What’s it like to be a student at a top business school during COVID-19? [Show summary]
Eli Engelman, member of the Columbia Business School Class of 2021, shares his experience applying to and matriculating at Columbia’s MBA program, including how his experience has been shaped by COVID-19.
A CBS student reflects on his b-school experience so far [Show notes]
Are you wondering if an MBA moved online is a valuable experience? Or are you less worried about how your education will be delivered and more worried about getting into an elite MBA program when you didn’t necessarily attend a college with an Ivy League pedigree? Our guest today will address both those topics.
Eli Engelman grew up outside of New York city and decided after a stint in the Israeli army to attend the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College, where he earned a BA in finance and minored in philosophy and computer applications and business. After interning at Bank Leumi, he joined the bank full time in 2016 and worked there until he joined Columbia Business School’s Class of 2021.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and where you grew up? What do you like to do for fun? [1:52]
I grew up in Monsey, New York, which is about 45 minutes north of the city. I attended a local high school and upon graduating, I decided that I wanted a little bit of an interesting experience in life. And so I moved to Israel to study abroad and join the Israeli Defense Force. And after three years in Israel, I decided to return to New York, this time Manhattan. I wanted to position myself at the center of business and to pursue a degree at Baruch College. Like you said, I majored in finance and minored in computer information systems and philosophy. And I had a wonderful internship at Bank Leumi, which is Israel’s largest investments bank, and I decided to join them full-time. I loved the idea of being at the intersection of business, as well as that international experience that being at an Israeli bank afforded me. And at Leumi, I was a member of both the portfolio strategy and alternative investment teams. For fun, I love to read, I love to snowboard, hike and travel, and discovering different cuisines is a favorite pastime of mine.
Your undergraduate degree is in business. You have four and a half solid years of experience at an international bank. Why did you decide you wanted or needed an MBA? [3:11]
There are three primary reasons. I think there are actually many more, but the three that spring to mind are the fact that at Leumi, I got a really broad experience and I thought it was very important that starting out, I would focus more on the breadth than the depth of my experience, just to see what I would like. And I worked on public markets and private markets, and the private markets were really interesting to me. I hoped an MBA would allow me to leverage what I learned at Leumi and provide me a platform to focus my skill on that particular discipline.
The second was that I wanted to just surround myself with ambitious, hardworking peers who I could learn so much from, and that’s really come to fruition in a profound way.
And the third and perhaps most important, and one that you’re less likely to hear in general, is that life is short and I wanted to diversify my experience as much as I possibly could. I wanted to live as interesting a life as I could, and I thought an MBA would be a great way to take a two year break from “real life” and explore and see what’s interesting to me and hear different perspectives, and that was very enticing.
Do you remember anything particularly challenging about the MBA application process for you? [4:53]
What was the most challenging thing to me on my application was also the thing I thought would be the least challenging, which was my resume. I originally assumed that my resume’s purpose is to highlight responsibilities, essentially to showcase the faith that Leumi or the companies I worked for in my internships had in me. But Natalie from Accepted, who was absolutely instrumental in getting me into the various programs that I did and helping me along my MBA search journey, quickly checked me on this and explained to me that the real value of a resume is as a marketing tool and a medium to tell my story. I then had to extricate my successes from my responsibilities, really highlighting the successes as opposed to the responsibilities.
That was actually challenging because I had the words on the paper. I had the resume. I thought it was good to go. Instead of building it from scratch, which might’ve been easier, if I had that focus on success, I had to revamp it. And once I began to think about the resume as a narrative with a beginning, a middle and end, and I started to think about how one instance of success led to another, I put that on paper, completely revamped my resume, and that helped tremendously. I saw a difference in the interviewers that I had in admissions. People would look at it, and they’d look up at me as though they learned something; there was something there that they can talk about. So that was really excellent and a challenge, which I’m very happy to have had Natalie’s help to overcome.
What do you like most about Columbia, pre-COVID? [6:54]
Being with my cluster. Really, that’s an easy one to answer for me. At CBS, we call cohorts clusters, and Cluster B just exceeded all my expectations. We do it by the alphabet, and I was in Cluster B, and the people are diverse and intelligent and most importantly generous. There’s no substitute for in-person experience, obviously, but it’s amazing to see how even in this time, my cluster is coming together virtually constantly, despite COVID, the social turmoil, and time zones. It’s incredible. And we regularly have virtual events, check-ins, support groups, and I can’t wait for these things to be done in-person. To your point about time zones, we have people from Korea calling in, we have people from Maui calling in, and from everywhere in between.
Regarding the pre-COVID experience, what would you have liked to see improved at Columbia? [8:09]
The facilities. I think aesthetics are extremely important, in that a building should be a reflection of the kind of work you expect to achieve within. When a student walks into a beautiful, naturally lit, open plan building, which I saw many of during my MBA explorations, I think there was a different atmosphere. People were inspired to open up, to collaborate, to innovate. When you walk into the Soviet-style bunker (I hoped Dean Maglaras isn’t going to listen to this) that is Uris Hall (put up, by the way, under protest from the neighboring architecture school), the first instinct is to feel a little restricted and gloomy. I can rant about this for an hour, but there’s a new building in the works. It looks amazing. It should be completed next year. And I’m really excited to attend the events there and maybe participate in some continuing education.
How was your adjustment to online learning, social distancing, and sheltering in place? And how on earth did you manage to pull this off in Hawaii? [9:31]
Originally, I had worked for months and months with a team of students to bring 150 CBS students to Israel for spring break to experience the social and business culture there. Obviously, that fell through at the last second due to COVID. But one of the attendees who was on the trip asked me if I would like to join him for a week in Maui, so I’m talking to you three months later from Maui. I’m still here. And I thank him for his generosity, let me tell you.
