It crept up on me much faster than I realized, but there they were, all over social media: photos of the graduates of 2017. There were family friends with their bushy-tailed teenagers on the last day of high school; cousins on their final proud march across college campuses; and my own friends listening to graduation day speakers at their various graduate degree programs. This prompted two reactions:

1) Excitement for others, with a faint hint of nostalgia. Which quickly turned into:
2) The abrupt realization that it has already been one full year since my own MBA graduation.

It seems just yesterday that I was entering my final MBA semester in spring 2016. I remember dreading the impending doom of graduation, which in my mind signaled the end of rapid learning, exotic travel, and the flexibility of a student schedule. My standard response to remarks of “Congratulations on graduation!” became “Don’t you mean, ‘I’m sorry you have to re-enter the real world?!’ ”. A major part of that reaction stemmed from the anxiety of securing a job that 1) I was extremely excited about, 2) was in San Francisco, and 3) paid enough to actually afford being in San Francisco. After finding a job that fulfilled those criteria, I have been surprised to find myself reflecting on my MBA years not with a longing to return, but with grateful nostalgia. Besides, there are plenty of things to enjoy in the “real world” that every graduate should look forward to:

1) Receiving a Pay Check – This first point may seem shallow (although most of us do have student loans to pay, just saying). But there is something to be said for the sense of accomplishment that comes from putting in hard work and seeing results not only in the workplace, but in your bank account. At the end of two years as a grad student, I felt a sense of restlessness to once again become a productive member of society, both in terms of impact and personal finances. Now when I book flights or dine out, I feel a sense of pride and ownership, rather than the guilt of digging into my loans or savings.

Early morning workouts with the November Project

2) A Consistent Routine – Although at times I do miss the exotic MBA travel (see point #6), I’ve very much enjoyed getting back into a consistent and productive routine during the workweek. A flexible student schedule is indeed lovely in many ways, but it is also prone to disruption and irregularities. I’ve become much more intentional about getting to bed at least 7 hours before my alarm clock goes off; carving out time before or after work to hit the gym (or yoga studio); and organizing social dinners or events 2-3x per week to continue seeing the classmates I don’t run into on campus everyday. My body, mind, and sanity have expressed deep gratitude for my increased attentiveness to personal well-being and consistency.

3) On-the-Job Learning – Although the point of graduate school is to further your knowledge and education, there is only so much one can learn within the classroom. Despite two years of top-notch Wharton education, there were things I could never have been prepared for upon joining the BizOps team at NerdWallet. Granted this was my first job in the United States since 2011 (see: my highlights of living in Africa), but those first couple months back in the workforce presented one hell of a learning curve that was both difficult and exhilarating.

Biking across the Golden Gate Bridge – not for the faint of heart!

4) Exploring a New City and Networks – For most of us recent graduates, we accepted offers in cities or countries that we had never lived in, far from our familiar haunts in downtown Philadelphia. After two years of running on social adrenaline and hyper-extroversion, how could we not seize the opportunity to venture into parts unknown? I’ve witnessed my classmates in SF grab the city by the horns and strike out to explore all the hidden gems this place has to offer with a ruthless abandon we may not have felt before business school. And this doesn’t stop with the physical infrastructure of a city, but extends into the social infrastructure as well. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting plugged into interesting social and professional networks that thrive in SF and extend beyond my MBA crew. Business school teaches you to “network” (ie, socialize with justification); new cities give you uncharted territory to then flex those networking muscles.

5) Adulting – One may argue that business school students are squarely in the age range of a proper adult (~25-33). Yet it’s hard to feel responsible when you’re constantly attending costume parties or skipping class to fly to Iceland for the weekend. There’s just something about irrational spending, themed events, and excessive weeknight drinking that harkens back to college days and makes you feel 19 all over again (even if your body disagrees with you during those now-more-painful hangovers). Graduation comes with the realization that society does in fact expect us to get our acts together – land a job, find a place to live, get our financial houses in order. And you know what? It feels really good to do all of that. Daunting at first, yes, but really good. Perhaps those 2 years help you to get the recklessness out of your system so that you’re more mentally prepared by the time graduation rolls around. And I find that most of my classmates agree – there is a sense of empowerment in finding stability, being in one place, and building a clear future. The term “adulting” comes laden with the preconception of endless responsibilities, but they are ones you can choose and, hopefully, choose with excitement and anticipation. And even if you’re feeling apprehensive of becoming overly responsible and missing out on those days of unfettered travel… ->

