Monday, July 30, 2012

On the Good Side of Things

Today is a big day for me, so I’m told.  Some 262,800 hours ago, I was born.  That’s a big, round number, but so is 10,950—the number of days since my first one on this planet.

And yet apparently, the biggest number of them all is 30, which mathematically makes no sense (it doesn’t take a Darden student to figure that out).  Anyways, that’s how many years I’ve been on the earth.  All at once, that's amazing yet routine, blazingly fast yet calmly calculated, fortuitous yet arbitrary.

Of course I’ve heard all the jokes.  I’ve been called “old man,” “over the hill,” “has been,” you get the point.  The jabs are dished out in fun, and they’re received with an equally big smile—because in truth, I’m on the good side of things.

I’ve never been wiser, more peaceful, more happy.  I’ve never been more comfortable in my own skin.  I’ve never felt more loved.

Admittedly, I’m a bit bummed about the softball knee injury that won’t go away.  I’m not thrilled about the three extra pounds that seem to creep up when I’m not exercising.  And, long gone are the 3 AM nights of shots and beers from my undergrad days—the mere thought of the inevitable brutal hangover is usually enough for me to call off the night early.

Those negatives, however, are heavily outweighed by the positives.  30 finds me at a brilliant time—a rare moment when career, family, and self-discovery are perfectly interwoven and on the upswing.  I’ve had an outstanding summer internship experience at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters— I’ve learned a ton, met some incredibly kind and talented folks, and proven to myself that I have what it takes to succeed in marketing.

But at the same time, I’m excited to see my family back in Charlottesville.  I can’t wait to have our weekly dinners, catching up with each other over a glass of wine before engaging in a brisk XBOX Kinect competition.

And last but not least, I am proud to return to Darden as a second year MBA student.  I’m dying to hear about my classmates’ summers—from their work experiences to their cross-country travels to their promising future job leads.  I can’t wait to see my friends each morning at First Coffee.  I’m eager to get back in the classroom.  As an “elder,” I’m allowed to talk about the virtue and joys surrounding the pursuit of higher education.  Learning really is fun, and as I’ve learned this summer, it is useful too.

I am honored to be able to pass on what I’ve learned this past year.  Recently, I checked out the Darden Class of 2014 Facebook Page.  It was jam-packed with postings about sharing apartments, pre-school trips to the Corner in Charlottesville, and advice on laptop bundles and pre-matriculation curriculum.  Future classmates volunteered to help each other move heavy furniture.  They gave each other leads on living arrangements.  They asked each other about their hobbies, fantasy sports teams, and family members.

It made me proud and excited all at once. And yes, a little bit old too.  It isn’t hard to accept the fact that I’m 30 years old, but it is REALLY hard to believe I’m an SY already.  It seems like yesterday I was asking about pre-matriculation curriculum and laptop bundles.

Still, optimism rules this day, no doubt about it.

To those who’ve been a part of my first thirty years, I say thank you.  To those whom I’ll meet in just a few weeks, I say “Welcome to Darden.”

Admittedly, it appears that welcome is a bit late—judging from how you’re treating each other so far, you’re already part of the family.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Be The Case

“The case method is great!”

It might be the most cliché phrase used to describe Darden, but it’s true.  Business concepts, analytical formulas and economics theories are all important, but the case method allows us to learn those things in the context of a authentic, accessible, fascinating scenario.  At Darden, we learn our frameworks through a series of real cases instead a pile of textbooks.

The only thing more realistic than case method is real life—something I realized during our Marketing Intelligence class this year.  The curriculum is designed to expose us to data collection and analysis methods that can help us extract consumer insights from surveys and interviews.  There are no cases in this class: we ARE the case writer, and the outcome depends on how we help our clients.

Professor Kathryn Sharpe collaborated with the Charlottesville Community Investment Corporation to assemble a group of local entrepreneurs looking for help growing their ventures.  Students were partnered with these entrepreneurs, each with their own set of skills, challenges, and questions.

Our team had the pleasure of working with Lorraine Pike, a Charlottesville resident hoping to start a mobile juice stand on the Downtown Mall.  Lorraine has several vegetable juice recipes that were handed down to her from her father, who grew up in Jamaica.  Her kids love the juice, and she has a hunch the public will too.
Lorraine and her son.

During our final term as First Years, “Team Juice” learned survey and marketing concepts in class and then applied them to Lorraine’s venture.  We conducted in-depth interviews with folks who live and work near the Mall to learn more about their views of health, food stands, and fresh juices.

