Unlike film-maker Ashutosh Gowariker’s script-writers, Sindhu Keshavamurthy was courteous enough to ask us if her story was getting too long and needed to be edited. But we had already ordered extra pop-corn while reviewing it, and weren’t willing to settle for a shorter version. More so, because this fashion ecommerce marketing consultant covers a lot of ground on several topics (including bschool specific insights) that are generally skipped by most.
Simon MBA student student blog
by Sindhu Keshavamurthy
It’s hard to believe I’m already going to start my first MBA class in a few days. Around 3 years ago at this time, I was excited a bunch to be launching my own company and one thing was very clear to me – I mocked the MBA and everyone who pursued it.
Then why after being an entrepreneur did I choose to go along the MBA route? As Steve Jobs said, you can only connect the dots looking backward.
I am from Bangalore and I’ve spent my entire life here. As a typical Bangalorean, I enjoy music, writing, soaking in the air of the after-rain and exploring the latest cafes in town (yeah, kinda coffee addict!). I left Bangalore for a brief period to get my Engineering degree from Manipal Institute of Technology and then returned to have a varied but satisfying career.
I spent a year as Database Administrator at a financial firm immediately upon graduation, but then growing more interested in the fashion industry and its challenges (earlier generations of my family were entirely into the textile business), I went back to school to pursue a Fashion Design and Management program. Upon completion, I found an opportunity with an ethnic wear boutique operating out of Atlanta, USA as a Fashion Marketing Consultant.
After driving their e-commerce marketing operations for nearly a year, I decided to leverage my speciality in the fashion e-commerce field to start my own consultancy so that I could continue understanding the fashion (and more broadly, retail) industry while supporting fashion labels to succeed digitally. Here are 7 unexpected lessons from my life as an entrepreneur.
The icing on my “career” cake came in my post-entrepreneur stop as a Project Manager at a data-science start-up. I was given a chance with them to lead all their software and business intelligence projects, since I already had experience shipping software projects for clients – from the redesign and relaunch of an e-commerce site to launching my own business.
Therefore, I exchanged my project management expertise for a chance to learn more deeply about analytics. So while I ran my business on the side for some time before this job fully consumed me, I began building business intelligence skills which I saw as lacking in me when I was consulting with clients in my own business.
Two and a half years on as a Project Manager, working closely with clients (mostly executives who knew what they were doing!), I discovered how companies were using technology to solve any and every kind of business problem.
Since I am always about trying to reduce the carbon footprint of the fashion industry (it is the second largest polluter), I only questioned whether technology could be used more creatively to solve problems that plague the apparel sector.
Taking that thought further, I wanted to be at the intersection of retail and technology. Maybe work as a Product Manager after MBA at a company like Walmart or Nike, you know.
And that’s about when the idea that I needed an MBA was born. If my entrepreneurial journey taught me anything, it’s how I didn’t know how to scale things.
My time as a project manager, but also the direct lead for two young engineers taught me how I felt less confident about motivating team members and being responsible for their careers.
If I want to have any impact on the retail industry as I sought to right from the start, then I would need to learn how to work at scale. My first business was small, but to transform even little an industry like Fashion with its heavy inertia, I would first need to transform myself.
Even generally, I was inspired by the executives I worked with in my last job and the depth of business and strategy knowledge they had. There was something about the MBA I didn’t know. I was going to figure it out.
I just had a vague idea about what an MBA was. To me, it was a degree that people got just to be able to wear suits and blazers to work and look smart. ( :D ). I couldn’t digest the fact that MBA could teach business in the same amount of money that one could start their own business in and learn the same things.
However, I was wrong (subjectively at least; you may still disagree). I realized the MBA taught about every moving part of a business in detail and the method in which it is taught (unlike an Engineering degree) ensures you come out as a different person altogether.
I was not going to do an MBA to get a superficial idea of what a business is – I already had that as an entrepreneur and an MBA made more sense to me so I could go and fill in my knowledge gaps. This is to make sure that the next time around, whenever I take on a venture, whether entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial, I will be successful.
I mostly read business school websites to get an understanding of the MBA degree. But the more I saw, the more of other questions clouded my mind. The first of all of them being – am I even MBA material?
The Crystal Ball
Every school seemed to have the same required qualities of their ideal student – high GMAT score, high GPA, extraordinary career progression, even more extraordinary extracurriculars, something world-changing you have done etc.
I on the other hand had such a non-singular career that could make MBA Admission officers cringe reading my resume, had limited extra-curriculars and had few promotions to show (not sure whether being CEO of one’s own company counts).
