We Found Four Class-Of-1999 MBAs Doing... Exactly What They Want One of these Kellogg grads is taking a traditional corporate career path. Three others are risking it all on a Web startup. How will they fare?
By Eryn Brown

(FORTUNE Magazine) – The night after graduation, students from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management pack into the Keg, an Evanston, Ill., watering hole, to celebrate. The Keg is a sprawling place, with sports posters, live music, and wood tables. Guys wearing baseball caps flirt with stylishly dressed women; people drink beer, do shots. A student band, Sideshow Bob, plays funky '70s blues rock, complete with horns and wah-wah pedal. It's everything you'd expect in a graduation party.

But something doesn't seem completely right. These new MBAs appear to be working really, really hard at enjoying a frat party when they'd rather be schmoozing at a business lunch. Or sipping expensive champagne at a cocktail party. Or sleeping. You can catch a whiff of cigarette smoke in the air, but it's oh-so-faint. The liveliest dancers in the crowd turn out to be someone's parents. Two women walk into the grimy ladies' room (no soap, no paper towels) and begin fussing with their hair. "I'm just so ready for this to be over," one of them moans.

"Yeah," her friend replies.

I'm at the Keg on assignment. Over the next 12 months it's my job to write about four 1999 Kellogg graduates: Erin Gershon, Nicole Ginsburg, and Stacy Sukov, who are heading out to San Francisco to hit the big time with a risky Internet venture; and Paul Anfinsen, who will be an assistant brand manager at product stalwart Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati. The idea is to compare what it's like to be a New Economy MBA (like Erin, Nicole, and Stacy) with what it's like to be an Old Economy MBA (like Paul). With hundreds of top B-school grads now thumbing their noses at big companies and taking their chances on entrepreneurial ventures, we had to ask, What awaits them on the electronic frontier? Will they prosper or fizzle? Will the traditional company types envy them or look smarter at the end of the day? We wanted to take a cultural snapshot--or video--of this turning point when young business talent has a stark choice: Stick with blue-chip corporate America or migrate to the uncharted Internet economy.

But first, back to the Keg. Why aren't people having a better time? Maybe they're worn out and a little depressed about leaving their friends. Or maybe it's this: The Kellogg grads just want to get on with it already. It's not every graduating class that believes it is poised to lead the next Industrial Revolution.

Evanston, two days later. I catch up with Erin Gershon as she sits in her soon-to-be-former room, chewing on a gooey candy bar and surveying the wreckage. She's packing up two years' worth of accumulated stuff. Within a week, Erin, 28, is going to San Francisco to build an Internet business with her friends Nicole Ginsburg, 26, and Stacy Sukov, 28. Erin's roommate Karyn, who's moving out too, has the help of a small army of packers and movers--all paid for by Clorox, her new employer. But Erin has to go it alone; startups don't pay to move your junk.

Erin, Nicole, and Stacy have been working on building a business, WebWisher, for the better part of the school year. It all started at a girls' night out in September, when seven or eight friends began throwing around business ideas and even joked about names. The others viewed the whole thing as a lark, but Erin, Nicole, and Stacy got pumped. They met for weekly Sunday brunches to generate more ideas. They outlined a career-advice book for college seniors called Been There, Done That and then sought guidance from professionals in the field. The feedback was not encouraging. "We had a lot to learn," laughs Nicole. "One guy was, like, 'Have you thought about how you're going to make money with this?'"

The three eventually gave up on Been There, but they were hooked on startups. They resuscitated their idea for WebWisher, a consumer e-commerce site they had originally dismissed as impractical. This time around, however, they were organized, researching their target market and crunching a lot of numbers. They spent countless cookie-fueled hours working out of a makeshift office in Stacy's apartment and found themselves wanting to hang out together almost all the time. "It got to where we all made the same salad at Whole Foods Market," says Erin.

WebWisher seemed viable, but Erin, Nicole, and Stacy weren't sure. They decided to see how they'd fare in the business plan contest that took place during Kellogg's Digital Frontiers technology conference. The women had only a week to prepare their pitch. When they climbed onto the stage to give it, one judge, a venture capitalist, blurted: "Look! It's the Spice Girls!" The audience gasped. Erin had a quick comeback: "No, we're the next Digital Divas." (Digital Divas was the name of a panel event at the conference that included Candice Carpenter of iVillage.)

WebWisher was one of three overall winners in the competition. "That was our big turning point," says Nicole. "Guy Kawasaki [CEO of garage.com, which helps fund startups] gave us a thumbs up in front of 500 people and asked us to come see him in San Francisco. We were approached by tons of VCs. That's when we realized we should go ahead with this."

They started interviewing Internet consultants and wooing investors (advice from one VC: "Act demure"). Umpteen self-funded cross-country flights later, they decided to turn down an offer for private funding to instead join forces with a venture-backed startup in San Francisco that embraced the WebWisher idea and agreed to help the women execute it. The three agreed to start work at the startup one week after graduation.

Which brings us back to Erin's packing. She dumps a pile of change out of her desk tray into a small shoulder bag. "Here's what the girl at the startup does--packs up her pennies," she says. Although there's potential for a huge upside if the venture is successful, Erin's standard of living won't improve much over the next few months. Internet Age San Francisco is an expensive city, her student-loan payments will run around $1,000 a month, and her salary--well, suffice it to say it's not your typical MBA compensation. Erin is planning to drive the old Honda Accord she used before she was in business school.