One of many lovely weddings we attended last year

6) Don’t worry, the travel doesn’t end! – While my classmates and I may not be taking multi-week jaunts across Southeast Asia or through Australia, I have found my travel schedule far from empty this past year. As a result of point #1, I feel more justified in my domestic trips to visit family, see friends, and attend weddings across the country. I’ve actually come to appreciate that my particular job does not entail workweek travel, as I get more than enough of my fill on the weekends. So don’t worry about developing a serious case of wanderlust after re-entering the working world, as there are plenty of opportunities to create your own travel plans. And, bonus! – If you go into consulting post-graduation, you’ll have more than enough travel to satiate your inner nomad 😉 .

So fear not, fellow recent graduates. The real world has a lot to offer you after all, if you wish to view it that way. When family and friends tell you “Congratulations!”, I hope your reaction will not be panicked silence, but “Thanks! I’m excited about what is to come”.

Congratulations, graduates!

On Friday January 6th, 2017, my father passed away from a sudden and immediate heart attack at the age of 57. We had just spent two weeks over Christmas and New Years on Useppa Island in Florida, our favorite place in the world. My two sisters, their significant others, and my two nieces all flew from Hong Kong, and my third sister came from Chicago. My boyfriend Matt’s parents, grandparents, and brother all came for New Years, and then he proposed on New Year’s Eve and became my fiancé. We all spent those two weeks boating, fishing, swimming at the beach, playing bocce ball, and spending lots of quality time together. You couldn’t have asked for a better holiday altogether. The last time I saw my dad I gave him an extra big hug on the end of our dock before jumping on the boat, and told him, “I can’t wait for you and mom to come visit me in San Francisco in just two months!”. It still feels like he will just call me and tell me he hasn’t left us, and that I’ll be seeing him in March.

One week after receiving the news of our dad’s death, my sisters and I pulled ourselves together and gave speeches in front of almost 800 people at St. John’s Episcopal Church in our hometown of Tampa, Florida. Posting my speech here is one of the many ways I hope to memorialize him. I love you, dad.

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SPEECH

Good afternoon everyone, thank you for coming and being here today. I know many of you dropped everything to drive from New Orleans and all over the south, or to fly from New York and San Francisco, and my dad would be so proud to see each and every one of you today. He’d also want to have a thirty minute conversation with you each to ask about your lives, families, significant others, and work, and tell you every detail of what his daughters are doing, how his wife is, and the fish he most recently caught on Useppa.

Over the past week as my mom, sisters and I have tried to process what has happened, we’ve gone through old photos and videos that both make us immensely happy and terribly sad. We came across one video we put together just two years ago for my dad’s 55th birthday – in fact, many of you in this room sent us clips reminiscing of funny memories you had with him. The poem I wrote and recorded embodies for me a lot of what I would say to him now, so I’ve edited and added to it to read to you all today.
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through the ALN Mentorship Network.

A large part of why I was able to accomplish so much during my summer internship with Stawi Foods in Nairobi, Kenya was due to the support I received through the ALN Mentorship Network. Check out this 2 minute video where I describe my use of the ALN network, and what I was able to achieve with the help of:

I’m excited to see them again and meet more ALN mentors at this November’s annual ALN gathering in Marrakech, Morocco!

IMG_8473**Originally posted on the African Leadership Network blog and the Wharton Social Impact Initiative blog.

While some people are nervous about doing business in “frontier” markets, I’ve always loved working in challenging environments that require original, entrepreneurial solutions. That’s how I wound up working with East African startups for three years prior to Wharton, and again for my 2015 summer internship. I am passionate about supporting entrepreneurship in these markets to create social impact, so what better way to do that than by diving straight in and directly mentoring these aspiring entrepreneurs?

This past summer I interned with African Leadership Network Ventures (ALNV), a pan-African startup accelerator, to once again immerse myself in the world of African entrepreneurship. When ALNV assigned me to mentor one of their portfolio companies based in Kenya, I jumped at the chance to return to the forefront of the action. Given my own entrepreneurial endeavors in the health and wellness industry, I looked forward to my assignment with Stawi Foods & Fruits, an award-winning food processing company eager to develop their nutritional breakfast foods business. Over the course of ten weeks, I moved quickly to analyze and execute priority decisions to improve sales for this fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company.

A real-life company in Kenya is a long way from Huntsman Hall, but it was remarkable how many classroom teachings I was able to apply to this company. These are the top five lessons I experienced while preparing an East African FMCG company for their next round of investor financing:

  1. Initial Analysis: It doesn’t matter how much you sell to retailers – what matters is how much your retailers sell to the end consumer. Data is key.

