Monday, August 6, 2012

New Korea Blog

Tomorrow I depart for South Korea to begin my post-MBA career at Samsung's Global Strategy Group.  I have created a new Korea blog to chronicle my adventures:

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Sunday May 20th was the final day of Darden for the class of 2012, with warm and sunny weather for our graduation from the University of Virginia.  We listened to television news anchor Katie Couric (UVA '79) speak about "the 3 R's" (risk, rejection, and resilience) in the morning procession on the UVA Lawn and yelled as Dean Bruner presented us as candidates for the MBA degree to the president of the University.  In the afternoon, we moved to Darden and accepted our diplomas in Flagler Court.  Walking across the stage I'm certain felt surreal for all of us, and the ceremony was a wonderful end to our two years at school.

Pictures describe the day better than words can...

In Poe Alley with my roommate, getting ready for the morning ceremony

Proceeding down the Lawn to Old Cabell Hall
Katie Couric addresses the soon-to-be graduates
Walking into the Darden diploma ceremony
Dean Bob Bruner, on stage with the Darden faculty marshals
Patrick Clifton delivers a rousing speech as graduation class speaker
I cross the stage to accept my diploma from Dean Bruner
Faculty Marshall Yiorgos Allayannis reads the second half of the graduates' names
With the family on stage after the diploma ceremony

With that, my Darden blogging career comes to a close. It has been a great two years sharing my journey with you all. I plan to resume with a new blog about my adventures in Korea once I move there in August. Goodbye and good luck!!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Start Living: The End of Darden

My Facebook news feed has been lit up the past week or so with posts from my classmates of images at final parties, posing with namecards, and messages such as these:

"So thankful to have had the privilege of becoming a part of this amazing community and excited for what lies ahead!"
"last class at Darden: done. 2 papers and an exam to go. I am going to miss this place!"
"Rigorous 2-year full time MBA.... was beginning to feel like it shouldn't end, but end it did. I'll sure miss Darden. Goodbye Charlottesville..."
"As my last class comes to an end, I more daily encounters with friends for life...bittersweet, truly bittersweet"

Compulsory photo from the final day of class with my Darden nametag

Admittedly, there has been a lot of anxiety from the class of 2012 about leaving this Camelot we call Darden to thrust ourselves back into the "real world", this time with bigger paychecks and more responsibility than we ever imagined having when we applied.  Business school is designed to prepare leaders to manage in the broader society, and ironically I think most of us at this moment are drawn to the magnetic appeal of living in the safety of a school environment for another year or two.

The clear message from all of my friends online posts, photos, text messages, dinner parties, handshakes, hugs, and occasional tears, is that Darden is a powerful experience.  She grips the hearts of all who walk past her colonnades and sit in her brick buildings.  All feel a comradeship with their classmates and the relentless energy from a group of young, talented students who are eager to make their mark.  Indeed, to anyone here it is obvious why these soon-to-be graduates are so hesitant to test their wings and fly away forever from the bird's nest.

One last dinner with my Learning Team, the "5-Star General Managers"

I'll admit to suffering from this feeling of separation anxiety – hard – after returning from spring break in April.  Suddenly, the obvious reality was striking me all of a sudden.  I was about to be moving 11,000 km (7,000 miles) from here, out of my native country and away from all of the friends that I've made over the past two years, some of the smartest, most fun, and most balanced people that I will ever know.  No longer would I be breathing the air of beautiful Charlottesville.  No longer would I be able to enjoy the steady rhythm of walking to school, dodging cold calls, talking to professors in the hallways, speakers, meetings, case prep, and weekend celebrations.  After 21 months you feel as if you finally have it all figured out, and then you're jarringly pulled away.

For old-times' sake: My FY Marketing Capstone team forms a human pyramid to demonstrate "collaborative leadership"
The days were disorientating.  I felt I was having an out-of-body experience.  I couldn't control the flashbacks or the relentless urge to enjoy old photos and email threads.  I knew the end wasn't supposed to be like this – everyone is supposed to be happy at the end of business school!! – and I was getting anxious from feeling anxious, a vicious second-order effect that reinforced all the bad feelings trapped inside and caused a downward spiral of sleepless nights.  I spoke to several of my friends outside of school about what I was feeling, but these conversations didn't help me overcome what felt like an overwhelmingly irrational emotional response to the situation.

Lighting of the UVA lawn in December 2011

I finally felt a breakthrough from this fog a couple Saturdays ago, out at a classmate's birthday party at Blue Light Grill, one of my favorite spots on the Charlottesville downtown pedestrian mall.  For a moment, I was standing in the bar, not talking to anyone, just looking around and watching groups in conversation around me.  Suddenly, as inexplicably as the feeling of anxiety had gripped me a few weeks earlier, I suddenly saw a different point of view.  I didn't know any of these people two years ago, and though it's great that I know them now, life was pretty good before business school too.  And now that I have all of these people I can call parts of my professional and personal networks, life is even better.  These relationships aren't ending, they are just changing.  And many exciting adventures await!  The longer I stay in school, the longer I postpone experiencing what could be another life-altering experience during my next two years in Korea.

I realize now why I love Darden and why I was so scared to leave: it's the community.  It's a feeling I was burning to find when I applied to MBA programs.  It's a feeling of warmth that was sorely missing from my undergraduate experience at M.I.T., which, bless it, is a wonderfully productive scientific institution, but which too often felt cold and harsh to me as I discovered myself during my college years.  This feeling of community seems so rare now in the modern world, with people moving around everywhere and civic associations crumbling, and I feared that I would never find this feeling again.

