Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Darden in New Orleans

Darden is notorious in the business school world for being one of the more structured academic programs, especially in the first year. We are primarily case study based in the first year, but I have found my second year classes to be much less structured and much more diverse in the types and styles of classes and professors. For Spring Break this year, I took a unique and fascinating experiential learning class called "Entrepreneurs as a Change Agent." I spent the week with 24 of my classmates, our professor, and numerous guest speakers in New Orleans - having case discussions, making site visits, and enjoying the nightlife and history of New Orleans. We talked about poverty, housing, education, public finance and urban redevelopment. The angle, of course, being how MBAs can make a difference in all of these areas to create sustainable change.

Below are some of my final reflections from the course (written a few weeks ago as my final paper for the class…) as well as some pictures to share. FYs - this was one of the coolest classes I have taken this year - make sure you sign up for next year!


Last week was the first time I had ever been to New Orleans, and quite honestly – despite my peripheral following of the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina – the first time I have paid attention to this region of our country or the issues that have plagued New Orleans pre- and post-Katrina. I am grateful for the week and this class, because despite considering myself as someone who “cares about the world,” I have let myself put on blinders for the last two years at Darden and become a bit transactional, even when discussing social issues. However, being on the ground in New Orleans was an amazing opportunity not only to experience and observe some of the basic problems around housing, education, and the dynamics of low-income communities in the U.S., but also to see the energy and resilience of folks who want to find solutions to these problems. In addition, the trip was personally energizing and has helped me refocus (or at least remind me of) a few of my longer-term personal and professional goals of making a broader community impact.

For the purposes of this reflection, I outlined a few of my biggest surprises and learnings coming out of the trip, as well as highlighting a few of favorite parts of the trip.

My Basic Summary of New Orleans:
New Orleans – similar to most cities, but also more starkly defined than other cities – is a city of paradoxes. The juxtaposition of rich and poor, new and old, black and white, lively and desolate, engaged and despondent is evident from one block to the next. It was as fascinating to see the energy of the French Quarter, the mansions in the Garden District, and the significance of the city in American history, as it was to see and learn about the deserted and decaying houses in the flood aftermath, the broken education system, and the racially segregated low-income communities. My basic summary of New Orleans is that it is a special place: a city rooted in centuries of history, but also a city leading the charge to create transformational social change.

Reflections on our Project:
[As part of the course, we were split up into teams and worked with a corporate sponsor on a certain project. My group worked on a project called, "Teaching to Fish" -based on the quote, “give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” The project was to work with a local, recently rebuilt public housing project, and think about ways to engage residents and provide programming through the local community center.]

Prior to Darden, I worked at an international development non-profit focused on business solutions to poverty. A huge part of our project portfolio was focused entrepreneurship training and helping develop and sustain businesses in the developing world. Through my work, I traveled through many impoverished rural communities and city slums in Africa and India, working on basic skill-building programs, visiting community cooperatives, and providing business advice for entrepreneurs hoping to expand their businesses. My biggest surprise on this trip was the difference between domestic poverty and international poverty - and the complexity of the types of solutions that are needed to move the needle on domestic poverty.

When we first read our project description and started brainstorming different ideas on how to approach our project, my team came up with a long list of ideas, ranging from starting an incubator for entrepreneurs to building membership organizations like grocery store cooperatives where residents must work in the store to use its projects to the Café Reconcile [see below] model of experiential learning on practical skill-building. However, the basic premise of many of these programs was that residents wanted to engage and build up their community. After speaking with the community development manager, we found out quite the opposite – not only was resident participation in current programming abysmal, but the residents didn’t see a reason to engage with the community center or become self-sufficient. The survey data we analyzed was even more perplexing – while 80% of residents wanted professional development help, most of them were not willing to attend the events or put in the work. Instead, residents wanted more holiday parties and access to video games for their children. For a community living so far below the poverty line, these residents expected a number of luxuries, but based on the data and attendance levels, were unwilling to give a lot to attain the lifestyle they wanted. Seeing this phenomena, one of my biggest learnings about public housing from our project and engaging with this specific community, was that housing alone cannot fix the problem of income inequality. Breaking the cycle of poverty requires a cultural shift; it requires education, access to role-models, and a reason to have hope and believe – none of which are easy to find or instill in a culture where experience tells residents otherwise.

Pictures of Lafitte, the rebuilt public housing complex we worked with.

