One Semester (Almost) Down at Wharton

upennNearly a year ago today, I received a phone call while eating breakfast from Ankur Kumar, who was then the Director of MBA Admissions for The Wharton School.

To say that the past 12 months have been a whirlwind would be an understatement. Yet, through all of the experiences that I’ve had thus far from the exhilarating peaks of Walnut Walk and boozy brunches to the valleys of managerial economics (MGEC – pronounced “magic” at Wharton) problem sets and Z-distribution grading scales one thing is certain, I could not have made a better life decision at this time in my journey than that of choosing to attend Wharton.

The funny thing is that when I started this whole process I did not actually have Wharton on my radar. I was living in Los Angeles working as a marketing operations manager for a fun internet company.  I enjoyed my job, played ping pong and worked out at Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach every day and had no intention of leaving Southern California. I wanted to go back to business school to round out a few skills, expand my network and found another company without having to work a full time job. Two previous entrepreneurial ventures had capsized mostly because I just did not have the time to devote to them while working. I also was doing everything myself and wanted to meet a co-founder or two that could balance out my skills in sales, marketing and operations.

My research suggested that business school might be a great environment to do that in, so I began looking into a couple of the local schools that were well-respected, top-25 programs with strong alumni networks in that area. The first time that I even considered looking outside of that narrow realm was when Thomas Campbell, a childhood friend who got his MBA from Columbia back in ’08 and now runs a real estate development company in New York, kicked me in the butt for aiming so low. After a ton of more research, hours of essay writing, MBA admissions events, interviews and soul searching I knew that Wharton was where I would go from the moment I got that call; and I have not regretted it.

Pre-term was quite overwhelming. I was meeting tons of interesting people daily but also dog tired from a schedule that seemed to run around the clock between lectures, pre-term classes and social events. It was nothing short of  a fire baptism. Looking back on it, however, I see the method to the madness behind much of it. As disconcerting as it was, it acclimated me to what life at Wharton would really be like. Sure, I now have more control over my schedule. I can pick and choose which classes I take, which activities to get involved with and when I need to simply remove myself from The Wharton Bubble altogether; but I am no less busy than I was back then.

My classmates and I began to get a sniff that this was just our new reality right around the time the first set of quant problem sets for MGEC, stats, accounting and finance were due. What had at the time been a nonstop rave party was brought to a screeching halt as we were hit with the reality of how academically demanding Wharton is.

That realization was intensified by the effects of the z-distribution curve that everything is graded on. In undergrad, it was always good news to be “graded on a curve”. It meant that you didn’t have to be perfect, just better than everyone else. That is much easier said than done at a place like Wharton. The biggest shift in paradigm versus my past experiences with grading curves is that there really are not too many slackers to depend on to form the bottom half of that curve. And even those that might appear or even declare to be so will often fool you.

I have a learning team member who worked in private equity prior to b-school. During our first team meeting, he apologized to us in advance for his clear intention work only a fraction as hard as he did while working in PE. He also informed us that weekend meetings for homework and group projects were also out of the question because his weekends were reserved for travel or at the very least going back to New York.

When he walked into our economics final yesterday, he did so toting luggage. He had just stepped off of a plane after snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands. Yet, the guy has consistently made excellent grades and has consistently been a top contributor to every team assignment that we have had. If this is his fractional effort, then I am literally frightened of what he is actually capable of. And there are many, many more just like him. Seeing people like him in action makes it crystal clear why the school puts so much emphasis on cognitive and quantitative ability before letting people in. It would be cruel to allow someone to come to Wharton knowing full well that they probably won’t cut it.

At the same time, there is this strange phenomenon here where people are surprisingly collaborative and helpful to one another despite the fact that we are all competing for placement and grades in the core. The fact that we are each other’s competition is like a pink elephant in the room that no one discusses.

Perhaps it is because of grade non-disclosure, which we voted in this year with a greater than 95% vote. Or perhaps it is because we are all adults who are old enough and wise enough to know that there is more to learning and certainly more to life than a GPA. It’s Wharton, so everyone who really wants a great job will get one, so there is no need to be sharky; however, there are a few sharp elbows at every top business school, and Wharton is no different. I’m just glad that people like that don’t run the place; and I attribute that to changes that the admissions staff has made over the past few years under Ankur Kumar’s direction.

Not only is there a broader diversity of students from different backgrounds and industries than there was 10 or 15 years ago, but I believe that the advent of Wharton’s group interview has been effective at weeding out applicants who may be somewhat one dimensional–meaning exceptionally bright but not very personable. In the new economy, you really need to be both.  Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind comes to mind when I think about this phenomenon. In the new era, quantitative skills are no longer lauded as special. They are a basic requirement. Then one must also have superior emotional intelligence and creativity on top of that. Pink’s description of what leadership will look like in his vision of the near future really describes my classmates here at Wharton.

With my economics final down yesterday, I have operations and statistics to knock out during the coming week. Once I complete those and turn in a group project for Intro to Entrepreneurship (MGMT 801), I will have completed my first semester at Wharton. From there I’ll be home in Florida for a few days with family before flying off to India for the winter break Global Immersion Program (GIP), a Wharton module that mixes business education with global travel and cultural awareness. I look forward to getting fat on delicious Indian food two weeks from now.

I’m also glad to have just about completed the required core classes. As a non-traditional student with an engineering degree, I appreciate Wharton’s foresight in insisting that I get a solid foundation in the core disciplines of management, economics, statistics, accounting and finance. At the same time, it can be very difficult to work hard in classes that you are not passionate about. To that end, Innovation (OPIM 614) and Intro to Entrepreneurship (MGMT 801) have been life savers. And I am even more excited about what next semester brings.

For the spring, I’ve cleared my mornings of any classes so that I can focus on working on a start up idea with a co-founder/classmate that I met here at Wharton. I’ll also be taking Web Lean Launchpad (EAS 590) at the engineering school. Web Lean Launchpad is a brand new Wharton/engineering collaboration that provides a hands-on, immersive experience in building web-based business models. I’ll also knock out a few flexible core classes with the 1/2 semester version of corporate finance (FNCE 614) and the weekend option for advanced marketing (MKTG 613)–yes, it’s a WEEKEND. I love that the administration saw fit to make the second layer of the core so customizable. I’ll also be taking a communications class (WHCP 615) for entrepreneurs who want to rehearse pitching to VC’s and two customer data & analytics classes, MKTG 776 and MKTG 669. Those + Web Lean Launch pad will take up the majority of my time outside of the start up.

On the impact front, I really intend to grow the Data & Analytics Club that I founded with the support of the Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative. We went from 0 to just over 50 members during the second half of the fall semester. I’d like to reach 75-100 by spring break or so, and that is going to take a lot of work. I am also a marketing committee member for Wharton’s first annual People Analytics Conference that will happen this March. It is being organized and led by my classmate Lisa Donchak, an ex-Googler and photography enthusiast that I am beyond impressed with. I’ve also been voted in as the new webmaster and Head of Marketing for The Wharton Wharthogs rugby team. That organization has been my most fulfilling experience here to date. It is the tightest brotherhood on campus and just a great group of guys, near-concussions and groin injuries notwithstanding.

Finally, I recently applied to attend Wharton’s west coast campus in San Francisco for the Fall of 2014–The Semester in San Francisco Program. I’ll be interviewing for Silicon Valley internships for the summer and would like to stay in that ecosystem for the fall learning and networking. I believe that every tech entrepreneur should experience that region at least once in their career. Yes, the past 12 months have been a blast indeed; and I see even better things to come for the year 2014.