Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Bad News Bears

Today marks the end of Term 3. This means I will not step into another Darden classroom until January 2012. Of course, a lot of Darden ground will be covered between now and the beginning of next term including final exams, Week on Wall-Street, resume drops, job treks, and interviews (to list a few). I definitely feel a sense of accomplishment, but there’s no way I could have survived without relying on my learning team.

Darden first-year students are placed into learning teams comprised of five to six students. Each team is assigned with a conference room where we meet for a few hours the night before classes to review our case material. It’s a great opportunity to clarify case content (or strike a healthy debate over interpretations of case facts), but it is mainly a tool to facilitate preparation and stronger in-class discussions.

Four months ago I stepped foot into Learning Team Room 33 for the first time. I introduced myself to the strangers, my new learning team members, and we began our first team task; determining a team name reflective of something we all had in common. Failing to find any commonalities, we adopted the name Bad News Bears. We hoped this our unique backgrounds wouldn’t result in a dysfunctional team

To give you a sense of what we were working with (our diversity of backgrounds), here’s a brief profile of the Bad News Bears and perhaps more importantly, the roles we’ve taken on.

Non-traditional student: Previously doubled as a Chinese instructor and admissions representative at a boarding school. Talk about a non-traditional but amazing background. She brings energy and optimism unrivaled by any Darden student.

Quintessential banker: Yes, the quintessential banker. He previously lived in New York City, working within fixed income. He is incredibly efficient and does a great job ensuring that our team stays focused during learning team meetings.

International perspective: Formerly served six years with the Israeli Defense Forces, and brings far more than just an international perspective. He arguably plays the most critical role, willing to challenge the team’s assumptions and providing poignant remarks that challenge our methodology.

Media mogul: Has experience in media sales and co-production for an international broadcasting corporation. Another relatively non-traditional student, but he has the intellectual curiosity to push our learning team to think beyond the bounds of the case and is one of the brightest individuals and fastest learners I’ve ever met.

Although we started as a motley crew, we have definitely transformed into a high performing team (our Leading Organizations professors would be proud!) Beyond preparing for classes as a team, we’ve established strong bonds (pleasing the Finance professors) and I would consider these guys lifelong friends. We actively seek each other out at Darden events. On Sundays, we often eat dinner together (the last time my learning team dined at my apartment, I pushed the apple pie, since I was frantically trying to make use of all the apples I purchased at Carter Mountain Orchard).

As we head into 2012, I’m looking forward to forging stronger relationships with my learning team, not to mention all of the free Sunday dinners!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Charlottesville in the Fall

This past Wednesday I attended the eighth annual Thanksgiving potluck with some of my friends from high school. This potluck tradition dates back to our first semester of college, when we gathered for a feast during the Thanksgiving holiday. This year's host unearthed a video from that very first potluck and in the spirit of sentimentality, we relived our past. Rather serendipitously, there I was, proclaiming thanks for the privilege of attending the University of Virginia (where I attended as an undergrad).

I still feel just as privileged eight years later. After spending a fall in Charlottesville, it is very easy to understand why people find fall such a festive season. With Charlottesville nestled along the Blue Ridge mountains, the foliage is overwhelmingly beautiful. Don't want to take my word? Check out here or here or here. It would be a shame to not take advantage of this autumnal weather, so when the weekend rolls around, I find time to get away from the Darden classroom. Here are a few of my fall favorites:

Apple Picking: A few weeks ago my friends and I travelled to Carter Mountain Orchard. We left around midday and grabbed some sandwiches before ascending the mountain. After picnicking with a panoramic view of Charlottesville, we set off through the mountainside, filling our bags with Granny Smith and Fuji apples.

Wine Tasting: Of course, if you are a wine drinker, Charlottesville doesn't disappoint. With over 25 vineyards in the area, wine tasting and wine tours are favorite weekend activities. Just this past Friday, I was fortunate enough to be invited on a wine tasting tour for a company networking event. We met in front of Darden at noon, boarded the bus with prepared bag-lunches from Feast! (a delicious sandwich shop), and for the rest of the afternoon, enjoyed some of the best vineyards and views of Charlottesville.

Football: This year, with Coach London in his second season, watching the UVA football team has been enjoyable. On home game days, it's always fun to tailgate and go watch the team play in Scott Stadium. And for the first time since 2007, UVA is bowl eligible and will be extending its football season into the winter!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A (Wednes)Day in the Life

One thing I've come to realize while at Darden is that the Darden work week is not the traditional work week. As a first year student, I attend classes Monday through Thursday. Each school day consists of three classes. Logically, I spend a good part of my day before class preparing cases for those classes. So while many Americans view the work week as Monday through Friday, at Darden I've adjusted my routine to reflect a Sunday through Thursday work week. (This does not mean that Fridays are official Darden Student Holidays. If anything, I've found Fridays to be just as packed, but with club meetings, conferences, visits to professors' offices to clarify course material, and networking events).

