Surviving & Thriving

The story starts in India and it begins a long time ago in the year 2000. I could barely reach till my Dad’s waist. It was a usual evening in Kolkata. We were gathered around the dinner table as my parents listened with rapt attention to the accounts of my day at school. Every activity had to be recounted in greatest of details as my schooling was the single biggest luxury my family had afforded- the first girl in my blue-collared Indian family to have access to such elite private school education. As I freeze that moment in my head, it looks so perfect and so disjoint from what followed. That evening my father suffered a fatal cerebral stroke. By the time the ambulance arrived we had lost him. My 10-year-old brain was still trying to grapple with the concept of not being able to see dad again and hiding under the bed to avoid having to go for his last rites when reality came knocking at the door. There were bills to be paid and the only bread winner for the family was no more. I saw my mother take charge like the captain of a ship with broken radar. Expenses were slashed, the little savings were liquidated and soon even the wedding ring sold to buy ration for survival. And I had grown up by a decade over the course of a few months.

I looked up at the warrior lady that my mum was and knew I had to fight with her to survive- two Amazonian warriors against the world. And over the next 12 years of living without any stable income while my friends navigated their first crushes, I worked hard to win the full ride scholarship given to the topper of the class for 11 consecutive years. We wore handed down clothes from kind relatives, when the toothpaste tube would not yield to squeezes, we would cut the toothpaste tube open to ensure we had used the last ounce before buying the next one, the TV was 16 years old and needed a strong whack on its head to start and I would learn, by heart, how to animate text of Microsoft PowerPoint as I did not have a computer to try the steps on. Post a suitably grand finale to this heroic rags to riches tale, I won the university gold medal as I graduated as a freshly-minted engineer to join the largest IT consulting firm in the world. Education delivered on Philosopher Horace’s promise – it helped us move to a new socio-economic stratum. Let say, now we could afford a new tube of toothpaste before the old one ran out, my mom could afford medicines for her asthma and, lo and behold, we bought a new TV too. It may not be a stretch to say – we had survived. 

Fast forward to 7 years. As it turns out hard work is a habit, and I was doing remarkably well for myself – promoted now to a Chief of Staff role leading the launch of Starbucks tea café chain in India. On quiet nights, as I sat alone on the table, I would give a gentle pat on my back for having made an almost impossible journey from a first-generation low-income ecosystem navigating a hundred raised eyebrows in a society unfamiliar with women pursuing STEM education and a professional career. I felt proud of my near infinite Return on Investment in education having managed almost the entirety of my tuition through scholarships and scoffed at those who used lack of finances as an excuse to drop out. And guess the time was just right to question my assumptions about privilege and the lack of it. My employer was deeply committed to ESG and my next assignment was in kickstarting a tribal scholarship to arrest the massive dropout rates of meritorious girl children in some of the most impoverished villages in India post middle school. I was pumped and more confident than Goliath in his legendary fight with David. Afterall who shall know the plight of an adolescent girl wondering how to pay her school fees than the girl who had wondered so herself! I relocated to my new base: a remote resource-deprived tribal village in India – Khunti. I had a plan ready even before I had reached – a presentation proposing full scholarship program for the most meritorious students in the district. That should take care of it all. After all it did for me! I needed some stakeholder interviews to validate my recommendation and then we could focus on project execution. So off I went searching for the younger me’s – to interview them and understand how to help them best. As I travelled across 23 villages, connecting with students, their families, teachers, and local governmental authorities, I realized how little I understood about privilege. I learned that Lakshmi, the district topper in middle school has not been able to attend classes after the first 9 months of the academic calendar as the granted school uniform is her single piece of garment and it has torn in places with usage. She is waiting for the next academic year and a new uniform to be able to step out of her house without wearing gunny bags. Manu, the winner of state level Math challenge hopes to grow up and become a plumber in the closest city– the most sophisticated and high paying job he has ever known about. And as I lived with them through daily 4-hour power cuts, mosquito stings, rationed amenities, and even more rationed dreams, I realized how privileged a life I have led when there was shortage of finance but no shortage of role models and dreams. In the scholarship program I attempted to create a complete ecosystem of support for the scholar spanning boarding, lodging in the nearest city, health & nutrition, internet as a gateway to the world, monetary support for the family to compensate for the opportunity cost of the scholar’s labor in the field, and most importantly, career counselling, introducing them to possible use cases of education. We could start the project within a remarkably short time and could successfully reduce the drop-out rate remarkably in the pilot district impacting the lives of half a million children in that area. 

But, I feel the most profound impact was on me in the realization that as difficult as my life may have been, there are still so many millions who have it worse and that, in order to elevate from surviving the battle of life to thriving in it, I need to pay forward all that I have been lucky to receive – especially the inspiration of a strong role model that I found in my mother – by being one myself. Here I end with a shoutout to each one of you in my Wharton family for being superheroes in your own rights and hope that you shall choose to hold up the lamp at the end of the tunnel for someone in dire need of a role model and inspire her / him to survive and thrive.

My App Puts Money in Your Pocket

In 2018, I quit my job as a successful volatility trader to build an app that helps people earn as much money as possible from credit card rewards.

Fast forward to 2021 and my app, Card Curator, is available in the App Store and Play Store.  It’s been downloaded more than 1,000 times, and we’ve yet to start our marketing campaign.

So, what happened between 2018 and 2021? Why did I quit my job to build an app? And how can my app put money in your pocket?

I’m glad you asked.

As a volatility trader for Merrill Lynch, I made plenty of money, but I was miserable. Travel has always been my passion, but vacation days were hard to come by, especially as a junior at the company. In 2013, I discovered how to use credit card spending and rewards to fund luxury travel. I spent hours researching credit cards and earned enough rewards to take some awesome trips, but I could only go so far with five days off per year. 

Everything changed in 2017.

By then I was no longer a junior, and I convinced three of my best friends to take a two-week trip to Japan and Korea — funded entirely by credit card rewards. The planning was intense. I spent months on it, and each of us opened 4-5 new credit cards to earn sign-up bonuses and take advantage of rewards deals, but my strategy paid off.  