Another oldie-but-goodie: Last learning team meeting first year, wearing our orientation "Voyage of Discovery" medals

With this epiphany, I've finally been able to enjoy the end of my time here.  I've been living in the moment again and looking forward to the future, always a better place to be mentally than living in the past.  I've been able to savor the days and nights out with my classmates and cement what I hope will be lifelong friendships with the classmates that I've grown closest too here.

I completed my last ever final exam yesterday afternoon, so all that stands between me and graduation now is walking across a stage on May 20th to pick up a diploma and shake hands with Dean Bruner.  On that day, I'm sure I will feel a mixed bag of emotions, with some nostalgia mixed in, but overall I expect to feel very happy.  Happy that I experienced this wonderful journey with a great cast of characters.  Happy that I got off the sofa three years ago and decided to apply to business school.  Happy that I sent that deposit check into Darden.  Happy that I lived life to the fullest here for two years and gained not only professional skills but also personal awareness.  Happy that I will be forever proud to call myself a Darden alum and Charlottesville a second home.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"Ride the Waves" (and other advice I would give to my 2010 self)

Yesterday I was recorded with a group of my classmates, discussing our opinions on "best practices" for incoming first year students.  It got me thinking, now that I am almost at the end of my Darden experience, "What would I have told myself before starting here?"

Dear 2010 Self,

If you're reading this, congratulations.  You are about to embark on two of the most exciting years of your life.  You also have been a part of the first ever successful time travel experiment, as I am writing this letter to you from just before 2012 graduation, and the time capsule I placed this letter in survived the long journey back to two years prior.  Amazing what technology can do these days.

Since, clearly, I have grown far wiser now than when I was a young pup like yourself, I thought I should take the opportunity to provide you some helpful advice.  No specifics here, because I am afraid of melting away from old photographs like Marty McFly, but some general tips to make your time at Darden as great as it can be:
  • Manage the Process.  You're about to begin orientation, during which you will repeatedly hear the phrase "Trust the Process" beaten into your heads, but I don't think this phrase is quite accurate.  Darden is designed for you to succeed and to grow, but you need to be an active participant in everything that this school throws at you.  Figure out what is most important to you and gun for those top priorities – these could be school, career, or personally-oriented.
  • Beware of judging yourself relative to others.  You're a special snowflake, you're unique but just like everyone else at this school.  So be humble.  Allow yourself to learn from your peers.  But also have a confidence in the classroom that you can teach others too.  Don't let awards, job offers, or other competitions get in the way of your feeling of self-worth.  You're now a big fish in a pond of trophy bass.  If your classmates win something you were striving for, congratulate them.  They earned it.  And what goes around, comes around.

  • Make some time to go hiking in the mountains

  • Take a chance.  Step out of your comfort zone.  Maybe you want to try a new activity.  Maybe you want to get to know a classmate on a more personal level.  Go for it.  Fight any constraints holding you back.  They are all mental.
  • Business school can be transformative.  I know you're a cynic, and you don't believe this right now, but it's true.  If you allow it, you can experience far more personal growth in two short years than you can possibly imagine.  So tackle all opportunities to grow.
  • Bias yourself towards saying "yes".  You will eventually see Dean Bruner write a blog post about this, but I wanted you to be a step ahead of the game.  The art of saying "no" is quite valuable in business school and you will need to learn that too, but if you're on the fence about whether to commit to something, lean towards saying "yes".  This can open the door to many special experiences.

  • Good friends can be made while eating crepes

  • It's not the breadth of connections that you develop at business school which is most important.  It's the depth.  Remember the rule of 150, the number of stable social relationships that you can maintain at any one time.  Your entering Darden class will have 339 students.  And you will need to reserve space for family and old friends that you plan to keep close contact with while you are in school.  In other words, you can't truly get to know everyone here.  So figure out who your special friends are at Darden and make a conscious effort to cultivate those relationships.  You will miss people if you don't, the time flies by too quickly.
  • But take the opportunities to broaden your horizons.  Travel.  Get to know your international classmates.  You may never again have the opportunities to immerse yourself in so many different cultures than when you are here.

  • Darden soccer is fun!

  • Find a regular way to preserve your sanity.  Darden can be highly stressful, especially when you're recruiting.  Don't forget to leave some time for yourself.  Maybe you need to jog.  Maybe you play soccer on weekends.  Maybe you grab lunch with your classmates.  Maybe you escape to DC.  Whatever works for you, find a way to unwind every day.
  • You might not find yourself where you expect to be in two years.  You might find yourself somewhere very different.  Be prepared and open to the unexpected.
  • Real-life companies don't always know what they are doing, either.  Be confident in your viewpoints.  Voice your opinions.  Don't be afraid of "failure" – this is a learning opportunity in disguise.
  • Ride the Waves.  The downs will mean as much to you as the ups when you're looking back on these two years.  You will get through the downs and come through stronger.  There is something to be said for the phrase "Trust the Process".  Cherish every experience.
  • Finally, take some time to prepare a good 80's costume for the 100 Case Party.  Trust me.  You don't want to miss out on this...

Enjoy the journey,

Jonathan Harris
April 2012

Saturday, April 7, 2012

"Unclear": Darden GBE India 2012

Having finally recovered from a fierce jet lag hangover upon my return to Charlottesville, I think I can now properly put my thoughts and feelings on paper to summarize my spring break Darden Global Business Experience (GBE) in India. Before leaving, one of my South Asian classmates told me about India, "You will either love it or hate it." I found myself oscillating between the two on this trip.

