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The Disruptors: The Token MBA, Born Of A Disappointing B-School Experience

·13 min read

Michael Chen thought he’d get much more out of his MBA than he did.

“I spent my MBA cooped up in lockdown, taking classes over Zoom with my video off,” the Class of 2021 London Business School MBA says. “Most of the time, I was exploring more timely content through YouTube, books, and podcasts.”

Worse, Chen found content readily available on the internet to be more relevant than what was distilled in his expensive, name-brand MBA program. Most of the time, he says, LBS missed the mark on the intersection of technology and business.

“There’s this whole world happening outside of business school around cryptocurrencies and blockchain that we didn’t even touch on,” says Chen. “We learned about digital disruption by looking backward rather than trying to have debates about how business leaders and thinkers should approach technology to shape a positive future.”

‘CRYPTO FLIPS EVERYTHING WE UNDERSTAND ABOUT B-SCHOOL ON ITS HEAD’

When LBS increased their fees for the class of 2022 despite the program running online, Chen became even more frustrated. According to Chen, students went above and beyond to make sure they still had a good MBA experience despite their circumstances; they led student clubs and organized virtual events and meetups. He describes administration “taking a back seat” as they let students create value for each other while the school profited off of the students’ success.

“Students do so much for free out of the goodness of their hearts. But if alumni become successful — or if the network becomes desirable — the schools are the ones that increase the fees,” he says.

Determined to find a way to decentralize the power of business schools and give students more skin in the game, Chen launched The Token MBA, a platform that helps students purchase an NFT — non-fungible token — for the first time in a safe environment with Ethereum, a form of cryptocurrency. The goal? Spark more conversations at business school about what’s happening at the frontier of cryptocurrency and business and let students take their power back.
“Cryptocurrency flips everything we understand about business on its head,” he says.

“The idea of public blockchain and open source protocol is that everyone who has a token benefits if that network becomes more valuable, rather than just a small group of people in a company. We need to make sure that the value of a business education accrues more to the people that are out there creating and hosting events and generating value for that community, rather than the administration who’s sitting back and watching it happen.”

WHY SELL NFTS ON THE TOKEN MBA?

A copy of the NFT Bored Ape #4620, which is also Michael Chen’s avatar

Inspired by what Chen was learning outside of his LBS classes, he began consuming as much content as he could on the ways in which cryptocurrency, blockchain, and NFTs can change the future of business.

At the time, Chen says there were NFT projects popping up on Twitter all over the world. “I looked at that trend and thought, ‘surely, I could build an NFT,’” he says. “The Token MBA is my desire to point the brainpower that you find within the orbit of traditional business schools towards tackling problems and building solutions for this new paradigm.”

He decided to collaborate with an artist, Chris Yee, to create an NFT that would depict his experience of getting an MBA online during a pandemic. Chen connected with Yee through a friend who was located back home in Sydney, Australia. Interested in exploring the NFT space, Yee quickly agreed to create art for The Token MBA. “I wanted to turn this piece of art that commemorated my MBA experience into a reason for people to have a go at using cryptocurrency,” says Chen. “I think the art will likely speak to business school students and university students impacted by the pandemic more than others.”

Chen chose to make 1,000 NFTs available on The Token MBA to represent Kevin Kelly’s concept of 1,000 True Fans. “With 1,000 copies available, people can think of it as a limited edition print,” he says.

When asked to describe the art, Chen says that the scene captures his experience of business school during the pandemic: a manipulation to convince students that their MBA was, in fact, exactly what they paid for. A graphic image depicting two students in the back of class hiding behind smartphones and Twitter feeds, Yee’s art sums up the frustration that Chen experienced at LBS.

WHAT ARE NFTS?

NFTs act as digital certificates to prove ownership over something like art or music. Since they’re non-fungible, each NFT cannot be copied or replicated. Like real estate, physical art, or diamonds, NFTs have a limited supply and have unique qualities about them that aren’t directly interchangeable with another asset. The limited supply of NFTs gives them the potential for retaining value and appreciating over time. Programmed, coded, and logged transparently on the decentralized ledger system that is blockchain, NFTs cannot be altered or destroyed.