We cashed in our rewards for first-class flights and five-star hotels in Tokyo and Seoul and had the time of our lives exploring East Asia for two weeks.  

Once I got back to NYC, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much fun the trip was and how amazing it was to pay for it all not with cash, but with credit card rewards.  Why doesn’t everyone do this, I wondered?

Eventually, I figured it out. Two things are holding most people back from playing and winning the credit card points and miles game.

First, most people have no idea how much is possible to earn from credit card rewards. They don’t know their credit card benefits or how to maximize them, so they leave thousands of dollars on the table every year.

Second, finding the best credit card deals takes a lot of time and effort. The fastest way to earn rewards is to research the best sign-up bonuses and open a series of new cards to capture the rewards. Most people don’t have the time to scour the internet for information, or the energy to manage multiple credit cards.

I was undeterred by these realizations. What if there was a way to automate all the hard work and help more people earn maximum rewards?

There wasn’t a way at the time, so I decided to make one. I started working on building an algorithm to automatically find the best credit card deals and offer tailored recommendations to earn the most possible rewards. My team and I named the concept “Card Curator,” because its goal is to act as a caretaker of our customers’ credit cards.

By October 2018, I had quit my job to work on building an app full-time. I made a lot of progress with the help of my dad and a few advisors, but I realized I needed more support.

In August 2020, I started the Wharton MBA program. I chose Wharton because of its excellent entrepreneurship program, reputation for incubating student-founded startups, and strong fintech offerings.

I haven’t been disappointed. As a member of the Wharton VIP X Accelerator program, I’ve had access to the mentorship and resources I needed to take Card Curator to the next level. 

Our successes over the last few months have been exciting. Card Curator won the Wharton Summer Venture Award, received a WeissFund Tech House Grant, and made it to the semifinals of MIT’s FinTech competition. We also built out our website, completed our soft launch, and made some significant app upgrades. 

Today, Card Curator is a fully functioning app putting money in people’s pockets by optimizing credit card rewards. By following our personalized recommendations, you can automatically earn 5-10% or more on all your credit card spending, compared to the average of 1-2% that most people earn from their cards. All credit card rewards are tax-free and can be used however you choose.

The algorithm’s recommendations are based on your goals. You can choose to maximize cashback, charitable contributions, or points and miles. With Card Curator’s premium plan, you can even set a specific travel goal complete with flight and hotel details.

Once you enter your goals, Card Curator’s proprietary algorithm determines the best set of cards for you and recommends a set of cards to help reach your goals as quickly as possible.  

If your goal is to maximize cashback, the recommendations will represent the set of cards that will help you maximize cashback rewards from your everyday spending.

If your goal is to take a first-class flight to Zagreb with your best friend and spend two weeks staying in 5-star hotels and exploring Croatia, your card recommendations will include the cards with the best travel rewards for your specific trip.

But Card Curator does more than recommend cards you should sign up for. The app also helps you manage the cards you already have and track all your rewards. When you add your existing cards to your Card Curator Wallet, you get automatic geolocation-based recommendations to help you choose the right card for every purchase, so you earn maximum rewards every time you spend money.

I’m proud of how far Card Curator has shaped up and am excited about the future. There are no other apps like Card Curator available, and the possibilities for growth are enticing. We’re starting our first major marketing campaign to build up to a hard launch this summer.  We’ve launched a new referral program, and we’re continuing to refine the app and develop new features.   

At the same time, Wharton is teaching me about what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. I know there will be challenges as Card Curator grows, but I’m ready for whatever comes. If you’d like to follow Card Curator’s journey, visit www.cardcurator.com to sign up for our newsletter or check us out on Instagram @card_curator.

The Code

How to Speak Truth to Power Work 

In the epoch of a global crisis, when uncertainty reigns supreme, workers fear job cuts, and reopening offices are driven by ambitious business mandates that may lead to increased ethical misconduct and harassment, The Conscience Code by G. Richard Shell, the Chair of Wharton’s Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department, offers actionable strategies to help you fight for your values in the twenty-first century workplace. This article offers a quick summary and review of this latest book from one of our senior Wharton professors. 

Prior to the pandemic, Shell says, surveys showed that roughly 40% of workers reported observing misconduct at work in a given year and 25% were pressured to become complicit in misdeeds. Will the return to offices bring a new spike in these statistics? Shell thinks there is a “good chance it will.”

Shell’s prior books on negotiation (Bargaining for Advantage) and success (Springboard), are well-known to Wharton audiences. He describes his latest work this way: “This book brings everything I know about effective negotiation and persuasion to the table to help people deal with the most important conflicts of all—the ones over core values such as honesty, personal dignity, fairness, and justice when the pressure is on to look the other way. These conflicts do not come every day, but when they do you had better be prepared. They are the true tests of your character.”

Below you will find a quick overview the book, which takes readers on a research-based, four-stage journey that illuminates the way these conflicts unfold. What the article cannot do is describe the stories and tactical nuances that Shell uses to outline the path. As Shell commented in an interview with The Wharton Journal, “The book’s goal is to inspire readers to lead with their values, becoming forces for good who help create nurturing and productive work environments in which office bullying, ethical shortcuts, and harassment are replaced with principles of transparency and fairness.”

The journey starts with recognizing that you face something more than just a disagreement over office behavior, strategy, or execution.  You must be willing to see that important values and principles are at risk in a dispute, even if it is inconvenient or anxiety-provoking to do so.  The journey continues as you “own” the situation and take responsibility for it, then decide what to do, and finally take action.  Shell explained that a simple way to remember this journey is with a metaphor from air combat tactics: the OODA Loop.  Like fighter pilots, Shell says, advocates for workplace values must Observe, Own, Decide, and Act – and then “Loop” back to adjust and respond based on the options that emerge.

Step 1: Observe and Face the Conflict

As Shell says in Chapter 1, “When you turn toward the problem instead of away from it, you challenge yourself to become part of the solution.”

