B-School Insider Interview: Sim Siew Han, UVA Darden, Class of 2014

We spoke with Sim Siew Han, a rising Darden second year, just as he was finishing up his first year of the MBA program and preparing for his summer break. A CPA from Malaysia whose family owns a number of different businesses—and with entrepreneurial aspirations of his own—Sim was able to shed some light on his experience as an international student at Darden and how the school is preparing him to enter the next phase of his career.

mbaMission: Thank you for speaking with me today about your experiences at Darden. To start, why don’t you tell me a little about your background and why you chose Darden for your MBA?

Sim Siew Han: Happy to be here. Sure. I’m a rising second year. I would characterize myself as a professional accountant from Malaysia with an entrepreneurial background. Right out of high school I pursued a United Kingdom–based professional accounting qualification. It’s called the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, ACCA, and I did this at a private college in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I have since realized that this qualification made my journey of getting admission into U.S. business schools significantly more challenging. I’ll tell you a little more about this later. After I completed the ACCA, I lectured for a while at my alma mater in Kuala Lumpur before I joined Ernst & Young, where I started off in the audit division. One month in, and I knew instinctively that that was not for me. So I transferred myself to the consulting division, where I spent the next year and a half before returning to the family business in Melaka, a town located approximately an hour and a half’s drive from Kuala Lumpur.

Well, ironically, the family core business is an accounting firm, providing audit, tax, secretarial and financial advisory services. In 2008, we also started a private college. Since its founding, we saw our student body grow over 40-fold in the last five years.  We now have about 500 plus students. We used to also run a hotel in Melaka but recognized at one point that the conditions were ripe for sale, so we divested it somewhere around 2009, 2010.

That was right around the time when Melaka was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site—so Charlottesville and Melaka have a lot in common; they are both home to UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

mbaMission: Right.

SSH: Pretty cool, huh? Ok, so why Darden? As I mentioned earlier, my journey getting admitted to a U.S. business school wasn’t easy for the simple fact that the ACCA, my only qualification, was generally not recognized as an equivalent of a U.S. four-year undergraduate bachelor’s degree, which unfortunately is a recommended minimum requirement for most full-time MBA programs. Darden must have seen something in me to be the only school I applied to to have invited me for an interview. It was conducted by Skype by an admissions officer over here [in Charlottesville]. It was a completely blind interview, which is something I really respect. The officer who interviewed me only knew one thing—I’m a guy from Asia, that’s it. That’s all she knew, nothing else, and personally, I thought this approach that Darden takes to admissions really reflects Darden’s commitment to diversity and finding the right fit in their candidates. Some other schools I know of strongly focus on building the statistics or how good you look on paper, that kind of thing.

So I think Darden really walks the talk when it comes to looking for “fit.” In retrospect, I have totally no regrets coming here. I’m from Southeast Asia, and back home, I can tell you, the concept of fit, the idea of fit, never really made much sense to us. What we do mostly, we just take the Financial Times or any other rankings, draw a line, and apply to the schools above that line. That’s how we do it. For most of us, there’s no way we can fly halfway around the world to sit in a class and visit the school—that’s just not possible. But now that I’m here, I finally understand what they mean by “good fit.” The unique one-essay requirement Darden admissions has, which is very unusual among the top business schools, actually now makes a lot of sense to me. Personally, I think that they all click. So that’s why I chose Darden. It’s awesome.

mbaMission: I see. Great. So what are your plans for after you graduate?

SSH: At this point, I’m exploring several options. I think the entrepreneurship route seems to make a lot of sense, given my background, but I’m also poised to take over the reins of the family business, which is why I think Darden makes even more sense. It’s a good general management school and a good entrepreneurship school. Perhaps that’s why I am a good fit. But having said that, I’m not ruling out any other possibilities. For example, I’m considering getting a PhD. That is still on my radar. I’m actively speaking to a lot of faculty members to get their perspective on whether that’s a good idea for me.

mbaMission: Sure. How do you like living in Charlottesville, and how do you think it’s affected your MBA experience and your studies?

