22 Sep 2016
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Words and Pictures

The Portrait Project marks 15 years of capturing the personal side of the MBA experience.
Re: Jean Hayden (MBA 2003); Mardie Oakes (MBA 2002); Nitin Nohria
by Susan Young

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As a student in Professor Nitin Nohria’s LEAD class, in the spring of 2001, Tony Deifell (MBA 2002) was particularly captivated by the idea of reflective leadership. “We talked a lot about the human aspects of business, and I was interested in what we could do as a section to be more reflective,” he says.

So Deifell, a multimedia artist, decided to combine his skills as a photographer with a question from the last line of a Mary Oliver poem: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” He posed this question to classmates and the results were so powerful that he put together an exhibit of 90 portraits and essays. Thus was born the HBS Portrait Project, which Deifell has continued every year since he graduated.

“I’m interested in vulnerability,” says Deifell. “Most people who come to HBS really want to be successful and don’t want to show any chinks in their armor. The Portrait Project shows their human side.”

Deifell’s 15-year (and counting) commitment to the project involves working with a team of student volunteers who solicit essays (selecting 32 from an anonymous pool of approximately 100) and returning to campus from San Francisco every spring to photograph and provide editorial (and life) advice to the authors of the selected essays. The project has been integrated into the MBA curriculum: New students view and respond to a Portrait Project exhibit as part of START during their first week on campus; an exhibit featuring graduating students debuts the week of Commencement; and more than 100 portraits and essays are displayed on walls across the campus—including in the Admissions office—making Deifell one of the most exhibited artists on the HBS campus. HBS also hosts a comprehensive website that includes all the portraits and essays (more than 500) since the project’s launch.

Deifell has always been interested in the power of photographs and storytelling to connect people to each other and in helping people lead lives of meaning and resilience. He sees the essays that students write as a reminder of a particular point in their lives and encourages project participants to think of their reflections as a guidepost, not a prescription. “To put it in HBS terms, it is a balance sheet—i.e., a specific view of a snapshot in time; not an income statement, i.e. a view of activity over a period of time,” says Deifell, who studied sociocultural anthropology at UNC, Chapel Hill, and founded wdydwyd? — an online meme through which 2 million people have answered the question, Why do you do what you do?

Some alumni have added new reflections on their original statements, which are also posted on the Portrait Project website. One person asked Deifell to remove his original essay because, reading it a decade later, he felt it was too arrogant. Deifell encouraged him to write a response to accompany the original essay, which is now posted.

“When I saw what Tony had done, I wanted to keep the project going,” says Jean Hayden (MBA 2003), an initial champion of the project who convinced Deifell to return to campus to extend the project beyond its first year. “It was such an inspirational idea—an opportunity for people to talk about larger life aspirations,” says Hayden, now head of strategy and operations at Google.

Betsy Brink, associate director of MBA Communications and Marketing, is also an advocate for the project. Each year she works with Deifell and a new team of student volunteers to help produce the project. “I share Tony’s passion for storytelling, and I believe the stories inspired by Mary Oliver’s question reveal the real students of HBS in a way that nothing else does,” says Brink.

Deifell himself participated in the initial project—the photo he used was taken by classmate Mardie Oakes, to whom he is now married—writing about his experience teaching photography to visually impaired students. His essay about a blind student who photographed cracks in the sidewalk that impeded her progress, “became a pivotal metaphor that helped me define my calling in the world,” says Deifell. Since graduation, he has published a book and presented a TED talk about what he learned from the cracked sidewalks; worked with nonprofits; and launched several entrepreneurial ventures, including AwesomeBox, the company he now runs that makes it easy for friends to collaborate on a box of personal cards to mark a special occasion.

For her part, Jean Hayden says that reading the new essays each year gives her a chance to reflect on what she wrote 14 years ago. “I am shocked to discover how true some of the things are,” she says. “Maybe not the specifics, but the values and overall interests are still the same.”

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Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2002, Section K
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