With this adjusted work week, I've quickly come to identify Wednesday as my new favorite day of the week. Wednesdays are my favorite day because I know that when I go to bed that evening, there are only three cold calls standing between me and the start of the weekend. But more recently, my Wendesdays have demonstrated how much fun business school can be.

Two Wednesdays ago, I found myself playing with Legos in my Operations class. My initial reaction? I was confused. I thought that demonstrating sufficient competence in the area of interlocking plastic bricks was a requirement for graduating first grade, not an MBA program. But this wasn't just playing with Legos - this was a lesson in continuous improvement. Kaizen, a Japanese term for improvement, was the topic for our Lego workshop. For the duration of the class, we were manufacturing a specific product (called a Gozogle). In the span of less than two hours we simulated many "months" of operations, and after each month, discussed ways to improve the process and operate more effectively. Undoubtedly, this class gave new meaning to the Lego description "appropriate for children ages 5 and up."

Later that evening, I participated in a networking event with one of the consulting firms. Continuing with the Japanese theme, interested first year students were invited to a local restaurant where we were divided into teams as part of an Iron Chef competition. Each team was given access to a table of ingredients and given 30 minutes to prepare a winning dish. The company representatives then evaluated the dishes across a spectrum of criteria and announced the winner (I'm still convinced my team finished a close second). The event was a fantastic way to interact with a potential employer in a more informal setting and serves as yet another example of the lively environment at Darden.

Fast-forward to this past Wednesday. Instead of our normal three-class routine, our class was divided into groups for company visits. The objective was to take the in-class learning on continuous operational improvement and see how it applied in manufacturing facilities in the area. The facility I visited had one of the most sophisticated automated processes I have ever seen. Some of the machinery was operating so fast that to the naked eye, it appeared motionless. It was readily apparent that this manufacturing company had been practicing the kaizen principles we applied through our Lego workshop the previous Wednesday. With two rounds of final exams at Darden under my belt, I think it's fair to say Wednesday is winning.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Don't Stop the Party

Charlottesville has always held a special place in (and disproportionately large portion of) my heart. As a University of Virginia undergrad, I am what is known as a Double Hoo. After graduating from UVA the first time, I took a job in Washington, DC, working as a consultant for a variety of defense clients. More recently, I moved to Accra, Ghana (about the same time Ghana beat the United States in the World Cup). While there, I served as a business instructor for high-potential Ghanaian university graduates at a school/incubator. Yet despite moving across the globe, I couldn’t seem to stay away from Charlottesville. I now find myself in my first year as a student at Darden. And so the teacher became the student.

I am happy to say that I have successfully completed my first term at Darden. And in my short time at Darden, I’ve quickly adapted to my new lifestyle. After my first month, I’ve come to some preliminary conclusions.

Curriculum: It is safe to say that I have never worked harder. That’s not to say that I haven’t worked hard before. Absolutely the contrary; Darden doesn’t admit students that haven’t demonstrated a strong work ethic in the past. I attribute the academic rigor to Darden’s case method style of learning. This means that as a first-year student, along with my amazing learning team (more on this later), I am responsible for preparing three cases each day. I used to use Wikipedia’s Randompage to ensure continual learning. Needless to say, this is no longer necessary.

Faculty: Having just come from a role as a business instructor, I have mammoth respect for educators. Having successfully completed my first term at Darden, I know that the faculty is unmatched. To illustrate the point, let me use my managerial accounting class. Managerial accounting has never really tickled my fancy. And I haven’t conducted a survey of my classmates, but I suspect that it doesn’t tickle many fancies. That being said, when I look around the room I notice that everyone is smiling and laughing. Really. To take a group of twenty-somethings at 8am and get them laughing about cost allocation is a remarkable talent.

Classmates: I have never been surrounded by a more talented peer group in my life. The diversity of experience is overwhelming. While some people come from traditional roles in investment banking or consulting, my classmates have a spectrum of experiences. Some Taught for America, others were professional athletes. The one unifying characteristic is that everyone is smart and driven.

My time at Darden is just beginning, but I can already tell that I am in a one-of-a-kind environment and enjoying every minute of it. Perhaps my Darden mentality is best stated by the words of the Black Eyed Peas. Don’t stop the party.