Hargreaves: ExComm — Career help at Yale

During the 2004-’05 school year, 138 Yale students were brought before the University’s Executive Committee, the highest disciplinary authority at Yale. I was one of that lucky group. Five years later, as an entrepreneur and writer in New York, I’ve realized that getting sent to ExComm was the best career decision I made in college.

It took a few years to fully understand ExComm’s impact. I had to meet a lot of people. As I got to know the community of Yale alumni, I started noticing strange patterns. It would often begin as a brief comment, perhaps about a run-in with Yale’s administration or a less-than-stellar record in college. Among alums, many of the most successful entrepreneurs, investors and venture capitalists share an odd, unspoken secret: A significant percentage of us were brought in front of ExComm as undergraduates. Ask entrepreneurs or executives — one-on-one and in confidence — about their Yale experiences, and disciplinary probation is likely to come up alongside stories of friends, intramurals and classes. Among the alumni I know, the most powerful secret society does not have its home on High Street — it is a collection of painful, intensely private experiences accumulated on the fourth floor of Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall.

On average, about a hundred Yale students are ExCommed every year. Yet it feels as if I’ve met a significant percentage of them — as leading innovators, entrepreneurs and investors. One is a respected New York-based venture capitalist. Another has raised millions in funding and created dozens of jobs while still in his twenties. A third leveraged his startup experience to get into Stanford Business School at age 24. I could go on.

Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but something interesting is happening here. While catching up with one of my fellow ExComm alumni the other day, he mentioned that he was “grateful” for his ExComm experience. The time he spent stewing over a looming ExComm hearing was enlightening, an enabler that allowed him to pursue the things he really wanted in college and his career. By shocking him from his pre-ordained path through life — or even raising the possibility of such a thing — ExComm fostered a kind of introspection that most people don’t find until much later in life.

Facing the chance of expulsion from the University community — and the corresponding destruction of all plans and aspirations — forces hard thought about one’s direction in life. How will I explain this in consulting interviews? Will I ever get a decent job? Will I ever get into medical school? But most Yalies who face these questions don’t actually want to pursue medical school or consulting or whatever else happens to worry them. Many people spend college plodding forward toward careers in fields they don’t actually enjoy. Doing a ton of work is easy, and work makes us feel that things are being accomplished. Making meaningful decisions about our lives is hard. Writing papers, doing problem sets and spending time in lab makes us feel productive, and — without outside intervention— this feeling can displace a need to decide what we actually want to do with our lives.

The real possibility of being permanently removed from Yale strips all that away. Merely by suggestion, ExComm forces a mental divergence from the plan we’ve been following our whole lives — which, sadly, often isn’t what we wanted to spend our lives doing anyway. “ExComm was a catalyst,” said a fellow entrepreneur. “It gave me clarity through the possibility of losing everything.” For many of the veterans of SSS 410 — ExComm’s imposing meeting room — the disciplinary process catalyzed a love of entrepreneurship, an embrace of self-actualization.

In our worst thoughts, we are cast out of the friendly walls of Yale, forced to make do with whatever we can without a diploma or a sense of belonging. Forced to do something new. Forced to be creative. And once we start crafting those thoughts — working outside of the boundaries of consulting and banking and medical school, and to the heart of what we are really capable of doing with our lives — we don’t stop. We’re in love.

Thank you, ExComm.


  • comment

    Duh, of course. People with questionable ethics in college go on to be “successful” businessmen. It makes a lot of sense, but it surely doesn’t mean you deserve any respect. It just bolsters the stereotype that those who are rich and successful in business got there by dubious means, unethical practices, and anti-social behavior. I wonder if you find the same secret community of excomm-ers committing their lives to service after Yale. Gross. And soooo Yale.

  • bhargreaves

    A tiny minority of the excomm cases I know got there by doing something “unethical” by common standards. Most fell into the categories of Pranks and Parties, and I actually don’t know anyone who got excommed for, say, academic dishonesty.

    And good luck with that worldview. Things like that tend to be self-reinforcing, and I wouldn’t want you to have to make a false choice between ethics and success.

  • 2011

    Plenty of people become successful without going to ex-comm – whether it’s as an entrepreneur, or as a consultant, banker, or doctor. And yes, despite your skepticism, there are people who are deeply passionate about those careers. Assuming that someone who chose to go to medical school instead of starting their own business only made that decision because they weren’t thinking about it very much is condescending. Someone might make a different choice from the one you would have made. It isn’t because they’re stupid (or because they didn’t have the glorious experience of going before ex-comm). It’s because they aren’t you.
    I understand that mistakes and failure help us learn and become better people. But there are numerous other kinds of mistakes and failures, and we all have them. Being an entrepreneur/venture capitalist isn’t the “best” kind of career, as is your assumption here, and neither is ex-comm the “best” kind of mistake. Or if it is, you’ve failed to articulate why.

  • YaleMom

    What do you have to do get into ExComm? Should I tell Ashley to join?

  • joshuatan

    great point brad. I went through something similar… though I wonder… does it have to be as drastic as Excomm, or are there other ways of shaking things up / challenging people’s assumptions about their lives? Is there a way of building this into the institution?

  • Goldie08

    So what? You got drunk and hit someone, stole something, broke something, vandalized campus, insulted someone or made a woman feel uncomfortable. I didn’t need to read this self serving editorial in which you try to rationalize whatever it is you did. I’m sure you were really embarassed when all your friends learned you were going to excomm, as most students generally assume that its for the “bad apples.” You do the crime, you do the time. It’s funny to see how goody two shoed Yalies handle their first encounter with justice – I highly doubt any of us were the kids getting in trouble in high school. Further, excomm is pretty light compared to disciplinary actions taken at other schools. This editorial reeks of ivy league elitism – punishment as life changing experience! Tell that to the young man facing a jury in a new haven courthouse – maybe if he beats the charges, he’ll become an entrepreneur too!

  • nektonic20

    i thought all the entitled drunken frat brahs (it’s excomm, let’s be real) cum young entrepreneurial mavericks (e.g. well-connected brahs not that excited about toughing it out in grad school) were in JE or dport. guess not! would love to talk more but i need to go back to lab so i can “feel productive”.

    -incredulous trumbullian

  • bhargreaves

    Goldie08 — What’s your point? There is actually a huge trend toward entrepreneurship in poorer neighborhoods and among people who spent some time in jail. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a great thing.

    nektonic — What does JE and dport have to do with anything? I was just about the least frat-tastic person I knew while at Yale.

    2011 — Didn’t mean it to come across as condescending. “Entrepreneur” was really a placeholder to “whatever it is you want to do”, and it’s perfectly reasonable for the roles to be reversed. This is just how it happened for me.

  • jmarks07

    Brad, that was a GREAT burn in the comments section.

  • nektonic20

    brad, you’re right. the residential colleges really have nothing to do with it, and neither does your lack of frattiness. i just felt like your column was kind of a slap in the face to earnest hard-working students who choose more traditional career paths and whose big achievements will come way after their fifth reunion. i understand you wanted your column to be about your personal journey of self discovery, but just be more aware of your tone. it’s pretty offensive in parts.