Darden at the Taj Mahal

Either way, one could not describe India as "dull" – it is a place that brings out the strongest of emotions. My Lonely Planet India travel guide uses the word "bamboozling" to describe India. That is about as good of a word as I could think of to describe it. For an outsider, India is an enigma. It is incredibly diverse, but also an extremely frustrating and difficult place to visit. Challenges were everywhere. Poverty was thrust in our faces like nowhere I've seen on Earth. The crush of humanity turned even simple trips into energy-zapping battles. We were exasperated by Indian customer service and had our nerves frayed by risk-seeking Indian rickshaw drivers. I faced water-borne illness, suffocating air pollution, and the incessant March heat. We all felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: "I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."

Though challenging, India is a country with fascinating cultural and geographic diversity. It may have more languages, styles of dress, and types of food packed into one place than any other country. The perception of a monolithic India in the American media could not be more false. In fact, I'm surprised that a democratic country like it can function at all. Getting so many different types of people to agree on policy must be a huge challenge. From the three places I visited in India (Kerala, Delhi, and Mumbai) I am convinced that the importance of "think global, act local" cannot be understated in Indian business.

My trip started on the evening of Saturday, March 10 from tiny Charlottesville airport, the beginning of a 30-hour journey to Washington-Dulles, Frankfurt, Mumbai, and finally landing in Trivandrum at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent in the seaside province of Kerala. The Darden-run part of our trip wouldn't begin until Saturday morning in Delhi, so a few of my classmates and I decided to explore Kerala (and catch up on sleep) for the five days before. This was a great decision. Kerala is a bit like Florida – steamy with beaches and backwaters. As one of my Indian classmates put it, "It's like Puerto Rico without the hot chicks."

Keralan fishing village
Kerala runs at a slower pace than the big cities in India which we were to visit later. Kerala, known as "God's Own Country", isn't wealthy but has the highest literacy rate of any province in India. We started in Varkala, a mix of "real" India and "tourist" India with a hippie beach town along the Arabian Sea. Our luggage got stuck in Germany and we spent 4 days without our clothes, or bug spray – my legs were ravaged by the mosquitoes! Thankfully, we were fine walking around in t-shirts and flip flops (which we were to purchase in beach-side shacks), and we had a great American host in the house we were staying in to help us get acclimated. In Varkala we visited fishing villages, took a tour of the relaxing Keralan backwaters, and rode around in rickshaws everywhere. From there, we took a long hot train ride to Kochi, an old European fort town, finally reuniting with our luggage and seeing the historical parts of the city.

My flight to Delhi, to reunite with the rest of my Darden classmates, landed late on Friday evening and I only had time for a 3-hour nap before a 4AM wakeup call to head to Agra for my date with the Taj Mahal! This wonder is every bit as good as advertised – magnificent on the outside with its bright white marble exterior, and tremendous surrounding gardens. We followed with a sightseeing tour of Agra Fort, as much a palace as a defensive structure. A coach bus returned us to Delhi, only a 130 mile journey but which took us 5 hours to complete!  Indian highways are congested and entirely inadequate for the trucks, automobiles, rickshaws, pedestrians, and livestock which try to use them.

Typical Delhi traffic
On this bus journey, we also christened "unclear" as the word of our trip. Given the level of confusion we all felt about India, this seemed like the perfect word to describe almost any situation. When will we be getting off the bus? Unclear. Where is our lost luggage? Unclear. Why is there so much litter on the sides of the roads? Unclear. What do the cows and goats eat in the city? Unclear.

Also, on the bus ride back to Delhi I became ill. What ailment did I have? Unclear. I was feverish, very tired, and reaching for Immodium regularly. I suspect it was something related to the non-potable water – maybe the peeled fresh vegetable salad I ate in Varkala, or maybe the night I ran out of bottled water in Kochi and used the sink to rinse my toothbrush. I was a bit careless, and my body paid the price for the next few days. Taking clean tap water for granted in the US is a great luxury that is very frustrating to live without abroad.

Getting sick took the life out of me and made Delhi feel even more overwhelming. The embassy and government areas (where our hotel was situated) were nice, but once we left the safety of this area the traffic and pollution (smog and litter) really wore on me. I understand that smog generally accompanies breakneck industrial development, but the litter was really frustrating. I couldn't believe how much tolerance the Indian culture has for throwing trash on the ground and for burning trash on the sides of roads. The country is an ecological disaster.

Gokul and Akshay, awesome Darden burrito entrepreneurs!
We had a couple good business visits lined up in Delhi, and despite my illness I was functional. We met a two Darden alums who are starting a Chipotle-like Mexican restaurant on the outskirts of Delhi, and the burritos were tasty! We attended a reception with a group of Darden alums and discussed doing business in India over cocktails. With the alums I learned about topics like corruption (rampant but you deal with it), the schizophrenic relationship between India and foreign businesses (sometimes embracing but sometimes protectionist), the quality of Indian managers (they typically are very harsh to employees), and how to get a straight answer in a country where people don't answer you directly (establish strong personal connections with business associates). We visited a large power producer, Jindal Power, and learned about the state of the electricity infrastructure in India (chronic power shortages, new power plants being fueled by coal – which will only make the pollution worse). I liked that I was learning about doing business in India, but by the time we flew out on Tuesday evening I was ready to get out of Delhi. The city is far too sprawling and busy for my liking.