Erin's dad is a high school football coach in Southern California; her mom is the principal of an elementary school. They're supportive of, if at times puzzled by, her decision. Erin graduated Kellogg with honors, has four years of consulting experience under her belt, and had a job at GM waiting for her in Detroit. "When I turned down my job offers, my parents were, like, Are you sure you want to do this?" she says. Nicole turned down a six-figure offer from McKinsey. (Stacy didn't go through recruiting; she had always planned to work in a startup.) They're taking this flying leap, they say, because it's fun. "I'm doing exactly what I want to do, with exactly who I want to do it with," says Erin.

Roommate Karyn returns from errands with Coke slurpees for everyone. Erin takes a couple of sips. She comes across a chunky econometrics textbook and tosses it into a garbage bag. It lands with a thud. "In my old job, I would've needed this," she says. "Kind of scary."

The next day I catch up with Paul Anfinsen at his apartment, a couple of blocks from Erin's. He doesn't have to start work at P&G until Aug. 1, and for the time being he's hanging out in Evanston. Paul's apartment is as tidy as Erin's is disheveled. Everything--everything--is in its place, stored in Mission-style bureaus. He's even got healthy house plants.

Paul reaches into a drawer and pulls out a binder stuffed with architectural plans. "I realize most people are thinking about their first apartments right now," he says, "but one of the advantages of moving to a small city is that you can afford to have a house." Have a house? Try build a house. Paul shows me plans for a three-bedroom home, complete with a two-story entryway, hilltop views, and a Jacuzzi in the master bathroom. He's planning to break ground in a week. It's clear that moving to Cincinnati is no fly-by-night decision for Paul. He expects to be there--and most likely at Procter & Gamble--for a long, long time.

Once a candidate for a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, Paul arrived at Kellogg at 29, after a stint as a health-care consultant. He was eager to make a new start and pretty sure he knew how to go about it. He'd be deliberate. "I'm very thorough. Some people think I'm too thorough. But I like a lot of data. I'm happier with my decisions when I take my time," he explains.

There were no liquor-fueled bull sessions for this man, no Milano cookie pig-out fests. Instead, Paul, a 4.0 student, was systematic. He applied for his summer internship at Procter & Gamble for sensible reasons: It had a large internship class and a heavy-duty emphasis on training. It was in a livable city (which also happens to be his hometown, where Mom and Dad still live). It would take him in a new direction.

Paul's system worked for him. He loved his job--the work, the people, the company. So this year he took the same approach, plowing through recruiting and getting six job offers from packaged-goods and consulting companies. In January he made his final decision to return to P&G. "It was a decision of career happiness," he told me. "Last summer, when I was an intern, I worked out every day. I saw my family. I went roller-blading. I was balanced."

We head off for lunch, and I ask if he ever considered doing the startup thing. Paul shrugs. He tells me that his father, a scientist and businessman, had started a series of technology companies in the Cincinnati area. The companies were successful, but Paul saw the dark side. "There was a lot of stress involved, watching him as I grew up," he says. "There's not always an assured income. Deals can be risky."

"Anyway," he continues, "I'm going to be an entrepreneur at Procter & Gamble." He explains: As an assistant brand manager for Bounty, he'll be a manager as well as a marketer. He'll learn the business from inside out. He'll work with suppliers, with retailers, with R&D, with advertising agencies, with Web companies. As he sees it, it's a lot like heading up a small company. These days at P&G--which is trying to shake up its culture and revive slowing sales growth--Paul's attitude should be a big hit.

We eat a little more and start chatting about paper towels. "Paper towels are not just about being more absorbent," Paul tells me. "They bring order to chaos."

"Oh, come on," I laugh.

Paul looks me in the eye. "I'm not kidding," he says. "What emotions does a tired mother feel when her child spills his juice? What emotions does the child feel? Paper towels fix spills. They're a comfort to the people who use them. Just think about it."

I think about it. I remember spilling stuff as a kid. I hear my mom yelling at me, exasperated. I try to imagine what would have happened if we hadn't had paper towels. Okay, I see his point.

Besides, you hear this product-as-life-changing-force talk from Internet entrepreneurs all the time. And they get millions for it.

One week later, Erin, Stacy, and Nicole report for duty in San Francisco's South of Market area. They hand me an Elph camera and ask me to take their picture. I tell them that Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos keeps a photo diary too, but they're too preoccupied to reply. They scurry into the office.

The company the WebWishers have joined is about to move. So Erin, Nicole, and Stacy don't yet have real desks. Or working computers. Or working phones. I ask them if there's anything they're supposed to do that day. "Well, we definitely have things we want to do," says Nicole. "We're ready to work."

They go into a conference room and start planning. They discuss Web-page design, strategic technology partnerships, retailers, e-tailers, budgets, and so on. Using Nicole's cell phone, they call a couple of people and leave voice mail.

"We're out of practice, guys," sighs Erin.

"Can we focus?" Stacy asks. "Product spec!"

The women hunch over their laptops and hunker down.

This article is the first in a series. We will be revisiting Erin, Stacy, Nicole, and Paul periodically during their first year of work.