Stawi CEO Eric MuthomiWharton MBA’s are trained to live and die by quantitative-driven decision-making. But what happens when there are no numbers to drive a decision? African companies often struggle to aggregate, track and analyze the data required to construct beautiful Excel models. Stawi was grappling with this challenge like all its peers, but was fully aware that it needed to “up” its data game. So I met with each of the retailers who sell Stawi’s porridges – including independent grocers and Kenya’s largest supermarket chain – to put in place an enhanced sales analysis system. The findings were very important: what Stawi had assumed were its best outlets had not been moving as much product as believed; we thought we were selling to one demographic, but the numbers pointed to another; we believed we were hitting both rural and urban customers, but discovered that most of our end-user sales were in cities. Gathering these numbers was a big challenge for me but without understanding the true landscape of our sales and how much of our product was sitting in retailers’ inventory, my strategy for the remainder of the summer would have been very misguided. Do your research and dive into the numbers before embarking on a new strategic direction.

  1. Product-Market Fit: Be able to meticulously describe your ideal customer.

The answer to the question “Who buys your product?” should never be “Everybody!”. With my newly-collected data in hand, we were able to refine our vision of to whom Stawi could and should sell. Read More

 

Version 2**Originally posted on The Wharton Journal.

School goes by in a flash, so classmate Jenna Gebel and I created the LeadUp to allow 1Y MBAs to reflect and reconnect. Now we’re offering this three-day retreat again, October 8-11, for all Penn graduate students.

The first year of business school flies by in a flurry of emotions—it’s altogether exhilarating, stressful, social, lonely, stimulating, and exhausting. You undergo a landslide of personal development during those ten months. And then, in the blink of an eye, you’re done with finals and moving on to summer internships.

The lessons we learn both in the classroom and about ourselves are arguably the greatest value of the MBA experience, but they aren’t effective if we don’t take the time to process and internalize them. Yet, when can you consciously reflect upon, process, and reshape your goals during business school? How can you make sure the lessons you learned throughout the year aren’t shuffled aside in the hurry to move on to the next step?

11312790_10101071316859235_6885798534058626106_oThese are the questions Jenna Gebel (WG’16) and I asked ourselves at the beginning of second semester. We had met during Pre-Term and bonded over our mutual love for teaching yoga. Months later, we discussed how much (or maybe just how little) had changed for us since August—whether our goals had shifted, what disappointments we had encountered, what personal discoveries we had made along the way. We felt it was important to set aside time at the end of the year to actively contemplate these things, and we wanted to share this experience with others. And thus the idea for the LeadUp, formerly known as the Wharton Wrap-Up, was born.

10438319_10103670817359438_8972392747626860890_nWe did what all Wharton students do in this phase: shamelessly leverage every resource the university has to offer. We spoke to the Leadership office, Mindfulness Club, P3 organizers, Adam Grant, Yoga Club, Richard Shell, the Positive Psychology department, and relevant alumni. We arranged speakers and activities, and worked tirelessly to compile programming and assignments that would be thought-provoking and insightful. Once finals ended, we set off for rural New Jersey with 14 amazing individuals who were brave enough to embark on the first ever LeadUp. Read More

I hate to admit it, but Americans have a pretty bad reputation of being overweight and lazy. In 2014 over 27% of us classified as obese, and it doesn’t show any signs of improvement. But despite (or maybe as a reaction against) this national ailment, a strong slice of us are becoming more health-conscious than ever before. The American fitness industry is worth $24 billion yet traditional gym memberships are declining as we find alternative ways to stay active, healthy, and motivated. In many ways our newfound obsession can even be classified as “extreme“. So who are the companies at the forefront of this burgeoning industry trend?

unnamedI recently traveled to San Francisco with three other Wharton students to meet with companies who are revolutionizing the way Americans become fitter and healthier. Our deep dive into the fitness technology (“fit-tech”) industry shed light on our revived obsession with health, fitness, and nutrition, and offered a variety of ways that we can lead a healthy lifestyle outside of the gym. Whether software, hardware, or services, these companies are stretching the fitness industry in a variety of ways. Chances are you’ve used one of them and if you haven’t, you probably will soon.