SSH: Oh, wow. Well, I love it here. In many ways, Charlottesville—all the locals here call it Cville for short—it’s very similar to the city I come from. As I mentioned earlier, they are both home to UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In the case of Cville, UVA, the University of Virginia, itself is a UNESCO Heritage Site. This town is very much a college town. It’s built around UVA, and I think UVA’s the largest single employer in the city. So this means that there’s very, very little distraction from the actual learning experience, because it’s not, for example, located in a giant metropolitan city.

For me that’s important. Darden specifically is really big on community and on delivering a great education experience. In many ways, the school interacts with the Cville community, which I think gives an additional flavor to the MBA experience. For example, we have an initiative called Building Goodness in April, BGIA for short, which is basically one day in April where Darden students go out to help people in need in the Charlottesville community to rebuild their homes for an entire day. And that’s a really fulfilling experience that complements [the MBA experience], not just staying in a classroom and learning every day.

In addition, Charlottesville has a very vibrant entrepreneurship scene, which is something I didn’t quite expect before coming here. There are actually a lot of business pitches going on throughout the year and a surprising large number of angel investors and venture capitalists in Cville.

So you have all that, but my personal experience so far is that you will have very little time during your first year to do anything else outside of school work, recruiting and extracurricular activities. You’ll be swamped with work—that’s about it. You can actually physically see the looks on the first year’s faces, especially in November and December when recruiting is in full swing, as they get progressively more tired.

mbaMission: Right, I’m sure. How would you characterize your classmates and the greater Darden community?

SSH: I would characterize it with three words: engagement, community and respect. I find that everyone here is generally friendly. I mean, you get that kind of sense when you get here, when you immerse yourself, and you’ll find that it’s generally true —everyone is just friendly. You really want to be engaged. You really want to be a part of the Darden family. I find that the environment here in Darden is extremely safe. There’s a lot of trust between us, and especially in the school. We hold each other to very high standards, and as you know, the honor code is extremely strong. I know that if I leave my wallet on the table in the library and go for a break, I can expect to see it on the table when I get back. Plus, there is also the additional benefit of the open book, open notes exam that we are trusted to take at anytime, anywhere during the exam period. That, for me, is unheard of in my life, but what is more amazing is that I have the utmost confidence that none of my classmates cheat.

And on top of that, not just my classmates, even the professors are highly accessible and very committed to the school and the student learning experience as a whole. To give you an example, I once popped into my professor’s office unannounced, and I spent three hours of my professor’s time just talking about random things in life—nothing to do with class whatsoever—and that’s the thing. I think everyone here is more than happy to engage, not just in the classroom, outside the classroom, and we respect each other. So I think that if I want to characterize my classmates and the Darden community, that would be it.

mbaMission: Got it. And what has your experience specifically as an international student been?

SSH: Personally, I find that on a whole, I fit in quite well here. I do honestly know of some classmates from other countries that find it difficult—probably because of the language barrier—to fit in as well as I do, but on a whole, I think everyone is pretty much included. Inclusion is a big deal here, and everyone goes out of their way to make sure that you don’t feel alienated. In the Office of Student Affairs, for example, the Admissions Office, the faculty—everyone just makes an effort, a conscious and serious effort, to include everyone. And if I remember correctly, the Class of 2014 has 34% international students representing 33 countries around the world, and I think this is fantastic, especially in the classroom.

I feel that the domestic students really value our contribution, and because of the case method, classroom discussions are a big deal here. With the case method, almost half of our grade is based on classroom contribution, and I would say it’s a very interesting experience when we discuss, for example, child labor practices. One of my classmates from the Philippines would say, “There’s nothing wrong with it!” and then you see the horrified looks on our American friends. It’s interesting.

One of the favorite experiences among Darden students and faculty is probably the International Food Festival that happens early in Terms 1 and 2. And you can see how invested everyone is in presenting their food from their home. You really want to bring in the culture, and you want to include everyone, even the domestic students. I guess my take is that it actually feels great to be an international student here, at Darden, because I thoroughly feel valued, respected and welcomed, and that contributes a lot to my experience.

mbaMission: Yeah, I would imagine. I want to ask you about the core curriculum, but first I have a question that ties into that, which is why did you think you needed an MBA? Why did you feel that you should get one? And how did Darden’s core curriculum play into that once you got there?