Cryptocurrencies, like ethereum or bitcoin, have been described as ‘digital-native’ money while you can think of NFTs as ‘digital-native’ property. To put it simply, NFTs allow artists of all kinds to have more creative control over their work without relying on external sources who hold more power. “With NFTs, they’re really an entirely new category of property that inherits attributes of the Internet, and software in general: borderless and programmable,” says Chen.

Chen believes that NFTs are changing the game for artists of all kinds as they’re able to attribute ownership to a digital art file that otherwise would have no scarcity. “People can’t just simply copy the file to their heart’s content,” he explains. “If an artist sells 10 digital prints, there will only be 10 digital prints sold and this information is transparent to everyone on blockchain.”

While those who create art on Instagram are currently rewarded in the form of ‘likes,’ in a decentralized world, those artists would be getting more of the value that these likes create for the platform. “For the first time in their careers, NFTs give artists a way to properly monetize their passions,” adds Chen.

HELPING FIRST-TIME BUYERS PURCHASE NFTS

One of the main goals of The Token MBA is to help people have their first experience buying an NFT. “When I talk about NFTs, most people nod and smile politely. Many don’t have any experience or exposure to it,” he says.

To purchase The Token MBA NFT, it costs 0.04 Ethereum. This equates to approximately $50 USD. Chen says that in order to buy an NFT on The Token MBA, you need to know how to operate your own cryptocurrency wallet. “You can’t just buy it with your credit card. The whole point of The Token MBA is to incentivize people to experiment with new technology in a relatively safe environment.”

Chen explains that The Token MBA is a way that he can show people in a guided environment how to use the technology. “You can talk all you want about new technology, but with something like blockchain, it’s much easier to learn when you actually start using it,” he says. “I’d love it if years down the line there were people that were creating businesses on blockchains that could trace it back to The Token MBA being their first introduction.”

Eventually, Chen wants to see students and alumni being able to financially benefit from the ways in which they contributed to their community beyond recognition and pats on the back with a social token. That way, if an MBA network became desirable, causing more people to want to join that network, it wouldn’t be just the administration and shareholders who would benefit from the network — everyone holding a token would benefit. Plus, it would provide incentive for students to go above and beyond for the community. “I think having a simple idea of a token to coalesce people is pretty revolutionary,” he says.

MISSING THE MARK

With an undergraduate degree in law and governance from the University of Sydney, as well as five years of digital strategy experience at Deloitte, Chen entered LBS with a business background. Due to his past experience, he didn’t feel that the MBA provided nearly as much value as he’d hoped for. However, he doesn’t believe that the MBA is irrelevant. Rather, Chen believes that the better question to ask is whether or not the relevance of the MBA has peaked.
“I’m sure the MBA will continue to be relevant for many groups of people, like those who don’t have any formal business education or those whose companies are willing to pay for it. But do I believe the relevance of the MBA has now passed its peak? Probably.”

Chen says B-schools still play the role of being the experts and gatekeepers to a wealth of business knowledge. “Decades ago, when business schools were formed, they really were the experts in business. You had to go to business school to get exposure to management, economics, and learn how business will be done in the future. Nowadays with the internet, this content is available to everyone,” he says.

“I would like to see business education have more agility in responding to what’s happening on the front lines of the business world,” he adds. “There needs to be more discussion about the edge of business and technology, and how this can be applied in class.”

A copy of the Token MBA’s NFT artwork. Michael Chen, LBS ’21, launched the platform after a disappointing MBA experience. Courtesy image

CRYPTOCURRENCY IN BUSINESS SCHOOLS

For Chen, his excitement for cryptocurrency, blockchain and NFTs lie in the opportunity to create a new way to organize financial and human capital towards a common purpose.