A Few of my Favorite Things:
Favorite Experience: My favorite experience of the trip was our meal at Café Reconcile - a full-service, working restaurant that hires and trains low-income (often homeless) young folks to get them off the streets and into a professional setting.  'Students' at Cafe Reconcile are taught how to prepare and cook food, serve food, and take care of restaurant operations - all in preparation to work in the hospitality industry in New Orleans. Café Reconcile was one of the most practical approaches to job training we saw on the trip and perhaps the embodiment of the type of things our group were trying to propose for our project. In addition to being rigorous and demanding, and instilling a work ethic in employees that will serve them for the long-term, Café Reconcile was a great example of “meeting halfway” – instead of creating an idealistic solution to the poverty problem, Café Reconcile found a small, niche way to make an impactful difference. The food was great – and I am excited for you all to see the expanded café next year. I also think this would be a great example of a practical project for next year’s class.
Cafe Reconcile - located in the Central City district of New Orleans. 

Favorite Guest Speaker/Topic: My favorite guest speaker of the week was the COO of New Schools for New Orleans, Neerav Kinsgland and my favorite site visit was to a KIPP School. The New Orleans public school system was a disaster prior to Hurricane Katrina, and has been one of the more interesting sectors to follow in the aftermath. Similar to a "Chicago Fire" situation, New Orleans is on a path to changing the face of public education. 80% of New Orleans students are now in Charter Schools, and the new 'business' approach to education is prominent throughout the system. Folks in the New Orleans school system are in experimenting with novel concepts such as rigorous accountability for school performance (a market approach - where parents and students can choose schools, schools can and will be held to high standards or shut down, etc.); reformed human capital models (performance-based compensation and professional mobility for teachers); and low-cost operational scalability (online classes, etc.).

Pictures of signs posted in the KIPP School we visited.

Favorite NOLA Find: I have a fascination with cities and history – and the way people live or lived. I really enjoyed exploring a few of the different neighborhoods in NOLA, from runs in the French Quarter to the street car rides on St. Charles Ave. One of the coolest things I found in my exploration of the city was a coffee shop in the Carrollton District that was inside an old bank building built in the 1800s. For me, it was a good symbol of New Orleans and a great example of the paradoxes that define the city. Of course, our last evening on Frenchman Street, my runs through the French Quarter, pralines and beignets, and watching the craziness of Bourbon Street were also awesome experiences!

 Inside of a street car
Architecture and streets of the French Quarter 

Biggest Takeaway / Personal Reflection:

My heart has always been in the social sector – and long term, remains in the social sector. Prior to Darden I thought I found a way to marry my private sector experience and business training, and my need to make an impact, but being back at Darden made me become tunnel-versioned again. My biggest take-away from this trip was the reminder that as MBAs our skills are extremely valuable in the social sector and that there is a lot of work that still needs to be done. This summer, before starting my job, I am planning on working with a friend of mine who is starting an entrepreneurship incubator in Harlem and helping with some of the training and organization development pieces of the incubator. This trip made me realize that while working at the incubator over the summer is a start, in order to really make an impact, I need and want to stay involved and engaged in these topics even while I am working, and not fall into the trap of putting off my involvement.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I love exams (yep, it sounds crazy, I know)

(posted a week later than I meant to - sorry!)

Last week, while I was giving a tour of Darden, a prospective student asked about exams and the exam process at Darden.  There was an aspiring FY tourguide shadowing my tour, and both of us turned to each other and immediately blurted the same response: "Exams are our favorite time at Darden!"  It is a funny thing to say, given most of the time the word "exam" is linked to stress and frantic chaos (think: GMAT!?)  However, at Darden, while there are definitely some subjects that elicit the stress and frantic chaos, exam period is often one of the calmest parts of the quarter. 

Why is that?  Well, exam period is the most flexible times of the Darden academic schedule.  Classes are over, the email load reduces, and most club and co-curricular activites screech to a sudden halt for a few days.  And, because of the strong honor code and trust within the Darden community, all of our exams and papers are take-home.  You can "check-out" your exams online - they are timestamped - and then you upload the completed exam within a alloted amount of time.  You can take exams at 3am in the morning, sitting in pajamas, or remotely from another country...or all three!   

My List of Why I love exam period:

  • You can eat cheetos for breakfast chalk it off to "exam stress"
  • You can actually go to the gym and get a decent workout - or as a SY, you can do "two-a-days" at the gym since somehow the looming existance of beach week feels a lot more real in March
  • Sweatpants, oversized t-shirts, and flip-flops are appropriate attire walking down the Darden halls or sitting in the library.  ...I might wear those clothes on a more regular basis than I would like to admit, but during exams it just feels "right!"
  • Your apartment is allowed to be messy, just because.
  • Catching up with classmates and friends is actually possible.  I have been sitting in a coffee shop all morning, and at least a dozen of my classmates have walked in the door and stopped for a quick chat.  And I am looking forward to a frozen yogurt study break with some folks later this afternoon
  • You can finally catch up on all those TV shows on your DVR/Hulu/Netflix
  • And - since we are in graduate school, and most of us are pretty nerdy - I guess this is fitting: my favorite part of exams is actually reflecting on all of the things I learned over the last quarter.  For example, one of the papers I am writing today is about common traits of great leaders and how our study of world leaders may influence our own leadership styles.  Another project I am working on right now is compiling a portfolio of journal entries from a class I took on design thinking over the last six months.  When classes is in full force - it often feels like reflecting on the material is the last thing I have time for - so if nothing else, exams actually provide this time and space!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Be Phenomenal

