This interview is the latest in an Accepted.com blog series featuring interviews with MBA students, offering readers a behind-the-scenes look at top MBA programs. And now for a chat with Ellen Chisa, a student at Harvard Business School.
Accepted: We’d like to get to know you! Where are you from? Where and what did you study as an undergrad?
Ellen Chisa: I originally grew up in Rochester Hills, Michigan – where I went to an International Baccalaureate high school and spent a ton of time doing FIRST Robotics. That prompted me to go to tiny (then-unaccredited) Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, MA, to study Electrical & Computer Engineering.
Accepted: Can you share three fun facts about yourself?
1. I’m really great at the Twilight Zone Pinball machine.
2. Early in our relationship, my fiancé asked me what the best sandwich I ever had was. I’ve been thinking about it for years, and I still can’t come up with an answer. I love sandwiches.
3. I haven’t dressed up for Halloween since high school, but I’m going to do it this year.
Accepted: Where are you currently in business school? What year?
Ellen Chisa: I’m at Harvard Business School. I completed my first year (RC) in the Spring, but I’m taking a leave between that and the second year (EC).
Accepted: Why did you decide to go on leave? What are you doing during this break from school?
Ellen Chisa: I don’t believe that education has to be linear – it’s about what you’re learning and how you use it. I started the internship at this company, and during my time we switched from doing investments and internal projects to all focusing on a new (stealth) travel company. I was the first person working on the project, and I wanted to stay to see it out. Right now I’m officially the Product Manager, but we’re so early that I wear a lot of different hats. It’s been fun to apply some of the things I learned at HBS!
Accepted: Do you think you’ll return to HBS to complete your degree?
Ellen Chisa: I do think I’ll go back eventually. It’s not that I’m worried about having the piece of paper – I’ve just heard great things about the second year courses. I’ve been relatively open about wanting to found my own company at some point, so when I get to that place, I’d love to be at HBS and around all of those resources.
Accepted: Can you offer some advice to others who may be considering taking a leave of absence from a top MBA program? Or leaving a program altogether with no plans on returning? What are some things they should consider?
Ellen Chisa: Absolutely! I try to evaluate things in terms of opportunity cost. If you were looking at the same things now – whatever you’re considering leaving for, and starting your MBA, which would you pick? If you’d do the new thing, that’s a good sign you should leave. It’s hard to get the most of an experience when you’re feeling resentful or wish you were doing something else.
You should also consider all the practical aspects: will your program allow you to return when you’re ready? How will leaving affect your loans/loan payments/other finances? Will your new opportunity give you health care? If you’re seriously considering it, I wrote a longer guide.
Accepted: What was your favorite thing about HBS? Least favorite thing?
Ellen Chisa: Everyone says the people, and the people are really diverse and interesting. I don’t want to harp on that again.
I found the curriculum extremely rewarding. I came from an Engineering/Design/Art background, and it always seemed like finance was just some made up thing. Being able to see how the underpinnings work and do the math to value a company was fascinating for me. A professor told me that Discounted Cash Flow Models don’t click until the 12th time you see them, but the moment when they click is well worth the wait. It’s like solving a puzzle.
My least favorite thing was the rate at which things happened. Since you’re around 900 interesting people, everyone spends a little bit of time trying to get to know everyone. I’d rather sit down for long conversations and know a couple people really well. Similarly, you never get to discuss a case more than once. I just like to learn by going deeper into fewer topics.
HBS seems to be the land of FOMO (fear of missing out) and I’ve always been more JOMO (joy of missing out).
Accepted: Looking back at the application process, what would you say was your greatest challenge? How would you advise other applicants who may be experiencing similar challenges?
Ellen Chisa: The application wasn’t too bad because it felt very noncommittal (I was a 2+2 admit). The problem was when it came to decide if I wanted to go or not. I easily had over 100 conversations to try to decide.
If you’re on the fence, my recommendation is to go. Worst case scenario you’re there for nine months (Aug. – May) and it’s expensive, but you learn a ton of stuff. If it isn’t the right fit, you can leave. I was really worried about what taking two years “out of my career” would be like, but I’m glad I did it. If you don’t go, you might always regret not having tried it out, and you’ll never know what it would have been like.
Accepted: Where do you see yourself in five years from now?
Ellen Chisa: I have no idea. I actually recently found a five year plan from when I was graduating college. It said I should do two years at large company, two years at startup, one year at HBS – that is what I did, but I hadn’t referred to (or even remembered) the plan.
HBS gives you up to five years of leave – so in five years I’ll either have finished, be finishing, or have decided not to finish HBS. I hope the thing I’m working on now is a successful product – and that I’ll have a good idea of what I want to build next.
You can follow Ellen’s story by checking out her blog at blog.ellenchisa.com or ellenchisa.com or by following her on Twitter at @ellenchisa. Thank you Ellen for sharing your story with us – we wish you loads of luck!
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