"Do what turns you on, not what the statistics say is best…Business ceases to be work when you're chasing a dream that has engorged you…And if the passion isn't there, then biotech and plumbing will be equal drags." –Tom Peters, author and ex-McKinsey partner
Throughout my MBA year, I have had mixed emotions about going back to technology, jumping into a new career track, or starting my own company. Instead of writing snippets on these thoughts throughout the year, I thought it would be best to write one column wherein I sum everything up. Before I jump into my year at Saïd Business School, I thought it would be best to list my background and viewpoints before my yearlong journey. After all, nobody's experience will be the exact same as mine, but perhaps my experience can be helpful to soon-to-be MBA grads.
This was me in October 2007:
Ethnic Origin: Chinese-American
Born and raised in Southern California
Degree: B.S. Information & Computer Science at the University of California-Irvine
Career: Four years at Kingston Technology doing IT work
When I was an undergrad at UC Irvine, Professor Bernard McGrane's sociology lessons forever changed the way I thought about education. He told us to pursue learning instead of the grade. Study what you want to study. It would be better to learn a lot and earn a 'B' grade than to learn nothing and receive an 'A' grade (Note to all: This may be not good for your GPA). Professor McGrane's advice has changed me forever. In essence, he teaches that life is about the pursuit of truth and to seek out exciting projects that interest you.
These experiences have helped shaped my outlook on life and career, which has helped lead me through the turbulent job market and ultimately land a dream job in Central London without ever having to compromise. I'm positive that all MBA's graduating this year will have the opportunity to well surpass the things I have accomplished. Stay focused, work hard, and be helpful.
Michaelmas Term (first term)—Fall 2007
As with all business schools, at Saïd there is a heavy emphasis on finance recruiting in the fall term, with financial firms making their first rounds at business schools during this time. I remember attending the Merrill Lynch recruiting event and one of the first things they did was crack a finance joke. Before the MBA, I sensed finance wasn't something that would interest me and that joke confirmed my suspicions. My flat mate, a banker, insists I would make a great trader because of my quick wit and decision-making, but I decided to rid myself of striped suits and black ties. Finance was out of my life.
As the fall season continued, consulting began to "heat up." A few consulting firms had early application deadlines but most firms came to recruit during the winter season with applications coming later. For some reason, I was never too interested in strategic consulting firms either, and ended up missing recruiting events for some top firms such as McKinsey, BCG, and PWC.
Many big corporations offer great rotational programs. Rotational programs typically offer successful candidates the opportunity to work in 3+ job functions in international locations. To me, that sounded exciting. After accepting my place at Oxford, I targeted the Adidas rotational program as my top choice. I had researched the role, envisioned myself strategizing on how to run ahead of Nike and stave off Under Armor. Many of these programs are highly competitive and Adidas is no exception. There are only five spots open for 1,500 applicants, but I knew I could be one of those few. Why not? I'm smart and completely obsessed with sports. I fit the role and the role fit me.
Many corporations tend to recruit later in the year, typically a third wave in the winter and spring time. Adidas was one of these. I worked closely with Saïd's Career Services so I'd be prepared early for the Adidas application. Luckily, a Saïd alum and Adidas manager convinced the company to come recruiting in the fall with the banks and consulting firms. I felt extremely prepared and glad I decided to study Adidas so early in the process.
The recruiting event was different from any other I had attended before. I knew the facts. I loved the pump-up video. I had a great conversation with the recruiter. I was ready to join the team. I took an unconventional approach to my cover letter, sought additional help from Career Services, family, and mentors and submitted my application. A few days later, BINGO! I get an e-mail from Adidas saying they loved my cover letter and wanted to chat about my background for the position after the deadline in January. My hours of slaving over the application had turned into a winning formula. I used similar research, hard work, and persistence for my applications with the NBA and Nike, meeting recruiters and having great e-mail communication with them.
The first term at Oxford was a fast-paced and heart wrenching experience. I was thrown into the thick of six classes, while trying to settle into a new country and balance a healthy social life. But with a few key applications sent out, I finally felt my life was starting to settle down and I was walking down the right path.
Hilary Term (second term)—Winter 2008
January rolled around sooner than expected and we all started to trickle back into Oxford as we began Hilary Term. Before we could catch our breath, the annual Saïd Business School Careers Fair came swooping in. I remember only having enough time to focus on three companies: two in consumer goods and one consulting firm. Soon after the career fair, I received a rejection from one of the consumer goods companies and another from the consulting firm. It was the first time I was rejected during the school year, and little did I know, it was a foreshadowing of things to come.
