My Story: From Opera Singer to an Executive MBA at Columbia

Ari Harkov is getting an Executive MBA at Columbia

Ari Harkov is not your average Executive MBA student. In fact, he’s probably the complete opposite of any EMBA you’ll ever come across. While most students at this level are in their mid 30’s, he’s just shy of 29. Most EMBAs have spent ten plus years climbing the corporate ladder, whereas Harkov has been working in real estate for only four years and pulled a career out of thin air based on two criteria, “I wanted to be my own boss and to set my own hours.”

But what really sets this student apart is his path to business school. The 28-year-old spent the better part of his adult life as an aspiring and professional opera singer, touring and singing in London, Italy, France, and the U.S.

As Harkov’s classmates at Columbia Business School enjoy the luxury of years of business experience and undergraduate coursework in business, Harkov finds himself going from 0 to 60 when he takes on classes like accounting and finance, all the while taking them alongside executives and professionals who are his senior in age and experience.

His Story:

I started singing in high school in New Jersey, where I grew up. During my high school years, my extracurricular activities ranged from varsity soccer, swimming, and tennis to singing and visual art classes. It was during this time period that I fell in love with classical singing and opera. In my freshman year I became a member of my high school men’s choir, which was my first singing experience. My choir director felt I had some ability so I auditioned for our school’s madrigal group and the central Jersey region choir. From that followed NJ All State choir and other regional and national groups. It didn’t take long before I had a newfound passion and started taking private voice lessons and doing concerts and other performances.

When it came time for me to attend college, my parents encouraged me to pursue a liberal arts degree instead of going to a music conservatory. I enrolled in Vassar College where I majored in Art History and took a wide range of courses in the humanities. While I was at Vassar, I spent a transformative year in Italy, studying the language, singing, and art history and travelling around the country.

Despite my dedication to my academic studies during my undergraduate years, my goal was to pursue a professional career as an opera singer which required many hours of self-study, practice, summer programs, competitions, and the like. This dual focus required an enormous time commitment, very similar to my current experience working full-time and going to school full-time, and was also the foundation for my entrepreneurial mindset in terms of having to set my own schedule and motivate myself without the structure of a formal music education.

When I completed my Bachelor’s degree, I was fortunate to be awarded a large fellowship from Vassar which afforded me an amazing opportunity to study abroad again. I enrolled in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. After six months or so I decided that the music conservatory route was not for me and that I wanted to pursue a professional career.

My first engagement as a professional singer was in London in the summer of 2005 at a company called Opera Holland Park where I sang chorus in several of their operas. Afterward I sang for three months with a young artist company, performing a French baroque opera across France and Spain. Following France, I returned to the States, took some voice lessons in NYC, and performed with several opera companies around the country in their young artist programs.

The number one highlight of my experiences as a singer was, without a doubt the year I studied in Italy. I had taken two years of Italian in college and could barely speak a word when I arrived, but I dedicated myself to learning the language. I spent countless hours with a dictionary, newspapers, TV shows, and speaking to anyone Italian I could, and I was incredibly fortunate to find a great voice teacher in Bologna who couldn’t speak a word of English. In addition to my academic studies, studying voice and performing in Italy helped me learn and appreciate the language on another level. I became totally immersed in Italian culture as I sang in venues and beautiful churches across the country and studied art history at the Universita di Bologna.

In addition to my experience in Italy, the three months I spent touring and performing around France and Spain with a world-renowned conductor was a remarkable experience early on in my professional career as a singer.  To have the opportunity as a young singer to perform in large concert halls around France and Spain with a cast of singers, dancers, and orchestral musicians from all over Europe was extraordinary.

Despite my love for music, singing, and performing, I soon realized that I hated the lifestyle of being a singer. It’s one thing when you’re young and living the life of a student, not making any money, living out of a suitcase, and traveling from one place to the other, but as an aspiring adult the life of a performing artist is grueling. The nature of the performing arts is also fiercely competitive; even more so than business.  For every two minimum-wage paying jobs, there may be 1,000 singers.

At age 24, having met the woman who I would marry who was also a singer at the time, we both took a step back to evaluate whether we really wanted singing careers. The deciding factor for me was when I asked myself, “even if I do ‘make it’ and even if I am lucky enough to make it big, which is highly unlikely, is this the kind of life that I want to live?” The answer for me was “no.” I didn’t want to spend three months here and six months there and to always fret over getting sick. Eventually, the life becomes lonely and tiring, and you’re only ever as good as your last performance.

Looking at the bigger picture, I felt I had accomplished a fair amount, learned a lot, and had life-changing and eye-opening experiences. Having traveled and sang in Italy, France, and London, I had accumulated a dynamic world view with rich experiences to match. I was still young and felt that it was the right time to pull the plug and to switch gears to a new career.