Gandhi museum in Mumbai, the Mani Bhavan
Our final stop was Mumbai, a far different place than the others. Along the sea and much denser than Delhi, I think most of the group (myself included) liked Mumbai better. Mumbai is the banking and Bollywood center of India, sort of like New York with a little L.A. mixed in. Delhi, the governmental colossus, is much more like D.C. (with even worse traffic!).

In Mumbai, we had business visits with a private equity fund, Johnson & Johnson, the U.S. consulate general, and a real estate company. We also met with Teach for India, modeled off the American version. We visited one of the schools they were working at in a Mumbai slum (the slums are packed in with the better neighborhoods on the crowded Mumbai peninsula) and the kids were great. They were practicing Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" and were talented actors! I came away from the visit thinking that the problems in Mumbai's impoverished schools are similar to those in America's, but simply on a much larger scale.

After two weeks in India, I was yearning for the simple delights of life back home in beautiful Charlottesville. Breathing clean air, driving around without incessant horn honking, eating raw fruit and brushing my teeth with tap water felt wonderful! That said, I have absolutely no regrets about visiting. I learned an immense amount about the Indian culture and business climate in a short time, things I never would have fully internalized from the comfort of a classroom. A global business person cannot ignore a country with 1/6 of the world's population, and I value the insights of India that I gained. Though I'm not eager to travel back to India in the near future, if I receive a business assignment there post-MBA the country will now be a little less "unclear".

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Guest Post: Entrepreneur as Change Agent, New Orleans

I'm still recovering from jet lag after returning from India on Sunday evening.  Will be back with a post on my trip once I recover my full mental capabilities next week.  In the meantime, my classmate Casey Bi has provided a guest post.  Casey traveled to New Orleans over spring break and observed first-hand how entrepreneurship is working to rebuild the city.  A reflective essay showcasing how the Darden experience, in following with the school's mission, works to develop principled leaders that will improve society.

Casey Bi
My first visit to New Orleans was this past week for the Entrepreneurs as a Change Agent course at Darden, and I came away with a sense that New Orleans is a city of juxtapositions. Side by side are rich and poor, white and black, luxury and poverty, hope and despondence, filth and sparkle. I’ve found conversations with cab drivers to be just as illuminating as the presentations from the notable education innovators that we met. The people of New Orleans are a special breed: resilient, proud, determined, and independent. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina has left much more on the city than water marks on the levees and houses with graffiti markings from the rescue effort. It has tapped into the fierce spirits of the residents of a city that refuses to be torn down and trampled on, and instead, among the darkness and poverty and despondency, a phoenix is rising from the ashes. There is something happening in New Orleans.

A new mixed housing development in NOLA
New Orleanians are working side by side with the outside aide workers and non-profits and entrepreneurs that have come to the city post-Katrina to help with the rebuilding effort, and the next generation of the city will remain 100% true to the ethos of the city that existed before the flood, reflecting the independence and spirit of the residents that live in it. The differences will embody positive change: viable mixed income housing developments, ready capital access and financial literacy for all residents – not just the middle and upper income – and improved student test scores from the work of the master teachers who continue to push the standards of education up.

For me, the imperative is to start with the youth. This movement is the most compelling out of all the social programs we’ve learned about this past week and I believe is the most effective in combating the apathy that yes, does exist, in some pockets of the city’s poor. However, the youth of New Orleans represents the most promise for positive change. New Orleans is committing to the children of the city in a big way – with the overhaul of the OPSB and the institution of the Recovery School District to run the networks of charter schools that are reinventing education in a state that is 49th out of 50 in terms of education standards, there is a relentless focus on improvement. Everyone knows that the student performance in New Orleans is abysmal – but the failures of these students have stemmed from the failures of the infrastructure around them, the corruption of school administrators and the school board, and more broadly, the society in which they were born into that refused to give them something so basic - a fair chance at life.

The stories I heard and witnessed about the youth are heartbreaking. Youth who come to school the day after the death of a parent so as not to get behind, youth who cannot graduate despite being a valedictorian because of their inability to pass the state-wide academic standards test five times, youth who get on a bus at 5am to travel to a cafĂ© that teaches them basic communication and social skills with the hope that one day they may be qualified enough to work as a restaurant server. Society has clearly failed New Orleans and its youth in a big way, and this is why the city must rebuild. Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan faced widespread criticism for saying that “Katrina was the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans” but he was 100% right. A corrupt, ineffective, widespread system is difficult to overhaul, but now, here is the chance to start from scratch.

Darden students enjoying a free moment
The reinvention of education in New Orleans will serve as a national purpose as well, and for this I am grateful. With the successful rebuilding of the city’s failing schools, and with the continual rises in student test scores as a result of the charter school system that has taken over the city, the rest of the nation will see and learn. New Orleans can serve as a test case to prove that low-income failing students can actually learn, education in American can be improved with decentralization and structural changes to scheduling and curriculum, and attracting and investing in high-quality teachers who come from the upper echelons of prestigious universities will pay off for the schoolchildren. The students in New Orleans can be empowered to learn, to go to college and vocational school, to come back to their city and invest in the local economy, and continue to build on the work that social workers and educators and entrepreneurs are doing right now in reestablishing New Orleans. This is a city of proud heritage, of culture and history, and ultimately, of opportunity.