During Hilary Term, I fell in love with marketing and innovation strategy. My four favorite professors all came during this term. Every class was stimulating and exciting. I was also deeply entrenched in the entrepreneurial project and I was having a great term, but nothing perfect lasts forever.
As the deadline for Adidas approached, I didn't hear anything back from anyone. Trying to contact the recruiters led to short generic e-mails. Shortly after, I received rejection e-mails, first from Adidas, then Nike, and I never heard back from the NBA. I was devastated. What happened with the Adidas situation? What happened with all the situations? In the span of what felt like a week, I was rejected five times.
The MBA forces you to lick your wounds and forget about the losses. I didn't have time to figure out what happened. I was busy enough participating in competitions for venture capital and public relations and immersed in writing a business plan for a book publishing Web site. I couldn't wait for Spring Break.
Trinity Term (third term)—Spring 2008
Trinity Term was the most critical term, as I tailored my MBA towards strategy and marketing. I came into the MBA wanting to learn more about the commercial side of business and I was now more determined than ever to come out with a job on that end. I came up with a plan, schedule, and goal. I promised myself I would research hard and tailor my CV for every company I targeted. My schedule had me apply to a minimum of one company every week. And my most important criterion was that any role I applied for had to make me say, "That sounds like an awesome job."
As the markets began to crash and companies went into hiring freezes, I stayed true to job searching as I repeated to myself, "There are five hundred Fortune 500 companies." Additionally, with our Strategic Consulting Projects approaching, a new opportunity to impress a potential employer was right around the corner.
Throughout Trinity Term, I applied to companies likes of Procter & Gamble (Hong Kong), the International Olympic Committee (Switzerland), and Li-Ning (China). In a strange way, applying to different companies in foreign countries started becoming both frustrating and fun. Finding a job turned into a challenge I was determined to master. By the end of Trinity Term, I had made no progress. I was rejected by every single company I applied for with no opportunities to interview.
Strategic Consulting Project—Summer 2008
As I mentioned in an earlier journal entry, my consulting team landed our number one choice project working for Williams Grand Prix Engineering. We worked in offices next to Owner Frank Williams, Chief Operating Officer Alex Burns, and every once in a while, we'd have lunch with drivers Nico Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima (O.K., we never really ate at the same table, but the cafeteria is quite small and the drivers have been spotted eating there…by us).
I continued my intense job search with a goal of applying to three companies a night. By the end of summer, I had applied to approximately 50 companies with opportunities to interview at several. At one point, I started canceling interview opportunities because of the little time I had between work and applications. In the end, I focused on five specific interviews and landed a job at a consumer goods firm I had great conversations with back at the Careers Fair as a Brand Manager with a choice to manage any one of their three top brands. With a job secure, I dedicated the rest of the summer solely to Williams.
The school year ended in September and I began to really wonder if my soon-to-be employer was what I really wanted. I had lukewarm feelings about the company from the very beginning. I questioned whether accepting the role would be stimulating enough for me. At the same time, turning down a great offer in this job market could be career suicide.
I knew that Tom Peters would keep looking, so I decided to keep looking. I kindly declined the offer and began to search again. This led me to Singapore for a career fair. I've never had any big interest in working for a bank but Singapore changed my outlook. After a strange turn of events, I was given a great opportunity to interview several times with an international bank. Quickly following the bank opportunity, a few other opportunities began to emerge. It's strange, but a mysterious momentum of success tends to lead to more success. One in particular stood out.
When I walked into the offices of McCann Erickson Advertising Ltd., I knew it was the right place for me. I never imagined working in an advertising agency or working in London, but this place clicked so seamlessly. I was hired as a Digital Strategist, a position that matches perfectly with my marketing/strategy focus as well as my previous IT background in a completely different industry. When it fits, it fits well.
I had gone through a year of excitement and heartache. My first true love, Adidas, spurned me for someone else. At many points during the year, I was getting weekly, if not daily, rejections. I had to go through 50 companies to finally realize the right place for me. However, the entire process only makes you stronger, sharper, and faster so when you do meet that right career opportunity, you're ready to seize it and take advantage. I still think "Awesome" every single day. I'm truly one of the lucky ones. I'm allowed to explore. Innovation is encouraged and creativity is mandated.
I do hope all of you who are studying for an MBA or are currently in the application process now get everything you dream of and deserve. And if you don't, then create it. Don't settle for second best. It's your MBA, your career, and your life. Make it awesome.
Larry Kao is an MBA Journal writer and a member of the MBA Class of 2008 at Oxford's Saïd Business School.