B-School Insider Interview: Alumnus, University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Class of 2018

Periodically, mbaMission interviews business school students and alumni to gain insight into their experience attending top MBA programs. Entering business school with a background in accounting, finance, and mergers and acquisitions consulting, this Chicago Booth alumnus from Asia embraced the school’s flexible curriculum with an open mind about what the next phase of his career would hold. He now works at one of the world’s top consulting firms. (February 2019)

mbaMission: Thank you so much for talking with me today. To start, what inspired you to choose Chicago Booth for your degree? And has it met your expectations?

Chicago Booth Alumnus: Oh, absolutely. I think that part of what made me choose Chicago was that I didn’t have a 100% clear idea of exactly what I wanted to get into. So I was kind of toying with “Do I maybe want to go into finance? Do I maybe want to go into consulting? Do I not want to do any of those things, and maybe do something like tech strategy? Or corporate strategy?” I was a little unsure, to be honest. When I looked at my initial set of schools, I looked at schools that gave me a very good chance to get into any one of these spots, should I change my mind later on. I was a little wary about going to a school where only specific employers recruited on campus, so the sort of opportunities that I thought about getting into was very important.

It was less about stereotypes the schools had, to be honest, because what I saw, based on the data on the ground, was very different from what was actually being talked about. For example, Booth is supposedly a “finance school,” but the last three or four years, we’ve consistently sent the largest percentage of students to consulting and tech, with finance being a distant third. So I could follow any of these three paths, if I wanted to. The second thing that was important for me, as someone with a business background, was tailoring my experience to what I wanted to learn. There were experiences I wanted to get, classes I wanted to take. Learning was important, but I didn’t want to spend time doing the same classes repetitively. I really valued curricula where there was a little bit of flexibility. I would be lying if I said prestige and brand name didn’t factor into the decision, too, so I primarily looked at M7 schools.

mbaMission: You mentioned the core curriculum. How did you feel about Booth’s and how the school executes it?

CBA: I really liked it. One thing that really stood out for me when I was deciding was, given that I was a CFA and had worked in M&A [mergers and acquisitions] consulting, I knew I had a fair amount of training in introductory accounting, finance, etc. I wanted to take some very specialized finance classes or classes with rock star professors. One example was Raghuram Rajan’s “International Corporate Finance” class, just because he was fresh off a stint as governor of the Central Bank in India and a bit of a celebrity back in Asia. But I also wanted to take some econ classes and classes in data analytics, because that was something I did not have a strong background in, and also because of the school’s reputation as a mecca for these subjects. On the other end of the spectrum, I wanted to take a ton of “soft classes,” like “Managing in Organizations,” “Negotiations,” etc., and every Boothie I spoke to spoke very highly of these classes. So having the flexibility to choose exactly what I wanted was very attractive to me, and Booth definitely lived up to its reputation in my two years.

mbaMission: That’s great. How did you like living in Chicago, especially coming from the Middle East?

CBA: I was definitely afraid. It’s funny you’re talking to me today, the day after a polar vortex in the Midwest. I was terrified of a day like this when I was accepted. But as much as people told me to factor the location into my equation, I think, outside of New York, it never factored in. One of the reasons I was never really attracted to the New York schools was how expensive New York was, but also the fact that everyone already has a base in New York when they come into business school. That was in the back of my mind when I was thinking about New York as a location. I think what I appreciated about Booth versus [Northwestern] Kellogg was that Booth was a little more in the city, versus in Evanston. So I got the benefits of being in a big city. I had heard good things about Chicago, and while I was a little worried about the winters, it never factored into my decision.

mbaMission: Was it as bad as you thought it might be, once you were there?

CBA: Not the two years I was there. Actually, we had pretty good winters those two years. It’s funny, after I decide to finally hitch my wagon to Chicago, we now have this polar vortex going on! My wife moved with me; she got a transfer with her workplace. We came in thinking, unless we hated the city, most likely we would stay because she was excited by her work. And it turned out my wife and I loved Chicago, so it was a very easy decision to want to stay. I didn’t even think about moving anywhere else.

mbaMission: That’s great to hear! How was her experience as a partner? And how was having a partner for you?

CBA: My wife was very much involved in all the partner activities, especially my first year. My second year, she was a lot more selective about the types of things she did as a partner. By the second, third quarter, most of my friends were my wife’s close friends, so she would pretty much do all the things that I did, versus doing partner-only activities in the second year. But she was one of the co-chairs of the partner’s club [Booth Partners], planning events in Chicago, so she was pretty involved.

