Wharton Stories

Udai Bhardwaj Decriminalized Homosexuality In India. Now, He’s Coming To Wharton.

He and his team of lawyers, all of whom identify as LGBTQIA+, argued successfully to decriminalize homosexuality in the Indian Supreme Court.

I spoke with Udai Bhardwaj, Wharton’s 2022 PRISM Fellowship recipient and incoming WG’24 student, who galvanized a movement in India to decriminalize homosexuality. He and his friends took their fight to the Indian Supreme Court in 2018, and found victory on September 6 of that year. Udai told me what it took to beat bigotry on a federal level from his pre-term vacation in a seaside town in Goa, India. He traveled there with friends who are also incoming Wharton MBA students.

He joined me via Zoom, wearing a colorful button-up and his trademark smile. His jet-black hair had streaks of color: threaded braids, which his friends convinced him to have done by the local women who braid hair on the beach.

Hello, Udai! Please tell me a little bit about yourself – where you grew up and a bit about your childhood. 

I am twenty-seven-years-old and grew up in Delhi. I have a twin sister and older sister who I love very much. I had a very happy childhood until my parents divorced when I was twelve, which was really hard on me and my family. My mother juggled us kids and her work as a public school teacher. She is a hurricane of a person. I am estranged from my father; he will probably only find out I am going to Wharton when this article comes out. 

Please tell me about your experience with LGBTQIA+ activism in India. 

There wasn’t really a pure inflection point for me, but my activism was more of a natural evolution of my work. When I got to college, I headed our LGBTQIA+ Resource and Support Group. My alma mater, which is a chapter of the prestigious India Institute of Technology schools, is located in a remote part of India which is not a liberal place. It was a small school, which was challenging, because when we started there were not many members – but we still established ourselves and managed to create a safe space. By the time I graduated college, I came out as a gay man to my close friends and family. 

I felt comfortable with myself and confident in who I am as a person. But the law fell behind the times. It was a colonial-era law called Section 377 that always hung over our heads, a looming threat that reminded us that we were second-class citizens. We were always at risk: I constantly heard stories of extortion, like criminals on dating apps who lured young gay men to meetups, then blackmailed them with threats to either expose them publicly or hand them over to the police. And the police were no different. They targeted gay cruising spots, would approach people and say: ‘homosexuality is illegal and can get you thrown in jail for ten years; therefore, empty your bank account and give us your money. Only then can you go on your way.’  

Because homosexuality was criminalized, there could be no talk of anything further. Forget gay marriage or adoption. At that time, we couldn’t have any protection from discrimination because our identity itself was illegal. We needed to decriminalize gayness before we could do anything else. 

The decriminalization of homosexuality in India is a huge deal. How did you accomplish this historic feat? 

One of the toughest things was that homosexuality was actually decriminalized first in 2009 by the Delhi High Court, but then was criminalized again in 2013 – re-criminalized, essentially. For a lot of LGBTQIA+ Indian activists, this seemed like the end of the road. I began my adulthood as a criminal in India, because when I turned eighteen homosexuality was illegal yet again. 

In 2017, however, the right to privacy was declared as a fundamental right to all Indian citizens. For us gay activists, we realized we could argue that private sexual acts between consenting adults is protected under that same right to privacy. At that moment, my friends and I realized that it was really important for actual LGBTQIA+ individuals to step forward and go to court and say “we are here, we are real.”

And because of my privilege of being out and having support, I felt it was my responsibility to be an activist. I also work for American Express, an American company, so I knew I wouldn’t be fired or discriminated against because of my sexuality. 

Who supported you? 

Ultimately, I accessed twenty LGBTQIA+ people, all of whom belonged to the network from the Indian Institutes of Technology. We were among the best of the best – the schools are the equivalent of the American Ivy League – and filed a petition with a law firm. We appointed a media liaison, and before I knew it I was on CNN, the BBC, and even India Live. My mother did not want me to do the media circuit, nor did my sisters. They said things like “It’s too dangerous. All the neighbors will know; the watchman will know; the milkman will know. You’ll get hate-crimed.” Luckily, that did not happen. 

After that, our team of lawyers, headed by two women, argued successfully to get the law repealed in the Supreme Court. The judgment was released on September 6, 2018; and now, the first week of September, Indians celebrate Pride, just as Americans do for the month of June. And as it turns out, our two female lawyers were actually closeted LGBTQIA+ women who were in a secret relationship; and, after the victory, were inspired to come out and now live happily together. 

Udai celebrates with his co-petitioners on September 6, 2018

What are your plans for the future? What is your dream scenario for where your MBA might take you next? 

One thing I want to study is how to build more inclusive spaces in the workplace, and answer: how do we deal with issues of discrimination at work? It’s what I want to practice when I move to the USA. 

I always want to be an ambassador for the community. Having gay role models was something I really needed growing up and I didn’t have. I want to understand DEIA in the workplace better, and I know Wharton can help me better understand how to apply DEIA principles in the workplace. 

I have been involved in data science for American Express as well as building marketing campaigns for AmEx. In the near future, maybe I’ll join an early start-up; but for now, my plan is to work in AI and/or the business analytics domain. I am so excited about what my future holds and how a Wharton MBA will help me achieve my dreams.

– Grace Meredith

Posted: June 30, 2022

Wharton Stories

Neuroscience and Marketing Meet in the Classroom

Visual Marketing, taught by Wharton Prof. Barbara Kahn and Wharton Neuroscience Initiative’s Zab Johnson, introduces students to the latest innovations in modern, digital marketing.

The Visual Marketing course is so popular at Penn that there isn’t enough space for all the students who sign up to take it each spring.

“We get more demand for the class than we have seats,” said Wharton Marketing Professor Barbara Kahn, who teaches the course with Elizabeth “Zab” Johnson, executive director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative.