Using those insights, our team crafted a survey that helped us quantify consumer attitudes and purchasing behavior.  We distributed the survey online and in person, handing out yummy treats from Cinema Taco as rewards for those who were brave enough to take the three page questionnaire.

Who wouldn't want a free taco on Cinco de Mayo?
Team Juice spent hours putting together interview checklists, survey questions, and Power Point presentations that showcased our interview and survey findings.  We met with Lorraine each week to keep her posted on our progress, and to learn more about her efforts as well.  Hopefully she will be able to use the insights we uncovered to further develop her business plan!
Sean builds, Blythe eats.

It was an absolute blast to put together a series of recommendations and findings for a real life client.  As I head off to my summer internship, I can’t help but wonder if I’ll see Lorraine’s smiling face on the Downtown Mall when I come back, peddling her homemade juices to happy customers.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Fabled Darden Cup

In theory, the title of Darden Student Association President is the highest pressure position there is for a student.  There are others, though, who believe that social chairs in varying clubs and sections have it the worst.  Or perhaps the president of the Darden Capital Management Club feels the most heat, responsible for managing a chunk of Darden’s all-important endowment.

I, however, humbly submit a fourth option, that the highest pressure position on grounds is Athletics Representative for Section E.

It sounds crazy, unless you know about the legendary Darden Cup.  The Cup (yes, I’m capitalizing it for the rest of the blog entry) is awarded to the section that earns the most points during a series of athletic and community competitions held throughout the school year.   Sports include softball, basketball, dodge ball, a 5k race, and cricket.  Sections also can rack up points by volunteering in events like the Boys and Girls Club Bike Race.

All the sections take great pride in competing for the Cup, but none more than Section E.  Coming into the 2011-2012 year, Section E had taken home the trophy three consecutive years.  As the newly elected Athletics Representative, it was my job to motivate the section on to an unprecedented four-peat.

It wasn’t easy—Sections B and C quickly showed their superior athletic prowess.  They were bigger, faster, stronger.  Section D leveraged its close-knit bond to come up big in several community events.

Section E, though, stayed in the mix with its unbeatable ground game.  Time and time again, my classmates answered the bell. 

Can everyone pitch a few bucks in to buy a bat for softball?  Done.

Are you able to stop by the game to sign in for participation points?  It’s out of my way, but I’ll do it with a smile.

Second years, can you take some time to participate in the cup for us, even though you’re busy looking for jobs and enjoying your last months at Darden?  Absolutely.

As the year progressed, we stayed at or near the top of the standings with pure heart and organizational grit.

That wasn’t to say we didn’t have our great feats of “athletic” heroism.  A thrilling, last-second “Final Jeopardy” style question catapulted us to victory in trivia.  Sublime performances by two second year students carried us to a dominant win in bowling.  And, an improbable rally in dodge ball saw us rise from last to first in a true underdog story that rivals Vince Vaughn’s.

This year’s competition was the closest in recent memory, with four of the five sections still in striking distance with just two events to go.  After a rousing cricket tournament, Section B pulled ahead of Section E by the slimmest of margins.

The last event was the Darden Cares 5k race—an all too perfect time to shine for the section with the unbeatable ground game.  Section E mates Lauren Byrne, Chris Short, Caroline Burns and I spent hours planning out a comprehensive game plan to maximize our point intake. 


It paid off.  Everyone had a hand in it, from winning a costume bonus to bringing out students and faculty (thanks, Professors Weiss, Snell and Wicks!) in droves to run the event.  John Cote led a pack of Section E runners to the finish (earning the top 5 times) and it was enough to push us to the victory.

The cup was ours again.  Oops, I meant The Cup.

And while I’m obviously joking about my job being the highest pressure one at Darden, the victory took the weight of the world off my shoulders.

 I know this may feel like a one-sided view of the Darden Cup, but I believe it carries takeaways for all of us.  At Darden, we all want to win and we want to be the best.  In some ways, the Cup is an outlet for our competitive spirits.  However, I’ve also been extremely impressed with the sportsmanship and class the vast majority of my classmates showed throughout the year.  We’re not whiny 15 year olds sitting in the dugout crying about playing time anymore.  I hope we learned that we can still compete at 100% effort while having great attitudes and affinity towards each other.  Even better, we raised thousands of dollars for great causes in the process.