SSH: That’s an interesting question. Okay. I’ll tackle the “why MBA” question first. For me, I came here specifically for the learning experience, because I have traditionally grown up in a UK-based instruction manner—that means passive learning, that means lectures, that means no questions asked. And I wanted to get an MBA specifically from the United States, especially from a school that encourages participation—that’s why Darden. Plus, it really makes sense for me. I come from a family business background. I’m interested in starting businesses, and you need a right way of doing it, especially now in a globalized economy. My experience before Darden was very much localized in Malaysia. I grew up in Malaysia. I worked in Malaysia. I studied in Malaysia. I have not been outside of Malaysia other than for holidays. I had not even been to the States before this. So it makes perfect sense for me.

Granted, for example, I am a CPA [certified public accountant], but I still learned something from the accounting classes here, because I think whatever the subject may be—say, operations, finance, economics, ethics—what Darden really focuses on in the classroom is the view of the topic from the perspective of a manager and a leader. So if you talk about accounting, you’re not talking as a CPA, you’re talking as a manager and what do those numbers mean? That’s very different.

On top of that, I think the case method supports it. In these class discussions, we have classmates from 33 different countries, so you can bet you always have something new to learn, even if you’re an expert in the topic. And that’s why I think the core curriculum is important. And that’s the whole point of coming to B-school—the core curriculum and the networks you build with your fellow classmates. Most people think that the core curriculum is meant to teach you some fundamental skills, like finance or accounting, etc. I think that’s also true, yes—many people in my class who had no exposure to those skills before B-school really picked up on learning from the basic finance and accounting classes—but I think the real learning comes from immersing yourself in a boardroom-like discussion on a topic and learning from one another. That’s really what the whole case method is about.

mbaMission: Right. That makes sense. And you touched on this again—you come from a family business. How has this factored into your experience of and what you expected to gain from Darden?

SSH: Honestly, it’s not so much that my family business background dictated my expectations of Darden. It was more so of the education experience. So as I mentioned earlier, I wanted to come to the United States to pursue an MBA because of the very different method of instruction and teaching. In Malaysia, or should I say generally in Asia, the primary method of teaching is lecture, passive learning. So I wanted to experience the flip side of it, and so far, Darden has exceeded all of my expectations.

mbaMission: Great.  What kind of hands-on learning opportunities have you pursued, or if you haven’t yet, are there any that you’re looking forward to taking?

SSH: Oh, yeah, this is a big one. I think when people look at Darden, they think of it as a case learning school, so they don’t think of any hands-on learning opportunities. I think that would be correct to a certain degree, because most of our classes are conducted with the case method in the first year, that’s pretty much true; But that said, I think there are many other opportunities for other types of learning if you so choose to pursue. For example, I personally wrote a case with my professor in the first year, and that case is now on review with Darden Business Publishing, so that’s one way.

And in the first year as well, we have a what we call a marketing and strategy simulations, which is basically just a program, and you get in teams, you talk about your strategy around a situation, and what would you do, and you compete against other teams in your first-year class. This happens over a week, and competition gets pretty intense. And there’s also what they call leading organizations intensive week, where you learn about how to work in teams, how to communicate, and how to work around differences, and so on.

And you also have international opportunities—I personally did not pursue this, but many of my classmates have—it’s the Global Business Experience, we call it GBE, and it’s under way as we speak. I have classmates in places such as Brazil and Israel right now where you would just work hands-on on projects with real companies, real situations, in those countries. That’s one you can do. There is also another big one that we call Darden Capital Management —DCM. This is where you play the role of a fund manager, actually managing real money, real funds. You actually invest in the real stock market. So the gains and losses are real. I think it doesn’t get any more hands-on than that. It’s real money, and big money as well. If I’m not mistaken, several millions.

mbaMission: Yes. You’re right. [The current total is reportedly close to $8M.]