The KIPP school that we visited this past week has the word “Courage” painted on top of the doorways. The children who walk under these doorways every day carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, but they also carry this courage. I think we can learn from these children and also have courage – the courage to question and disrupt a failing status quo, the courage to look ahead to the future with vision and hope, and the courage to remember that a phoenix will rise out of the ashes.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Darden Wanderlust

We're on spring break now at Darden, so of course the only way to keep in touch with what my classmates are up to is via the Facebook news feed.  Every day, pictures pour in from all corners of the globe.  From Mexico.  Peru.  Brazil.  London.  Amsterdam.  Turkey.  Dubai.  Israel.  China.  Japan.  Thailand.  Vietnam.  South Africa.  As one of my classmates described this, it's "Asians in Latin America, Latinos in Asia, Americans in India, Indians in Middle East and Europeans in America."

The fact that all these students are spending money they don't have to throw themselves out into the world says something interesting about our collective priorities.  It demonstrates a refreshing curiosity about the world, which can only serve my classmates well as we soon take our diplomas and depart into the world to (hopefully) become global managers.

As someone who traveled abroad for two months before business school and keeps a list of "travel destinations to visit" handy on his iPod, I am not immune to this wanderlust feeling.  In fact, I am one of the aforementioned Americans in India right now and have already become ill while here, so will have plenty more to blog about when I return to Charlottesville!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

What is a case competition?

It's the end of Quarter 3 for second-years here at Darden, and hard to believe that we only have 6 weeks left of class in our business school lives.  We are in the exam period now and I am taking a few minutes to write before heading out of Charlottesville for my last Spring Break!

I wanted to write about a case competition I was in with a group of second-years at the University of Colorado a couple weeks ago.  However, when I tell my non-business school friends that I'm in a case competition, the usual response is "Huh?" or "What is that?"  So I think I actually need to define what one is before I go on.

A case competition starts with the presentation of a business "problem", usually presented as a short story (or "case") with accompanying data and exhibits to illustrate key aspects of the situation.  Teams of students are then asked to identify how they would solve the problem and present their solution to a panel of judges, who evaluate the analysis and the effectiveness of presentation.  Basically, it's designed as a simulation of a real-world business issue that one might face as an MBA, with an overload of data, ambiguous facts, and no clear solution.  As Darden is a case-method school, we're quite familiar with this approach, but someone who has never read a business case study may find this to be a foreign concept (perhaps I should write another blog post about the case method).

Some examples of case competitions will make this a lot clearer:

1. Deloitte Case Challenge, November 2010
I entered the Deloitte competition with a group of classmates hoping to learn what this case competition experience was like.  This was a preliminary round with 20 Darden teams competing for a chance to participate in the national Deloitte case challenge finals in Miami, and a chance to snag an internship offer from Deloitte.  I wasn't looking to work at Deloitte but I wanted to build my case competition muscles.

Team "Bottleneck Elevators". Time of photo = 3:36 AM
Without a doubt, this competition was the most grueling 24-hour period I have experienced at Darden.  The format could only delight a masochist.  We kicked off at a Thursday lunch hour with the presentation of the problem: evaluate the E-reader market and decide which segment (devices, intermediaries, or content providers) would make the best investment.  In other words, would you invest to build a product competing with the Amazon Kindle (device), would you develop an online store to compete with Barnes & Noble (intermediary), or would you invest in the publishers developing the content?

Our intimidating storyboard
Overwhelmed with data and with a 20-minute presentation due the following morning, my team staked out a learning team room and got to work.  We decided to pitch an investment in content providers and raced to research this market.  The time allotted was far too short, and at midnight every team was still at Darden!  It was as close to an all-nighter as I've come at this school, by far.  At 5:30 AM, strung out on 5-Hour Energy and trail mix, my team finally wrapped up our slide deck.  We each took a two-hour nap, reawakened, put on our suits, practiced our delivery a couple times, and somehow rocked it with the judges, taking 2nd place overall.  I definitely didn't want to work for Deloitte after that, and swore I would not try another case competition again...until...

2. Michigan Renewable Energy Case Competition, January 2011
I blogged about this last winter so no need to repeat everything here. The title sponsor was Duke Energy and the problem this time was: How should the company respond to potential emissions regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which could shut down several coal power plants over the next five years?  This time we were given a week to prepare, which I discovered doesn't necessarily make things easier.

Darden gets to know UCLA Anderson and HEC Montreal
The organizers sent us a bunch of data and expected us to develop a detailed financial model of the situation.  Unfortunately our model kept crashing in Excel and we spent countless hours debugging.  Furthermore, the timing of this competition couldn't have been worse for a first-year student: right in that nexus between on-Grounds internship interviews and first-year classes.  By the time we arrived at the University of Michigan, after a week of 4-5 hours of sleep per night, we were exhausted and our presentation wasn't our best.  But it was a great learning experience, a chance to network with the folks at Duke Energy, and Ann Arbor is always a fun (albeit cold) place to visit.

3. Sustainable Venture Capital Investment Competition, March 2011
Another case competition that I have posted on already, so quick summary here.  For this, we traveled to the University of North Carolina and were placed in the shoes of a venture capitalist evaluating three potential startup investments.  We were to decide which company to invest in and draw up a "term sheet" that dictates the parameters of the investment (company valuation, how much money to place in the company, investor protections, etc.).  We also needed to evaluate the degree to which each investment provided the best bang for the buck in providing social and environmental impact.

In hindsight my team, with a total lack of VC experience and competing against teams which did, never had much of a chance at this event, but we all took away valuable lessons about the world of entrepreneurs and how they start their companies.

