'Doing MBA is biggest risk-taking that I know'
By Kim Da-ye
Lee Min-ju, the founder and head of the value-investment research center Buffet Lab, graduated in May 2007 from the Krannert School of Management, Purdue University. Before doing an MBA, Lee, who also lectures for Seoul Digital University, worked as a reporter at the Hankook Ilbo, a national daily, for more than 10 years. He said that meeting and interviewing legendary investor Warren Buffet during his studies in the U.S. changed his life.
Why did you decide to study an MBA?
I studied German literature at Seoul National University. When I was assigned to the business desk at the Hankook Ilbo, I barely knew about economics and industries.
I first came to know what an MBA was when I worked as an IT beat reporter and interviewed a CEO of an Internet firm. I had the impression that the CEO answered the questions clearly and logically, and learned that he had earned an MBA and worked as a consultant.
Because I wanted to take a break from deadline pressure and to have a broader experience than just remaining a journalist, I decided to do an MBA.
Why did you choose Purdue?
Business schools are divided into categories by their rankings such as “top 10 b-schools,” “top 20,” and “top 25.” When I was applying for MBA programs, Purdue was within the top 25 business schools in the U.S.
Purdue’s program is specialized in operation management, in which I wanted to gain expertise.
And tuition and living expenses were affordable. I went to the U.S. with my family, and the two-year program cost me around 180 million won. I won a scholarship from Samsung Press Foundation under the Samsung Group, and paid for the rest with my own saving. I was also eligible for part of my salary for the first year’s leave of absence.
How did you prepare for admission to Purdue?
In order to get admission to a business school in the U.S., I had to get GMAT and TOEFL scores, write an essay and prepare for an interview. Each took a great deal of time, and I now think it is nearly impossible to prepare for them while working full-time as a reporter and writing articles every day. Many other journalists who sought admissions into MBA programs moved to weekly sections or non-editorial departments, but I couldn’t. Getting a qualifying TOEFL score took me the least time, while studying for the GMAT took me longer than expected.
While I was preparing for admission, I barely thought about how I would come up with tuition and living expenses and take time off from work. I should have had these planned before studying for admission.
I concluded that getting scholarships from press foundations would be the only solution, which would be extremely challenging. I applied for a scholarship from the Samsung foundation, and it was a miracle that I got it. I later learned that my TOEFL score was relatively high and there weren’t many graduates from Purdue. More than all, I believe the sincerely written statement on what I wanted to study at Purdue moved the judges at Samsung.
What is the most memorable event during your studies?
I spent most of the two years at Purdue studying hard. I was going to graduate in May 2007, and so in December 2006 I began thinking I should try something other than just studying.
Around March 2007, I came across a notice that Berkshire Hathaway was holding a general stockholders’ meeting in May. Although it seemed too late to make a reservation, I searched for a contact at Berkshire’s homepage, and sent an email that asked for an invitation to the event.
Berkshire issued an annual report in March which mentioned for the first time that Buffet had bought a 5-percent stake in steel maker POSCO. Koreans were highly interested in who Warren Buffet is. I wrote that in my email, and heard from Berkshire next day. I became the first Korean journalist to have an exclusive interview with Buffet, and the interview led me to write a book called “Warren Buffet Talks about Korea’s Value-investing.” It was published in January 2008, and sold more than 100,000 copies.
I came back to the Hankook Ilbo after graduation, and left the newspaper in 2010 to set up the Buffet Lab as part of the Korea Investment Education Research Institute.
What were the challenges?
I was a 40-year-old when I was admitted, and as the eldest in my class felt that I had a poor memory and was weak physically compared to my younger classmates. Furthermore, I had never studied management before, and those with backgrounds in management, science or engineering seemed to have an easier time in understanding the classes. Having worked as a journalist only, I wasn’t even familiar with Excel or PowerPoint programs.
Lastly, was English. In the first lecture, I couldn’t understand anything. I repeatedly went to school before dawn and coming back home after midnight.
Why would you recommend Purdue to others?
The school provides an environment where you can concentrate on studying. Because it’s a state university, tuition is relatively low. Some might be concerned with its ranking, but the outcome of the program is up to the student, not the school’s ranking.
Most business schools require an interview, which many Koreans are afraid of, but Purdue didn’t. I found that helpful for admission. The university also welcomes Korean students, and many graduates find jobs at large Korean companies like Samsung Electronics and SK Telecom.
How did you like the city?
West Lafayette in Indiana is a small city with some 200,000 residents. It’s a university town. A large population of Koreans there is a plus as well as a minus. Purdue has a prestigious engineering school that attracts many Koreans.
How did an MBA help your career and life after graduation?
As a business reporter, I had a hard time in reading and understanding balance sheets and income statements. The program later helped me a lot in writing several books about how to read financial statements. The last book I wrote, “How to Read Financial Statements from Korea’s Different Industries,” is now ranked first or second in its category.
I also could expand my personal network. There were 15 Korean students including an heir to a conglomerate in my class, and we remain close and meet often.
What would you advise applicants to MBA programs to do?
Doing an MBA costs a lot. People regard an MBA as a way to improve their profile, but the decision requires ample and careful thought. People who quit their jobs and spend their own money take a huge risk. I recommend getting support from employers, if possible. I sometimes see people who pursue an MBA although it is not necessary for them. Doing an MBA is the biggest risk-taking that I know.