Not bad for a class that came together by chance. A few years ago, the women were attending the same campus luncheon when Kahn noticed Johnson writing some notes to herself and asked what she was working on. Johnson, who was on the neurobiology faculty at Duke University before coming to Penn, told her that she was developing an idea for a course that would combine the principles of visual neuroscience with the practical applications of marketing. Kahn, whose research includes the sensory appeal of packaging, was instantly intrigued.

The result of that fateful meeting is MKTG 239/739, a class that teaches students to understand visual cognition and how it influences consumer behavior and choice through marketing, advertising, packaging, and design. Now in its fourth year, Visual Marketing is open to graduate and undergraduate students from different disciplines across Penn — not just business majors.

The mix of students is intentional; the instructors want them to learn from each other’s different backgrounds and experiences. It’s not unlike the collaboration between the two instructors, who had to blend different teaching styles and research expertise. Johnson and Kahn said they continuously refine their course based on what they learn from working with each other.

“We’re acting out the collaboration that we want our students to do, and I’m watching how my material is improving by collaborating with another professor,” Kahn said. “That’s a discipline you don’t necessarily get when you’re teaching alone. There’s learning and there’s value in it.”

Getting Out of the Classroom

The Visual Marketing class starts with a 13-page syllabus that makes it clear the students won’t be spending all their time listening to lectures. Johnson and Kahn emphasize experiential learning, so they give assignments that get the students out into the real world. This semester, each student had to choose a store in Fashion District Philadelphia, go there as a customer, and evaluate the store layout and design based on what they learned in the course.

Kit Loughran, an MBA student in marketing and operations, visited fast-fashion retailer Primark. The chain is unusual in that customers cannot order online for home delivery, but they can consult the website to find products available at local stores. From her online search, Loughran knew her store had a specific shoe she wanted to wear to a concert, and she bought a handbag on impulse after seeing it paired with the shoes on a mannequin display.

Classmate Jake Rodin, a junior earning a bachelor’s degree in economics, also said the course makes him think more deeply about marketing choices, like why off-brand products are packaged with similar colors and fonts as name brands. In class, he learned about representativeness bias, a mental shortcut people often use to judge similar objects.

Johnson (far right) hosts a demonstration in the Wharton Behavioral Lab where students collect eye-tracking data that they later analyze for a group project.

“So, when customers see a cereal box that looks like Cheerios, they are likely to believe the two products taste similar. If the off-brand product is then priced lower, consumers may be more likely to then buy that product,” Rodin said.

Visual Marketing students also visit the Wharton Behavioral Lab to experience the neuroscience and analytics ideas they talk about in the classroom. In one session, they use devices that track eye movement, code facial expressions, and measure the sweat on palms — all indicators of alertness and engagement with an advertisement or a product.

Johnson said the session gives students a deeper understanding of data because they see both how it is collected and how it is analyzed.

“My goal with this is to make the abstract concepts they are learning about in class come to life. The students are often surprised by what the technologies look and feel like, how you can actually see in real-time where someone is looking, and how they are responding without having to verbally tell you,” she said.

Help From Hershey

Determined to make the course relevant beyond the classroom, Johnson and Kahn have partnered with The Hershey Company. Ryan Riess, who is vice president of brand strategy and creative communications at Hershey, has joined the class for the last three years to offer students real-data projects on the packaging and merchandising of Hershey products. In the first year, it was barkTHINS. Next came Kit Kat, and this year’s focus has been Jolly Rancher candies.

“I love the enthusiasm that they bring and the unbiased opinions. They’re a focus group that has training in visual language. There’s this perfect balance between innocent enthusiasm and intellectual rigor and curiosity. The marriage between those two is what makes it fun for me.” – Ryan Riess, Vice President of Brand Strategy and Creative Communications at The Hershey Company

Riess has worked for Hershey for 13 years and describes himself as someone who “lives and breathes” the brands, thinking about them day and night and talking with co-workers who do the same. That laser-sharp dedication sometimes results in an echo chamber, but the Visual Marketing students challenge him to break out of the bubble.

Each year, the students analyze eye-tracking data that is collected in a collaboration between Johnson and Hershey. This year’s assignment used real data on how consumers perceive Jolly Rancher packaging, social media ads, and how they search for the candy package on store shelves.

“Many of our students may go on to be marketers and brand managers, where they may encounter the standard data visualizations from these methods,” Johnson said. “This assignment serves to pull back the curtain and take a deeper dive so that students can better see and understand the actual data that’s collected, how questions and hypotheses can be asked, the limitations, and how these kinds of data can provide specific marketing insights.”

A Modern Approach

Johnson and Kahn want their students to have a modern approach to marketing, which means understanding all the visual components that have become even more important in the digital age, when so much brand information is conveyed via screens.

“The components of the course make it such that we have to keep moving to keep up, but what ties it all together is the element of visual,” she said. “That’s our guiding principle. It gives us structure to the course that allows us to harness the creativity and diverse views.”

For Johnson, the Visual Marketing class holds a great deal of personal satisfaction.

“I love watching new ideas emerge,” she said. “I also learn a lot from students because they will bring examples to me or new findings, and that changes not just my science but my approaches. I think of it as this two-way flow, which I really appreciate.”

— Angie Basiouny

This story was adapted from an article originally posted by Analytics at Wharton.

Posted: June 7, 2022

Wharton Stories

In the Classroom: Technology, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship in the New Space Era

Prof. Rahul Kapoor and MBA student Arie Kouandjio, WG’23, give a quick overview of this Wharton course on the emerging space sector.

What is it like to take a Wharton class? Here’s a look inside “Technology, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship in the New Space Era,” a one-of-a-kind elective led by Management Prof. Rahul Kapoor.

Course Overview

With Prof. Rahul Kapoor

Who can take this course?
Wharton MBA students.