4. Net Impact Case Competition, February 2012
I was pretty certain that I had hung up my case competition shoes in first year.  As a second-year MBA student now on cruise control, the desire to work my butt off for a week in a case competition had waned considerably.  But with the chance to reunite with two of my three teammates from the Deloitte case challenge, I couldn't turn down the chance to compete at this year's Net Impact Case Competition.

Darden's "Team Cavalier"
This national event started in November with a two-week "virtual round".  Roughly 50 teams were competing for 20 spots in the finals at the University of Colorado.  The sponsor was Encana Oil & Gas, the second largest natural gas producer in North America, and the subject was a hot topic ‒ hydraulic fracturing for shale gas. For the virtual round, we were presented with a potential opportunity to drill for gas in the Eastern U.S. and asked to focus on Encana's role in engaging the local community.  How should Encana bridge external stakeholders' sustainability expectations with the company's future financial growth estimates?  How should Encana communicate its sustainability policy to the local community and how will we know if this communication is working?  My team whipped together a PowerPoint presentation in the week after Thanksgiving, shipped the presentation to the judges, and waited.  A couple days later we discovered we had been selected as finalists for the February main event, along with a second Darden team.

The final round case had a different focus.  How does Encana gain public acceptance of the natural gas industry?  While the company is focused on convincing the public that hydraulic fracturing is a safe process for the environment (which, for me, the scientific jury is still out), it also needs to build demand for its product ‒ natural gas prices are at historic lows currently in the U.S.  We were to be evaluated on recommendation quality, presentation delivery, and understanding of the merger between business acumen and sustainability.

You might think that as wise Second Years we might have learned our lessons from case competitions past.  But no.  We procrastinated on getting all the work done, and even with two weeks to research the natural gas industry from home we still traveled to Colorado with a presentation to build.  This wasn't going to be another all-nighter, though; the hours of travel from Charlottesville to Boulder had exhausted us.  The organizers also played a cruel trick on us by throwing in a last-minute "twist" ‒ how does the company deal with the recent spill of hydraulic fracturing fluids by a competitor?  We put together a decent presentation of recommendations for the company I thought, but in the end were not victorious.  Despite this, we had fun as a team and learned a ton about the challenges of the natural gas industry.

For me, case competitions have provided a valuable supplement to the MBA curriculum, giving me a chance to apply the lessons from Darden into real-world contexts.  The competitions have also extended my understanding of the challenges and opportunities for applying sustainable business practices in the world of business.  By breaking away from the ivory tower of the classroom, these competitions have tested my new knowledge and have prepared me to be a more complete business leader when I graduate from Darden.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Darden Pranks: Section E Mischief Team

Somehow this prank from first-year came up in a lunch conversation I had with some prospective students today...

I know I've posted about Section E pride before, and watching this still makes me laugh.  Per long-standing tradition, our neighbors in Section D made this really loud banging noise that repeatedly disrupted our relatively peaceful Section E case discussions.  It got so bad, at one point, that our Operations professor Raul Chao went to go yell at them on our behalf!

We decided we needed to intervene a little further, so we started by installing a doorbell in the ceiling speaker of classroom 180, and assigned a student with a hidden button in our classroom to ring the chime whenever Section D did their banging thing.  This didn't work very well at deterring them, as you can tell from the video, probably because we set the chime to play soothing saxophone music.  Section D rather liked the chime, actually.

We then decided that we needed to fight with more "explosive" weapons.  We therefore installed a less pleasant sound device under the unlucky chair of one of the unsuspecting students, and I was assigned to pull the trigger.  Not only did we get Section D's attention, but we caught the whole shenanigans on tape!

In short, this video highlights the great sense of community that Darden students find when they enter Mr. Jefferson's university, which for me has been the greatest feature of spending two years studying here.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Darden Business in Society Conference

I'm happy to report that Darden's annual Business in Society Conference was a great success this year!  The purpose of the conference is to establish a dialogue about how business can be used to tackle social and environmental issues.  The conference consisted of panel discussions with business leaders focused on energy, social entrepreneurship, education reform, corporate sustainability, and governmental challenges.

The conference kicked off on Thursday afternoon with a keynote address by Martha Johnson, head of the U.S. General Services Administration and a member of President Obama's cabinet.  Her organization is responsible for guiding $95 billion in annual purchases for the government.  (just to put that in perspective, this is twice the $48 billion of sales that Amazon had last year)

I admire the energy that Ms. Johnson brought to her speech (which you can watch below) and her commitment to guiding the government on a sustainable path.  She also shared her advice for students in finding mentors: find people who will challenge, clarify, comfort, and celebrate.  Each mentor won't provide all of these needs, but assemble a portfolio of mentors that will.

My Friday morning was busy as I was organizing three separate energy panel discussions on energy efficiency, energy policy, and renewable energy financing.  Each panel had a group of strong speakers who shared their experiences.

Energy Efficiency
We brought this panel together because energy efficiency measures are the cheapest way to lower the consumption of fossil fuels.  It's easier to save a megawatt than it is to put up an array of solar modules.

Several insights came from this panel.  First, the importance of data and using automation to help consumers save money.  Adams stated, "there are not enough energy nerds in the world" that will optimize their energy needs to make a noticeable dent in consumer energy usage patterns.  This creates an opportunity for energy management companies to make their products "ubiquitous, like breathing."

