Duke Fuqua MBA Interview with Niladri Sannigrahi

Niladri Sannigrahi

“Be practical and be realistic in your goals.”

Here’s a talk with Niladri Sannigrahi, a second-year MBA student at Duke Fuqua. Niladri talks about his experience as an “older” applicant, his decision to pursue an MBA rather than an EMBA, and much more! Thank you Niladri for sharing your thoughts and advice with us!

This interview is the latest in an Accepted.com blog series featuring interviews with current MBA students, offering readers a behind-the-scenes look at top MBA programs. We hope to offer you a candid picture of student life, and what you should consider as you prepare your MBA application.

Accepted: First, some basics: Where are you from? How old are you? Where and what did you study as an undergrad? Do you have any other degrees?

Niladri: I was born in Kolkata, India in 1978, and received my undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering in 2001. After working for three years for the public sector in India, including a trip to Afghanistan for a USAID project, I moved to the U.S. I received my Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering with a focus on transportation from Wayne State University in Michigan. Graduating in 2006, I joined the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the largest infrastructure company in the U.S. After working there for five years, and obtaining my Professional Engineer registration, I decided to get my MBA and came to Duke in the Fall of 2011.

Accepted: Why would you say you are a good fit for Fuqua?

Niladri: To say why I am a good fit for Fuqua, you would have to understand the values that are the driving forces at Fuqua. First, we pride ourselves on our Team Fuqua spirit of collaboration, and we live by it day in day out. In my career and community, I have been recognized as an inspiring leader who would always go the extra mile to ensure success of the team as well as that of every individual team member. This quality has not only established a great fit for admissions, but in the last two years, working with over 21 different teams in various classes and projects, I have been able to build long-lasting relationships and develop myself into a truly collaborative leader. Secondly, we are an extremely engaged community, where folks get involved with crazy things to make a positive impact (building houses in Zambia for Habitat for Humanity, 80 students raising nearly 25,000 dollars by growing moustache and beards, or packing 50,000 meals for Stop Hunger Now in one hour). Again, my background has been a reflection of this culture. Whether at work or in my extra curriculars, I have always taken the initiative to organize events and drive positive differences for people (managing the annual Diversity Day at Caltrans for four years, leading a team to build an electrical transmission in Afghanistan providing light and heat for 32,000 homes). Finally, Fuqua is a largely student-run organization, where responsible leaders develop into global leaders of consequence. With my enthusiastic nature and unique international academic and professional experience, I fit in very naturally in this environment. And I took advantage of all the leadership opportunities that I felt passionate about and where I was able to leave a meaningful impact – COLE Leadership Fellow, Admissions Fellow, Global Consulting Practicum in Social Enterprise.

Accepted: If you could change one thing about Fuqua’s MBA program, what would it be?

Niladri: This is a question I often get from prospective students, and it is also something we talk frequently among ourselves. I believe Fuqua has an amazingly diverse community, but the level of integration among this pool of students is not ideal. After we come to Fuqua from all over the world, we tend to congregate into our zones and spheres of comfort – whether our geographic origins or our common professional interests. In different types of leadership sessions (mostly in COLE Fellowship in conjunction with the MBA Association) we have been talking about ways to improve this situation. I would like to mention two ideas that have been successfully implemented. One was called Diversity Table – every week there will be several tables marked Diversity Lunch tables in our student center where no two people from the same region or background would sit together. The intent was for students to get to know each other well. Another idea was the first ever Fuqua Global Week where we presented culture from different parts of the world (food, music, dress, language, religion etc.); this event was very popular and well received. Overall, I would say we are on the right track, but more needs to be done.

Accepted: What is it like to be an “older” student at Fuqua? Why did you choose to attend an MBA program instead of an executive MBA program?

Niladri: Very good question – this was one of the biggest concerns I had when I was completing my application. I was in fact afraid after visiting a number of schools where the culture was visibly favoring younger applicants. Fuqua stood out among many other top business schools in this respect, providing a community which is family-friendly, and is strongly inclusive. Having seen my classmates with families, and the level of integration of partners with the students and alumni, I felt very comfortable being an “older” student here at Fuqua. I also felt that in various situations (classroom discussion, challenging team assignments), the maturity that you gain with age played a significant role; you can see the patience, poise, and a positive attitude (in myself and in other older classmates that I have). All in all, I would say that at Fuqua, there is a very nice balance between the more excited, super enthusiastic, gung ho youth and the more settled, poised mature bunch which add great value to the school.