What is it about?
Over the past five years, humanity has taken a massive leap into a new Space Era. My course offers a synthesized understanding of how technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship are shaping this emerging sector. We’ll explore present business opportunities and challenges, as well as their effects on society and the planet.

Why teach it?
To prepare students to understand the disruptive changes that the Space sector is currently undergoing, and learn how they could apply their knowledge in the pursuit of future opportunities in space.

How are you teaching it?
As a 5-day intensive course. We have 20 guest speakers representing entrepreneurial startups, incumbent space companies, and leaders in public agencies, as well as investors.

Guest speakers for Fall 2021. (Click to enlarge.)


Key Learnings

With Arie Kouandjio, WG’23

Why did you take this course?
According to research from Morgan Stanley, the space industry is expected to grow from a $350 billion industry to a $1 trillion industry from 2020 to 2040. “New space” is a rapidly growing industry with massive potential. I took this course as a natural fit for refining my understanding and realistic potential of the industry.

What was your biggest takeaway?
My biggest takeaway from this course is that though space tourism gets the majority of media attention in “new space,” there are many aspects of space like in-space manufacturing and mining that are much realer and closer than I thought. Such capabilities are being worked on now, and the ecosystems and business cases around them are further along the technological development curves than I previously believed.

Who would you recommend this course to?
I would recommend this course to someone that’s been exposed to the popular career paths like banking, private equity, and consulting, but doesn’t feel they’ve found a calling in them. Even if a career in space ultimately isn’t their calling, they may get the ball rolling on thinking through other “outside-the-box” career ideas.

— Ariana Bedoya Mansilla and Gloria Yuen

Posted: June 3, 2022

Wharton Stories

A Conversation Between Whitney M. Young Memorial Fellowship Scholars

Brittney Govan, WG’21, and Itunu Dacosta, WG’22, and chat about being recognized for their meaningful leadership in the Black community at Wharton and beyond.

A few years ago, MBA students Brittney Govan and Itunu Dacosta met at a ladies’ dinner night and became friends. They each went on to win the Whitney M. Young Memorial Fellowship (in 2021 and 2022 respectively) for their outstanding leadership and contributions to the community of color both on- and off-campus. In the conversation below, they reflect on all they’ve learned and achieved at Wharton.

Brittney: Itunu, what does winning the 2022 Whitney M. Young Memorial Fellowship mean to you?

Itunu: I was part of three finalists, but wasn’t really hoping to win. At the gala, I was shocked when Quinton McArthur (Sr. Associate Director of Diversity at Wharton) announced me as the 2022 Fellowship Winner. I was blown away to have been nominated by my classmates. It meant that my peers were paying attention and they valued my contributions within the Black community. Some things you put your heart and soul into something not really expecting a reward, but having my peers nominate me and acknowledge the exceptional work I’ve done — it was thrilling and humbling. Winning this award was a stamp of approval from my peers, but also a wake-up call to show that although I’ve done exceptional work throughout the year, there is still so much more to be done. There is still this sense of obligation and duty to continue to do more to represent our Black community.

Brittney (standing third from the left) with the 2019 Whitney M. Young Memorial Conference student planning committee.

Itunu: What was it like for you?

Brittney: As the 2021 Fellowship recipient, there are not enough words to express the gratitude that I felt, from the moment I found out that I was even nominated for the award to the moment I found out I was the awardee. Since the 2021 Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Conference was virtual, the 2021 Scholar was not announced in the traditional way, which is usually at the conference gala. It wasn’t until a few weeks after the conference that the Scholar was selected. I still remember the day like it was yesterday. I was literally in Los Angeles, sitting at a restaurant, having dinner with a friend when I got an email from Quinton McArthur that I won. I think I went numb for a little bit, it took me a minute to process it. It was the same exact feeling that I felt when I got the call that I was accepted into Wharton. Initially numb from the shock of it all, and then when reality set in, the tears fell. I still have a huge sense of gratitude that I believe I will forever carry with me.

‘Being’ at Wharton

Itunu: Brittney, you participated in very meaningful community-building activities during your time at Wharton. How would you describe that experience and your impact on the Black community?

Brittney: I did a lot at Wharton. I was very dedicated to giving back and probably took on more leadership roles than I would recommend anyone else to do. Coming into Wharton, I knew that I was going to do any and everything I could to make an impact on the community. There were two main objectives for me: one was to lift as I climb, and the other was to educate my peers on the economic disadvantages that many Black Americans face and why this should be important to them. I knew being at Wharton was not just about me. I did not make it to this space on my own accord. I’m standing on the backs of those who directly and indirectly paved the way for me to get here and I knew it would be a disservice not to add to the legacy.

As a Black, first-generation college student from the South, there was a personal dedication that I had to make an impact on my community socioeconomically. While this is not a guarantee, I do truly believe that huge socioeconomic gains can be achieved through education. It was my mission to help as many people as I could to make it to this space, from my community and others like it. I also knew I had to educate my peers, many of who have no personal experience with economic disadvantage, on what the real-world experience is like for Black Americans who aren’t living in the “Wharton privilege” bubble.

Itunu (left) with her co-chairs at the Wharton Africa Business Forum.

Brittney: How about you? Where does your motivation for taking on these roles stem from?

Itunu: My experiences with AAMBAA and WASA have been my most fulfilling experiences at Wharton. These communities have sustained and continually uplifted me through tough times and celebratory times alike. One of the major highlights of my MBA experience was the opportunity to serve as Co-Chair for the Wharton Africa Business Forum (WABF). In this role, we engaged all the affinity groups on campus plus students from 10+ top business schools to showcase Africa’s ingenuity to the rest of the Wharton community and the world. I’m very passionate about the opportunity for young professionals to propose tactical solutions to the greatest challenges facing the African continent, hence why I decided to run for the co-chair position. As part of the conference, we had a combination of keynote and panel sessions curated to allow participants to discuss innovative ways to drive change that can transform the world. In addition, I served as Co-President of the Finance Club. One of my main goals for joining this role was to provide an advanced pathway for Black and minority students to obtain finance jobs. I know firsthand what it means to come from nothing and how a job or career can uplift you, your family, and even your community. Through coffee chats, mock interviews, and panel sessions, we helped 1Y minority students gain finance jobs to provide economic empowerment and close the income inequality gaps. WASA and AAMBAA gave me the foundation that I needed to assume other forms of leadership positions throughout the Wharton community.