Stanton-Hoyle said that the focus needs to be on "efficiency rather than sacrifice."  The "manifest destiny" philosophy in the US towards consumption is a hurdle that needs to be acknowledged in promoting lower energy usage.  Also, the small fraction of a US household's budget devoted to energy impedes behavior change.

All the panelists talked about the importance of eliminating arcane and byzantine regulations that can block energy efficiency programs.  "All regulations are local," said Bixby, and this greatly complicates starting a business in this area.

Energy Policy
The lack of a nationally consistent energy policy in the US frustrates everyone on all sides of the political spectrum.  Policy can give incentives for developing more sustainable energy alternatives to burning fossil fuels with one hand while taking away with the other.

Williams talked about how inconsistent subsidies lead to boom/bust cycles in the wind energy industry.  For instance, the expiration of a production tax credit at the end of 2012 could lead to the loss of over 70% of the current activity (read: jobs) in wind energy.  Blaney spoke about how politicians have undermined the faith and trust in markets to identify the lowest cost clean energy alternatives.  The risk of climate change legislation is already being charged in pro-forma financials for carbon-heavy industries, he said.  "We are already paying for this legislation," Blaney asserted, without getting any of the technological benefits for actually placing a price on carbon.

Faulconer and Mignone talked about the policy-making process.  Industry associations such as the Edison Electric Institute have become the powerful and preferred voice of companies.  "The people with the most to lose are the first ones at the door," said Faulconer, who expressed his frustration with the American Chemistry Council in preventing the transparent labeling of building materials.

The Corporate Sustainability Panel: Kathryn Wilson (Microsoft), Coleman Bigelow (Johnson & Johnson) and Stephen Evanko (Capital One)

Renewable Energy Financing
Seems like all the Darden alums want to be involved in finance!  These panelists talked about the hurdles they have encountered in getting funding for renewable energy projects.  Clifford talked about tax equity and the difficulty with acquiring this in the current economic environment.  He believes that a distributed model of renewable energy generation (think: rooftop solar) is more feasible given the transmission upgrades that would need to be completed to support larger-scale projects.  He described the dramatic cost reductions in solar projects in recent years and predicts that 1/3 of the US will be cost competitive for solar in 2016.

Fedors described his joy in funding a hydroelectric project in Mexico, with its limited red tape and transmission costs.  Regulatory delays and "soft costs" such as interconnection to the electric grid are a big problem for other renewable projects, he said.  Similarly, Mackey described his frustration with siting delays for wind projects.  "It is probably just as hard to site a wind farm as a coal power plant right now," he said.  Clifford closed with a call to action for those in the room interested in the energy industry: "1% of the electrical power industry is a multi-billion dollar business.  You can make an impact."

Drummond Lawson (Method Products) hovers over the "Green Supply Chain" panel, speaking with Jacob Madsen (Deloitte) and Minal Mistry (GreenBlue)

The afternoon panels I attended were insightful as well.  The Corporate Sustainability panel talked about sustainability as a journey and the importance of holding up small wins as beacons for the possibilities in sustainability.  Panelists talked about the importance of joining a company whose value system aligns with your own.  Drill deep to understand how a company defines "sustainability" – it's a vague term defined differently everywhere.  Most corporate jobs that influence sustainability initiatives don't align with a formal sustainability-related position, so you need to find a company that will support your push for more sustainable business practices.  Pick a sustainability initiative that you will be passionate about "so you can get past the 'NO'," said one panelist.

My last panel is a long day focused on the Green Supply Chain.  The panelists spoke about the struggle in getting good data to determine the carbon footprint, energy usage, water consumption, raw materials used, and waste output needed to create a particular product.  "How do we get this 'radical' level of transparency?" asked one of the panelists.  Though seemingly a "boring, tenuous" problem, it actually looks to become much more relevant as consumer demand for goods that cause less environmental harm increases.  Companies will need to take a greater look at the ecology of their products as Extended Producer Responsibility takes hold in Europe, which may integrate environmental costs into product prices.

It was great to finally see the fruit of months of effort in putting together this conference.  As sustainability expands into a business mega-trend in the 21st century, I'm glad that we were able to showcase at Darden some of the work of professionals focused on better business practices.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

MBA Careers for Change

For those interested in what Darden is up to in the sustainability world, here's a newly published video from Darden Media showing some of those who interned at companies promoting social and environmental change (little shout-out to my summer employer at the 2:00 mark).  Also shows some of the thought leaders on the Darden faculty in the business sustainability realm (Michael Lenox, Andrea Larson, Richard Brownlee, and Ed Freeman):

In addition, the annual Darden Business in Society Conference is this Friday, with an all-star group of panelists in Charlottesville to talk about the latest issues in social entrepreneurship, international development, corporate sustainability, renewable energy, and education innovation.  More to come in my next post!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Launching Anew at Samsung...and I'm moving to South Korea!!

All the way back at the beginning of my time at Darden, on our third day of orientation, we discussed a case with a special guest speaker: Dr. David Steel, Executive Vice President for Strategic Marketing at Samsung Electronics America.  Before returning to the US, Steel had spent ten years working for Samsung in Korea.  Steel began with two years in the Global Strategy Group, an incubator with a goal of producing international managers in Samsung with industry expertise, a strong appreciation for working across cultures, and a global business perspective.  Little did I know back then that I would be walking in his footsteps!

