Jim Koch is talking with me about how he went from earning his JD and MBA at Harvard to starting the Boston Beer Company, whose Samuel Adams beers have won more awards than any others in history. As Chairman of Boston Beer, Jim oversees a company of about 850 employees that did over $500 million in revenue last year – but that’s not what he set out to build. “My dream was to have a company with eight employees, including me, and one million dollars in revenue. I’m not sure I wouldn’t have been just as happy with that,” he tells me. Not that he’s unhappy now, mind you – just perhaps a bit busier than he expected.
When Jim graduated with his joint JD/MBA, he found it surprisingly hard to get a job. Law firms were wary of the alternative exit plans the MBA offered him, and businesses couldn’t understand why he wasted time studying law. “There were round holes and square holes, and I was an octagon,” he says.
His first job after graduate school taught him that a business career can have as much social impact as a legal one. While Jim was in law school, he was especially interested about environmental issues. In fact, he was one of the founding members of the Harvard Environmental Law Review. While he considered practicing environmental law, he decided instead to join Boston Consulting Group. His first client? International Paper, which owned six million acres of timber and was at that time the largest private landowner in the US. Jim soon realized that International Paper’s forests were vastly underproducing. Their lands could have been producing sustainably three times as much as they did. As a result of Jim’s recommendations, International Paper changed its practices and increased the amount of pulpwood and timber they got from the same land base. Other pulp and paper companies followed suit, taking the pressure off the forests Jim was so concerned about protecting and effectively removing the threat that they would be clear cut. “I could have spent my whole career as a lawyer working for the NRDC or the Sierra Club, and never had this kind of impact,” he notes.
As Jim points out, you can use the same analytical skills in business as in law – and, as his experience with International Paper shows, the business route can lead to more sustainable solutions.
Are you making the kind of impact on the world that you hoped to make when you chose law school? What alternative paths might help you have even more of an impact?