Investing in Yourself and Your Community

Brittney: How do you plan to continue your community work beyond Wharton?

Itunu: Post-graduation, I plan to first settle into my new job. Next, I plan to help develop a formal mentorship and sponsorship opportunity for women of color to empower girls (especially teenagers) and women to pursue careers within the finance and technology industry. One of my passion projects pre-MBA is a social impact project focused on creating a pathway and pipeline for incarcerated youths (especially minorities) at juvenile detention centers to successfully transition into the workplace/schools. I’m hoping to continue working on this project post-MBA.

Itunu (third from left) with friends at the 2022 Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Conference Gala.

Itunu: As a recent alum, how did you stay involved after graduating?

Brittney: I have to be honest. I felt like I gave so much of myself to my community during my time at Wharton that I neglected taking time for myself for a while. During my two-year experience, I was so busy managing my various leadership roles at Wharton that I didn’t even take true time to focus on recruiting. After graduation, I told myself that I was going to take a year for myself. While I was always available to serve or advise when asked, I was intentional about not taking on any formal leadership roles. I came back to Wharton twice to speak on alumni panels and have also taken a ton of calls from Wharton students looking to pivot into tech. Service is still a passion, so I don’t think I can ever shy too far away. In the future, I do want to get more involved in the Wharton community as an alum resource, especially for those looking to break into tech. At Meta, there are so many programs in place to give back so I have been looking into volunteering as an MBA representative. I would also like to be more involved within my local Houston community as well, so that is something I will pursue this summer.

— Gloria Yuen

Posted: May 26, 2022

Wharton Stories

What Will the Future of Work Look Like?

MBA student Brie Groh is helping Wharton People Analytics asses how the workplace is evolving in culture and practice.

Brie Groh doesn’t want to be the smartest person in the room. She thinks there’s nothing interesting or useful about that.

“I love learning different things from different people,” the Wharton MBA student said. “Any opportunity to get into a room of people with different ideas is a good thing, in my mind.”

That’s why Groh can’t wait for the Wharton Future of Work Conference on April 7. Sponsored by Wharton People Analytics, the virtual conference will be a gathering of great minds to share the latest information about evolving workplace culture and practices. Microsoft Chairman and CEO Satya Nadella, growth mindset expert Carol Dweck, and organizational psychologist and Founder of APS Intelligence John Amaechi are the keynote speakers.

Groh, 28, was competitively selected from a group of students to serve as the conference chairperson. Before coming to Wharton, she worked in an office for a mid-sized company and remotely for a family-run business, so she’s particularly attuned to the collective conversation about the future of work and what it means for both managers and employees.

“This conference is dedicated to giving people the resources and tools they need to help themselves and the organizations they work for thrive. It’s all about better work practices and data-driven proof of those practices.”

Workplace culture has become a guidepost for Groh, who said she’s learned from her experiences that “fit” is just as important as “function.” Supportive colleagues, managers who mentor, and a culture where diverse perspectives are encouraged make any workplace more welcoming.

“It became very clear to me that when I was happy in my prior jobs, I had wonderful managers and team members who encouraged me and helped implement good practices,” she said. “I want to have the skills that would lead to a more positive work environment for those who work with me or under me someday.”

Groh was born in California and grew up in Arizona. She has spent the last 10 years in Philadelphia, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in economics and statistics at Haverford College. After graduation in 2015, she worked for about three years in finance at Aberdeen Asset Management. She joined the fixed income investment team and covered the municipal sector, an assignment that gave her insight into how cities, states, and public universities generate money.

When Aberdeen merged with Standard Life, Groh began to realize that the larger company wouldn’t be the last rung on her career ladder. So, she went to work remotely as a business development analyst for her father’s small tech firm, NetCHB, which creates software that automates customs clearance for import-export businesses.

After a while, Groh realized once again that she was ready to take the next step along her journey, so she applied to the MBA program at Wharton.

Wharton Future of Work Conference Committee Chair, Brie Groh, WG’22, (top row, second from left) meets with Professor Adam Grant, faculty co-director of Wharton People Analytics, Executive Director Laura Zarrow, and the student Conference Team.

“Wharton was the only school I applied to. If I was going to try and get the tools, I wanted to get the right tools.”

“There’s just as much nuance and complexity in large companies as there is in small companies. It got to the point where I wanted to be doing more, and I didn’t have the tools to make educated criticisms or take actions out of those criticisms,” she said. “Wharton was the only school I applied to. If I was going to try and get the tools, I wanted to get the right tools.”

Groh is majoring in operations, information and decisions, along with business analytics. She’s set to graduate in May and hopes to find a job where she can apply both majors to make data-driven decisions.

This is her second year helping to organize Wharton People Analytics’ annual conference. She said she learned so much from handling the logistics of last year’s conference, which was virtual for the first time, that she wanted to come back and do more. In her role, she leads a larger group of student organizers.

“It’s an opportunity for MBA students to learn and practice best-in-class management skills when it comes to people operations.”

“As the chair, I like to say we practice what we preach,” Groh said. “My job is to make sure we are setting the norms that will lead to positive experiences for everyone who attends. It’s an opportunity for MBA students to learn and practice best-in-class management skills when it comes to people operations.”

Groh emphasized that the conference is designed for everyone, not just business leaders or human resources specialists. In fact, her mom, who is a charter school principal, attended last year’s conference and shared those lessons with her team.