In my very first blog posting at Darden, I wrote about the travels I did between leaving my last job and matriculating at business school.  My trip was truly an eye-opening experience.  I wrote:
Between my job and Darden, I took a few months off to reset by travelling around-the-world. Literally. Over 63 days I visited 11 countries. I loved the cultural exposure one receives from seeing so many different places, and I now have a much greater appreciation for how big and diverse our world actually is.
The next step to becoming a global business citizen, naturally, would be to live and work abroad.  When I started at Darden, I wasn't even considering this possibility.  By living and working in the US my entire life, my mind was honed in on the straight-and-narrow path of staying domestically after my two years in school.  When at home on a break during first year, my father suggested the possibility of going abroad, maybe to Europe.  I told him this sounded interesting...then submerged the thought deep in the back of my mind.  I didn't have any idea how to enable an international career or what this might provide me.

A way to enable this rapidly became clear during fall recruiting: the Samsung Global Strategy Group was recruiting full-time employees at Darden.  I attended the company briefing and rapidly became fascinated with some of the company's new cleantech business ventures: $21 billion into rechargable batteries, solar cells, and new LED technologies, $5 billion into reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% and producing more environmentally friendly products, and $6 billion into solar and wind energy projects in Ontario, Canada and California.  I learned that the Samsung conglomerate does far more than produce cell phones, TVs, and PCs; it also constructs skyscrapers, builds ships, and writes insurance.  I saw a company with a vast global footprint and the courage to commit to huge initiatives.

My winter holiday travels included a visit to the Samsung Experience store along New York's Columbus Circle

I talked with a couple Darden alums in the program and decided to take a flyer by dropping a resume.  The objectives of the interview process were clear: demonstrate problem solving skills, a clear communication style, and the ability to acclimate into the Korean culture.  The interviews were tough and I was shocked to receive the offer!

At that point, a really tough decision needed to be made.  Would I be willing to put aside everything from my life in America — my family, friends, and memories — and start anew in a foreign land?  The reality is though I've been to many places around the world, I've never visited Korea.  I once enjoyed the Korean BBQ restaurants along the DC Beltway, had a night of karaoke with a group of Korean students in Hawaii, and worked with a Korean guy at my old company, but clearly my life's experiences fall far short of giving me an idea for whether I can hack it as a foreigner in Seoul.

I did everything I could to try to wrap my head around this decision.  I interrogated the Darden alums at length about what makes someone happy to work at Samsung.  I talked to everyone that I knew who had visited Korea.  I consulted my family, my friends, and my close advisers in my network.

I also watched Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford commencement speech several times.  A few passages stood out for me:
You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life...
...You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle...
...Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

From this speech, I saw a few key lessons.  First, I saw in Jobs' speech the importance of passion to doing great work and how this must be motivated from within.  In addition, I saw that although I might not know exactly where this adventure called "life" might be taking me, if my direction feels right then I'm probably doing well.  After all, you can't plan your life like a chess game and know every possible future outcome.  Had I not chosen to apply to business school, I would have never received an interview to work for Samsung.  Had I not traveled around the world prior to my MBA, I probably would not have been considered seriously for the position. 

Desiring to be thorough in developing a framework for evaluating my choices, I wrote out a long list of pros and cons for taking the offer.  Reasons to consider other opportunities included: "far away from home / potential for extreme loneliness"; "potential misalignment with culture of a big company"; "cultural/language barriers"; and "potential delay in starting a family" (I'm currently 29 years old).  All valid concerns.  Basically, this might not work, and I would be a long way from reentering my comfort zone if it did not.

However, the reasons to accept seemed stronger: "global experience"; "large investments in green energy"; "the opportunity excites me"; "like a 3rd year of an MBA program"; and "I don't feel that I'm settling".

But the biggest reason to accept, by far, was the potential regret factor.  Would I be second-guessing myself in the future if I didn't accept?  Certainly such an opportunity would never come again.  I was excited about moving abroad, and the inner voice inside me woke up for several weeks telling me that moving to Korea was the right thing to do.  I wouldn't be able to fully connect the dots forward to figure out where I would end up after joining Samsung, but I knew that looking back I might be wondering why on earth I didn't stick my neck out and take a chance when I was 30.

Author Mark Twain once said:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

And the decision to accept the offer was, all of a sudden, simple.

I have felt an incredible rush since accepting the Samsung offer.  I'm pinching myself as I can't fully believe that this is true.  Have you ever had that funny feeling after you make a big decision that everything you read confirms your decision to be the correct one?  For instance, I read a Poets & Quants article profiling Darden's Bob Bruner (congrats on Dean of the Year!!).  The article states that Bruner "sees globalization as the new inflection point for management education."  It then goes on to talk about Darden's strategy shift from making students "globally aware" to being "globally ready."  The topic of globalization featured prominently in Darden's application essay this year.  I'm also reading a book right now titled "Passion & Purpose", written by a group of recent Harvard MBAs to talk about the shifts in how new business leaders view the world.  Globalization is one of the key themes shaping emerging leaders in the book.  In a survey of 510 MBA students from top schools, the authors find that the average student has worked in 3.8 countries prior to business school.  I have worked in only one — so I am behind!

I have a great appreciation for the international students at Darden who were willing to take two years away from their homelands to receive a top business education in the US.  I now plan to mirror their experience abroad.  A classmate of mine, an American that worked in China prior to Darden, tells me that I will need six months abroad before I can tell whether I am able to hack it overseas.  In August 2012, I start this voyage of self-discovery when I move to Seoul, South Korea.

When applying to business schools, I cast a cynical eye towards claims that the MBA could truly be "transformational."  I believe this now.  Without a Darden MBA, the upcoming chapter of my life simply wouldn't be possible.