So when I had all these questions in my mind, the first thing I did was to seek help. I found the MBA Crystal Ball website and it was a blessing in disguise.
I shot my concerns to Sameer Kamat (founder of MBA Crystal Ball), and he was was quick to reply to each one of them.
He gave me solid advice on:
- scoring high on the GMAT since I was from an over-represented pool
- applying as soon as possible (don’t wait another year)
- using the common thread in all my professional experiences (building and launching products/enterprises) as a lever in my application
- using the varied career path as an advantage rather than weakness.
In sum, Sameer cleared any doubts I had about whether I could get an MBA. I could go get it if I wanted to, but I will need to be pragmatic!
There were innumerable other stories of successful MBA applicants I kept reading on MBA Crystal Ball to fully understand what I was getting myself into.
The advice and amazing resources on MBA Crystal Ball have helped me from start to finish, and you’ll see how that was important for me because I didn’t (or rather, couldn’t) get professional help on my applications.
And thus, I decided to begin the application process.
MBA Application process
The MBA application is actually quite a circular and interdependent process. Though it feels very linear – give your GMAT first, then decide schools, then think about your Why MBA / post-MBA career goals, I found myself working on each of them in parallel.
I wanted to know which schools I’d be applying to so that I could select them for free on the GMAT exam day.
And to know which schools to select, I needed to know if they’d be fit for my future career as each school is ranked differently for different concentrations (or should we even talk about rankings?!).
And to decide on a future career, I needed to research my short-term and long-term goals a.k.a job roles and companies I wanted after MBA and then go back and check if those companies recruited at my selected school.
So “focus on GMAT first” is lost. Now, I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, (Sameer can better advise!), but that’s the only way I was comfortable working. However, for sanity sake, I will recount my experiences here “linearly”!
I gave my GMAT twice. I think, even if I gave it a hundred times, I would still score low.
Standardized tests are just not my thing because somehow clicking on radio buttons makes me feel like I’m playing a game without knowing the rules.
Unfortunately, all of my academic achievements and glory stand pale in comparison to the GMAT in front of the AdCom’s eyes.
My first GMAT attempt in mid of last year was a shocker. I thought I had prepared well- Official guides done cover-to-cover, a free online GMAT prep course, random questions on GMAT Club and then some- but scored a paltry 660. Apparently, the mock scores on the Official prep tests are misleading.
Though I wanted to give a retake sooner, I was out of exam dates in Bangalore. That was a cause of panic because Round 1 deadlines were approaching soon.
Eventually, I had to let go of Round 1, because it seemed illogical of me to apply using my 660 score which is a sure shot way of getting rejected at top schools. Also, I was not going to go down without fighting.
So I waited out for the next date and also checked to see if I felt any more confident with my preparation before booking another date. The way things panned out was I got a date only in December and this was a do or die situation.
Very late into my preparation, a current student advised me to take the GMAT only after I begin scoring 700+ on the toughest exams out there (GMAT Club and Manhattan GMAT).
Given I had only 2 weeks for my booked exam date when I got this advice, I did the best I could and scored a 680 on the official test (which happened to be the highest I reached on the MGMAT prep tests.) High enough a score to get into an MBA? Maybe. High-enough for an Indian engineer applicant? Bother!
Bottom line- Use the right material to prep for GMAT and leave ample time to retake.
Since I didn’t have any more time in the application cycle left (December was very close to Round 2 deadlines), I planned to go ahead with the 680 score, but only had to be more strategic in my application choices. More pragmatic rather.
I believe my school selection really paid off in me finding a seat in almost every school I applied to.
Like every applicant starting out, every dream school was on my list. But if you remember, since I was doing my applications circularly (prep for GMAT, school research, career goals, repeat), I had a countable list even before going to GMAT
I used criteria such as – academic strength in my area of career focus (marketing, product management, analytics), overall MBA ranking, scholarship opportunities, placement statistics, employers of interest who recruit at the school (or alums present in companies I was interested to work in), and simply the vibe I got for a school to filter out schools.
For the vibe of the school, I would just talk to current students or hustle at MBA fairs (with the added advantage of securing application fee waivers for some schools!).
What I found out about each business school
Below you will find a list of schools I had set out to apply to, and my thoughts on each.
I believe Kellogg is one school that makes most people’s dream list. It has the brand name, the rank, the placement statistics (with a large proportion of companies coming on-campus to recruit) and extremely humble staff and students. Kellogg is also the top school for Marketing, and it was a no-brainer for me to apply to since I was interested in the Marketing track.
I spoke to a couple of students and both gave me advice on aiming for a high GMAT score (irrespective that I was from an over-represented pool) and to be very sure about my post-MBA goals because once students reach school, there are many who lose track and hence, don’t achieve what they came for.