“In a space where the Great Resignation is happening and everyone is so burned out, it’s an opportunity to make things better. It’s why I went to business school — to start finding answers instead of just asking questions.”

Groh said she hopes the conference draws participants who, like her, want to get into a room full of different people with different ideas. When asked what she would say to encourage someone to attend, her response was quick and clear:

“My question would be, why aren’t you interested? In a space where the Great Resignation is happening and everyone is so burned out, it’s an opportunity to make things better,” she said. “It’s why I went to business school — to start finding answers instead of just asking questions.”

— Angie Basiouny


Posted: March 31, 2022

Wharton Stories

Opening Doors and Closing Gaps for Women in Data Science

The annual Women in Data Science conference is only one of the ways in which Wharton is forging a path for women in the industry.

Only 15% to 22% of data scientists are women, a disheartening statistic that Wharton is working to change.

Since it was established three years ago, Analytics at Wharton has been forging a path for more women to enter the field through aggressive recruitment, special programs, and mentorship. The effort is paying off with more female participation in its programs this year than ever before.

The Wharton Data Science Academy recruits high school students, the Analytics Accelerator offers real-world projects for grads and undergrads, and several other initiatives are engaging more women. The centerpiece is a female-focused conference called Women in Data Science @ Penn, part of the WiDS Worldwide Conference. Wharton just wrapped its third annual event in February, and the registration fees were donated toward need-based scholarships for female students to attend the data science academy.

“We have to encourage women to enter into this field and see all the different support they have, the excitement around it, and the impact that they can have.”

Mary Purk, Executive Director for Wharton Customer Analytics and AI for Business

Representation is important to Purk, who came to Wharton in 2018 with a unique combination of industry and academic experience. She’s passionate about data science and wants female students to feel that same spark, which is why she set about increasing the visibility of women throughout her unit. First, she recruited more women in industry to become Wharton Senior Fellows, who play a pivotal advisory role to students participating in projects such as the Analytics Accelerator. Previously, there were only two female fellows out of 11, but now there are four, with a fifth woman soon to join.

Purk also incubated the Wharton Customer Analytics Advisory Board, whose members offer practical advice on what’s happening in the industry. That guidance helps shape the analytics coursework and programs to ensure students are getting the most current instruction. Like the fellows, advisory board members also mentor students and help them network. Purk exceeded her own goal of making the board at least 50% female: A total of 12 out of 17 members, or 70%, are women.

“I needed a board that reflected the population we were supposed to represent to the students and to help us make sure we’re thinking ahead six months, 12 months about what is relevant to our center and what we should be doing,” she said. “We have to bring companies closer to the academic application of what students are doing. That’s what boards are — you’re creating relationships. They lean on you, and you lean on them.”

A Crisis of Confidence

Wharton experts said one of the biggest challenges in drawing more women to data science is helping them understand exactly what it is and how it can be a career. It’s not all about coding or being good at math, although those skills certainly help. It’s about using big data, machine learning, and analytics to solve real-world problems across industries, whether it’s a marketing solution for a customer-centric business, an outreach solution for a nonprofit, or a climate change solution for government.

“I think the jobs in computer science are fantastic jobs for a host of reasons,” said Tal Rabin, a computer and information science professor with Penn Engineering who was a featured speaker at the recent WiDS @ Penn Conference. “First of all, they’re interesting and they can be on anything. You want to do things for social good, work for an NGO, work for a business — all of them need good people who can work at a higher level. Many of the jobs have great benefits. You’ll live a good life.”

Rabin, whose groundbreaking work in cryptography landed her on the Forbes Top 50 Women in Tech list, has been in the field since the 1980s, when the number of women began a steep decline. Decades later, the gender balance is still way off, she said.

“I think your time at Penn is the time to challenge yourself. Now is the time to be uncomfortable, now is the time to make mistakes. Learn from your mistakes, but don’t apologize for them.”

Ashley Clarke, W’23, Co-President of Wharton Analytics Fellows

Ashley Clarke, a Wharton undergraduate concentrating in finance and business analytics who is co-president of Wharton Analytics Fellows and a member of the WCA Student Advisory Board, agreed. She’s noticed that female students often apologize for their mistakes or are intimidated in interviews, compared with male students who tend to project confidence.

Clarke doesn’t have a crisis of confidence, which she credits to her family. Her father is an electrical engineer, and her mother is an information technologist who always advised her to focus on the job and do her best work. Clarke’s best has brought her to Wharton, where she’s taking on her fourth project with the Analytics Accelerator.

The Accelerator matches companies with an interdisciplinary team of Wharton and Penn students who use that firm’s data to address specific business issues. Clarke’s current project is with The Kimmel Cultural Campus and The Philadelphia Orchestra, which merged last year. The Accelerator team will help the new parent organization, The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center, Inc., identify opportunities for growth of audiences and attendance frequency through an exploration of the joint data.

“Some may assume the arts have been historically separate from analytics. I think this project will help shed light on the misconception that data science techniques only apply to the industries related to tech or customer analytics,” she said. “In fact, The Kimmel Cultural Campus and The Philadelphia Orchestra have an in-house data team. We’re hoping to build on the foundation they have set and bring a new perspective to the table.”

That’s music to Purk’s ears.

“I hope that women will increase their participation and that we’ll have a higher percentage over time. And I’m hoping that the work environment will shift so there will be a lot more women in these jobs.”

Tal Rabin, Rachleff Family Professor in Computer and Information Science

Women in data science won’t find bigger champions for their careers than the faculty and staff at Wharton and Penn. The analytics team is investing in more gender-based scholarships, more networking sessions, more mentoring opportunities, and more Accelerator projects to open the door wider for women. Despite the meager statistics, Rabin remains hopeful for the future of women in tech. She encouraged female students to support each other as peers and find mentors who will advocate for them, whether those mentors are women or men.

