Which of these statements would you love to hear yourself say?
1. “I’m a strategy consultant with McKinsey”
2. “I’m an investment banker in Morgan Stanley”
3. “I am attending a top MBA program”
What if you were able to say all of these at some point in your career? That’d be pretty cool, right? Soumitra Ghosh (name changed) is someone who’s been there done that. While most folks struggle to get into McKinsey after an MBA, Soumitra managed to get into one of the most selective & the best strategy consulting firms in the world, without an MBA. And no, he’s not from IIT. Here’s a story that highlights the importance of potential & talent over formal qualifications.
If you had asked me about decade ago, when I was studying Physics in St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi, what I would be doing professionally now, I would have replied either research or academics. Now, I am a coverage investment banker with Morgan Stanley after graduating from Duke with an MBA in 2012. I can safely say that these last 10 years have been quite a journey and here is my story of how I got here.
I was born in Kolkata, but I grew up in Kuwait. After finishing Class 12 in DPS, Kuwait, I decided to come back to India for college. I was pretty sure I did not want to do engineering or medicine (going against the grain?!), so I was looking for other academic pursuits. Fortunately, my CBSE marks withstood the cut-off list for St. Stephen’s and I breezed through the interviews.
I signed up for Physics but soon realized that I’m not vocationally passionate about the subject, though I enjoy it recreationally. I was also intricately involved in college extra-curricular activities and started a concert management company with one of my seniors. As a result, my grades suffered.
Thankfully, that did not hamper my exit opportunities too much. On graduating, I joined a start-up marketing consulting firm started by ex-McKinsey folks in New Delhi. I was the 7th employee and it was tremendously exciting to be a part of a fast-growth, tight-knit team.
As you can imagine, in 2004, the Indian and world economy was booming and all you needed to get a job in a consulting firm was the right attitude, strong analytical and problem solving skills. These are not only the requirements for a consulting role in India, but also across the world – at least when you are joining after college.
A year passed by quickly and through a fellow Stephanian, I got the opportunity to move to McKinsey’s Analytics team at their Knowledge Center. Now this is where the real fun started.
I spent 5 years in McKinsey before business school. I started out at the Analytics team at the Knowledge Center, moved to the Chicago office as a consultant in a year and then spent the last 3 years out of the Singapore office as a senior consultant. I worked with clients in Germany, US, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia.
Five years of tons of PowerPoint decks, a thousand excel models, a million airline miles and hotel points later, I decided it was time to pick up another challenge.
Don’t get me wrong, McKinsey was and is a tremendously challenging and fulfilling place to work. I keep in touch with my ex-colleagues and try to follow the Firm as much as I can. But I was looking for another career where I could push my boundaries towards an uncharted direction.
And this is where the need for an MBA came in – primarily for 3 reasons: (a) To explore other careers and possibly jump to a new industry; (b) To build an educational and practical base in subjects I did not do while I was at St. Stephen’s; and (c) To take some time off the workforce to relax and unwind.
Knowing my background was non-traditional for an Indian applicant, I understood that I had to leverage my experience and spin my application in a way to sound unique. I took the GMAT in end-2008, scored at 690 and started my application process by mid-2009 in full force.
Here is how I saw myself with Sameer’s help –
Strengths – Non-traditional career for an Indian applicant, Brand-name college and company, entrepreneurial spirit, international experience
Weaknesses – Poor grades in college and average GMAT
I had a structure to filter down to a few of the top 10 schools that had – (a) Average age in the high-20s; (b) General management focus; and (c) Average class size (neither 200 nor 900). That brought the list to Kellogg, Duke, INSEAD, Chicago and Tuck.
I applied to Duke, Chicago and INSEAD in First Round and Kellogg and Tuck in the Second Round. I was invited for interviews at all five schools and got early round admits from Duke and INSEAD. Chicago put me on waitlist and then dinged me. I withdrew my application from Tuck and my Kellogg application fizzled because of timing mismatch (more on that later).
My strategy in all my interviews was simple – make the interview a conversation. It made me less nervous and less boring for the interviewer. I had my INSEAD and Kellogg interviews in Singapore, Duke in Bangkok and Chicago in Hong Kong. Overall, I thought they were a mixed bag.
The INSEAD interviews went very well. The school requires you to set up interviews with two alumni – my first interviewer was a Singaporean who worked for a financial services firm, and my second interviewer was a Swede who ran her own consulting firm in Singapore.
On the other hand, the Duke interview was seemingly “bad” because I was late (Bangkok airport and roads and are not made for efficient travel!) to meet my interviewer, who worked with ATKearney in SE Asia. I was completely out of breath when I reached. However, my interviewer was extremely accommodating (Go Duke!) and we wrapped it up in about an hour.
The Kellogg interview was average – I barely made a connection with my interviewer, which in my books is crucial. My Chicago interview, on the other hand, went well – or so I thought. My interviewer worked with a large asset management company in HK and I thought I got all my points across and made it a conversation. However, a waitlist and ding later, I might have misjudged it!
The timing of Kellogg’s admit decision did not work well with my Duke and INSEAD acceptance decisions. I had to put down the deposit for both the schools ($3,500 for Duke and $12,500 for INSEAD) by end-January 2010. In the end, it came down to these two schools and Sameer helped me again in fine-tuning my decision.
In the end, I chose Duke (I know!) because –
(a) A two-year program is more welcoming to career changers than a one-year, primarily because of the internship opportunity;
(b) Living in the US where my wife was also based;
(c) Greater exit opportunities just beside consulting and investment banking.
In my books, you should have only three goals in business school – (a) Get a job; (b) Learn; and (c) Relax. The first 6 months will be intense because you will be trying to do all three of the above. Once you have an internship lined up (and hopefully convert it to a full-time offer like I did), you’d only need to go to classes and relax. Approximately 1.5 years of my business school career was a vacation with a bit of “brain work” sprinkled across.
Allow me breakdown business school according to the three goals I mentioned earlier.
Get a job – This will take up most of your time in the first 6-9 months. No, you won’t be doing a lot of interview prep or reading through materials. You will be networking like there’s no tomorrow, especially for investment banking. Consulting is average networking-heavy while industry/corporate roles are the least networking-heavy. I summered with Morgan Stanley in their investment banking division as a coverage banker and I received a return offer to join back full-time. As a result, my second year of business school was awesome! An important insight – if you are an Indian from India joining a US business school, I suggest that you understand and embrace the US culture before you start. It will help you way more than pouring over Accounting. Finance or Marketing prep materials before school starts. This was the biggest gap I saw in Indian candidates who are looking to work in the US.
Learn – Learn from your professors, your teammates and your extra curricular activities. Duke has many electives to choose from, so the program allows you to be very flexible on how you want to structure your learning. My core team members ranged from a Thai entrepreneur, a Wall Street investment banker, a Latino marketing guru, a commercial banker and an accountant – extremely diverse. Moreover, I was fortunate enough to do another internship with a $300Mn venture capital firm, which not only allowed me to get a peak into the VC industry, but also gave me credits towards my graduation.
Relax – This is the most important aspect in business school. I theme-partied, hiked, climbed, swam, ran, organized events and chilled out over craft beer very often. There are very few times in your adult professional life when you can afford this kind of carefree attitude – take advantage of it.
My career just started all over again and I am extremely excited to see how the next 5, 10, 15 or even 20 years turn out. Business school is not the Promised Land, and neither landing your dream job is. These are just transit points that allow you to refocus and rebalance your career and life goals. If you have the right attitude, stretch goals and a hunger to succeed – you will rise and shine wherever you are.