My MBA, An Experiment

By Divya Narayanan WG’17

INTRODUCTION: FACING RISK

I left my first job in Bain’s Toronto office three years ago bright-eyed and ready for change. I’d followed the traditional path from undergraduate business school to consulting and felt ready to take a big risk. Sure, I liked my time in consulting, but I had dreams of that perfect job out there. The problem was that I had no idea what perfect really meant. So, I applied to wildly different jobs across the world – from nonprofit to tech, from San Francisco to Thailand.

Divya and her teammates at CommonBond
Divya and her teammates at CommonBond

I ended my job search with two offers: one, a business strategy associate role at Google, the other, an operations manager role at an education social enterprise in Nairobi. The jobs didn’t have one thing in common. When I asked my mom for advice, she told me that I would be “crazy not to work at Google”.  In my mom’s world (and in the world I was raised in), you don’t give up a job at a company with Google’s brand name. You just don’t. That same mentality had always guided my decisions – I’d always chosen the safer brand, the one that kept the most doors open. While my heart was telling me to move to Kenya, my head kept remembering my mom’s words. I ended up again in a very traditional role at Google doing the same work I had done at Bain.

In that transition, I realized something about myself: I crave change but I am fundamentally risk-averse. To make real changes, I needed to find small ways to experiment before making big leaps.

So I decided to pursue an MBA. On the surface, an MBA is the continuation of that traditional path I’ve been on. But it’s also an incredible environment that provides me with the time, space, and courage to experiment, both professionally and personally. If you’re considering an MBA, it’s likely that there’s a part of you that is risk averse, like me. Read on to learn how my two MBA experiments helped me learn more about who I am, what I like, and what I value.

EXPERIMENT #1: WHAT DOES MY IDEAL JOB LOOK LIKE?  

The Hypothesis:

My ideal job involves marketing and developing new products in a fast-growth company / start-up.

The Experiment:

I thought deeply about my career through the business school application process. Who did I want to be? What matters most to me? All of my favorite jobs and projects have three things in common: new ideas, intellectually challenging work, and the ownership to get things done without bureaucracy. Given that, a startup seemed like a great place to start.

I started my experiment before business school with a ‘pre-MBA’ marketing internship at Thanx in San Francisco to test whether I liked working at a startup (spoiler: I really did!). My favorite part of my internship was thinking through and testing Thanx’s first paid marketing campaigns. I enjoyed using creative problem solving and rigorous testing to figure out a new solution for the company. This insight led me to wonder: how could I get involved in creating and testing new products? I headed to Wharton with conviction that working for an innovative, fast-moving organization was right for me. Next, I wanted to test a new job function – namely new product development.

But in my first semester at Wharton, I admit – I got a bit distracted. As my friends were deep into round after round of case interviews, I had moments of real doubt. Where my friends had a concrete process, I had a list of contacts and the fuzzy promise of a summer project down the road…maybe. What kept me focused was knowing I wouldn’t have another summer to experiment – this was it.

That motivation helped me find CommonBond’s MBA internship, a unique opportunity to work as an intern team to build a “startup within a startup” and launch a new product by the end of the summer. I couldn’t have been more excited – there was no better way to test my interest in new product development than to dive in and create and launch a product in 10 weeks.

What I’ve learned:

I love working for startups and I really like new product development. I enjoy the ownership and the opportunity to be the first person who has to ‘make it work’, going one step beyond presenting the strategic decision to actually making it an operational reality.

In addition, I’ve learned that not every environment demands perfection. “Failure” in some companies is seen as a step in the right direction. Our internship team was initially working on a different product for the first few weeks of our summer but we realized there were significant barriers to launching the product. Based on our recommendation, we pivoted within days to our current project. Pivoting wasn’t seen as failure, but rather as prioritizing the project with the greatest chance for success.

How I Will Continue Testing Next Year:

An independent study second semester focused on new product development.

EXPERIMENT #2: WHO AM I WHEN I’M UNCOMFORTABLE?

The Hypothesis:

I’ll make better decisions if I’m more in touch with my ‘right brain’ – if I’m more creative and intuitive.

The Experiment:

  • Writing (and acting, a little, in videos) for Wharton Follies, a student-led business school musical and comedy
  • Dancing in Wharton Dance Studio’s Pop-Lock group
  • Being a Leadership Fellow / Orientation Leader for incoming first years

I naturally gravitate towards my comfort zone, things I’m good at (who doesn’t?). And what I’m good at is being logical and (relatively) objective. After moving from Kenya to Canada when I was very young, I learned that the best way to be liked and fit in was to stay steady – to shy away from strong emotion. Today, I sometimes get nervous about trying new things or doing things a new way. In my personal life, this means I look for activities that are more structured and that require less personal risk.

At business school, I’ve gone out of my way to make myself “uncomfortable” and take on stretch experiences that force me to be more creative and in touch with my emotions. I’ve joined Follies, Dance Studio, and am a Leadership Fellow – a role that forces me to better understand my own emotions and those of others.

p.s. there may or may not be some YouTube evidence of my Wharton extracurricular life…

What I’ve Learned:

What’s the worst that can happen? I look silly in front of 800 of my classmates?  My business school friends are all pushing themselves to try something new – we’re learning from each other and building camaraderie in our discomfort. It’s helped me realize that personal risk doesn’t have to be a big deal – it’s a necessary part of learning, growing, and improving. No, I’m still not an amazing actor or dancer but I put myself out there and I’m stronger for it.

These experiences have given me a new perspective. I approach work from more angles – I embrace different ideas more quickly. I’m also more comfortable with ambiguity, more confident when I don’t have a plan and I don’t know what to do.

How I Will Continue Testing Next Year:

Anyone who knows me knows that my athletic abilities rate about 1 out of 100. And, that doesn’t mean I’m number one. Next year, I’m finally fulfilling my one Canadian obligation: I’m joining hockey. I’ve bought the skates and the pads and am ready for some epic falls. I’m scared but couldn’t be more excited.

CONCLUSION: EMBRACING RISK IN A DISCIPLINED WAY

Business school is overwhelming. It’s a whirlwind of a thousand opportunities, chances, and what-ifs. The absolute best thing about business school? You’re expected to take a chance – there are very few long-term consequences.

Here’s what I’ve learned: it’s important to experiment, but to do so in a disciplined way. If you go into business school without a clear idea of what you hope to accomplish, it’s easy to just do what everyone else does, to be swept up in the next big sexy career – whether Big Tech or Finance. Experimenting with discipline provides a real return, not only for your career, but your personal life.

As I go back to my second year at Wharton, I see my real life and real consequences looming at the end of graduation. I feel prepared to make my next personal and professional decision with renewed intentionality and a clear idea of what I hope to test and gain. After all, this next step is only one in a series of many that will shape the way I learn, grow, and become the best version of myself.

Divya 200Bio: Divya Narayanan, a Summer 2016 MBA intern at CommonBond, is about to enter the second year of her MBA at the Wharton School.

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