Above all else, be bold. She recalled a female student who sat in the front row of her class and introduced herself afterward, making sure the professor took notice.

— Angie Basiouny


Posted: March 29, 2022

Wharton Stories

Investing in Emerging Markets One Social Enterprise at a Time

Jay Bishen, WG’22, reflects on his internship at the Development Finance Corporation, a U.S. government agency.

In recent years, emerging markets have captured the attention of global investors, but many promising businesses are unable to secure the capital they need to advance and grow. How can we increase access to funding in these markets?

Jay Bishen, WG’22, worked on bridging this financing gap in his summer internship at the Development Finance Corporation. Jay’s internship was funded in part by Wharton Social Impact’s Bendheim Program, which funds current Wharton MBA students to work with Wharton alumni who have received a Bendheim Loan Forgiveness award. Bishen reflects on his experience and how to make a meaningful, positive impact for entrepreneurs around the world.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

Bishen: I was born in Boston and spent time living in St. Louis and New Delhi, but I consider myself to be a proud product of Basking Ridge, New Jersey. That’s still where I consider to be “home” and where I head for the holidays.

I’m a dual Wharton and Harvard Kennedy School MBA / MPA candidate and have tried to tailor most of my education to help me achieve my goals in development. That’s often meant enrolling in classes covering subjects such as international finance or economic development.

What is the Development Finance Corporation (DFC), and what did you do there?

Bishen: The DFC is the development finance apparatus of the United States, investing in promising firms and projects in the developing world. Within the broader organization, I worked for the Social Enterprise Finance Team (SEFT), which provides either debt or equity financing for early-stage social enterprises.

In total, I was staffed on three deals — a microcredit lender in Western India, a logistics provider in East Africa, and a fintech debt fund operating in Latin America and Southeast Asia. My day-to-day activities largely depended on the maturity of each project, and ranged from due diligence calls with the firms’ management teams to the preparation of internal investment memos.

How did you make a meaningful, positive impact through your work?

Bishen: Access to funding is often quite constrained for entrepreneurs in developing markets, whose nascent capital markets are unable to reach those on the fringes of the traditional financial system. The SEFT team addresses this market failure by providing capital to early-stage social enterprises that are unable to tap private markets for funding. These ventures then utilize that investment to build and expand their businesses, aiming to become financially stable and sustainable. As a Summer Associate, I helped analyze the merits of prospective investments, from a financial and social impact perspective.

Why is this work important?

Bishen: Talent is spread relatively uniformly across the world. What differentiates countries’ economic potential is their ability to provide the resources and environment necessary for that talent to blossom.

In many of the regions where the DFC invests, entrepreneurs must navigate the headwind of malfunctioning capital markets as they search for the funding required to establish and grow their businesses. By investing in these entrepreneurs, the DFC is not only providing that essential funding but is also serving as a cornerstone investor that can “crowd in,” or attract, additional private sources of capital. This improves the overall allocation of resources, which in turn attracts additional private investment, ultimately yielding a virtuous cycle that improves standards of living.

What was your favorite part about the experience?

Bishen: My favorite part of the internship was talking to founders. Looking beyond their plans for their companies, it was fascinating to hear each founder’s personal life story and the driving forces behind their decisions to start their firms. Learning about their sacrifices and the gambles they were taking was incredibly inspiring for me, especially as I consider the next steps in my own career.

Did COVID-19 create any challenges during your internship?

Bishen: Working in a remote environment was the greatest challenge of the summer internship. A large part of investing in emerging markets involves traveling to the cities or towns your companies operate in to conduct due diligence. While it’s still possible to have these conversations via video conferencing, I think it’s more challenging to assess potential investments remotely.

How have you leveraged your classroom or prior work experience in this role?

Bishen: Prior to graduate school, I spent five years working in Citigroup’s Sales and Trading division in New York, trading corporate debt and constructing portfolios of financial derivatives. At Wharton, I was able to augment the technical skills that I initially built on the trading floor by taking classes like Corporate Finance or Valuations.

Furthermore, I had the opportunity to participate in Wharton Impact Investing Partners, where I got experience in sourcing and conducting due diligence on early-stage ventures for the first time. These experiences helped me develop the hard and soft skills necessary for my work as a Summer Associate at the DFC.

How has this experience been transformative for you?

Bishen: My summer internship at the DFC was my first experience investing in emerging markets, and it confirmed my interest in potentially pursuing that path after I graduate in 2022. While developing markets hold unique challenges for investors, they also hold a unique allure as well. I really enjoyed learning more about the particular histories and economic environments of the countries the DFC was investing in, and look forward to deepening that knowledge in the years to come.

Posted: February 21, 2022

Wharton Stories

Finding Business Opportunities in Zillow’s “Dreamers”

Image: Students at the fall 2021 Analytics Accelerator Summit
A team of students in the Analytics Accelerator were tasked with helping Zillow find new business opportunities in “dreamers,” or site visitors who window shop without ever clicking through to buy or rent.

This fall, three Wharton student teams worked to solve real-world business problems in the seventh Wharton Analytics Accelerator. Hosted by Wharton Customer Analytics (WCA), the Analytics Accelerator offers talented Wharton undergraduate and graduate students an opportunity to partner up with major companies and offer their advice on the unique challenges that they face.

One student team was paired up with Zillow, America’s leading real estate and rental marketplace. Zillow is a platform designed for users to buy, sell, or rent homes. However, the company realized that a significant portion of their users do not engage with the marketplace in this manner. The team was tasked with helping Zillow find new business opportunities in these “dreamers” — site visitors who window shop without ever clicking through to buy or rent.

Keshav Ramji, W’24 EAS’24, (bottom left) and his 2021 Analytics Accelerator teammates.

Forrest Dougan, marketing science principal at Zillow, was initially uncertain about the challenge posed to the students: “Our project that we picked was a little bit exploratory. We knew that there could be value in it, but it was a little bit of panning for gold.”

