An Interview With Harvard’s Most Famous Exec Ed Student: Tyra Banks

by Jyll-Saskin on

For a select group of Harvard Business School students and faculty, a day last week was spent with one of America’s ultimate true loves: supermodel and media mogul Tyra Banks.  In a casual 90-minute conversation with MBA Program Chair Youngme Moon yesterday, Banks candidly and colorfully exposed a side of her that’s frequently hidden behind heaps of smize-ing and fierceness.

The question at the front of everyone’s minds was undoubtedly why Tyra Banks decided to come to HBS in the first place.  “There’s a difference between a career and a business,” Banks opined.  While she loves her career, she wants to turn her brand into a sustainable, legacy business. Accordingly, she looks to Walt Disney and Virgin’s Richard Branson as role models.  “I’m not looking to build my company based on fans,” she said.  Rather, she feels a responsibility to spread her message of empowerment, self-esteem, and beauty in a way that’s consistent with her ethos and, hopefully, favorable to her bottom line.  Sounds like Oprah, right?  “The comparisons are extremely flattering, impossible to live up to and inconsistent with my goals,” Banks insists.

Prior to enrolling in Harvard Business School’s Owner/President Management Program, Banks admits that her goals were “too audacious” and that business decisions often came from her gut.  After her first session of the program, she called an emergency whiteboard meeting for all of her Bankable Enterprises staff on the rooftop of Manhattan’s swanky Gramercy Hotel.  This, despite the fact that her Harvard professors had explicitly advised her to keep a two-week grace period post-HBS before making any drastic organizational changes.  Banks, however, was so “invigorated and energized” that she simply couldn’t wait.

Now, at the completion of her HBS education, Banks understands that success is “not about being the biggest, but being the best.”  What does that mean for the model/TV host/producer/author/entrepreneur? Shifting her focus from scope to scale.  “Strategy is my strength, but I have too much diversification,” Banks admitted to the crowd.  Currently, she’s working with an executive coach to learn how to delegate rather than micromanage.  And despite having lived decades in the public eye, she’s still trying to toughen up.  “I wish I was hard,” Banks reveals.  “I have armor, but a strategic knife can still get in those creases.”

Perhaps that’s why Banks falls victim to the ultimate powerful woman dichotomy: balancing the need to please with the need to be serious and strong.  She admitted to the crowd that the “character” she concocted for herself on America’s Next Top Model is quite different from who she is in real life, but that she “would love to have her in the boardroom” in all her fierce glory.  In fact, the Tyra Banks who sat in Batten Hall speaking to fellow students presented herself more as the girl next door than the Victoria’s Secret bombshell.  Well, make that the really, really attractive girl next door.

As a soon-to-be alum, Banks couldn’t leave without dispensing a few words of wisdom for those wishing to emulate her successful career:

“It’s okay to be vulnerable.  Things don’t always have to be perfect.”

“You have a drive that the average person does not have.  I’ve just started to take care of myself, and you need to do that, too.”

“Don’t chase the money, even if you want to be a banker.  Chase the passion. Chase the dream.”

Tyra Trivia

  • Tyra affectionately refers to her modest Exec Ed housing as her “Barbie room.” Morris and Chase dwellers can surely relate.
  • Marketing professor Rohit Deshpande is currently writing a case about Tyra’s company, Bankable Enterprises.
  • Tyra’s least favorite management task is employee evaluations. “I’m too soft of a manager,” she reflects.
  • In casting her hit reality TV show, America’s Next Top Model, Tyra wants 30% of the contestants to have “non-debatable beauty” and 70% to be more unconventionally beautiful, like Cycle 6 winner Danielle, who has a gap between her front teeth.
  • One of Tyra’s favorite HBS cases is the Tylenol case about James Burke.
  • Tyra subscribes to Fast Company.
  • If you’re in need of inspiration, treat yourself to some pampering.  “My ideas come to me on the massage table,” she admits.  Us too, Tyra.  Us too…

This story is reprinted with permission from The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper of the Harvard Business School. Also from The Harbus:

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