SSH: And then there is also what they call the Community Consultants Club [Community Consultants of Darden]. You work in teams of 30 as second years on actual consulting projects for companies in Charlottesville. This would be a great experience for consultant wannabes.

And of course, there are many opportunities in the second year, like there’s this popular theater course where you get to write, direct and act in your own short sketches. It’s always great fun. You can also choose to do other things, like an independent study with a professor, that you can get cross-credit for.

The bottom line is, this is a case method school, yes, but there are far more opportunities for hands-on learning than I think people actually realize.

mbaMission: Sure. Have you worked with the career development office (CDC) at all?

SSH: The CDC, as we call it here—yes, I definitely have, but not as much so in the capacity of finding a summer internship. Still, they were a tremendous help. I did speak to them one-to-one, they helped me figure out what I really want to do, what makes me tick, and they also helped me with mock interviews and crafting amazing-looking resumes and cover letters, which I would not have achieved on my own. But I think what’s interesting and unique about our CDC, the Darden CDC, is that they actually offer lifelong career support. So after I graduate, I can still seek their help if I happen to find myself looking for a job again in the future—hopefully not, but if I find myself looking for a job, I can actually call them up. In a more personal experience, the career officers I’ve spoken to and dealt with, which is basically most of them, they are extremely friendly and knowledgeable. That’s my impression, and if they can’t help you with something, what they will do is they will definitely point you in the direction of someone who can.

I guess what’s more interesting is—and I’m not sure how this works in other schools, to be fair—but the CDC actually respects what we want to do. So rather than trying to push us to say become a consultant or go into I-banking because that will make the statistics for the school look very good and [help us] move up the rankings and so on, they actually take pains to support whatever you want to do here and respect whatever you say you want to do, even if it is not the traditional route. That’s my experience with CDC and it’s been pretty amazing so far.

mbaMission: That’s great. What resources at the school do you feel have helped you the most in moving toward your post-MBA goals?

SSH: If I had to pick one, I’d say it’s the faculty. That’s because of their accessibility. You can just walk into any one of them—and these are incredibly busy, incredibly successful people, incredibly smart faculty members who are willing to sit down with you and discus any matters of your concern. So personally, I had some challenges in terms of some marketing issues, operational issues with regards to the family business that I wanted to discuss with the faculty, and yeah, we just schedule time and sit down and talk about it. And I don’t think it gets any better than some of the world’s leading minds helping you out with a problem. For me, that is just incredible, and coming from where I am in Asia, sometimes you don’t even get to sit down for lunch with your faculty member. Here it’s the complete opposite. They will sit down and have lunch with you and talk about anything you want to talk about, any problem you want to talk about, and give you their honest feedback. And I think that’s been incredible.

mbaMission: I can imagine. So kind of related to the faculty, what impression do you have of Dean Bruner, and what kind of influence do you think he has on the school?

SSH: To be fair, I’ve only been around for the first year, so it’s hard for me to really say the influence he has had on Darden in his entire tenure, but I do follow his blog. What I do know about him is he doesn’t really want to pay attention to the rankings as much as perhaps other deans of business schools. He really focuses on the education experience.  In one of his blog posts, if I remember correctly, he said he pays attention to the rankings only because people he cares about pay attention to them.

That really says a lot about what he thinks is important and what his impact on the Darden School and the learning experience is. That said, I can understand wanting to move Darden up in the ranks and maintaining the education experience. Sometimes there’s a trade-off there. And I digress, a little tip for incoming students—Darden recently changed its mission statement, and it’s available on the Darden web site. So I encourage all potential applicants to review that new statement and also follow Dean Bruner’s blog. He is an amazing, down-to-earth guy who sits down and plays Monopoly with students. He was also an incredible teacher before he became dean. That’s my impression.

mbaMission: Great. You’ve spoken a little about the faculty already, but I’d like to hear more about your impressions of them.