However, by looking at anonymized activity data from 10,000 Zillow users, performing exploratory data analysis, and presenting their unique modeling approach, the team delivered results far beyond the expectations of Zillow. Here are some of their key takeaways from their Wharton Analytics Accelerator experience.

Key Takeaways

Predicting Customer Behavior Through Machine Learning

“We’ve already found promising results through our algorithms and classification scheme, and by scaling this to incorporate insights from millions of users, Zillow can identify more effective ways to target specific customer segmentations. We believe that there is certainly value that can be derived from predicting behavior of new users, to better guide them in the interactions with the platform, and that this can ultimately help them find their new home.” — Keshav Ramji, W’24 EAS’24 (Senior Analyst)

Keshav (center) during the student panel discussion at the Analytics Accelerator Summit.

Adapting to Unpredictable Users

“Time and time again, people observe that products tend to be used a lot differently than what the original creators had in mind. A simple example of this would be bubble wrap — it was originally thought of as a wallpaper, and now people use it as one of the most effective packaging materials in the world. Taking inspiration from such stories, it is critical for businesses nowadays to continue to reevaluate their product and tailor it to better serve the needs of their customers.” — Yashveer Singh Sohi, WG’23 (Technical Engagement Leader)

Real-Life Data Can Be Messy

“Oftentimes, when we first learn data science, we are given data and problems that have been handpicked for that setting. In class, we need data that can be clustered well… In the real world, data isn’t handpicked — data is generated by unique users who have an infinite number of possible behaviors. Wharton Customer Analytics is a fantastic setting for students to work with real-world data sets and tackle challenging problems for some of the top companies out there.” — Joshua Lee, W’24 (Junior Analyst)

At the end of the project, Dougan was exceedingly impressed with their results. “What we’re really excited about with this project and the result of the analysis is that it did show us that there is gold in the river,” he said. “We can now invest a little bit more internally in pursuing this.”

— Gemma Hong

Posted: December 20, 2021

Wharton Stories

Paving the Way for More Women in Real Estate

Image: Wharton Real Estate Club trek to New York City and tour of Hines residential project at 53 W 53rd Street
Nicolle Lee, Vicky Plestis, and Kayla Weismuller (WG’22) share the Wharton resources that furthered their passion for real estate, social impact, and diversity & inclusion.

The three of us came to Wharton’s MBA Program looking to pivot into real estate. We met through the student-led initiative Penn Student Women in Real Estate (PSWiRE) and quickly became friends after discovering mutual ambitions to increase visibility of female real estate leaders and integrate social impact into our careers.

According to the Urban Land Institute (ULI), women make up 25% of its membership but only account for 14% of its CEOs. We believe there’s a lot of work to do, and the work won’t be done until women comprise a majority of these leaders. With our post-graduation plans set in real estate investment banking, development, and private equity, we wanted to share how we have leveraged resources at Wharton to help each other and other women join the industry.

Get to know the Wharton/Penn real estate community.

Nicolle: The Zell Lurie Center provides ample opportunities for students to network with women leaders who give candid advice about career switching into real estate. I have already found many mentors and champions — women and men — through Wharton’s network, and am very grateful to be at an MBA program that has such a strong presence both in real estate and finance.

Wharton Real Estate Club trek to New York City and tour of Related’s Hudson Yards project

Vicky: What is special about Penn is how our community of women in real estate connects across schools. Through PSWiRE, all three of us have been really lucky to learn from women not just at Wharton, but Penn Law and the Weitzman School of Design. PSWiRE also hosts conversations with alumni on their experiences navigating the industry and speaker panels that showcase the diversity of leaders, perspectives, and passions in real estate. It’s helped us think about real estate from different vantage points: as a matter of design and architecture, planning and social equity, legal transaction, and financial investment.

As a dual-degree MBA/City Planning student, I cannot say enough about all the classes available at the Weitzman School. Build that into your electives, if you’re interested in understanding the opportunities and challenges of public-private partnerships and the role of real estate in community and economic development.

Get hands-on experience and make a real impact through case competitions.

Kayla: Case competitions have played a large part in our experience at Wharton. Last year, we competed in ULI’s 19th annual urban design case competition and reimagined Kansas City’s East Village neighborhood. It was a cross-disciplinary collaboration in which the Wharton MBA students were able to bring their business and financial prowess while the Weitzman students brought this to life with their renderings of our vision.

Nicolle: What’s also great about these case competitions is they are an opportunity to network with our professors, professionals, and other business school students. Kayla and I had the opportunity to work closely on our ULI project with Alan Feldman, who is now my development professor. The competitions are also usually sponsored by major development firms such as Hines or investment firms like Invesco and are really great opportunities to get to know firms outside of traditional on-campus recruiting.

Kayla, Nicolle, and Vicky

Vicky: Nicolle and I also worked together on the 2021 Miami Herbert Impact Investing in Commercial Real Estate case competition. Over the course of the year, we developed a project concept that was both socially conscious and commercially viable. It also gave us a chance to connect with faculty at Penn and experts in the Philadelphia community to explore how we could incorporate creative financing, anchor institutions, and community-centric uses. Our final proposal, “17th Street Crossing,” was for a transit-oriented, business and workforce development hub in North Philadelphia. We ended up placing first!

Put yourself out there — and find support in your peers.

Nicolle: Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and start meeting people right away. In Ari Shalam’s Real Estate Entrepreneurship class, our first assignment was to call up brokers and ask questions about commercial real estate properties. This was a very early lesson in the importance of cold-calling and sales in real estate. I have also had great luck in asking my peers for recruitment help. My classmate Britt Drengler was a real estate banker prior to Wharton and when I reached out to her for help, she not only picked up the phone but helped me analyze an entire REIT merger deal that I was then able to speak to during my early interviews. It is friendships like these that make Wharton such a special place to study real estate!

