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mba diary

Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway chief executive officer.Rick Wilking/Reuters

Linda Chew is enrolled in the two-year, full-time MBA program at Columbia University in New York. Originally from Vancouver, she is a graduate of the commerce program at Queen's University in Kingston. Linda began her career at Deloitte LLP, where she spent four years in its Toronto and Vancouver offices, most recently working in mergers and acquisitions. She is a chartered accountant and a CFA charterholder. This is the fifth entry in a series on her MBA experience.

This past weekend was one of the best of this year – and possibly of my B-school experience. I travelled with a group of classmates from Columbia Business School to visit billionaire investor Warren Buffett and his possible successor at Berkshire Hathaway, Todd Combs, in Omaha, Neb.

The 24 hours of the trip came and went like a whirlwind. I was stunned by their intellect, humility and sense of humour. My notes are littered with nuggets. I've never won raffles or anything of the sort, and I can't believe my good luck in winning this lottery to be one of 20 students to attend this meeting.

Speaking of lotteries, a part of the trip I enjoyed most was when Mr. Buffett cleverly remarked that he "won the ovarian lottery" when he was born an American male in his generation. It afforded him opportunities that were mostly out of reach for other demographic groups, although no one would acknowledge this at the time. There has been significant social progress in the past 50 years, and while there is still room for improvement, he opines that there is no better place than the United States for someone to climb the economic ladder by improving his or her skill sets. This view is substantiated by examples of the many remarkable people he encountered in his life.

I pondered what he said. If you didn't win the ovarian lottery today, do you have a chance?

After enrolling in B-school in the wake of the Occupy movements, I became increasingly aware of social mobility. In conversation, a lot of people have lamented that we can't achieve the level of success of someone like Mr. Buffett without having been endowed with certain demographic or geographic gifts. That is true to some extent. However, based on my own observations, I firmly believe that an individual in a country like Canada or the United States has the ability to move from the bottom to the top marginal income tax bracket in the span of one generation. Isn't that, in itself, incredible? No, that doesn't mean we can expect to become the next Warren Buffett, but it does mean with the right amount of input, we will usually be rewarded with a fair amount of output.

I thought about all the opportunities I have been given simply by virtue of growing up in Canada, living in a community receptive to diversity, and having access to people who supported my growth.

While I didn't win the same ovarian lottery as Mr. Buffett, I was fortunate enough to be born into a family that rewarded education, hard work and a genuine desire for success. As immigrants, my parents worked long hours for years on end, not unlike many young professionals today, but they earned a mere fraction of an investment banking bonus. However, their fortitude allowed me to grow up witnessing what it means to work for something that matters to you, and why labour today has value tomorrow. So while equality may not be granted at birth, we live in a land where there is potential for substantial improvement. I think this belief – that a better lifestyle is attainable with effort and time – is what gives the human spirit a will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield (to borrow a few words from Tennyson).

Tying it back to my experience in Omaha, I think this is a fitting climax of my B-school experience. Graduation is in two months, and I have no idea where the Class of 2015 might be in five, 10 or 25 years. Although not all of us won the ovarian lottery, with the desire and willingness to push forward, we all have a shot at making genuine progress in our lifetime. I'm confident of that.