What’s it like being a student at Stanford GSB? [Show summary]
Ilana Walder-Biesanz’s eclectic background includes engineering, opera, product management, ballroom dance, data analytics, and theatre. In this episode, she shares why she also pursued an MBA from Stanford GSB.
Should you include interests and experiences that are not directly business-related in your MBA application? Absolutely! [Show notes]
This show’s guest is a true Renaissance woman, currently interning for a company in Nigeria, after earning her MBA from Stanford GSB as a member of the Class of 2020. She also has a fascinating series of experiences before arriving at Stanford.
Ilana Walder-Biesanz earned her bachelor’s in engineering from the Olin College of Engineering in 2013. As a student at Olin, she also had an arts and humanities concentration in theater and founded the Olin Opera Organization. After graduating, she pursued her masters at the University of Cambridge in European Literature and Culture and was a Gates Cambridge Scholar. She then studied for a year at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich as a Fulbright Scholar. Returning to the U.S., she worked for three years for Yahoo as a Product Manager and joined Stanford’s GSB class of 2020, where she was a Siebel Scholar and an RJ Miller Scholar. She just became a data analyst marketing intern, working remotely for a Nigerian-based company on behalf of Stanford Seed, the Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies. And what I’ve told you is just the tip of the iceberg. Ilana has traveled extensively. Per her LinkedIn profile, she speaks English, Spanish, German, and Italian reasonably well, and some Japanese, French, and Hebrew. I’m not exaggerating when I say she is a true Renaissance woman.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background? [2:26]
I grew up in Portland, Oregon to two parents who had both studied theater in college and had started their careers as actors. So they pretty much pushed me onto the stage as soon as I could walk and talk. I think that’s been a through-line of things I’m interested in throughout my life in engineering and business: I’ve been an avid actress and theater-goer. Dance came a little bit later. I was horribly graceless as a child, and my mother (who was actually also a dance teacher on the side) despaired of me and pulled me out of dance classes because I was so bad at it. But at some point later in life, I found my feet and really developed a passion for ballroom dancing.
Can you go into a little more depth on how you developed your interest in engineering and analytics, along with your interest in opera, dance, and the humanities? [3:27]
The humanities and opera and dance definitely came first. I actually discovered engineering through Girl Scouts probably when I was eight or nine. My Girl Scout troop went to a Lego Robotics sampler. Just a day where we all built robots out of Legos together. I thought it was the coolest thing. I signed up for Lego Robotics after school and eventually graduated to building robots out of metal instead of Legos. I did that throughout middle school and high school and that was what sparked the interest in engineering and in building robots, which is pretty much what I did for my four years of my engineering degree.
Why did you decide to go for an MBA? [4:25]
I was working in tech as a product manager, and I think there were two things that sparked the MBA decision there. One was I felt like in my role as a product manager, a really solid grasp of business was what I was lacking most. I had the communication skills, I had the technical background, but product managers make a lot of business strategy decisions. I felt like I was Googling around for things and didn’t really have a solid framework or understanding of the best way to approach those. I also had a hypothesis that I wanted to move out of product management and be more directly involved in the business side of things and switch to working on the business side of nonprofits. An MBA seemed like a really good chance to explore that hypothesis more and see whether that was actually for me and also to gain skills that would be really useful regardless of whether I stayed in tech or did make that switch.
Do you see yourself using your MBA for some of your more humanities-oriented interests? [5:29]
Absolutely. Fifteen or 20 years from now, I would love to be the general manager of an opera or theater company.
Do you remember anything particularly challenging about your MBA application process? [6:00]
Part of the challenge for me is that I decided pretty late that I wanted to apply the year I was applying. It was still within round one, and I knew I would only apply in round one because of some scholarship eligibility things. But I decided pretty late before the round one deadline that I wanted to do it that year. So I think the biggest challenge was the scramble to sort of get my tests scheduled, get everything drafted, get recommendations and everything in by that round one deadline.
One of the things that we sometimes see with clients, especially those with varied interests and a lot of accomplishments, is that they have trouble deciding what to focus on in writing their essays. Did you have that trouble? [6:34]
For me, it was pretty clear that my story was going to be about opera.
How did you handle the challenges in terms of time management? [6:57]
Honestly, as soon as I made the decision and committed, I forced myself to sit down and draft everything pretty much right away, knowing that there would have to be provisions and that I would want some feedback from trusted friends, etc. But I think just getting something on paper as fast as possible was the only way to guarantee that it was done on time and without great stress.
Let’s talk about your experience at Stanford, before COVID hit. What did you like most about your experience? [7:27]
Everyone says the same thing, but it’s true, right? It’s the people that you meet there. It took me a while, I would say, to find my people at Stanford simply because, in terms of my interests and what I do for fun, I don’t think I’m the stereotypical MBA student. I’m not particularly into partying, which is what people imagine when they think of MBAs. But once I found the group of people that I really connected with, it’s just a wonderful, wonderful group of friends. And I also met my partner at the GSB, so naturally that was a highlight as well in terms of the people.
Was there anything that you found particularly satisfying or intriguing about the program? [8:12]
I think the most satisfying things for me were the roleplay-based classes. It fits with my acting, but with acting, you generally have a script, right? And I actually don’t like improv very much. I like having a script. And when you’re doing roleplay, you have to put yourself into the shoes of someone who’s in charge of a business and carry out that scenario. I’m less talking about case-based, “what should the strategy be” from a third-party perspective, and more the roleplay classes where it’s, “Alright, you’re the CEO, you’re firing your CTO, sit down and have that conversation with them.” How do you manage that day-to-day of being a leader and being a manager? And it’s really hard the first few times you’re put on the spot to do that in class, but both by doing it and by watching other people do it and see how they do it, I do think you gain a lot that’s really valuable going forward.