She liked it, but given that she was working as well, she probably had a little less time for the partner activities. She told me she never felt excluded with my core group, and all of my close friends at school were her close friends as well. She really appreciated the fact that she never felt like she was just a partner, at the end of the day.

mbaMission: That says a lot about the community. How would you describe your classmates and the Booth community as a whole?

CBA: The easiest way to say it, the cliché—and I always used to roll my eyes at this—is “We have a great community. Everyone watches out for each other.” Fortunately, it’s actually true and why the cliché exists. It was one of my favorite things about the school. People take a lot of pride in it. You can see that in the way second years help out first years. Probably the only reason I got a job was because of the amount of help I got from other students and the school. I would say the other thing I heard a lot was “Oh, it’s a commuter school.” But really, it’s not, because everyone lives within a two-block radius in downtown Chicago, and we all commute together! My closest friends would bond in that 20- to 30-minute commute, where we’re either in an Uber or on the Metra together.

Take this with a grain of salt because I’m an international student. Maybe there are other colleges in the U.S. where campuses and communities are different—I had never lived on campus before this—but I never once felt like I didn’t have a community around me. If anything, it was the other way around; there were a lot of Boothies around me. It was almost like you could not not bump into someone you knew when you were walking in downtown Chicago.

mbaMission: I wouldn’t expect that in a city as big as Chicago. What would you say is the most surprising thing you encountered as a Booth student?

CBA: I feel like this is more of an MBA thing, or a business school–specific thing, but I felt there was a huge emphasis on “Okay. We’re here. We want to get a job.” I was surprised, given that I’ve heard so much about Booth being one of the most rigorous academic MBA programs, I personally felt that the focus was more on building a network, building friendships, getting a job, etc., and less on academics. I came in wanting to spend my time learning, but I would say I was definitely in the minority. The more I speak to people, the more I feel like it’s an MBA-wide thing, where people are more interested in what job they get and internships and recruiting and the social aspects. I would say learning is a distant third, which was a little surprising.

mbaMission: Interesting. Did you do any traveling as a student, either socially or for a course?

CBA: I did! I did a Random Walk in Belize, right before business school. Then I did one of the spring break trips to Colombia with about 150 of us. It was a massive trip. I also did the Booth Ski Trip during my winter break. Those were the three big ones. And then a little bit of traveling around the U.S. with close friends from school, but those three were the big MBA trips.

mbaMission: Did you feel like they were organized well?

CBA: Yeah. Absolutely fantastic. The Random Walk almost single-handedly changed my mind about organized trips, only because you wake up and everything is ready and waiting for you, and I always scoffed at those kind of trips. I always thought the fun of going somewhere was in the planning and figuring things out. And I almost got a little spoiled by the experience of having someone else figure everything out, and you just show up. It was great. I formed some of my closest friendships on these trips.

mbaMission: That’s really cool. Which professors or courses did you take that were particularly impressive or really stood out to you?

CBA: We call it Turbo Micro. I don’t remember what the actual name of the class is [“Advanced Microeconomic Analysis”]. It was with Kevin Murphy, who was fantastic. I did a class called “Data Science for Marketing Decision Making,” with Professor Günter Hitsch. It was probably the class that taught me the best set of skills that I use at my job on a daily basis. I took “Managing in Organizations” with Ann McGill. It is considered a soft class, but she is amazing, and the way she thinks makes you think about how to behave in the workplace, and she puts research in front of you that actually changes your mind about a lot of things. It was one of my favorite classes.

International Corporate Finance” with Raghuram Rajan was an amazing class, just because he had a world of experience to speak to, and his knowledge of finance is probably better than that of anyone I’ve ever met. There’s a class called “Platform Competition” with Professor Austan Goolsbee, who used to be on the Council of Economic Advisers for President Obama. That class was all about platforms and marketplaces like Facebook, Amazon, etc., and strategies for them. It was very grounded in economics, just like you’d expect from someone who sat on the Council of Economic Advisers to be. He’s hilarious as a professor. Most Booth students would reflect fondly on that class. I took a bunch of other classes that were also really good, but those were my top four or five.

mbaMission: Interesting! Did you have any access to the dean?

CBA: A lot of access, I would say. We have a dean of student life, [Deputy Dean for MBA Programs] Stacey Kole, who was very accessible. I was also on what we called the GBC, the Graduate Business Council, which was the student government. We met with her a couple of times in that capacity, but outside of that, she used to host coffee hours, where at least once a month, she would have coffee and snacks out in the garden and stand around and talk to people. And you could always walk into her office, if you needed. Dean [Madhav V.] Rajan’s transition was between my first and second year. For the first three or four months, he did a lot of traveling, so he was more external facing, and then after that, he started participating in the dean coffee hours. He became a very visible presence on campus; we had a lot of access to him. I’m sure he’s even more settled in right now.

mbaMission: You mentioned the GBC. Can you tell me more about that?