Penn real estate cross-club mixer at 2116 Chestnut

Kayla: I am grateful for the extraordinary women I have met through the Wharton network and am more motivated now to pave the way for other women looking to pursue a career in the industry. At my new firm, I’d like to continue helping build out their commitment to diversity and foster a strong women’s network. My advice would be to do what you are passionate about and start reaching out to people for coffee chats… you never know where a conversation might lead!

Vicky: Be relentless about reaching out to, talking with, and learning from leaders in the industry. For me, this started with finding a supportive group of 5–6 women through PSWiRE (both students and young alumni) who were incredibly willing to share their real estate experiences and make introductions.

— Nicolle Lee, Vicky Plestis, and Kayla Weismuller (WG’22) 

Posted: November 23, 2021

Wharton Stories

From Peace Corps to Wharton

“If we want to create a world that’s a better place, we need people who can bring that sense of social justice and combine it with some practical Wharton toolkits so that they can be more impactful.”

F. Chapman Taylor, WG’88, was fresh out of college when he signed up to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. He was promptly sent to Samoa, an island country in the South Pacific, to teach math to children who would otherwise be working on the family farm.

Joining the Peace Corps felt like a “natural extension” to Chapman, who grew up in a social-justice-oriented environment.

“When I originally went to Samoa, I thought I wanted to be a teacher or a pastor,” said Chapman, who is now a partner at Capital International Investors and a dedicated philanthropist. “My father was a pastor and worked with inner-city kids in Washington, D.C. during much of my life.”

While in the Peace Corps, Chapman realized teaching wasn’t for him. He decided to apply to Wharton.

“The people I grew up with are very nervous about people with money. The people with money are very nervous about the people who are doing social change. That’s a problem,” he said. “If we want to create a world that’s a better place, we need people who can bring that sense of social justice and combine it with some practical Wharton toolkits so that they can be more impactful.”

Chapman is funding that vision through the Taylor Family MBA Fellowship, which will provide financial support to a Wharton MBA student who has either volunteered in the Peace Corps or worked in public service.

“There are several impacts of the Peace Corps,” Chapman said. “The obvious one is what you do in that country. The more important one, in my mind, is when people bring that back with them.”

Lila volunteering in Panama.

Funding a Better Future

Lila Holzman, WG’16, traveled all the way from California to rural Panama because she wanted on-the-ground experience with solving complex, systemic problems. The Peace Corps gave her the perfect opportunity while working on sustainable agriculture.

“It was a lot of going out in the field, getting dirty, using a machete,” she said. For two years, Lila helped foster home gardens, train farmers to use new techniques, and teach locals about the value of nutrition.

Then she found herself at Wharton, studying environmental and risk management.

“People think of MBAs as strictly for-profit, but nonprofits are businesses, too. Any organization needs good management skills to be able to accomplish whatever it’s setting out to accomplish,” she said. “I think that the MBA skill set is very relevant and useful in the nonprofit world, in the social entrepreneurship world. It gives a lot of credibility to the idea that you can solve multiple issues at once.”

There was one moment in class when she saw her experiences come together.

“We were talking about a case study with a company that was doing mobile money through phones, and about how successful that was in regions like Africa or places where not a lot of people were in the banked financial system. I pointed out, ‘Oh, but this relies on there being cell phone signal.’ And everyone kind of looked at me like, ‘Wait, everywhere has cell phone signal.’ I was like, ‘No, actually, where I lived in Panama I had to climb up a hill.’”

“This is why I think (Peace Corps experience) is important in Wharton,” Chapman said. “You bring people from many different cultures, and everyone comes with their own cultural lens. It helps to have translators in that midst who understand how to communicate across cultures to create better cohesion.”

For both Lila and Chapman, the leap from the Peace Corps to Wharton wasn’t just academic, cultural, or professional — it was also financial.

“When I got to Wharton, the amount of financial support that I had was far less than a number of my fellow classmates who’d been engineers and worked on Wall Street,” Chapman said. “All too often people who come through the Peace Corps don’t have a whole lot of resources.”

“If you intend to continue in social impact, odds are the salary is going to be a lot lower. It really does help to have a fellowship that can ease that burden,” added Lila. “From a cultural perspective, I think it sends a meaningful signal that Wharton wants the type of people who have done the Peace Corps. Social impact is actually a part of who Wharton is and who Wharton is evolving to become more focused on.”

Chapman in Samoa with two fellow Peace Corps Volunteers.

Returning to the Community

Social impact at Wharton has grown rapidly over the years.

Chapman remembers being one of the only MBA students interested in the industry, while Lila found a community of peers through groups like the Wharton Social Impact Club, Wharton Global Impact Consultants (WGIC), and Nonprofit Board Fellows. After Lila’s graduation, a student collaborated with Wharton faculty to optimize the MBA curriculum for a sustainability focus. Lila’s major is now known as Business, Energy, Environment and Sustainability — or BEES — which prepares students for careers in clean energy, corporate sustainability, and even food and agriculture.

The selection of the first Taylor Family MBA Fellow in 2022 will mark four decades since Chapman joined the Peace Corps — although he never truly left. Chapman sits on the Board of Advisors of the National Peace Corps Association and has funded several student RPCV’s, or Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.

“We say ‘returned’ instead of ‘ex’ because we are always Peace Corps Volunteers,” Lila said. Post-MBA, she also returned to serve two terms as president of the Board of Directors of the Northern California Peace Corps Association.

And now, Chapman is ‘returning’ to Wharton in a different way.

“There’s no grand vision here,” he said of the Fellowship. “I want to provide an opportunity for people who come from what I view as a very rich experience, and enable them to have a broader toolkit and a broader perspective of the world and the way it operates. For me, this is very much a bottom-up, one-by-one approach. Let’s get more people out there.”

Gloria Yuen

Posted: October 27, 2021

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