It is common to look away when you witness a misconduct that does not directly impact you. It is even more common to ignore an issue just to avoid challenging the status quo, leading to sub-optimal results in terms of creativity, productivity, and job satisfaction. ‘Ethical refugees’ choose to depart from a workplace that is devoid of ethics checks, resulting in a stampede of the best talent leaving the firm. 

But is fleeing from the conflict always the right decision? What is the guarantee that the next destination will not present similar problems? Facing the challenge head-on may not be the easiest thing to do, but it is usually the right thing. You will feel better about yourself, building confidence as a leader.  What’s more, standing up for your core values often empowers others to do the same thing, rallying like-minded co-workers into an effective coalition.

Shell notes a surprising fact: “otherwise troubling emotions such as anger, guilt, and shame can play positive roles in motivating you to take action. It is really a question of channeling your moral outrage constructively and recognizing that taking action now can avoid painful feelings of guilt or shame that may arise later if you look away.”  

Finally, Shell advises his readers to become familiar with the pressures that can make speaking truth to power hard (and inspire rationalizations to do nothing), including peer pressure, pressures from bosses, the power of perverse incentives, and the expectations that come with corporate roles we may occupy. In his book, Shell quotes the whistleblower who helped bring to light the massive Enron corporate accounting scandal in 2001, Sherron Watkins. She once said that all you need to create an ethical crisis in an organization are three things: pressure, opportunity, and a face-saving rationalization. The first step in being a leader for your values is recognizing this pattern so you do not get caught in its web.

Step 2: Own the Situation – Take Responsibility

With awareness of the difficulties that obscure justice and fairness, one is better prepared to stand up for one’s core values. The second section of the book offers valuable insights for ‘taming’ fear and harnessing courage so you can lean into the conflict.  Shell notes that the greatest enemy of character is rationalization.

“Even bad people think well of themselves,” he says. Thus, a boss or colleague who is pressuring you to do something wrong very likely believes that they are nevertheless a good person. “This requires them to be adept at various forms of self-deception, especially denial and rationalization” (Shell 73).  He encourages readers to recognize the most common rationalizations that can beguile you into going along with misconduct you know to be wrong, such as “everybody does it,” “just this once,” “I have no choice,” and “nobody will notice.”

A second barrier to speaking up is having a conflict-averse personality. Shell provides a useful Conflict Attitudes Assessment to help readers identify their personal conflict styles, which in turn provides a deeper understanding of personality strengths that can be leveraged in making ‘speaking up for the right reasons’ an easier quest.

One of the key insights in the book is what Shell called “The Power of Two.”  Never take on a values conflict alone. As he writes, “Working with others in support of a cause increases everyone’s courage and confidence” (Shell 133).  The Power of Two is a powerful way to overcome personality-based barriers and push rationalizations to the side so you can take effective action.

Step 3: Decide to Act

In the third section of the book, Shell introduces four time-tested decision factors that have helped people make tough choices in social dilemmas for centuries. These mirror the traditional content of business ethics courses, but present them in actionable form as the “CLIP” factors. These are a set of four questions to help you uncover 1) potential consequences of a decision, 2) issues related to conflicting loyalties, 3) identity-affecting concerns (“Who will I be if I refuse to take action in this situation?”), and 4) the core principles you hold that must be upheld.

Step 4: Take Action, Then Adjust Based on the Response 

The final step on the journey is to take effective action to protect your values. This section of the book presents a detailed set of alternatives that apply in every organizational setting. As an expert in negotiation and persuasion, Shell presents examples of good dialogue techniques that include asking good questions, careful listening, reframing the problem so others can understand it in their terms, providing the other party with the arguments and information they need to persuade themselves. 

Shell demonstrates how it possible to transform conflicts into collaborations by aligning principles and incentives for the most appropriate outcome.

When dialogue fails, other tactics may be pertinent. As Shell puts it, “These include elevating an issue to higher levels of authority, reporting misconduct to appropriate tribunals, using political pressure to motivate change, and, that most dramatic of all moves—whistleblowing” (Shell 10). The central idea is to promote accountability that serves as a ‘wake-up call’ when ethical standards are compromised. 

The final chapter of the book is a call for committed, integrity-based leadership, coaxing you to be the leader who is a patron of value-based work culture in which morale, productivity and trust thrive. Shell points out that it is not only about doing things right (duty-of-care values), but also about doing the right thing (ethical values) and being the right kind of person (character values). 

Conclusion

This short article provides only a high-level overview of the contents of The Conscience Code, but rest assured that the book that is a storehouse of compelling real-world examples and stories. As anyone who has read one of his other books knows, Richard Shell collects and integrates research with vivid examples of people from diverse backgrounds and experiences—then creates frameworks that are roadmaps for action. His books are often several books rolled into one, and this one is no exception. 

To sum up: this book from the author of the Springboard, the book that is the backbone of the Wharton School’s renowned P3 program, provides great insights into the concept of responsible leadership. It presents compelling talking points for professionals of all age groups, and I highly recommend it for young professionals, especially those considering career advancement through MBA and other leadership development programs.

Overview of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Symposium on Social Change and 25th Annual Community Involvement Recognition Awards

Each year, during the month of January, the University of Pennsylvania and surrounding communities come together to commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The commemoration reminds us of our interdependence and reaffirms our commitment to the betterment of our communities through civility and service. The 2021 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Symposium on Social Change Executive Planning Committee of the University of Pennsylvania announced the 25th Annual Community Involvement Recognition Awards on January 26, 2021.

In the honor of the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s recognition that local engagement is essential to the struggle for equality, these awards honor the members of the Philadelphia community whose local engagement and active service to others best exemplify the ideals Dr. King espoused. The six awards are presented in the following areas: Faculty of the University (1), Youths or Adult in Philadelphia (2), Undergraduate Student of the University (1), Graduate Student of the University (1), and Community Education (1).

Ashley Betts, a first-year MBA candidate of the Wharton School, was selected as the 2021 Graduate Student Honoree – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Involvement Recognition Award for demonstrating significant community contributions service and working for social justice efforts in Philadelphia.

