This interview is the latest in an Accepted blog series featuring interviews with MBA students, offering readers a behind-the-scenes look at top MBA programs. And now for a chat with Lisa Conn…
Accepted: We’d like to get to know you! Where are you from? Where and what did you study as an undergrad?
Lisa: I grew up in Laguna Beach, CA. I went to New York University where I studied Social and Cultural Analysis, American Studies, and Creative Writing. Basically, I studied social movements. My grandmother was an activist during the civil rights era in Virginia, and her bedtime stories left me obsessed with the power of people in scaling change. That obsession has since evolved to include technology: the power of people and technology, together.
Accepted: Can you share three fun facts about yourself?
1. The theme of my 7th birthday party was The Environment. I made partygoers spend the day choreographing and then rehearsing for a final performance of two songs: “Stop Destroying the Rainforest” and “Driving My Electric Car.” This was 1995. I wasn’t exactly a popular kid.
2. My grandparents owned carnivals, including the carnival featured at the end of the movie Grease!
3. I have driven a car in the Presidential motorcade six times. Once, President Obama made an off-the-record stop to buy all of us dinner at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, a Los Angeles staple. It was just about the coolest thing ever.
Accepted: Which business school do you attend? What year are you?
Lisa: MIT Sloan. About to start my second year.
Accepted: What made you choose that program over others you applied to? How did you know it was the right fit?
Lisa: It’s pretty clear that the globe is in the midst of a big economic shift. Some call it a transition to the “knowledge economy,” in which economic growth is dependent on the intellectual, emotional, and professional skills of people. There’s a lot of pessimism out there about the future, and it’s easy to think that the outcomes predicted by pessimists are pre-ordained, but I disagree.
I believe that the future is a product of the choices we all make, and of the institutions that we set up. And I’m optimistic about our institutions growing to support the future. MIT is a unique place, a unique community, where some of the brightest people in the world are engaged with the future: virtual reality, augmented reality, synthetic biology, deep learning, digital currency, bio-hacking, drones, robotics, 3D printing. You name it.
In order to realize the best version of the future, I want to identify what doesn’t work about the institutions that underpin our society, and then transform them. MIT, a place of unparalleled innovation, struck me—and continues to impress me—as the best place to uncover this. One of my professors introduced me to the amazing radio veteran and NYTimes economics journalist, Adam Davidson. Now, we are working with a group of MIT and Harvard academics to produce a podcast on reasons to be optimistic about the 21st century economy. The potential for opportunities like that is why I chose Sloan.
Accepted: Tell me about your work with the MIT Media Lab & The Electome project.
Lisa: I started working at the Laboratory for Social Machines, part of the MIT Media Lab, in the Fall of my first year of business school. Well, I began showing up in the Fall. I cold emailed Deb Roy, who runs the Lab. We had an inspiring conversation, and then I started coming in almost every day, doing things, joining meetings, and eventually, running meetings. By December, Deb realized he wasn’t going to get rid of me, and we formalized my role.
We built The Electome with a grant from the Knight Foundation and Twitter. We have access to the entire Twitter archive, the so-called “fire hose.” We use machine learning and semantic data analysis at a massive scale to fish out election-specific tweets from Twitter’s massive stream, classify the election-related tweets (over 250,000 a day at this point) by topic, subtopic, candidate, tone, influence, and more, resulting in a unique picture of the issues that millions of engaged potential voters care about. We partner with news organizations like CNN and the Washington Post to publish stories about the “horse race of ideas.” I am The Electome’s product manager.
Accepted: You were lucky enough to work alongside President Obama (How cool is that!)… What was your role with his re-election campaign?
Lisa: I was lucky to play a role in President Obama’s re-election campaign as a field director. I started in 2011 in Los Angeles, and then moved to South Florida, where it was my job to help President Obama get as many votes as possible in the largest battleground state. I grew an incredible team of organizers and fellows, and together, we empowered tens of thousands of volunteers to persuade and turn out enough voters to ultimately win the state by some 500,000 votes. Yes, we organized some very fun (and logistically complicated!) massive rallies with the man himself, as well as Vice President Biden and First Lady Obama. The experience was challenging and deeply exhausting, but without any doubt, the most incredible thing I’ve ever done. I saw movement building in action.
Accepted: As a woman working in the tech and politics industry, you are overwhelmingly out-numbered by men. How have you made your mark to inspire other women to follow your path?
Lisa: I have three older brothers, so I’m used to being the only woman in the room, although I prefer not to be. I’ve learned to anticipate other people’s expectations of me, based on my gender, my age, my background, the way I dress, the color of my skin, the way I talk—everything. Because unconscious bias is a reality of life for all of us. I’ve found allies everywhere I worked. And I’ve learned to understand and own my competitive advantage—what makes me great, different, valuable.
My wonderful mentors have helped me discover this; they are invested in my success and growth. And they’ve inspired me to actively mentor others. I’ve been fortunate to build some incredible relationships with young, ambitious, talented women who I hope I inspire by helping to strategize about the future, reflect on their experiences, and remind them what makes them powerful and unique. They certainly inspire me.
In order to scale this, I’m co-leading MIT Sloan’s initiative on unconscious bias called Breaking the Mold. This year, we are organizing a hackathon that challenges the MIT community to build technology that can combat both individual and institutional unconscious bias.
Accepted: Is there anything else you’d like to share? A tip for those just starting out on their MBA journey?
Lisa: Your two years in business school are a gift. A chance to get to know yourself better, meet amazing people, deepen and broaden your skills, and accelerate your career, but you have to be ready for it. Because you have to be ready to say no.
Halfway through the first month, you’ll attend some kind of club day. You’ll learn about a zillion clubs that seem interesting. You’ll sign up for all of them. Shortly after that, recruiting will begin. There will be dozens of recruiting events a week at swanky locations. You’ll go to at least one a night. Everyone around you will be talking about summer jobs, and they will all sound great to you. Friend groups will start forming, fall break trips abroad will be planned, and fun-sounding parties will take place. So many incredible possibilities! You’ll want to do it all.
But you can’t. You’ll have to say no. And knowing when to say no is really hard. It will test your sense of self. Even the most self-assured will be briefly lost.
I came to MIT passionate about expanding the role of technology in politics. I had a refined theory-of-change, and a clear understanding of what I’m good at, what I like doing, and what energizes me. Still, by the end of month one, I had signed up for leadership positions at too many clubs and attended recruiting events for roles that had nothing to do with my interests. It was overwhelming and stressful, but I didn’t want to miss out.
I remember sitting at a recruiting event with over half my class trying hard not to fall asleep both because I was exhausted from doing too many things and because I wasn’t remotely interested in the mission of the company. I went home that night, un-RSVPed from the remaining events and confidently wrote break-up emails to the clubs I had over-enthusiastically signed up for. This momentary departure from my path helped me find myself again, with gusto this time, leading me to deepen my commitment to the activities I was passionate about and apply for internships at only two companies. I ended up landing my dream internship: Global Strategy at Facebook, with a focus on Government & Politics.
Business school will be really existentially challenging if you aren’t ready for it. You won’t be able to jump on the opportunities that are perfect for you if you are too distracted by those that aren’t. It will be a waste of a gift.
Don’t apply because you think you should go, apply because you are truly ready to make the most of the experience—which can only happen if you are prepared to say no.
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