I did my last professional engagement as an opera singer in the summer of 2006 and then began focusing on what I wanted to do next. As anyone who has completed a liberal arts degree knows, despite the enrichment of my academic studies at Vassar, I had virtually zero practical or marketable skills.

As I put more thought into it, I knew I wanted something that would allow me to be my own boss, not require me to be tied to a desk, and would give me the ability to set my own hours. I also liked the idea of using some of my background and interest in the visual arts, so I turned my attention to real estate. The plan was simply to secure a real estate license and give it a shot. Worst case scenario, I felt it would give me practical and useful knowledge.

I started working as a real estate broker in New York City in the fall of 2006 and built my career from there. I spent a handful of months doing rentals throughout the city. I was fortunate to be able to build a decent book of business having no background or contacts whatsoever. Two years later, I won the 2008 Rookie of the Year Award. This award is given each year by the Real Estate Board of New York to one agent in all of New York City. I formed a partnership with my current business partner, Warner Lewis, approximately a year and a half ago in August 2009 and we have been working together as a team ever since.

The bulk of my business as a broker is residential sales of condos and co-ops in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but I also handle some residential leasing as well as some commercial leasing and sales. I would say I’ve been fortunate to achieve the success I have in real estate, particularly given the recent downturn in the economy and my complete lack of foundation or contacts going into the business.

In addition to my real estate career, my business partner and I also recently purchased the assets of a restaurant in downtown Manhattan and are working on putting the team and deal together. We hope to launch our new venture in the next six months. This is an exciting new opportunity and my first experience setting up a business from the ground up.

About a year ago, knowing that I was ready to take my career to the next level and that I’d never taken any business courses or had any formal education in business, I decided I wanted to pursue an MBA degree. The idea of taking two years off from work for a full-time program wasn’t practical or appealing to me. Yet pursuing a part-time program meant I would have to sacrifice the camaraderie and networking of a full-time cohort. I found the Executive MBA to be the perfect solution. It’s a perfect hybrid between a full-time program and a part-time program in terms of the blend of coursework and networking.

I have nothing but great things to say about my Executive MBA experience at Columbia thus far. Coming from zero knowledge base in any given subject that we cover, I’m learning a tremendous amount. It’s tough at times given my lack of foundation, but like anything else in life, you get out of it what you put in. If I have to put in three hours of studying for every hour many of my classmates put in, then so be it.

I see the Executive MBA as a stepping stone to a bigger career. As a 28-year-old in the program, I’m definitely on the younger side. The majority of my classmates are in their 30’s and many have been in the working world for a number of years longer than I have. I’m not in my 30’s and I don’t have children, but I am married, we own an apartment, and I have a demanding career where I’m my own boss and now an additional business venture to run as well. The program allows me to keep a foot in both the academic and professional worlds and to end up with a Columbia MBA without the opportunity cost of two years of lost income.

For me, the most rewarding part of the EMBA experience at Columbia has been the people. Don’t get me wrong, the academics at Columbia are phenomenal and I would say they are a very close second, but the best and the most valuable part are all the people that I didn’t know before I began this program. The contacts you build for professional development and career mobility are unparalleled. Each of my classmates is more impressive than the next and just by being around them, I’ve learned so much more about different industries and sectors of the business world.

One of the great things about our program is that there’s virtually no competition for grades. In full-time MBA programs, I would imagine students are contending for spots at McKinsey, Goldman, and the like. In our case, we all have jobs.  While many of us, such as myself, want to make career changes or to advance to the next level, we are not immediately looking for positions come graduation.  As such, instead of competing, we help each other and work together. It’s inspiring to be in an environment where each person you meet is smarter and even more capable than the one before and where virtually every student is dedicated to forging valuable personal and professional ties from the program.

What are four words I would use to describe the Columbia Business School experience? Challenging, eye-opening, enriching, and foundation-building. The program really pushes your boundaries and it enriches your perspective on business and life from many vantage points. I use the word foundation because the program is not meant to give us all the answers. Rather, it gives us the tools to go out into the business world and uncover the answers to the questions we will face as managers.

Taking classes and working in New York City adds another valuable dimension to the Columbia experience. I’ve been in New York since the end of 2006.The city is one of a kind. Whether it’s visual arts or finance, the best of the best are here. Our EMBA program wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t in NYC.

As far as my singing goes, my artistic love for opera and music is still there, but that part of my life is complete. If I had more time in the day, I would love to start singing again on the side, but working full-time in real estate, starting another business venture, searching for my next career, working full-time on my MBA at Columbia, and spending time with my beautiful wife is enough for now.

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