The following is the link to the pre-recorded Awards program: https://chaplain.upenn.edu/mlk2021

Ashley Betts, The Wharton School, Penn’s 2021 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 25th Annual Community Involvement Graduate Student Honoree

Ashley Betts is a Meckler Family Endowed Fellow and first-year MBA Candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s The Wharton School. Ashley was recently selected as Penn’s 2021 Graduate Student Honoree for the annual MLK Community Involvement Awards, acknowledging individuals whose active service exemplifies Dr. King’s vision. She has demonstrated a sustained commitment to community involvement throughout her personal and professional life and has significantly impacted the Philadelphia and Penn community in just a short period of time. As Vice President of Social Impact on Warton Graduate Association’s Cluster Council, Ashley is tackling homelessness in Philadelphia. Ashley is leading a homeless fundraiser across Wharton’s first-year class in which MBA students work with Philadelphia nonprofits to raise money and hand out care packages to those in need. 

Ashley also serves on the Rebuilding Together Board, an organization that annually organizes over 500 volunteers who participate in a three-day “Block Build” in Philadelphia’s Belmont neighborhood. Ashley is passionate about building wealth through homeownership and believes in Rebuilding Together’s mission to transform low-income homeowners’ lives by improving their homes’ safety and health and revitalizing their communities. Ashley also serves on the Dean’s MBA Advisory Board, a student group that consults with Wharton’s Dean and administrators on critical strategic issues. She is working with the Penn Netter Center Program to help create Wharton’s first Academically Based Community Service MBA course, in which students and faculty work with West Philadelphia public schools, communities of faith, and community organizations to help solve critical community problems in a variety of areas, such as the environment, health, arts, and education.

As Director of Social Impact for Wharton’s African American MBA Association, Ashley helped design a program to support black-owned businesses in the Philadelphia area recover from the pandemic. AAMBAA’s “Buy Black” challenge highlights black-owned Philadelphia businesses that have suffered disproportionately during the coronavirus pandemic and encourages Wharton MBA students to patronize and support their economic recovery efforts. She also led AAMBAA’s “Adopt a Family for Christmas” initiative that serves two Philadelphia families who have been impacted by COVID-19. Ashley is passionate about diversity and committed to working hard to help end racism and injustice in our communities. She co-founded Wharton’s newest club, Wharton Diversity Equity & Inclusion Consultants. Wharton DEI Consultants is a club committed to building a pipeline of Wharton MBA students equipped to help Philadelphia and national organizations overcome DEI barriers. Ashley also serves on the Return on Equality Board, a club responsible for conducting Wharton’s campus-wide diversity survey, designated to help build a more equitable and inclusive environment in which all students and faculty thrive. Ashley takes her desire to dismantle structures of oppression in the Philadelphia community and puts it into action.

Q&A with Ashley Betts WG’22, Penn’s 2021 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 25th Annual Community Involvement Graduate Student Honoree

‘Why was this involvement important to you?’

My involvement in the Wharton and Philadelphia community has been especially important to me during the global COVID-19 pandemic and America’s reckoning on racial justice. I’ve always been passionate about issues of social justice. When applying to business school, I knew that I would somehow incorporate social impact into my MBA journey – I just wasn’t sure exactly how at the time. MBA students have many impact opportunities, whether through global experiences, coursework, clubs, or business case competitions. Although I wouldn’t have imagined in a million years that I’d be starting my MBA journey in a dual pandemic of COVID‐19 and systemic inequities in the US – I soon realized that this was divine timing. The dual pandemic magnified inequalities within society and widened racial disparities in education, health, entrepreneurship, and the workforce. There honestly couldn’t have been a better time to start business school and make significant, positive change in the Wharton and Philadelphia community! 

‘What did you learn from this experience?’

Through this experience, I’ve learned how incredibly passionate Wharton MBA students are about making a positive difference in the local Philadelphia community. The pandemic placed significant strains on the nonprofit and volunteering sector. Over 50% of nonprofits said that 75% of their workforce was from volunteer service, and due to stay-at-home orders across the country, nonprofits needed support more than ever. With Philadelphia being the poorest, biggest city in America, Wharton MBA students had a unique opportunity to make a tremendous difference during the COVID-19 pandemic – and WE DID!  We all knew the fall semester of 2020 would be unlike any other. But as stressful as this experience was for all of us, I am uplifted and encouraged by all the ways my classmates showed up to support the community initiatives, volunteer programs, and fundraising efforts organized for the Philadelphia community. My hope is that these new partnerships between local Philadelphia organizations and the Wharton School will continue to grow in the years to come.

‘How do you see yourself being involved going forward?’

As I wrap up my first year of business school, I am proud of the tremendous impact we’ve made at Wharton and throughout the Philadelphia community. In my second year of business school, I envision continuing this work. The two initiatives that I am most excited about continuing are the Dean’s MBA Advisory Council (DMAC) and Wharton’s DEI Consultants. Now more than ever, there are many options for tackling our times’ complex social issues through an MBA. As a DMAC Civic and Community Engagement member, I look forward to helping create Wharton’s first Academically Based Community Service MBA course. Lastly, while many organizations have made strides in becoming more diverse and inclusive, we still have far to go before all employees have full opportunities to contribute and succeed and workforces reflect society’s demographics. Wharton DEI Consultants will play a pivotal role in building a pipeline of Wharton MBA students equipped to help Philadelphia and national organizations overcome DEI barriers. Ultimately, going forward, you’ll find me striving for social justice and creating a better world through my work.

Back to the Classrooms

With the onset of the Spring Semester, 2021, long drawn-out months of waiting to return to the classrooms finally came to an end; the MBA students could now set foot in the Jon M. Huntsman Hall to attend in-person classes in the Wharton’s limited in-person / hybrid model. I had particularly chosen courses that had in-person options and have been a regular in-person student since the first day of the semester.

