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How Indian students at Wharton manage WIEF as a time-bound startup

Posted: March 24th, 2022, 5:19 pm
by MBACrystalBall

Imagine an international event management company where the entire staff leaves en masse, year after year. And yet, the show not only goes on, but becomes bigger and better with each passing year.

This is pretty much what happens with the Wharton India Economic Forum (WIEF), an initiative driven entirely by Wharton students.

When the WIEF organizing team reached out to MBA Crystal Ball for some help in promoting their upcoming event, we wanted to help. One option was to say yes and simply share the event details on social media. But after a little research, we felt there’s more to the WIEF story.

We asked the WIEF team some questions about the conference, how the organizing team is formed and how the full-time students at Wharton manage to juggle a backbreaking study schedule to pull off a world-class event of this scale. Abhinav Prateek and Hena Mehta, Wharton MBA 2018 students and Co-Chairs of the WIEF conference, candidly answered our queries.

Abhinav is an engineer from IIT Kanpur and worked at ITC for 2 years before starting AVSHESH, his waste management company. Hena is from Bangalore and has worked at Goldman Sachs in New York, and Ezetap, a mobile payments startup in India.

Whether you are a bschool student, an MBA aspirant or a budding entrepreneur, there are plenty of lessons and takeaways from this.

How the Indian students at Wharton manage WIEF
WIEF – The behind-the-scenes story

MBA Crystal Ball: Tell us a little about the WIEF conference.

Team WIEF: Twenty one years ago, during the decade India opened up to the world as a liberalized economy, a group of Wharton students, optimistic about the country’s future, came together to organize a business forum to showcase India’s enormous potential to the world.

Over time, part of that potential has been realized as India has become a global economic power. India today has changed considerably from India in 1996. What has not changed is our optimism about India’s future and our excitement to share the stories transpiring there today.

WIEF brought together leaders from spheres as varied as industry, policy, media and academia. Past speakers include instantly recognizable names such as President Kalam, Mukesh Ambani, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Nandan Nilekani, Chanda Kochhar and Henry Paulson among others. From the students perspective, it is absolutely incredible to interact with the leaders and watch them in action.

This eclectic mix of speakers led to an exciting journey of informed dialogues, inspired interviews, and thought-provoking discussions. Over the last two decades, as India has transformed from a fledgling economy to an emerging superpower, WIEF has closely followed, facilitated, and shaped the conversation surrounding this transformation.

An example of WIEF evolving along with the country is the Startup Challenge we instituted five years ago. To keep pace with, contribute to and support India’s thriving innovation ecosystem, we launched the Wharton India Startup Challenge.
We identify promising ventures and help them with financial support and mentorship opportunities.
This year, we’ve received over 500 applications. The competition culminates in Mumbai, where the top ten startups will pitch their ideas to a panel of seasoned investors and entrepreneurs. Prior winners have seen fortunes change as a result of this exposure.

MCB: Do the students of other nationalities at Wharton do something similar?

WIEF: Wharton students host over 20 conferences annually. Broadly, they come in two flavors;

  • Industry / Function specific conferences (e.g., Energy Conference, Sports Business Conference, Marketing Conference, etc)
  • Geographic / Affinity conferences (e.g., Wharton Africa Business Forum, Wharton Latin America Conference, MENA Conference, etc)
A full list of conferences hosted by Wharton students can be found here

Most Geographic / Affinity conference cover multiple nationalities. India, and China however, have dedicated conferences serving their respective nations. This is reflective of the demand from business school students for learning more about the hottest two economies of our age. Of course, it also makes sense given our country’s sheer size!

One thing that consistently blows my mind is that most of these conferences have been around way longer than the students themselves. So they really are a part of the Wharton legacy. And incredibly, they are all, without exception, completely student run.

MCB: How are the organizing team members selected and nominated for each post?

WIEF: The team building process starts with the outgoing chairs interviewing interested candidates for the chair position of chair. Based on the interview, the next generation of chairs are selected.

This is a pretty rigorous process, as the role of chair involves a tremendous amount of commitment. The new chairs then divvy up responsibilities among themselves – Startup Challenge, Sponsorships, Speaker Relations, Operations, Marketing and Finance.

Each chair decides their team size and they come together to float an application form for candidates to apply to their respective teams. The chairs then reach out to the individual candidates for interviews to gauge their interest and passion for the conference.

MCB: What are the responsibilities of each role?

Chair – They are CEOs of sorts. Responsible for ensuring that the overall conference gets conducted per plan and the quality of the conference keeps improving. They might have to don different hats at different points of time. All this is in addition to working on their functional responsibilities.