CBA: The GBC was one of the most impactful groups I was a part of, and I specifically led what was called the Faculty Liaison Committee. It dealt with engaging faculty and students outside the classroom setting. We sponsored “Take a Professor Out for Coffee” events. Those were always oversubscribed. And if we had any concerns, like “We want to see more of this topic or of these type of classes” from the student body surveys, we would take them to the dean’s office or the faculty office and say, “When you’re planning, please add these things.” We also hosted a bunch of professor presentations on research topics, which always pleasantly surprised me on how well attended they were by students. This is not curriculum; this is not class time. There was just a lunch, and they’d grab food and learn about topics the professors had been working on and ask questions. That was always really fun to see. In fact, one of our last talks went on the Chicago Booth Review web series called The Big Question, which is hosted by Howard Weissman. We ran series on income and inequality, big data, etc. It became a pretty big thing towards the end of my time there.

mbaMission: That sounds great. Any other groups you were part of?

CBA: Yeah, I was one of those people who probably oversubscribed to clubs, so I was definitely part of more than I should have been. One was the 1Y/2Y committee. So, we ran two big programs. One was a mentorship program in which we paired each first year with a second-year mentor when they started out at Booth, so if they wanted someone to talk to, not a professional mentor, but anything about school in general. The second thing was doing small Mix-It-Up dinners between first years and second years. Second years would cook food and host three or four first years at their home. Or if they didn’t want to cook, we’d just all make dinner and bring it to the second year’s house, and they would have a few first years over and talk about their experiences and what’s going on.

mbaMission: Nice! What would you say were the best parts of Booth’s facilities or any areas where the school should maybe work on upping its game?

CBA: Best parts: definitely the study facilities. Booking group study rooms was very easy; they were available in plenty and handy. The fact that most of us live downtown and could use the downtown campus to do that was really helpful. It’s a fairly new building on campus, and it’s really nice. To be honest, the classrooms were fantastic. From a facilities standpoint, it’s really hard to complain. You could throw in some first-world problems and say, “Oh, our school doesn’t have a gym,” because I know [Northwestern] Kellogg’s new building has a gym, and that was a big thing on campus at one point. Honestly, everywhere people lived had a gym in the building. It’s one of those things where if you have it, you use it. If you don’t have it, you don’t really miss it. I would say that was the one thing to improve. But I’ve always heard employers talk about how many interview rooms were on our campus and how easy it was for them, so they never had to conduct interviews off campus, which people have to do at some other schools.

mbaMission: If you’re biggest complaint is no gym, that’s probably pretty good. How’s your interaction been with Booth alumni?

CBA: I spoke to a few alumni while I was applying, and when I got my offer as well. I met a ton of alumni through the recruiting process, and they were always super receptive, I believe, mostly in their capacity as Boothies, versus as BCGers [Boston Consulting Group] or people from other firms. I’ve never had an issue, in terms of alumni engagement. Then again, our alumni base is super strong in the U.S. We’re still expanding our base internationally. In my year and the year before and now, we’re seeing a lot more people from Booth go international, which is really good. It’s a weird side-effect of the whole immigration policy, but a positive one. We’re building a much stronger alumni base outside the U.S. I think that’s going to pay a lot of dividends in the years to come.

mbaMission: That makes sense. Did you work through Booth Career Services to get your current job?

CBA: Yes. The other club I was a co-chair of was the Management Consulting Group [MCG]. One of the reasons I wanted to do it was just how much the Career Services Office and the second years in MCG had helped me out personally. Honestly, I only have the most positive things to say about them. Since I was looking for consulting, so much of my help was from second-year students versus the Career Services Office. But I got to know them a lot more after I got my job, to be honest. After I became the MCG co-chair, I started dealing with them, and I saw that a lot of their work is done in the background, making sure employers come to campus and are happy. As someone on the other side of the table at BCG now, I see a lot of people at our firm speak eloquently about Booth and the support we get from Career Services. Most BCGers love Booth’s facilities and how Booth treats us. So, from that standpoint, I have nothing really to complain about.

mbaMission: Can you talk about the entrepreneurship scene at Booth?

CBA: Definitely. It is a major focus. I did the New Venture Challenge [NVC] in my first year, and I got to see firsthand how much Booth actually invests in entrepreneurship, which is an almost absurd amount of resources. I know recently Booth opened up the New Venture Challenge to alumni as well, which is a huge unlock, in my opinion. What used to happen was alumni would try to get a Booth student to participate in the New Venture Challenge and typically, alumni teams did really well. Now, making it a more formal program, I think they’re going to really boost it.