On the first day of the semester, I took a SEPTA Route 21 bus that dropped me opposite to the Walnut Street entrance of the Huntsman. I looked at the building, a building so striking and poised, and my first day at Wharton flashed before my eyes. I took a moment to reflect … So much has changed in the world since that day … So much of me has changed, and it is not just the pandemic that stirred the globe, it is the reminder that ‘we are not in control’ that sent out a wave of frenzy forcing us to rethink our outlook of life.

But … we survived. Now, it was time to slowly resume normalcy. While the University had meticulously planned our safe return to campus for in-person classes; we had our responsibilities too. Not only was it important to comply with the Student Campus Compact (SCC) laid out by the University, but it was also crucial that we did our part in inspiring those around us to recommence life as we knew it in the pre-pandemic world, but now conscientiously following COVID-19 prevention guidelines outlined by Penn.

“I will be a hypocrite if I do not attend the in-person classes,” said Mike Sorrentino, a fellow MBA student, who, just like me, regularly attends in-person classes. I must mention here that it takes an additional layer of dedication to the ‘spirit of Wharton’ to shake off the morning / afternoon sloth to commute to school every day of the week in the presence of an alternative; but witness to the arduous rebellions of the raging student body when Fall 2020 was announced to be virtual, a lot of us expected MBA students to be fighting over the limited number of in-person seats. With such conjecture, the Wharton Seat Management Application came to exist. 

In this article, I am sharing my experience, thus far, with the limited in-person / hybrid model; particularly, I will talk about some of the mandates, the infrastructure, and what’s going well.

I have been the model in-person student, and on the first day of every course, I felt like a man on the moon, sharing his experience with those on the lonely planet. Each Professor asked me how I was feeling being back to the classroom. Soon, I started receiving emails and WhatsApp queries from other students who were preparing to get back on campus. The SCC is long and crammed with terms and conditions; it makes getting back to campus seem more grueling than it really is. So, let me start with some of the mandatory requirements for entry to the Huntsman. 

Some of the mandates:

Three levels of security, daily symptoms check and weekly COVID test … yes, that’s the firewall for COVID-19 prevention at Wharton. All UPenn buildings (or at least the ones commonly known) have access control system, but we never needed our PennCard to access the Huntsman before. Now, this is the first line of defense to curtail unauthorized entry. Also, the Walnut Street egress is now ‘exit only’, so center city people (almost all MBA students) have to walk some extra length to get to the entrance on the Locust Walk. Once you’ve used your PennCard to swing the door open, you will encounter a security personnel who will ask for your PennCard (again) and PennOpen Pass; there is no swiping or tapping at this level, it’s just a visual inspection. Then you enter the lobby, adorned with booths (pandemic-prevention additions), you are required to walk up to a booth, tap your PennCard to record your attendance, show your PennOpen Pass (again), and the person at the booth will check her list to confirm if indeed you have a seat assigned to you. So, if you are thinking of attending an in-person session, the first step is to book your seat through the Wharton Seat Management App that I alluded to before. The building having limited carrying capacity will deny you a seat if the maximum capacity is reached and you were unable to secure your seat in the daily seat allocation lottery. If you were allotted a seat and just decided to not show up, without releasing your seat, this will affect the lottery algorithm and will work against you the next time you request a seat in a high demand scenario.

So, what’s this PennOpen Pass that I mentioned so many times? It is basically the report of your daily symptoms check and weekly test. You need to be devoid of any symptoms of the disease and tested COVID-19 negative (in the weekly Saliva test) for this Pass to remain ‘green’. If the pass is ‘red’ due to non-compliance to mandates or any alarming symptom, you will not be allowed inside the building. 

Phew. That seems a lot, but you get into the habit and it becomes a second nature within a few days.

The infrastructure:

The classrooms look so different: huge screens to project virtual students to in-person students and Professors, additional microphones to make classroom discussions of in-person students audible to virtual students, and bold signs on seats to distinguish the seats that are up for grabs, maintaining physical distance indoors. Classrooms that have about 70-person capacity can now house only 24. Antibacterial wipes dispenser at every door is really convenient, a reminder to clean up when we transition between spaces. A necessary inconvenience is the ban on eating and drinking inside the classroom; even the drinking water fountains are shut down. Guards frequently patrol the corridors to strew inessential gatherings (if any).

What’s going well:

Just the privilege of being able to walk through the Huntsman Hall doors again is exhilarating. In-person students get a lot of time to engage in random, but intense, discourses, while the Professors juggle the break-out rooms for the online counterparts. In some classes, the Professors participate in student-led small group discussions; these are such great opportunities for gaining deeper insights into topics that we learn. Finally, no virtual setting can replace face-to-face interactions when a student has a plethora of questions that can quickly be addressed by rough sketches on physical whiteboards, without the crippling crutches of the Zoom fatigue.

While the current setting is different from what we envisioned it to be when we started the program, I am a firm believer in silver linings. I think that this model is giving us more opportunity for one-on-one interactions with Professors and other students. I personally feel that I get more time and attention to get my doubts / queries addressed and have more meaningful conversations. 

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”I think that we are a little more antifragile now than we used to be. We take things a little less for granted now than we used to. We have learned to expect the unexpected. We have survived through extremely difficult times. The sparsely populated hallways of the Huntsman, to me, symbolize hope, hope of resiliency, hope of persistence, and hope of a better tomorrow.

A Sense of Place

When I was promoted to Associate at the investment bank I worked at, for the first time in years, I had leisure time. During these new reprieves I found myself cooking. I urgently wanted a taste of home. So, I attempted to cook my grandmother’s chicken curry for the first time. Much to my surprise, it came out almost perfect!  As I was relishing this taste of home, I reflected on what this modest accomplishment meant for me personally, and what such a feeling might mean to my peers, many of whom, like myself, were miles away from any place they might call home.