Startup Challenge – You can think of the team managing this as a special task force. They have complete responsibility for the startup challenge from end-to-end. The team is responsible for:

  • Deciding the format of the competition
  • Finalizing venture judges to help with the shortlisting process
  • Finalizing the panelist judges, who are ultimately responsible for picking winners
  • Reaching out to partners for potential prizes to be given to the finalists
Sponsorships – I guess if the chairs are CEOs, then this would be the CFO. The team is responsible for raising money for the conference. Primarily, this takes the form of reaching out to organizations who have incentives aligned with WIEF and gauging their interest in being a sponsor. It’s a pretty high pressure role because you either have enough money, or you don’t. There is little wriggle room in terms of costs because most of the conference decisions are made before the money starts to pour in.

Speaker Relations – Think of them as product development. The team is responsible for ensuring that our ‘product’ (the conference) meets audience expectations. They decide the theme for the conference (this year, it is “3D – Diversify. Disrupt. Deliver.”), and reach out to speakers who they think will be most relevant given the theme. Their primary responsibilities are:

  • Deciding the agenda for the conference day
  • Deciding the themes for various panels and fireside chats
  • Identifying potential speaker for these panels and keynote
  • Reaching out to these speakers and finalizing them
  • Maintaining an ongoing relationship with the speakers.
Operations – COO. Without the operations team the conference won’t happen. They are responsible for finding a venue, negotiating with vendors, managing logistics (food, multimedia, etc) and ensuring that the day of operations are taken care of (check-in, seating, etc)

Marketing – CMO. The marketing team is responsible for twin responsibilities. In the long term, the team has to ensure that we build out the WIEF brand. This involves forging partnerships with the press, developing thought leadership (have you seen our blog?), and managing our digital presence. In the shorter term, the team is also responsible for marketing the conference through various channels and ticket sales.

MCB: Since this is a student driven initiative, how is continuity maintained across the years?

It still boggles my mind that these conferences are completely student run, and have still managed to maintain their longevity. I think it boils down to three things;

  • Guidance from alumni: Once prior years’ boards graduate, most retain ties to the conference. Conference planning is a lot of work, and so WIEF remains one of the most memorable things of the chairs’ B-School experience. We are frequently on the phone with alumni, getting advice, and suggestions. The WIEF family is a tight network, as we all have this experience to bond over. Alumni have told us how the network continues to help them years down the lane.
  • Apprenticeship and coaching: During the actual conference planning, the chairs are actively putting the working team members in positions of key responsibility so that they are well groomed for when some of them eventually take over.
  • Process, not people: We build up processes to follow, and document them religiously so that the next generation of leaders doesn’t have to start from scratch. There is a blueprint for an existing conference, and the chairs build upon this to make next year’s event bigger, and better.
In many ways, these are all classic leadership principles that we are taught in school at Wharton. All we have to do is put our lessons to real world use!

MCB: How tough is the MBA academic schedule? How do the volunteers find time for extra-curricular activities?

The academic schedule is pretty demanding. Most students average 5 credit units a semester. Each credit unit is about 3 hours of class work a week, and about twice as much work outside the classroom, so it is very easy to fill an entire work week with just class work.

However most students realize that academics is just one pillar of the entire business school experience. Most students spend almost as much time on extra-curriculars, recruiting, and socializing. As you can imagine, our schedules get pretty packed pretty fast.

To answer your question more directly, it is less about finding time and more about making time for all these extra-curricular activities. Most of these projects (such as WIEF) are personal passions for students and they care deeply about them.

MCB: Would it be right to compare this project to a time-bound startup? What are the similarities and differences?

That is actually almost a spot-on comparison. As you can tell, even our language reflects that in many ways. If you think about the responsibilities, they aren’t too different;

  • Hiring a team which is self-motivated for the cause
  • Trying different things, failing and learning quickly since time is not a luxury
  • The team needs to raise money to pay the conference bills, just like a startup
  • The team puts together this conference because of their passion, just like in a startup
But there are a few key differences;

  • The brand name already exists and hence it is easier to connect with people and build meaningful relationships
  • Since we have an existing brand to protect, the risk of failing and the resulting impact is very high
  • There is no series of funding and we need it in one go
  • There are no financial rewards, so all motivation has to be intrinsic
Come to think of it, it’s actually an excellent training group for potential entrepreneurs. It tests you on all the key elements you need to succeed; leadership, ability to inspire and motivate, fundraising, equal parts attention to detail and big picture thinking, and finally, executing.

MCB: Why do MBA students volunteer? How does it complement the classroom learning?

From the responses to the previous questions, it is striking how similar this experience sounds to the real world experiences we have all shared in our prior lives, and the ones we will be going back into upon graduation.

There are classroom lessons that we have immediately put to use for the conference. For example, almost everything we learn in “Foundations of teamwork and leadership” has been applicable to this conference. This is the introductory course that is taught as a part of our orientation during Pre-term.

Equally important is the network that we build over the course of organizing this conference. Students have been in touch with industry’s top professionals, and now have an open line of communication to top organizations.

More importantly, the organizing team gets to know one another over the course of organizing the conference, and some of the closest relationships I have formed have come from this conference.
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This article is part of CrystalConnect, an outreach initiative by MBA Crystal Ball.