Also, scholarship is hard to get and there are no GA opportunities here. But well, the Kellogg experience would be worth paying for.
Another school very well known for retail and product management. It’s location in New York was also perfect, since any networking or employment opportunities would be greater in this city.
However, as I learnt from the current students, unless Finance is your major post-MBA career goal, it might be very hard to find a job in another industry (except consulting). Even domestic students who wanted PM jobs had to extensively network.
Plus, New York is super expensive even if you were to get a full ride, so it may not fit everyone’s budget. Nevertheless, the access to the fashion industry is unparalleled if I were to attend Stern (as one student told me she got to interact with the VP of CFDA during a conference at the school). So, it stayed on my list.
If you know anything about Darden, it is its Case Study only mode of teaching. Plus, it’s one of the top schools for academic experience, and I obviously wanted to get my money’s worth!
My idea for choosing Darden was to get an excellent education, with heavy emphasis on strategy, so that I could join a consulting firm in its Digital practice and still be a Product Manager, albeit consultant style with a good pay! Later on in my career, I could then move to industry.
One thing I also liked about Darden is their Code of Honor, with one student telling me how they will allow you to write your exams from your room because they trust you will be fair and not cheat.
Darden’s rank and its lovely weather year-round kept me running for a seat in their class.
UCLA is the first choice of anyone aiming for PM role post-MBA. It is one school that sends a large percentage of its students into PM roles. This is obvious because it is in California.
UCLA further became my top choice because Nike is a big recruiter here (after all Nike’s CEO is an alum of UCLA) and Nike is one of my dream companies.
A current student also was raving about its career management center and the alum support. Everything else notwithstanding, I put UCLA on my list.
Carlson is another top school for marketing and product management. I loved that it had a small class size, a consulting project with a real company fitted into the curriculum, and its access to top companies. Its strength in IT and Marketing made it my go-to school for MBA.
It also had excellent placement statistics, though the international students did struggle finding their full-time offer (but I soon learnt, that’s the case with any school in the US or abroad). Speaking with the staff and students gave me a warm impression about the school and I kept it as one of my options.
This is another school in the New York area, but this time – more affordable, high percentage of scholarship handout, solid analytics curriculum unparalleled in the country, and high placement statistics. I don’t know how I didn’t see it before, but Simon fit the bill perfectly for me.
I was diverted by its lower ranking, but had I not considered rank as a major factor, then all my criteria were met by this one school. As an aspiring Product Manager, the analytics skill-set I could gain from Simon sealed the deal for me.
Furthermore, Simon is more accepting of lower GMAT scores if other parts of our profile are exemplary. They place so much emphasis on the holistic aspect of your profile that, as a current student told me, you must compete for the 100% scholarship offering at their dedicated Scholarship Weekend. Just looking good on paper isn’t enough.
William & Mary (Mason)
This was a surprise addition to my list. I was invited to a 1:1 at a career fair and when I learnt more about the school, I discovered that a lot of their alums worked in the fashion industry.
Moreover, they had a unique Executive Partnership program where a dedicated retired corporate executive would mentor you throughout your two years, and that person would be chosen based on your career focus. I was completely mind-blown by this, given that such opportunity didn’t exist at any of the top schools.
I always believe that personal mentorship goes a long way, and I saw that William & Mary could just be the right school for me. Plus, the AdCom told me if I made it beyond a 660 GMAT score, I would get significant scholarship.
There were other schools on my radar such as Rice, Kelley and Broad, but I dropped them from my list either due to location, no connection with my industry of interest, or lower placement statistics.
Also, before my first GMAT, I didn’t focus on each school’s target score because I assumed I would just achieve it. But after my first GMAT blunder, I was extra careful to include more schools in my list which had median GMATs closer to or lower than my mock GMATs.
Carlson and Simon has a median around 680. (the other schools with the same median didn’t make my list due to the other qualifying criteria I had).
Finally, I applied to only these schools- Kellogg, Darden, Carlson, Mason and Simon, considering that I scored a 680 and had very limited time (what’s 3 weeks like?) to work on the remainder of my applications. More schools meant more work!
Essays, Recommendations and Interviews
I had so little time for remaining parts of the application that I ended up writing and editing the essays and the resume myself. What really helped me accomplish the task in such a short time was my circular research approach; I had most of the answers in my head already. Nevertheless, it was a stressful period and here’s what I did.
Once you understand that MBA essays are just about fleshing out your Why MBA, Post-MBA career goal and past experience, you will be able to deliver a great piece. AdComs can tell if you’re faking, and the enthusiasm (or lack thereof) will show through your writing.