“I’m moving.” Words I often spoke to friends, family, and colleagues. Seattle, Vancouver, London, Mumbai, San Francisco, and New York: I have made many moves, because, like most young people, I was pursuing education, jobs and promotions to build a career. With every move I make and with every conversation I have with someone moving, I’m reminded of environmentalist Alan Durning’s book, This Place on Earth, in which he recounts traveling to the Philippines to interview members of a remote tribe about their land and livelihood. The matriarch of the tribe asks the author what his homeland is like. After a long pause, he answers, “In America, we have careers, not places.”

In coming to Wharton, I have found even more time to cook. In keeping with the spirit of trying to make Philly a place, I do my best to invite my fellow Wharton peers over to share these home cooked meals. As I revel in these dinners with friends and think through the beautiful relationships that food inspires, I think about how fleeting these nights are. After we all graduate, we will move to cities across the earth in pursuit of our careers. In undertaking these moves, we will almost never ask our friends how they will feel if we move far away. Perhaps we should. Not only do we damage any sense of place we had for ourselves when we move, but we also damage it for everyone in that place who loves us. While you don’t need to live close by to someone in order to be close to them, a meaningful place – a home – is built in the company of people.

This might be naive of me, but sometimes I think that many of the world’s problems, because they are global in scale, are the result of a lack of connection to one another. Corporate malfeasance, corruption, climate change, and innumerable other woes can be traced not to an inherent turpitude of the people who do these things, but rather, to a malfunction in their understanding of how their actions have downstream effects on their communities; a consequence, I believe, of people having an assortment of frayed connections, in lieu of a sense of place. Alan Durning continues in his book that a sense of “place was not only the anchor missing from my life but an anchor missing from others’ lives … an anchor that might turn the voracious efficiency of our industrial society to the ends of enduring longer rather than producing and consuming more.”

The night I cooked my Grandmother’s chicken, I packed some of it up and took it to work the next day. As I was walking to my desk, I noticed an exhausted MBA intern. I didn’t know her very well and didn’t want to disturb her as she feverishly pounded at her keyboard for our Managing Director’s inane request, but lunchtime was soon approaching, and I felt she might like a break, and one that wouldn’t involve yet another Seamless order. I approached her desk and invited her to share in this meal I had cooked the night before. Over the course of that summer and over a few more meals, she and many of the interns, slowly turned from transient peers to some my closest friends. Suddenly, their being there – being alive in the same place as me – helped to make something of a place, out of the grey, anonymous cubicles of the bullpen.

Looking Back at the Difficult Times; Remote Socializing in 2020

Now that in-person events have started (with precautions) in the Wharton campus and beyond, it is hard to believe what we survived the dreadful year of 2020. This article is about the year 2020’s most difficult challenge: socializing in times of social distancing …

How do you actively engage with the community in times of social distancing? How do you build those connections, which are meant to have lasting impacts, when you are trapped in a tiny box in a 19-inch screen of several boxes? Even if you feel engaged in a remote setting, how do you ensure that the others in the meeting room are also fully present (and not just doing some other work sitting in front of the camera)?

In 2020, the Zoom / BlueJeans world emerged from its not-so-eminent pre-existence and took charge of our lives when the real world was paralyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic. This change in medium of communication, communication being the primary mode of self-expression and thus, a supreme human right, was no less than a step in the evolution of mankind. We were learning about possibilities we never thought of exploring before, and we were learning about the challenges that these opportunities entailed. One notable challenge was socializing in the times of social distancing. 

Aristotle once said, “Man is by nature a social animal … Society is something that precedes the individual”, and his aphorism rings true as we gauge the extent of our emotional wellbeing that is affected by social interactions. Let’s face it, even an introvert needs some regular dose of human interactions to stay sane! We all need to be socially active (to varying levels) to avoid being consumed by the dark sorceries of a mind in isolation.

Wharton is famed for its strong community-focused culture. Engaging actively with this community during the MBA journey is as important as academics and recruiting; these connections will be leverage for life and guarantee the most reliable safety net throughout one’s career. If you have the bandwidth of engaging in the greater UPenn community, you are just making this safety net stronger! So, actively engaging with the Wharton / UPenn community is something you cannot afford to miss if you want a 360-degree experience of the ideal MBA life, and you got to find your way around obstacles to community engagement because embracing challenges is the mark of a true leader! Thankfully, the Wharton student body is composed of such leaders and we have the Office of Student Life to reinforce the values of community and affinity during the MBA program and beyond … 

As Student Life Fellows (SLFs), we were in the frontline of the crisis management team, among the student body, ideating ways to engage current and incoming students in the Wharton community culture during the unprecedented times of global lockdown of 2020. It was hard and frustrating, but there was no dearth of creativity. I remember our first major virtual social event. This event was meant to be a substitute for a retreat to Atlantic City (or so I’ve heard). Was it as fun? The answer is YES! Okay, maybe it was not Atlantic City kind of fun, but we engaged in activities that required days of planning and teamwork. A community acclaimed for its Cluster-Cohort structure and “the” Wharton Olympics, can never get enough of inter-Cluster competition … we are always pumped up for some ‘Battle Royale’ among Clusters, so we created an offseason virtual version that required targeted preparation and coordination! I remember frantically hunting for ‘Bee’ costume online as I was struck by major FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out: a B-school lingo); I was a ‘new bee’ in C3 (after being a C4 Tiger in my first year) and I didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to dress up in costume. Behold those lockdown days, when deliveries were often delayed, I ended up improvising with face (and neck) painting … you see, we ooze creativity and on-spot decision making, and times of uncertainties are the best moments to harness these strengths! 

After rounds of group chats, trivia, and eating and drinking game, we acted out our favorite “Mean Girls” movie scenes; recreating the 4-way phone call, changing our real names to character names, seemed to be a perfect fit for the occasion.