"Be Phenomenal."  That was the simple the message was from the afternoon keynote at  the Dynamic Women in Business Conference held at Harvard Business School this past weekend.  I was invited to the conference by the leaders of HBS's women's network and spent a day attending the conference, and a second day in an planning session for a cross-MBA women's coalition with the leaders from our our peer schools.  Having the opportunity to spend the weekend listening, brainstorming, and sharing with such an amazingly powerful, thoughtful, and proactive group of women will definitely be a highlight in my MBA career. 

Back to "being phenomenal" - Ann Mukherjee, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Frito-Lay, continued her keynote by outlining the lessons she learned along her journey and what it meant for her to "be phenomenal."  I found the lessons and vignettes relevant, and thought I would share the advice with all of you:
  1. Know thyself, LOVE thyself - understand who you are; do a personal SWOT analysis; know how to strategically compensate for your gaps; and most importantly: do not fear, but rather embrace, your weaknesses without judgment.  Ask yourself: do you know and strive for your best self, or are you always focused on what you are not?
  2. Earn credibility - know your stuff; consistently deliver; and most importantly: keep your head down and be in the moment.  If you focus too much on getting ahead and moving forward, you will never be able perform to the best of your ability
  3. Celebrate people - be inspiring and motivating to the people around you; find out what other people's gifts are - and help them "be phenomenal"
  4. Be passionate - have a point of view and love what you are doing - life is too short to go through the mechanics and not have passion and fury
  5. Challenge the status quo - don't become complacent and don't settle for mediocrity because it is the easy thing to do; be a change agent and make an impact
  6. Keep perspective - be secure in yourself; success should be defined by the standards YOU set because life is too short to try and live up to other people's expectations
  7. Live by the K.I.S.S. principle - be precise; talk in headlines; and know the desired outcome of your efforts
  8. Embrace failures - journal, reflect, and learn from every failure so you can course-correct the next time around
  9. Define your legacy - set a vision; have conviction; be motivated; you have to know what you are working towards
  10. Enjoy the journey - don't confuse expectations with what is really important to you; life is too short to settle, so enjoy the journey and don't be so focused on the destination that you lose all sight of the ultimate journey
A few months ago, I logged an entry about how my second year of business school was going to be the best (and hardest) year of my life. The premise was straightforward: as someone who is always moving, shaking, and hopping from one thing to the next, I was going to consciously take my second year at Darden to do some thinking and digging around who I am, what I value, how I want to live my life, and the type of impact I want to make to the world. While I didn't realize it when I set out on my path, in a way, I was trying to figure out how to "be phenomenal" in my personal and professional life. 

I still have a long path and a lot of work to do in my personal quest to be phenomenal, but I hope the lessons above help some of my classmates and other members of the Darden community frame and move forward in their personal journeys as well!

Monday, January 30, 2012

It's Auction Time!

I have written many posts over the last year about how my favorite part of being a student at Darden is the close knit community.  My interactions and connections with Darden students, faculty, staff, and the broader Charlottesville community are the experiences I will always remember - and as a second year, going off into the real world once again in a couple of months - these are relationships and moments I hope to continue and cherish over the next five months!

To that end, this week marks one of the most exciting community events that happens at Darden each year!  NAWMBA (the National Association of Women MBAs) at Darden will be hosting the 22nd Annual SHE Gala this Friday, February 3, 2012 at UVA’s Alumni Hall.  This year's Gala promises to be another exciting evening, as it marks the debut of “Darden’s Got Talent"! The event will highlight the talents of both First Year and Second Year Darden Students!  

Also this year, Professor Ed Freeman, one of Darden's notable Ethics professors, has agreed to shave his beard (which he has had since 1985!) if we raise $10,000 before the auction. All money raised will go directly to SHE.  For those of you not familiar with Ed's beard - I found a few pictures/articles and pictures that might help:

So - members of the Darden community: buy your tickets now!  The event is sold out every year and we will not be selling tickets at the door!  In addition, we are only $2,000 away from our fundraising goal for Professor Freeman's beard fund, so please make a donation!

If you’d like to purchase tickets online, please use the following link to pay with Paypal: LINK
(And to prospective students and other members of the broader community - if you have sat in on a Darden class with Professor Freeman or if you feel inclined just because - we are accepting donations for the beard fund online as well!

Check out more details on the history of S.H.E. and the Gala at