In terms of social distancing, it actually made life very easy. I’m very fortunate. I’m here with my wife and seven other CBS students, and so the loneliness associated with social distancing and sheltering in place was never really an issue. I’m very thankful for that. I’ve always been a “quality over quantity of relationships” guy anyway. Exploring my relationships and deepening my relationships with these people has been tremendous.
In terms of virtual learning, we use Zoom. Nothing special about it. It was a little bit weak. It’s not great; it is what it is. We understood that the school had to pivot very quickly but didn’t have the resources to do it in a way that might’ve benefited us a little more in terms of collaborating virtually and interacting with the professor virtually.
The quality of lecture-oriented classes, I found, weren’t really hit. Capital markets and investments, for example, the quality was barely diminished, but I can’t say the same for collaborative classes. We had these unbelievable classes led by industry leaders and things like Think Bigger which was sort of an iterative thinking process in which you collaborate with people to your left and right constantly in the classroom, and we couldn’t do that virtually nearly as easily. And then we had classes like organizational change, which were also highly collaborative. Unfortunately, I decided to really stock up on those classes over the last semester before her COVID, and so that wasn’t great, but I think CBS did its best. And the next time learning from home is required, they’ll be much better equipped to deal with these things.
Other than spending several months in Hawaii, are there other silver linings for you regarding remote education? [12:34]
Flexibility is a big one. We have people who are able to dial in from any location; I think that’s important. I think a lot of people got to spend more time with family than they otherwise would have. You’re able to work simultaneously while taking courses. I understand that those are benefits on paper, but that’s certainly not what I signed up for. And I’m just the kind of person that prefers being onsite to the extent that I don’t really see those things as much of a benefit, but I do understand that a lot of people can benefit tremendously from that.
So much of the MBA is extracurricular or co-curricular. Do you feel that you lost out during the last three months in terms of those activities, or was there at least partial success in transferring that online? [13:39]
I think a mix of both. I definitely miss participating in club events and interacting with classmates in person, going out with them and being able to just turn around to a professor and spontaneously ask a question, sort of tapping on the shoulder. That was the reason that I decided to attend the full-time program, and I really do miss those aspects of the experience that I really hoped for.
Are the things that you’re missing serious enough that you wish you hadn’t started your MBA in the summer of 2019? [14:28]
Right now, I can unequivocally say no. Thankfully, we’ve only experienced this virtual world for half a semester, but any longer and my answer may well be different. I spoke to a prospective on the phone, and we still didn’t know whether we’ll be on campus or not in the next semester, and I recommended that they defer. I said, you’re not signing up for part-time. You’re not signing up for virtual. You’re signing up for full-time, and you should take advantage of that. Obviously, his specific circumstances were such that he was unfortunately given a timeline to be let go, and so he’s going to matriculate, but to those people who have the opportunity to wait until, with a high degree of certainty, classes will resume as normal, I would say defer.
How are you spending your summer between the first and second year of business school, professionally? [15:38]
I’m fortunate yet again. The digital media/private equity firm that I’m interning with is based in Manhattan and because they’re in the digital media space, they are actually doing quite well despite COVID, and they didn’t have to make any adjustments to the length of my internship or salary. And I know a lot of my classmates are suffering as a result of changes made by their firms, and we’re, as a matter of fact, in the midst of acquiring two new companies with more deals on the horizon. So it’s been a really great time. I’ve been working on due diligence and forecasting and strategy. I’ve been having a blast and learning a ton. You have the same downsides you do to not being in-person in the MBA program in terms of collaboration in person, etc. But by and large, especially now that we’re used to having three months of virtual programming, it feels much more like second nature than it did to make the transition from in-person to online for the MBA program.
What are your plans for the second year of your MBA program? [16:58]
In my second year, I hope to be more involved in extracurriculars. I’m quite involved right now, but I’d really like to take it to the next level in terms of leadership in clubs. I joined the Board of The Rugby Association, for example. That and the wine club, entrepreneurship through acquisition on the professional side, the VC club. Those are the ones that I’m most interested in. And things like company visits, I’m really hoping to take advantage of next semester. And I’d like to focus a little bit more on those classes that are around investments and entrepreneurship.
What are your plans for the future after your MBA? [17:48]
We were talking about this earlier, how COVID really subverts plans, and global pandemics can change the way you think about having a structured plan. And so I think in my life in general, I’ve carved out a path but have never been too myopic about the goal. And so I’d like to work in investments in some capacity at a serious firm or spend time searching for an interesting business to acquire. Like I said, I’m interested in entrepreneurship through acquisition, but I’m going to continue to work hard, keep my options open, and capitalize on a great opportunity when one arises.
Is there anything you would have liked me to ask you? [18:33]
Maybe what life is like at CBS for partners, or as we say at CBS, “better halves.” Sally, my wife, was at the school of Public Health at Columbia, so she had a little bit of a taste of the graduate school experience, but nothing compares, I think, to the MBA experience when it comes to things like extracurriculars and the social side of it. And to say that she’s been welcomed with open arms is a massive understatement. When people see me, they say, “Eli, where’s Sally?” And when I say she’s not going to be here, they sort of grunt a little and walk away. She’s definitely the better half here. And they have a great support system for better halves through the better half community. That’s both on Slack and email. They have events, and they’re really well-connected. Better halves are able to participate in just about everything at the school programmatically. Sally has reached out to professors about auditing classes, and it’s always welcomed unless there’s absolutely no room in the class physically. She’s had a wonderful experience. She’s been looking more at the investment side of healthcare and has leveraged a lot of the relationships that she’s built through me at Columbia business school to take advantage of that opportunity.
Is there any place where somebody who wants to contact you can do so?
They could look me up on LinkedIn under Eli Engelman, and I’m happy to reply to any questions about the MBA program or the search.
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