Backwardly Mobile M.B.A.

Imagine a high-tech device that allows you to observe people's daydreams. Now fancy wheeling that instrument into a classroom at the Harvard Business School. Adjust the dials and see where these high achievers hope to wind up. Some undoubtedly dream about being CEOs, putting their business acumen to the ultimate challenge. Others may long to start companies and cash in on IPOs. And a few may envision life as business celebrities, with appearances on CNBC and in NEWSWEEK. But then there's Todd Krizelman, a second-year student in Harvard's M.B.A. program, for whom that vision sounds so 1999. During the dot-com boom, he achieved the kind of success many M.B.A.s would envy--albeit briefly. Now, in a twist, he's one of a handful of former Net luminaries who've headed back to campus to find their next challenge.

Top B-schools routinely attract people with diverse backgrounds: Harvard's current crop of M.B.A.s includes a Roman Catholic priest and several M.D.s. But even in this pool of talent, Krizelman stands out. In 1994 he and his Cornell roommate founded, a community Web site, and took it public in 1998. For a short time, each of them held stock worth $75 million (they each managed to bank several million before the dot-com collapse). Today Krizelman could still pass for 21, but thanks to all the experience he gained in the '90s, he talks like a really smart 40-year-old (he's actually 29). "In the 1970s, there were probably few folks at this stage in their lives who've faced the challenges that Todd has," says Brit Dewey, Harvard B-school's managing director of admissions.

For Krizelman, the challenge of B-school has been part of the plan since his undergraduate days. As his Web business grew to employ more than 200 people, he knew it was the wrong time to leave. But by 2000, Krizelman and his partner had relinquished their duties as co-CEOs. As the market for Net stocks imploded, Krizelman took the GMATs and applied to Harvard in 2001. When he got in, he interviewed 30 HBS alumni to try to decide whether the experience would be worthwhile. "This is a real opportunity cost," he says. "If you're going to take two years out of your life in your late 20s, it better damned be worth it."

Midway through his third semester, Krizelman is convinced he made the right decision. B-school is exposing him to industries--insurance, gaming--he knew nothing about while he toiled in the land of technology. His background does give him some advantages in a learning environment that revolves around students' classroom discussion of case studies. "My sense is, if we were talking about venture capitalists, Todd had more to say because he's dealt with venture capitalists," says Paul Marshall, one of his first-year professors at the school.

But while some skills came naturally to him, Krizelman recalls working as hard as everybody else to understand debentures and derivatives, financing techniques he never encountered while running a tech start-up. Grades matter to him, he says, but as a CEO "if you miss or make a quarter, you affect every person in your organization, all of your shareholders, probably your family. Here you can get very worked up about a case, but there's not that sense of enormous weight." Outside class, Krizelman helps run the school's student newspaper and relaxes by rowing on the Charles. One activity Krizelman doesn't engage in is second-guessing the decisions that led to the rise and fall of his company. He's already spent one third of his life running an Internet business, he says, and he's more interested in using his time at Harvard to learn about other things.

But other dot-com ex-CEOs say they have indeed returned to school in part to do postmortems of their failed Net ventures. "I kind of leapfrogged the learning curve--I learned how to run before I knew how to walk," says Joseph Park, 30, who founded the now defunct and began studying for an M.B.A. at Harvard this fall. "Real-world experience is great, but I thirst for solid, fundamental business knowledge." Much of that involves better understanding where he went wrong during his first entrepreneurial stint. "There are a million and one reasons why things didn't work out for Kozmo, but I want to know what I could have done better," Park says.

Another trait links Krizelman and his fellow ex-CEOs at Harvard and elsewhere: while classmates scramble to find jobs at big, stable companies in a soft economy, the entrepreneurs are less interested in traditional B-school recruiting. Colin Butterfield, who started three dot-coms in Brazil before heading to the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth this fall, is already working on a business plan with classmates and says it might provide the challenge he's looking for after graduation. Last year Krizelman interviewed for summer internships at big companies and received four offers. But he turned them all down, hired five programmer buddies and spent the summer in New York conducting what he calls "a data segmenting exercise" that involved screening small-cap stocks. He's considering turning it into his next start-up.

Like other second-year students, Krizelman is now interviewing for jobs after graduation. His background causes recruiters to be skeptical. "Every single time I have an interview, the first question is, am I serious about working for someone else, am I doing this interview just for fun or am I seriously considering it?" he says, adding that he reassures recruiters that he wouldn't waste his own time if he weren't serious. He admits there's just a 10 percent chance he'd work for a Fortune 500 company; next summer he'll probably either launch his own start-up or join another small firm. For him and a generation of once-and-again managerial prodigies, the next chapter opens soon.