What would you have liked to see improved in your MBA experience? [9:22]
I think a lot of GSB students would say this as well, but I think people often find many of the first year required classes a bit frustrating because it’s very heavily numerical, and they’re taught in more traditional ways, which I think isn’t what people enjoy the most or want the most, these sort of classic lectures at a blackboard. A problem set that you do at home is far less exciting than those more hands-on interactive courses.
You went to GSB with some specific goals in mind. Did you achieve your goals there? [10:36]
I absolutely did. What I’m doing right now in terms of work is 100% drawing on that. I could have Googled around and made a go at it before, but I’m definitely doing it in a more structured and efficient and productive way than I would have without that. I think for many jobs, you don’t need an MBA. You can figure out what you need regarding the business side. But certainly for some roles, it makes you a lot more effective.
What did you do as an admissions ambassador for Stanford GSB? Did that change your perspective on the admissions process at all? [11:32]
It mostly just means that I gave tours of the campus and also did Q&A info sessions kind of like this, but with a bunch of prospective students asking me the questions. We didn’t get any inside insights into the process. They were trying to give everybody student perspectives, and they were pretty open about letting us be as honest as we wanted to be. So if people asked, “What was your favorite part?” and someone said, “Well, it was that all-night party in Vegas,” if that’s the honest answer, that’s the answer the admissions department wanted you to give. So I liked that honest approach to it, but I don’t think I learned more about the process.
I did notice that many applicants came in too polished and too prepared in their questions, especially after the official info sessions, which are one-on-one. They were trying to get the secret thing that they should write in their essay. And no matter how many times you said, “Everyone who got here wrote something really different, and it was the authenticity that got them through, rather than picking the right topic,” people were really trying to get the secret that doesn’t exist.
How was your adjustment to online learning, social distancing, and sheltering in place? [13:16]
I’ve got to admit, I hate online learning. It’s not a comment on the teaching. I was actually really impressed by what most of my professors did to make the online learning engaging, the ways they used Zoom features to the max to make classes more interesting. But I got Zoom fatigue pretty rapidly on the days that I had a lot of classes. It was a tough adjustment. So much of a business school is the social element with your classmates, and it’s just not the same to have Zoom hangouts with them, even if you’re doing fun online games. Figuring out a cadence for that, where I could still feel really connected to my friends but not have it be one more chore that was adding to that Zoom fatigue, was hard. I partially figured it out, a little bit. Picking activities to do together, not necessarily just chatting, but finding games to do together via Zoom helped in addition to chatting, but it’s hard.
What are you doing for the company in Nigeria, CreditRegistry? [14:34]
I did go for a classic post-business school job, and I will be starting with Bain, but Bain delayed everybody’s start dates. I was originally going to start with Bain in August and take time off. Now I’m starting with Bain in December, and that seems like too long of a break, so I decided to find some things to fill the gap. The thing that I found for July and August was working with Stanford’s Seed program, which places both MBAs and undergrads with companies based primarily in Africa and India in business roles to help those companies grow. So I was paired with this company based in Nigeria, CreditRegistry. It’s the largest credit bureau there and the first one that was founded. I’m working with them on analyzing and visualizing a lot of the data they have, because as you can imagine, a credit bureau has a huge amount of data. I’m also working on some of their content marketing and trying to pull those two threads together and find ways for them to be the authoritative voice of credit in Nigeria. It’s been really interesting so far. I’m on day four, so I’m still finding my feet, but it’s been really cool. I really hope to visit them at some point in future when it’s possible, and the CEO has extended an open invitation for when travel is possible again, for me to please come visit in person. But I don’t think it will be during my work for them just because that’s only a few months.
What are your plans for the future? [16:14]
For the next couple of months, I’m working with CreditRegistry. Also, during my business school experience, I’ve been doing some consulting on the side for some nonprofits and startups. So probably when this internship ends, I’ll keep doing some of that independent consulting for the remaining couple of months before Bain starts. Then I’ll probably try to wind those down before I start with Bain, because I hear that’s a rather all-consuming job.
How do you see yourself satisfying both your love for the humanities and your passion for quantitative subjects, as well as using your obvious talents in both areas? [16:59]
In the immediate future, I think consulting’s not a bad way to do that. I hope, alongside whatever I’m doing as my main cases, to be able to do some pro bono work for nonprofits and maybe even for some arts nonprofits. In the long term, that’s something I’m still figuring out. I think in almost any strategy job, being strong in both very quantitative skills and qualitative skills is very valuable, really understanding the data and also being good at communicating it and making decisions based on it. But how exactly will that play out in my future? I’ll let you know when I know.
What advice would you have for those contemplating applying for the class of 2023? [17:48]
Authenticity and a unique voice I think are what matters the most, shining through in the application, in the interview, in all of that. And excitement for whatever it is that you’re writing about. I don’t care if it’s opera, in my case, or ice cream, or your family. In fact, I’m quite certain at least one of my classmates wrote about ice cream, but it’s just got to be true to you.
- Ilana’s website
- Ilana’s LinkedIn profile
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