Today, our major technology for social coordination is equity stocks and shares in companies. However, these are closed systems; only those who work or invest in those companies benefit. Chen says that while this cryptocurrency world is still in its early stages, it makes you think twice about traditional investments. “The value you accrue as an investor looks different in a decentralized world versus in the past.”

“We’ll probably find that cryptocurrency works better in some areas and worse in others,” he adds. “But we shouldn’t assume that our existing mechanisms for social coordination can’t be improved upon.”

Chen’s class was told that they were being delivered one hundred percent of the value that they were promised. However, that was a difficult argument to make. “LBS spent a lot of time reassuring students that the value of the MBA was still going to be delivered without actually acting that way,” he says. “The value of business school is the network. But that shouldn’t let the schools off the hook of their obligations to deliver past the admissions process.”

Chen believes that not only does blockchain have the potential to decentralize who’s benefiting in business, it also has the potential to decentralize who’s benefiting from the value of business schools’ network. “What’s really appealing about blockchain is that value can accrue to a wider set of people, and a wider set of participants that create the value,” he says.

BUILDING A CRYPTOCURRENCY COMMUNITY

Besides helping people to purchase their first NFT and learn about blockchain, Chen hopes that The Token MBA helps to build community amongst those who are interested in cryptocurrency. “The community I’d like to build is with people who are interested in the concept of decentralization and learning more about NFT social tokens. I believe that these concepts will, at some point, be applied to existing industries, like educational communities,” he says.

Chen says that the community who will be interested in The Token MBA will vaguely understand the notion of an entirely new asset class that’s going to become more valuable. He wants The Token MBA community to have conversations around how to create smart contracts, make an NFT, and apply the knowledge to industries that need to change. “I want a community to discuss and debate this stuff with. Hopefully The Token MBA is a way for me to find those other like minded people,” he explains.

His plan is to create a part of the website that requires users to have an NFT to unlock it. This part of the site will offer bonus content and give members access to events. He hopes to create more gated experiences that are exclusive to the tech MBA community using an NFT as a membership card. “It’s a far more efficient membership card because it’s purely digital. You can easily access it because it’s on a public blockchain so anyone can see which wallets hold a Token MBA NFT,” he explains.

ADVICE TO THOSE THINKING ABOUT GETTING THEIR MBA

While Chen was unimpressed with his MBA experience, he believes that the program provides value for prospective students who don’t have precious education in business. However, he still advises that prospective students from all educational backgrounds think deeply about the goals they want to achieve before committing to an MBA program. “There are so many nuances around the business school community. Whether you are self-funded, have a scholarship, or your company is paying for it will change the calculation,” he says.

Chen recommends that if students do decide to go the MBA route, that they make sure to explore topics that aren’t discussed in business school. “Don’t assume that it’s a one stop shop for everything that’s going to matter in the future of business,” he cautions.

He also stresses the importance of staying up-to-date with new information and intellectual communities. “The best piece of advice I received during my MBA was from a classmate,” he adds. “He told me that the newest ideas and the most intellectually vibrant environment is on Twitter. I found this to be true.”

VISION FOR THE FUTURE

While it was harder to meet people during an online MBA, Chen was still able to build a few valuable connections — one of which landed him a full time role with an LBS alum as head of strategy and partnerships at an AI startup in London.

On the side of his nine to five, Chen’s committed to building The Token MBA with a friend who’s helping him to develop the software. “This is my experiment. I don’t know where it’s going to lead, but this is the first step to gathering a few people around me to talk and learn about the same thing.”

One thing’s for sure, though: Chen believes that the decentralization of business school’s power through NFTs, blockchain, and cryptocurrency will benefit everyone involved. “Everyone is still trying to wrap their heads around what this means for how we understand scarcity and value in an increasingly digital world,” he says. “If we look back at history though, the birth of private property rights in our physical world goes back to the Enlightenment and led to a fundamental reorganisation of communities and industry.

“It sounds hyperbolic, I know. But I can only imagine that early evangelists for computers and the internet were probably labelled as hyperbolic too,” he says.

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