Chicago as a whole has a ways to go to ever come to the level of a Silicon Valley, but I think what I saw, being a part of it, was a very energized entrepreneur base both at Booth and in the Chicago tech community, which works very closely with the NVC and the professors at Booth. If I ever reached out to anyone when I was doing the NVC, I would get instant responses. And I think the prize money for the NVC has increased every single year, and that’s telling in terms of how much funding goes into it. It’s not just talk.

mbaMission: That’s cool. I think you’ve touched on this already, but what resources would you say helped you the most when preparing for the job you have now?

CBA: Second years! The Management Consulting Group, which is almost entirely run by second years. The individual case work that all the second years did for me. I have a job only because of second years.

mbaMission: I’m sure it’s not only because of them!

CBA: No, I genuinely knew nothing about recruiting when I landed on campus. Honestly, I cannot stress this enough, how much they do. Second years give so much of their time to first years. I would say in the first quarter of my second year, I probably did more case interviews—meaning, giving cases to first years—than I did when I was actually prepping for my own interviews.

mbaMission: It sound like a very pay-it-forward kind of mind-set.

CBA: Yeah, I was hoping I wouldn’t have to use that phrase, given how much it gets used as part of the whole business school concept, but it really is true! It is definitely amazing.

mbaMission: What were some of your favorite social or extracurricular activities?

CBA: I never did this, but the one I had the most FOMO about was not being a part of the Wine Club. They have a fantastic slate of events. They’re always busy and always doing something interesting. I kick myself for not being a part of it.

mbaMission: Did you say the Wine Club?

CBA: Yes, it was massive. It’s hard to pick one. Another that I wasn’t part of, but everyone who did it absolutely loved it, was Booth Insights. It was basically a small group of four or five people, a bottle of wine, and one moderator. And every week, they’d meet in someone’s home, and they’d have a topic which was pretty deep. It was a closed-door setting where people just spoke about how they felt about the topic, their own personal experiences, and the conversation went much deeper than you’d normally expect. Anyone I heard from who’d done it, some of their best friends came from Booth Insights. It wasn’t like people all agreed—people would disagree a lot. It was a pretty big part of Booth life.

I did a different version of it called Booth Stories, where every month or so, people would gather in one of the classrooms. There would be a theme, and people would talk about it to a classroom full of Boothies. We would always dim the lights, and we’d have a virtual fireplace running in the background. It was a thing the GBC saw as very important. Health and wellness was very big when I was at Booth. There were so many events around making sure you were in a safe space to be vulnerable. When I reflect back, those events are what really stood out to me.

Other than that, you name it: Winter Formal was fantastic. Spring Fling was really nice. We have a cruise every year, which is always fun. Everyone dresses up, gets on a boat on Lake Michigan. There’s music and food. It’s really fun. There were so many social events, but I think the lesser, more intimate stuff was what really stood out to me.

mbaMission: Is it hard to balance so much social stuff with the work you have to do?

CBA: I think in the first six months or so, people are still finding the ropes and the balance between saying no and picking the things they want to be invested in. The latter half of the first year and most of the second, people are more clear about what they want to do and what they want to get out of it.

mbaMission: What do you think more people should know about Booth that they might not?

CBA: I would say, intellectual curiosity is definitely valued at Booth. And I don’t mean intellectual curiosity from an academic standpoint. It could be from a professional development standpoint, a personal development standpoint. You could be intellectually curious about how to grow as a person over two years. Those kinds of things are very valued. I remember at one of the town halls, our dean said, “I would rather give up on a stellar-resume, gold-plated student, if that student is not here to be intellectually curious and learn, because that is the purpose of this school.” And that is very reflective of the kind of people I saw around me. It was like a bell curve, and you could find people at each extreme. There were people who were all about learning new things and people who weren’t. But I would say the average Boothie is someone who is curious to learn, curious to find new things, to disagree. That’s a big part of it.

The other thing is the flexible curriculum. That’s a huge benefit at Booth, but I fear people misunderstand it. If you’re an engineer who has never had any business education, and the biggest draw for you to Booth is the flexible curriculum—that doesn’t make sense to me. Booth gives you a lot of guidance on what you should do if you’re coming from a nontraditional background. Academic services will help advise you on what to take if you land here without any clue about what’s right. You can leverage the flexible curriculum in different ways, especially after you’ve got your foundation set in the first one or two quarters, but think a little about what those things mean to you versus just using the same generic spiel in your interviews.

mbaMission: This has been really interesting! Thank you so much for your time.

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