Strava

Strava_thumbThe top social network app for dedicated cyclists and runners, Strava came from humble beginnings. Its founders wanted to allow cyclists to compare ride times, and that’s exactly what Strava version 1.0 was: a website where cyclists would enter in data manually from their GPS devices. As President & Co-Founder Michael Horvath told us: start small, nail one industry, and expand from there.

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2ab3e0fa90068f48f201158dfdeded48ddWe’ve all had to persuade someone to do something. Most of the time we press actions on people and expect them to cooperate without doing any of the negotiation prep work. In a recent leadership workshop, Wharton brought in an FBI hostage negotiator to teach the best skills and steps to influence behavioral change. Although we may not negotiate international kidnappings anytime soon, these techniques actually come in handy on a day-to-day basis: moderating conflict amongst friends, handling a disgruntled employee, charming a customer service rep to give you that discount. So how do we most effectively negotiate and exert influence to get what we want?

ari-goldI wish I’d known these skills to better handle an incident with a client when I was running the advertising agency in Rwanda. Our client, one of Rwanda’s largest mobile service providers, was hosting the board of their Stockholm-based holding company and wanted the editable files for an ad we’d previously created to display during their presentation. When one of my account managers incorrectly told them we couldn’t release the unedited version, the CEO got involved and called me. Under serious time pressure (and being Latin American), he was so furious and worked up that I could hardly understand him, let alone grasp what was going on. Once I calmed him down and reassured him that we could release the files under certain stipulations, he became more reasonable, but it wasn’t easy. In the end I also managed to procure a fee for editing the files in-house for their presentation – but it could have been much easier and less stressful if I’d known what the FBI does about hostage negotiation!

For my MBA peers in particular, these skills are very applicable as we prepare for careers in the corporate world. Dealing with unruly clients (as I did), asking for a raise, and resolving disagreements in the workplace are all scenarios in which we’ll need to act as effective negotiators and leaders. As you read through these, ask yourself how they can help you to become a better manager, a superior team player, or even just a more supportive friend.

The 8 Active Listening Skills

Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 11.52.22 PMAccording to the FBI, the most important part of the negotiation process is constant application of Active Listening Skills. ALS help you gather info throughout the conversation, and can calm down highly emotional people so you can reason with them. Here are the eight ALS you need to know:

1. Use minimal encouragers – Brief responses like “Really, Yeah, Uh huh, Ok” indicate you’re present and listening. Use these when the person is talking through an extended thought.

hostage22. Ask open-ended questions – Ask questions that require more than a yes or no answer to gather more info. This conveys a sincere interest in gaining understanding and doesn’t make the conversation feel like an interrogation: “What happened today? How would you like this to work out?”

3. Reflect/mirror – By repeating the last few words, this helps the person to continue; you don’t want to stop their thought process. A voice inflection at the end (up or down) can be used to either demonstrate understanding or encourage them to go on (try it – it works!): “She doesn’t pay attention to what I say to her and it makes me angry!” -> “It makes you angry”. Read More

My team: the Hack-e-Sacks!

This past weekend several of Wharton’s tech/design/entrepreneurship clubs organized a day-long design thinking workshop and competitive hackathon, the very first Wharton ProductHack. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a hackathon is not a coordinated group effort to break into banks and foreign government systems – it’s an event where software programmers, product managers, and interface designers collaborate intensively on software products. The first “Hackathon” took place in 1999 when developers were challenged to write new software for the Palm phone (remember those?) in the Java coding language. Hackathons have produced some pretty cool products: the group messaging platform GroupMe was born at the TechCrunch Disrupt 2010 Hackathon, and within one year was purchased by Skype for $85 million.

A dangerous game of Ninja to get us moving

The categories for our ProductHack were revealed two days before, and came with several prompts to get us thinking about how to address pressing needs in these areas:

  • Fintech (Financial Technology) & Payments: How can we help people save more? How can we help companies monetize social media? How can we make wireless payments more accessible?
  • Retail IT & Customer Analytics: Have we peaked at the point of sale? How can we help companies get to know their customers? How do you track and quantify word of mouth marketing?
  • Healthcare IT & Connected Health: How will we manage an aging population? How can we deliver better healthcare at home? How can we better monitor our health?

Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 7.43.29 PMBefore we hit the ground running, we spent the morning discussing the design thinking process. I personally found this extremely helpful, as many people tend to jump to the “ideate” phase, coming up with solutions for problems that may not exist. Sometimes we focus too much on what WE would like as a product or app or business, rather than thinking about whether it solves a demonstrated need with a specific target market. Design thinking, on the other hand, is “a mindset” that Read More