
By May, when the company took second place in the school’s annual business plan competition, it had 18 employees and was operating out of a former furniture showroom just off Harvard Square here in Cambridge. Mr. Gordon and Ms. Yannas, meanwhile, were joking that their neglect of their schoolwork might prevent them from graduating.
Neither has turned 30, and they are wary of seeming like kids competing against logistics companies with decades of experience. They note, for example, that they are the only Harvard M.B.A.’s at the company and that 3Plex has since hired executives from large transportation companies like the Penske Corporation.
But the founders are aware of the school’s importance to their efforts. ”There’s an H.B.S. keiretsu of funding, customers and advisers,” Mr. Gordon said. ”We were able to go from incorporation to two rounds of funding in four months largely because of the value the Harvard Business School network was able to provide us.”
The value extends well beyond the executive suites of large companies, alumni say, and well beyond students’ two years in Boston. The business school gives its graduates lifetime e-mail addresses, allowing them easy contact with one another. And Harvard says 20 percent of the partners at major venture-capital firms hold Harvard M.B.A.’s. Their familiarity with one another helped fill the initial board seats at Amazon.com, eBay and dozens of other Internet companies with Harvard alumni, said William Sahlman, a Harvard professor of entrepreneurship.
”If you peel back who financed all these things,” Mr. Sahlman said, ”you’ll see networked relationships that were started in sections.”