Pre-term commenced for the newly admitted … The SLFs were assigned their SLFams and engaging with SLFams was a whole new level of challenge. SLFam is one of the building blocks of the Wharton community, it is meant to be a safe space to vent out and seek motivation. Thus, it is important to ‘get along’ with each other and ‘play well’. How to you use Zoom as a platform to facilitate exclusive team building (and leadership development) activities? Well, you need to watch the video in the link below:

Creating such videos, an activity almost everyone engaged in during the unsettling lockdown period, requires immense amount of coordination and cooperation. Even though it seems to be a super simple task, it is actually incredibly complex because of several reasons: one usually sees her / his mirror image during live Zoom sessions that makes it difficult to imagine the final outcome (well, we could change the setting, but we were not Zoom experts that time), one does not appear in the same spot on everyone’s Gallery view and so she / he must blindly follow the instructions (for action) and line up dictated by the person who is recording, and sometimes the music is added later (which was our case), so one needs to keep one’s eyes peeled for the person before her / him (in the dictated line up) to complete action, which is the cue to start (in the not-so-rhythmic background score of awkward silence). I realized that I’m a natural at the art of creating such videos, considering that the very first attempt took only twenty minutes from announcement to end of recording! We cannot deny that the lonely lockdown spell did provide us with some great opportunities to tryout things we would’ve never tried out under normal circumstances and discover strengths we never knew we had ….  

Lastly, the crux of all remote socializing activities was shooting an entire film (remotely) in December 2020. This was UPenn Theatre Arts Council’s production “Detention: A High School Mystery” by Stimulus Children’s Theatre. The filming equipment were delivered door-to-door by the technical team, with detailed setting up instruction videos. Who would’ve known that I would learn about professional filming during my MBA journey?

Even though I prefer the ‘normal’ way of life, the virtual setting of the grim 2020 was not that bad. It was not exactly what we wanted, but we did learn immensely from it. There were efficiencies too, considering zero commute time. Nonetheless, socializing remotely echoed the connotations of a paradox, and I believe that we are happier in a world where it is not the only medium of social interactions.

John’s Quarantine Life

It has been a wild couple of months, but I have been trying to make the most of quarantine life! I spent the first several weeks after spring break hunkering down with my wife, Ji Won, in Rittenhouse trying to adapt to the new normal. After realizing how impossible it was to be socially distant running along the Schuylkill River, I started stepping up my stay-at-home workout game (while baking lots of banana bread to counterbalance these workouts, of course). I (unsuccessfully) tried to foster a puppy, did a million Zoom happy hours (including one Zoom bachelor party) and even gave myself a quarantine haircut (yikes)!

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Once I got a bit stir crazy, I fled to the mountains of Western Pennsylvania with a few fellow Whartonites. We enjoyed the great outdoors, procrastinated studying for finals, and went hiking in the beauty of the Allegheny National Forest.

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After enjoying our cabin in the woods for a while, I embarked on the 10 hours down to be with my family in North Carolina. My two brothers, our significant others, and my parents are all hunkering down until further notice as I start my virtual internship.

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‘Risk Worth Taking’- Story of Sheyda Bautista-Saeyan, WG’20

Did you ever dare to keep going even when you needed a break? Did you ever step out of your comfort zone to try something new? Did you ever dare to tell your ‘authentic’ story to a stranger without the fear of being judged?

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Not many of the readers could answer ‘yes’ to all the questions above; but I know someone who would. In an MBA program, in which the ‘community’ is so important, one obviously gets familiar with the names of the active members and contributors, and that’s how I got to know Sheyda Bautista-Saeyan. A Student Life Fellow, an Admissions Fellow, and a proactive member of different clubs and affinity groups, Sheyda’s story will not fail to inspire you. I had the opportunity to hear about the thrilling Wharton journey of this ‘Class of 2020 Graduation Ceremony Student Speaker’, over a short interview, an interview which reinstated my faith in the culture of the Wharton community in which we trust each other with our personal stories and expose our vulnerable side, only to emerge stronger.

 

“We took a huge leap … but it was absolutely a risk worth taking”- Sheyda Bautista-Saeyan.

 

Being in the top Business School is a great achievement and opportunity, but it is an impeccable challenge, nonetheless. There are risks at every step, and you cannot avoid these. The risk-taking game begins right when you decide upon pursuing an MBA, and it continues through post-MBA goal(s) selection, relocation, curriculum designing, recruiting, connecting with the community, leveraging leadership opportunities, and every single class and group discussion. It is daunting, exhilarating, and even tiring; but most importantly, it is rewarding at the end of the day.

 

“I used to think that risks were scary and overwhelming, but at Wharton, risks became exciting, and I found myself over the two years looking for ways to stretch myself”, said Sheyda, and we believe that this is the very attitude that made her what she is today … one of the most well-rounded Whartonites and truly one of the ‘MBA Best & Brightest’.

 

Sheyda mentioned that a lot of her inspiration is derived from her mother, a native citizen of Iran, who had to flee from her homeland during the 1979 revolution, at the tender age of eighteen … a huge risk to ensure that she herself, and her family, had a better life and future in the United States.

 

“She (Sheyda’s mother) could no longer dress how she wanted to, or study what she wanted to in school, and once she and her family realized that they will never return back to a state of normalcy or back to a place that they once called “home”, they packed up their things and started a new life in America”, Sheyda mentioned. Sheyda’s mother had to learn new skills and raise her family in an unfamiliar place, but looking at Sheyda today, we know that it was a risk worth taking.

 

Sadly, Sheyda’s mum passed away, unexpectedly, two days before she was scheduled to start college. Now, Sheyda was eighteen and had to take her own risks and make her own decisions without the greatest support system in the world – her mother. She had to choose between deferring college for a year, to seek comfort around her other relatives, and starting a new chapter in her life, risking breaking down into tears amidst strangers. A courageous daughter of a brave woman, Sheyda obviously chose the latter option, destined to become a great source of inspiration for a much broader community.

 

“I learned from my mom that these challenges are worth overcoming, and because of her I pushed forward and started school not knowing where I would land”, said Sheyda.