SSH: Yeah. The one thing I will say is that Darden, to my knowledge, is very unique in terms of how they structure the faculty’s remuneration. Darden says they’re big on teaching, big on the education experience, and Darden walks the talk. So from my understanding, Darden is one of the few top schools that gives faculty the freedom to decide if they want to focus more on research or teaching—focusing on either of which would not detract [from] the faculty’s standing. This is a big departure from other top business schools that really lean heavily on research. Basically, the idea is if you want to focus less on research, you actually can at the Darden School, which is not usual for the top business schools. So the general sense I get is that all the faculty members here are really, really, really good at teaching, and that makes all the difference.

Of course, they are also good in other aspects. They all come from amazing backgrounds. Some are business owners. I know one of my professors used to run a family business, sold it to Nestle for 53 million bucks, and he’s here sitting on the faculty. And then there’s an economics professor who is an advisor to the U.S. Administration. These are the guys who are sitting in front of first year MBAs, teaching us. The caliber is just incredible.

mbaMission: Have you had any professors who have been particularly impressive?

SSH: pecifically, I would point to Professor Luann Lynch, who I think is an incredible teacher. She is the accounting faculty member, and I’ll tell you this—I actually dislike accounting, I find it boring. I find it actually incredibly dull, and before coming here, I was actually very skeptical—how on earth do you teach accounting using the case method? I just couldn’t picture it.

I just didn’t know how it could be done, and she showed me how it’s done. It is incredible. She found a way to make it fun, and the most amazing part about how she teaches it is that she breaks it down. She breaks down accounting so effectively that everyone can understand. I mean, you’re in class, and not everyone knows finance and accounting, not everyone comes from a business background, and they all get it. No one in my class has anything but praise for her. Everyone thinks that she’s such a rock star in terms of the case method. She does it really well. There’s actually a You Tube video  of her teaching accounting using the case method. I encourage all potential applicants to view it. She, in my opinion, epitomizes the case method at Darden..

A second professor I would like to point out is Professor Ed Freeman —this guy is just a really incredible, thought-provoking professor. He has a PhD in philosophy, which is unusual in business school. He challenges us to think differently. He challenges our viewpoints. He has a great sense of humor. His classes are always fun and highly engaging. He’s an incredibly personable person. How do you judge a good professor? Some professors say that all laptops must be down, so there’s no distraction. Ed Freeman doesn’t have a laptop policy. He just says, if my discussions cannot keep you engaged enough that you want to check out, you want to go on the Internet, then I have failed. And you can tell in his classes  his caliber in terms of teaching is unparalleled.

I was in his “Creative Capitalism” class, and he says that the traditional narration of capitalism is “greedy old bastards trying to do each other in”—that’s his quote, not mine—and we must change that. He’s the original guy who is advocating not shareholder wealth maximization but stakeholder maximization, stakeholder theory, and he has been talking about this for many years. So his ideas are really ahead of his time, and just speaking to him in person is quite the experience. He is also the professor I’m going take the class of theatre with [“Leadership and Theater”]—you produce your own skits and sketches, and that’s pretty cool.

mbaMission: That’s very cool. What kind of interaction have you had with the alumni?

SSH: That happened mostly during my career search. That was a time when I was exploring consulting as a possible summer internship, and I thought reaching out to some alumni who had worked in consulting companies would be useful. But I have to say, in general, Darden alumni are very, very helpful and very, very loyal to the school. You reach out to them, they will get back to you, no matter what, and they’ll go out of their way to help you. And the moment I got accepted into Darden, I received an email, and this guy just says, “I’m here to convince you to come to Darden. You may have other options, but I’m here to convince you to come to Darden.” And that’s the kind of alumni we have. It’s this really strong allegiance to the school.

And at this moment, I am receiving emails from regional alumni who are just reaching out, saying, “Hey, are you around? Let’s meet up. Let’s have coffee. Southeast Asian alumni are few and far between, so we should get together and do something.” That kind of characterizes how the school’s alumni are.

mbaMission: Sure. What are the best parts and perhaps not so great parts of Darden’s facilities?

SSH: I’ll start with the good and move on from there. So, first off, great facilities. I think in the Princeton Review 2011 Darden was ranked as number one for best facilities. It is one of the best equipped business schools out there. It’s clean. It’s incredibly well maintained, and technology’s top notch. Hats off to the tech guys, who are very responsive.

