Interview with Nik Kumar, Columbia MBA Class of 2019 [Show Summary]
Want to know what it’s like to be a Columbia MBA? How about what it’s like to be a police officer? Nik Kumar (CBS ’19) can answer those questions, and in this episode he shares the ins and outs of both. Listen in for the scoop!
A Current Student’s Perspective on Columbia Business School [Show Notes]
Our guest today, Nik Kumar, earned his bachelor’s degree from Cornell in Industrial Labor Relations and Economics. He joined Bank of America/Merrill Lynch as an analyst in 2010, moved into PE in 2012, and became a CBS MBA student in January 2018. While working on Wall Street, he also served as a volunteer auxiliary police officer for the NYPD.
Can you tell us about your background? Where you grew up? What you like to do for fun? [1:45]
I grew up in the Dallas area, and by the time senior year of high school rolled around I really wanted to get away from Texas, so I went to Cornell and had a wonderful time there, enjoying the experience and being away from a big city. Many people I met there are still great friends to this day. When I graduated the allure of Wall Street was too much to pass up so I joined the investment banking program at Bank of America/Merrill Lynch as an analyst in their leveraged finance group. I then had the unique opportunity to join a smaller firm, Sound Harbor, focused on distressed debt, and then went to another larger firm, AEA Investors, where I was for 2.5 years before starting at Columbia.
How did you get interested in becoming a volunteer police officer? [3:08]
In looking back it started kind of with 9/11. As I grew older and saw the terrorist incidents I hated being unable to do anything about them. I thought about joining the military, going to West Point, but quickly learned I might not be the best fit to lead a platoon in Afghanistan or Iraq. I decided to pursue a more regular career path, but always had the desire to do some sort of service. When I found out about the NYPD program I knew I wanted to be a part of it. It is essentially a reserve police unit that operates during big events, like parades, visiting dignitaries, etc. It is a 12 hours/month commitment. Training is over 16 weeks, once a week at the police academy and includes training in self-defense, penal law, reacting to terrorist incidents, and military style training, so very different from anything I had ever done previously. People in my class were from very different backgrounds – students, mechanics, city workers – and it was an amazing way to meet people I wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to. We did not have guns, and our responsibility was mainly to observe and report, crowd control, etc.
What experience as a police officer stands out for you? [6:28]
New Year’s Eve always stood out. I did that for four years in Times Square. With so many people in such a tight area, my responsibility was to be on the lookout for anyone acting suspiciously and also crowd control – that people are safe, crowds don’t spill over barricades and stampede. It was our job to make sure it didn’t happen.
You have an undergrad degree in business and extensive experience in investment banking and private equity. Other than the credential, why do you need an MBA? Are you actually learning much from your studies? [9:47]
The decision to go back wasn’t easy. I spent a lot of time thinking about it. I spent a lot of time doing research, visiting schools in the Northeast, and talking to students. I also talked to a lot of people senior to me. The perspective I got was that you get out of it what you put into it. It is a major investment in time and money, but I went back because I knew I wanted to be an investor long term and I had only done one form of investing. I had also never taken marketing or operations or personal leadership, and so far it’s completely changed the way I think about investing and companies. If I were to go back to the exact job I was doing before school, I would do it differently now – I would look at opportunities differently, and ask different questions. Another thing that Columbia does particularly well is integrating the real world into the experience, with some of the top minds in the investing world – hedge fund guys and those from other asset classes coming to speak. Having the opportunity to get inside their minds is amazing, and a very unique opportunity to ask them questions and learn how they think.
An example of how my perspective has changed is I came in with very technical training. With no marketing experience, I was never able to recognize when a company’s marketing department was overburdened, or whether their marketing strategy was effective. I now know what to ask and what to look for. It enables me to have a 360 degree view as opposed to one-dimensional view.
What did you find most difficult in the MBA application process? [15:41]
Choosing whether or not to go was the biggest challenge in terms of whether to even apply. In terms of the application itself a lot of my thinking and reflection had to come through in the essays to make a successful argument as to why I needed an MBA. That took a lot of self-reflection, hashing out my reasons and how things would be different with an MBA vs without one. Every school is different, and some of the material you might be able to use for other schools as well, but really look at the school you want to go to and be thoughtful as you answer the essay questions.
What do you like best about Columbia’s MBA program? [17:45]
They really use New York to their advantage and integrating guest speakers into the curriculum is really phenomenal. For example, I don’t know if I want to go into venture capital, but in my class they’ve brought in some top practitioners so I have learned so much. Second is my classmates. The school has comprised a class with very diverse backgrounds, from all over the world, from non-profits, the military, all sectors of business, and I have learned so much from my classmates.
What can be improved at CBS? [19:12]
I think the one thing that everybody mentions is the facilities that are out of date. It is a well-known problem, and they are building a new campus, but that won’t be done for a few years. Over the summer they did a nice job of renovating some of the classrooms. They have also built out some space for MBA students to meet, but it is space-constrained and I’m hoping that the new campus will help.
Tell me about the community feel at Columbia? [20:55]
I think the school does a really nice job of fostering a community environment. We have CBS Socials with the school coming together every Thursday or Friday and integrating with other members. The school organizes each class into clusters (sections) and within that you have your learning team (5-6 students). Members of your cluster tend to be your closest friends, and you take all core classes with them. There are so many opportunities to meet other students, like after school events with presentations, alums, and through those I have met so many students from other clusters and other years. Just two days ago we had the CBS Supper Club, where someone hosts a dinner for eight other students. Names are drawn out of a hat, and you don’t know them beforehand, but you get together at one person’s apartment for dinner and it’s a really nice way to meet other students.
What did you do during your summer internship? [22:51]
I actually started in January so I didn’t do the traditional summer internship. I am doing the J term , which starts in January and finishes in May 2019, which means I did my second semester during the summer. Since I am not looking for a career change I didn’t need the internship. However I did decide to do a part-time internship this fall and am currently working at a private equity firm that does business services and software investments since I wanted exposure to those industries. It’s a great way to take advantage of being in the city, and is almost like being in another class.
What are your plans for the future? [26:13]
I want to go back into the private investment world with a different perspective and more solid tool kit. I may be looking to focus on security and defense as those things are clearly a passion. I don’t plan to rejoin the NYPD in the future, and now am looking to make longer term impact by investing in firms that fight terrorism, focus on cybersecurity, etc.
Any tips for MBA applicants? [27:07]
The most valuable thing I did was visit campus and speak to students. If you have the opportunity to visit campus, do it, because it really helps determine whether you want to apply and if you can see yourself at that school. It also helps with your essays in justifying why you are interested in the school.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [28:25]
I would just emphasize that even people with traditional backgrounds can get value from an MBA. Some people from banking or consulting, for example, might write it off because they already have a business background and think they might not get as much out of it. For me, I’m going to go back with a completely changed perspective, and it has been a really worthwhile experience.
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