 

After being a Biology Major during her undergrad, and completing an internship in Hospital Management, Sheyda recognized her interest in the intersection of Healthcare and Management. Managing operations and facilitating strategic growth in the Healthcare industry intrigued her. To understand the thought process of executives, Sheyda went into Consulting, post undergrad. She worked for four years at a research and advisory firm at Washington DC. At this firm, she got exposure to executive decision-making, and she wanted to crystallize her management acumen at a business school. So, Sheyda decided to pursue an MBA and risked leaving the workforce. At Wharton, Sheyda is a Healthcare Management Major. After Graduation, she will be working at DaVita in Los Angeles. Sheyda will help increase access and quality of  at-home dialysis.

 

At Wharton, Sheyda always tried to find way to develop, professionally and personally. She was immensely impressed by the offerings of the McNulty Leadership Program Office. She participated in the Executive Coaching program and the P3 program, and recalls them to be the best formal ways of self-reflection, a skill she did not expect would be such a big part of the business school experience. She also mentioned travelling to ten countries in first year itself, including Cuba, Mexico, Ghana, Nigeria, Egypt, Turkey, Cyprus, Israel, Chile, and Philippines, to augment her international understanding.

 

“The Wharton community reinforces risk taking by always being there for one another and pushing each other to grow”, Sheyda recollected, “I think about this time when I let my friends convince me (that) I should jump off these ten feet cliffs to these huge bodies of water in the Philippines; I am terrified of swimming, but they were always in front of me, cheering me on when I had the courage to jump”, Sheyda recalled, “I am only one story, and I am consistently impressed and inspired by the risks our classmates take”.

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Sheyda’s story encourages us to take risks, to leap forward head-on, and to lead in unprecedented uncertainty. Today, more than ever before, we need people like Sheyda, people who show us that it is okay to suddenly find yourself in an unfamiliar environment, it is okay to feel scared, it is okay to be unsure, and it is okay to take risks, not knowing what the future will be like. Today, we do not know what the world will look like tomorrow, the entire equilibrium is shaken, and in these unpredictable times, the only thing that we can do with certainty is take risks. Today, the risks we take, for a better future and the good of the entire human race, are the risks worth taking.

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Brendan Aronson: Marine to Co-Founder of Paintru

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Brendan Aronson (WG20)

Brendan, can you talk a little bit about transitioning from the military to Wharton?

Sure thing! Transitioning out of the military is a tough time for anyone, you’re switching jobs, moving, trying to understand how civilian careers are structured, learn the basics of business, understand different industries, types of roles, how to interview, and how to deal with the VA so there are a lot of moving pieces to keep your eyes on. Coming to Wharton was the best transition I could have asked for – the veterans club on campus is a tremendous resource for military applicants who are looking for application help but more importantly for connecting with other transitioning veterans who are trying to figure out if an MBA makes sense for them or if they can go directly into industry without it. I took full advantage of the veterans at Wharton who offered to help and now I pay it forward by having calls with other veterans who were in my shoes a few short years ago.

The military veteran community at Wharton is incredible and has been instrumental in making the transition to the business world. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the other incredible resources that Wharton offers – I feel like I gained a tremendous amount from Wharton’s academically rigorous environment over these two years. I commonly joke that I couldn’t spell ‘revenue’ before coming to Wharton, and the academic curriculum has given me the foundational business knowledge I need to add value to any organization after graduation.

Finally, my classmates have been a tremendous resource for understanding what different career paths look like, how different industries function, and for personal advice as well. They’re truly a cut above and are always willing to spend time chatting with me about how I can build a career that aligns with my personal values and priorities.

How have you grown while attending Wharton?

Coming from the military where your career is so clearly structured and you know exactly what it takes to succeed, I hadn’t previously paid enough attention to selecting a career that aligns with my personal goals. Many MBA students struggle to find their purpose or which career makes the most sense for them, and veterans are no different. I do think we are different in that we are typically so focused on ensuring mission success that we don’t leave time to consider our own wants, desires, and need! Wharton has given me time and space to consider those existential questions and have greater clarity about how I want to spend my time.

I’d strongly recommend the book Reboot by Jerry Colonna – I thought it was a great starting point for thinking through a lot of these questions and for introspection more generally.

What will you be pursuing full-time after graduation?

I recently joined Paintru, which is a direct-to-consumer custom art company that turns your favorite photo into a professionally painted work of art as a co-founder! I love that we create a product that people love – the incredible details that our artists are able to capture combined with the smell of the oils and feel of the brushstrokes create a memorable gift that people really connect with.

As a co-founder of Paintru, I’m thrilled that we are able to serve as a source of income for artists whose income has been adversely affected by Coronavirus. I’m also ecstatic about the opportunity to work on different types of business problems everyday – as an entrepreneur, you work on different problem sets everyday, whether finance, marketing, operational, data analytics, you’re expected to do it all.

We’re all spending so much time at home during the quarantine, and I think many of us are getting a little stir-crazy. It has been wonderful reading emails from customers raving about how their Paintru art dramatically improved their home or office to keep them feeling great during the quarantine. Additionally, we’ve completed artwork for small businesses who are looking to refresh their office design. We work directly with interior designers and can match pantone colors to create the perfect environment for your business and I hope that people will check us out when they think about the space that they spend time in.

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What advice do you have for students or applicants who may be interested in pursuing entrepreneurship?

I think veterans err on the side of caution when selecting their careers, which results in a lot of us pursuing banking or consulting. This is a great route for many, but if you think you have an entrepreneurial drive, I’d challenge veterans to take a shot! Do a summer internship at an early stage startup. Launch a business doing something extremely simple (sell t-shirts if you need a place to start!) during pre-term. Having a business to think about while you’re tackling the Wharton curriculum helps reinforce the classroom learning and has enriched my second year beyond belief.

Overall, this is very cliché but I would recommend that people believe in themselves and be willing to take a shot. Ask yourself what the worst possible outcome is – if you’re a Wharton graduate who has a failed startup, do you think a future hiring manager would view that negatively or understand that you likely bring a unique perspective to a future role? Would you hire someone who started a business after Wharton and learned a ton of tangible skills along the way?

All of the professors here recommend that students with an interest in entrepreneurship pursue it immediately post-graduation. I know it’s intimidating, but I think more veterans should take their advice and take the plunge!

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