And then there’s what we call the First Coffee tradition—every morning between 9:30 and 10:00, we have free coffee and tea. We get it at the same place, the PepsiCo Forum. We start congregating, meeting faculty, meeting students from other sections, and we just talk. And that free coffee and tea is available all day long, any day, in the alumni lounge. As for the quality of the coffee, let’s say just say they’re working on it. [Laughs.]

The down side is the distance from main Grounds. So there’s UVA and then there’s Darden, right at the corner, on the edge of UVA. It’s about 20 to 30 minutes’ slow walk to the main Grounds. And I have to say that it’s not convenient to get around Charlottesville if you don’t have a car or a bike. Most of the places are not within walking distance unless you are living on main Grounds. That’s where all the events are, that’s where all the bars are. The good restaurants are also peppered throughout the city, such as at the Barracks Road Shopping Center and the Downtown Mall, not just near main Grounds. And here at the Darden school, we have two main dining options. There’s the Abbott dining hall and there’s Cafe ’67. The food quality is not bad, but it gets repetitious after a while.

But that’s not to say there isn’t good food around Charlottesville. Charlottesville is actually a foodie’s heaven. If I recall correctly, the first week I was here I saw a statistic that said that Charlottesville has more restaurants per capita than most other cities in the United States. [Editor’s note: Charlottesville ranks at 14th in the country, according to the Huffington Post.] So that tells you something. If you’re a foodie, it’s the place to be.

mbaMission: Interesting. How would you characterize social life at Darden?

SSH: Well, it’s definitely hard to get a good social life in the first year, I’ll give you that. We are in class Mondays through Thursdays with three cases a day. Sure, we work very hard, but we certainly do party. Unofficially, there’s something called TNDC, the Thursday Night Drinking Club. That’s a club where everyone is automatically a member. Every Thursday is the last day of class, and after a long, long week of class, you just want to go out and do something. It’s pretty cool. We rotate bars around the main grounds, and everyone will come out, and you see your friends there, talk and dance. This is how big it is—at one of the bars, they actually have a cocktail called Darden.

In terms of other social events, there is a tradition we call Cold Calls, on Thursdays as well. There will be free flow beers. There will be food. The students can bring their families, their kids, their pets, anyone—everyone’s welcome. And sometimes we have themes surrounding the Cold Calls. The Lunar New Year, for example, we’ll be celebrating the Chinese New Year, and then there will be Christmas, and there will be Thanksgiving. And sometimes these are more informational, like for LGBT, to bring about awareness.

Of course, there are also the Darden Cup events, where first year sections pit against one another for the Cup over a range of sporting and other events. It involves first years, second years, faculty and even student partners. These events tends to get very competitive—but in a healthy way.

I guess if I want to characterize it, the underlying theme is one of community, and we really take it seriously here.

mbaMission: What do you think more people should know about Darden that they probably do not know?

SSH: I think Darden is one of the best business schools that people, especially outside the United States, don’t know about. So in choosing a business school, I think most people think they are buying what they call a brand, a brand name—and thus let rankings predominantly guide their choice set of B-schools. And I think it’s fair to say that, yes, that’s true to some extent, but what you buy when you come to Darden is a world class educational experience of a lifetime—and there is no equal. I can tell you that from my personal experience. Even The Economist, I think in 2012, ranked Darden as number one for education experience, and for good reason. Dean Bruner recognizes this as Darden’s core advantage and is really trying hard to maintain what we have been doing very well whilst trying to improve Darden in the traditional rankings.

So sure, Darden is not such a big brand name as some of those schools appearing in the top of the Financial Times rankings, that’s fair, although we are putting in a lot of effort to improve, and we have. We are slowly moving up the ranks.

My take on this is, think about what you really want from B-school. What’s really important to you? Is it the education experience or is it the brand? I’ll leave it at that.

mbaMission: Exactly. Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate your taking the time to talk to me about your experience at Darden.

SSH: No problem. I appreciate the interview, too. It means a lot to me.

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