The Cup also taught me values and challenges of leadership, organization and motivation.  Bringing 64 people together for a common cause involves loads of hard work, lots of collaboration, an extra heavy dose of humility, a positive and enthusiastic culture, and most importantly a great group of colleagues.

I don’t know how, but Section E has been blessed with all of those elements four years running.  Being a part of such a wonderful group has been a total joy.

That being said, I don’t envy my replacement for next year—the pressure is already on to continue the legacy.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap Year, Leap of Faith

I’m a pretty risk-averse person at heart.   That typically means I don’t take a chance on something without doing the calculations first.  I’ll do everything I can to maximize the probability of a positive outcome—work a little longer on a project, or pay a couple bucks more for the right gift.  Give me surefire bloop single over a chance at a homer any day.  The simple phrase “roll the dice” kind of freaks me out.

But obviously, there are times in life where you have to take a leap.  That’s how this former TV reporter ended up at Darden.  I saw that my industry was changing, my development was slowing, my ambition waning.  It was time for a change. 

I wasn’t the only one seeking new opportunities.  Almost all of my classmates gave up good jobs to return to school—it was a gamble that we believed was worth it, so we jumped at the chance to come to Charlottesville.

Now, the Class of 2013 is about to leap again.  The first chapter of our Darden experience is nearing an end.  We have just one more week of core classes in our sections, one more week of learning team meetings, and we’re currently choosing our electives for the spring.  This is kind of a sad time.  I’m going to miss meeting in room 293B every night, where intense and remarkable collaboration meshed with surprise birthday celebrations and impromptu dance lessons.  And, I’m incredibly attached to Section E— room 120 is where we witnessed Drew Barrett’s wolf shirt howl, where Leo Hergenroeder and I took opposing sides on countless class debates, where unsuspecting prospective students became sketch-a-scholars, and where 62 of the smartest people I know dominated during simulation competitions.

After exams, spring break and electives we’re on to our summer internships, where many of us will be dipping our toe into completely new waters.  We’ll have new job responsibilities, new cities to live in, new colleagues to work with and learn from, and a new career trajectory.  It’s extremely exciting, and yes, a little bit scary.

These are the thoughts that cross my mind on leap day of leap year—where strangely enough, it feels like we’re moments away from actually making our own leaps of faith.  The skies are beautiful, the wind is at our backs and the sun is shining joyfully down on us.

Now, all that’s left to do is fly.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Mountaintop or Valley?

During the winter, heavy fog often rolls into Charlottesville and the surrounding areas.  In some ways, it symbolizes what our futures looks like as MBA First Years—cloudy and uncertain.

Over the past two months, most of us have thrown ourselves headfirst into internship recruiting.  It is a hectic, time-consuming and extremely difficult process.  Consultants practice dozens of case interview questions.  Marketers mow through mock behavioral interviews.  And bankers are blitzed all at one time during a week where candidates can have interviews with as many as five companies in a single day!

Our noses are stuck in books and online research.  We build spreadsheets listing our strengths and weaknesses, teamwork and leadership stories, favorite and least favorite marketing campaigns.  Some days, the only person you see is yourself—in the mirror as you practice your two minute pitch.

This, my friends, is being in the fog.  Will the hard work pay off?  Will a company see and value your abilities?  Will you convince them you are a fit for their culture?  Where are you?  Headed towards the top of the mountain or still wandering through the valley?

When you’re in the thick of things, it’s  almost impossible to tell.

Even more challenging, you don’t have long to break through— interviews last between 30 minutes and an hour.  And, almost immediately after you shake the interviewer’s hand, the fog thickens.  It takes days, sometimes weeks to know if you’ve moved on to final rounds, where the process repeats itself again.

And then… it’s over.  The fog clears, and you’re on top of the world, offer in hand, looking down on the horizon that is the rest of your first year at Darden.  That’s scenario #1.

Scenario #2 isn’t so rosy.  Sometimes it’s a “thanks for your interest in us, but we’ve decided to go in a different direction” phone call.  Other times it’s a stock mass rejection e-mail.  Worse still, some other recruiters are never heard from again.

These moments shake your confidence to the core.  They crush your self-esteem.

All you can do is get back up and jump back in.  Admit your faults and correct them.  Fine tune your stories.  Get help from the Career Development Center or a Second Year.

We are told constantly that all works out, but that can be hard to see when things are so hazy.

This is an interesting time for First Years at Darden: are we at the mountaintop or in the depths of the valley?

That depends on the day, who you’re asking… and what the weather’s like.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.

 -Arthur Golden