So, I really had to feel what I was writing and made sure what I wanted to do with my MBA is what I wrote about. I would research for sample MBA essays online, read tips on blogs like MCB and use my own writing flair to come up with essays that were able to get me past Simon, Carlson and Mason.
Letter of Recommendation
This I found to be the most challenging part of the process because you really need to coordinate with your recommenders -from what they should write to actually writing and submitting it. This is one portion you have no control over.
Also, you need to have a backup recommender if one of them isn’t available. The stories revolved mostly around my professional accomplishments and personal characteristics.
Once these were turned in, I anxiously waited for the interview invites. They all came in line. First Mason, then Simon and then Carlson. I think this news was more exciting to hear than the Admission news!
All these interviews were online video based (i.e Skype) and I went in wearing formals. They ask you the regular questions – tell me about yourself, why do want to do an MBA, what were your accomplishments, why this school, any questions for me etc. All the interviewers were AdComs. Some of the questions that stood out to me were:
- How do you keep up with daily news?
- How do you stay organized and manage time? (written answer)
- Tell me about a time when things didn’t go as planned?
- What are your main criteria for selecting a school?
- Details about a particular project I had worked on.
Kellogg (this was in the video interview which is a mandatory part of the application process)
- Tell me about a time when you handled a dysfunctional team member?
After a final wait, the Admit emails started pouring in. First Mason, with the news of nearly 50% scholarship and Graduate Assistantship, followed by Carlson only on the admission.
For a long time I hadn’t heard back from Simon (their decision notification date is pretty late from the application deadline). Then Simon personally called me up to give the congratulatory message.
But what kept the wait even longer was their policy of sending scholarship information only through post. So until the last minute, I didn’t know which school I would be attending because scholarship was an important consideration.
Once I heard back from Simon about the Forte Fellowship and a 40% scholarship, I was more confused than happy! I had already prepared to go attend Carlson, but now plans went haywire again! (yeah, like the first time I gave the GMAT and thought that would be it!) I planned to visit the Admit weekends of both schools to make my decision easier.
I spoke to current staff and alums and got a sense of the schools. I think the real test was for Simon. Should I let go of Carlson’s rank for Simon? I decided yes.
In USA, pretty much all the top 50 schools have great standards and quality. So what I saw at Carlson, was almost similar to what I saw at Simon. The dedication of the career staff, the alums, and campus – I felt assured that if I work hard at either of these places, I should be able to get to where I want.
Therefore, the scholarship was the tie-breaker and I decided to go with Simon. I have been enjoying every second of my time here so far and preparing to start a new phase of my career.
Tips and advice for MBA appliants
You don’t select the school, the school selects you – Through all the filtration we do, it is the schools that know exactly who we are and what we can accomplish.
When I came to Simon, I instantly felt the connect with all my peers – all of them were like me, thought like me, analyzed like me. Simon balances both work and play, just the kind of girl I am am.
Simon is one of the most quantitative focused schools out there, and having been a math geek throughout my life, I can’t imagine if I had to study at a place which was less quant oriented.
I didn’t make the right decision; Simon was the one that made the right choice by believing in my abilities and fit for the school. Go with your gut, but let the school decide for you if you belong there.
It’s never too early to start- I feel that if I had taken my GMAT way earlier, like Sameer had advised me to, I would have seen different results. You will never be fully prepared for the GMAT. There will always be concepts you don’t know.
On the other hand, start thinking about your MBA goals early on and especially researching schools and building a 360 degree view about each one.
It took me a year for the whole MBA topic to sink in, and I think my last essay – for Carlson – was the most focussed, most mature and most well thought out – because after going through many essays and research and mistakes previously, I had a very good idea by the time it came to Carlson’s essay.
Find your USP now, it will help throughout your MBA – when schools ask you Why MBA, it really is about what you have done and where you want to go. By figuring this out, you will be able to come up with your “pitch” or your unique selling point, which you will rely on heavily during recruiting throughout the MBA.
All the prep you do for your essays and interviews are actually building a foundation for career interviews, because US job interviews pretty much feed off behavioural questions that you will see on your MBA admission interviews.
I feel a little less stressed now because I was able to polish my resume and pitch before applying to MBA, and I will just need to build on these rather than start from scratch. Time is gold once you start your MBA.
I am excited about the possibilities ahead and am happy at the successful end to my MBA application process. Here’s me wishing you the best of luck for your MBA journey. Meliora!
– How to select the right business schools for your MBA
– More MBA success stories
– Facts about the Fashion industry written by Sindhu