My choice to attend a fulltime MBA program was absolutely deliberate. I realized that this MBA was probably going to be the final educational venture of my life, and so I wanted to gain the complete experience – the academics, the recruiting, the social activities, the community engagements, and the intense team interactions. As I mentioned above, I have always been a very active person, looking for opportunities to develop teams, implement ideas and make a positive difference. To accomplish all this and contribute through a variety of leadership positions, I opted for the complete MBA experience.

Accepted: Now that you’re nearing the end of your studies, is there anything you can share with incoming Fuqua students that will help them succeed at Fuqua?

Niladri: Fuqua has a number of very strong principles, which include teamwork, empathy, diversity, community, etc. And the unique factor here is that these values are completely internalized, they are not fancy taglines. You need to believe in these values and act accordingly, because this is going to be a life-changing experience for you. A good fit with these values is not only important to get in, but this mutual symbiosis will ensure that you get the most out of your experience, and in return, Fuqua gets enriched with your contribution.

At Fuqua, you are going to be constantly challenged and you “will” struggle; it is intentional because we feel that it is part of the learning process. We are going to demand a lot from you, so you should be prepared to give, probably much more than you ever have. Sure there will be resources to help you, but the onus will be on you. You as an individual will have to manage your schedule very efficiently to fulfill all your obligations (to Fuqua, to yourself and your loved ones). Also, one more thing – you need to be absolutely true to yourself to manage all the conflicting priorities that will be presented to you. A deep self-reflection and a clear understanding of your strengths, weaknesses and objectives would be critical.

Finally, know that you are coming to Fuqua to develop as a well-rounded, courageous and responsible leader who is going to go out in the world and make things happen, have a tangible impact. Hence, you should always have a big picture, long-term vision in your mind to motivate you, and not get entrenched in immediate outcomes. Failures and rejections will be a part of life at Fuqua, and your bigger objectives will help you recover, push forward and be positive.

Accepted: Can you tell us about the internship process you went through last year? Where did you intern? And what steps did Duke take to help you secure that position?

Niladri: I actually went through a pretty intense internship process last year. In fact, I have a blog post written about my recruiting experience at Fuqua. Anyway, here is how it goes.

I came to Fuqua to switch tracks, and spread my wings, broaden my horizon to something bigger than engineering. My first choice (and my only choice for quite some time!) was management consulting, with a somewhat broader interest in corporate strategy. However, going through the process, (including intensive company presentations, rigorous case preparations, and networking) I realized that consulting was not going to work for me. The answer lied in the “misfit”, and as I mentioned repeatedly, having a good fit is a key for success here. As I spent considerable time and energy in the consulting recruiting process, I was in a tough situation around this time last year. With no more consulting interviews left, and the major general management firms done with their process, I struggled to get the right position. At the end, around April, I was able to secure an internship in a Corporate Strategy/Business Development role with a global water technology company (Xylem Inc.) in White Plains, New York. Throughout the process, I realized that understanding what I was good at and what mattered to me was really critical – the role that I got was a very good match with my interests.

At Duke, our Career Management Center acts as the interface on which all the on-campus and some off-campus career opportunities happen. The entire logistics of job posting, application submittal, and interview invitations are managed on this website. They actively manage the relationship with recruiters, bringing new ones, and helping us understand the different expectations from the companies. Beyond the logistics though, there is the whole piece about strategic counseling, especially in challenging times. In my case, I got a one-on-one counseling from one of the most popular CMC directors while I was going through a difficult process of switching from a consulting role to a corporate strategy role, with not many options.

Accepted: Do you have any post-MBA plans yet?

Niladri: Yes, I will be joining Liberty Mutual in their Boston office, as a Senior Business Consultant in the Corporate Development Program.

Accepted: What is the most important piece of advice you can give to MBA applicants who are just starting the application process?

Niladri: The most important piece of advice: Understand yourself – engage in a deep process of self-reflection to find out what you really want at the core. They need to know who you are, because this will help them find the right fit. Not every school is for everyone. And if I may reiterate again, a fit with the values of a school is extremely critical.

Some bonus advice, if I may:

Be practical and be realistic in your goals – observe and appreciate the different preferences at different schools. If certain traits in a school do not appeal to you, do not apply just based on the rank of the school. This process is going to put an extra strain on you without much hope for positive outcome. Finally, do your due diligence, on yourself and on the schools you are applying to. This is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity for you, so don’t leave anything to chance. Do your research early on to know the school, the program, and the people to make the best informed decision. Remember, this experience is going to stay with you forever, so make sure you really love the community before you commit.

For one-on-one guidance on the Fuqua application, please see our Duke Fuqua School of Business Packages. For specific advice on how to create the best application for Fuqua, see Duke Fuqua 2013 MBA Application Questions, Deadlines, Tips.

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