This interview is the latest in an Accepted.com blog series featuring interviews with current MBA students, offering readers a behind-the-scenes look at top MBA programs. And now for a chat with Michael Nguyễn, a student at Northwestern Kellogg’s joint MBA/Masters in Design Innovation program.
Accepted: We’d like to get to know you! Where are you from? Where and what did you study as an undergrad? Where are you currently studying?
Michael: I was born and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was unfortunately a mediocre student at Cal (UC Berkeley) because I spent a lot of my time playing video games. Thus, even though I started in Computer Science and really enjoyed it, I eventually changed to Comparative Literature (which is actually really difficult – I did not know this when I switched) after a couple of years. However, the time spent in both majors has helped me immensely throughout my career.
I am currently at Kellogg (Northwestern) in its newly revamped MMM program, which is a dual-degree MBA and Masters of Science in Design Innovation program run in conjunction with the McCormick School of Engineering and Segal Design Institute.
Accepted: Can you tell us more about your joint degree? What does “Design Innovation” mean? What do you plan on doing with your degrees?
Michael: The MMM program ends at the same time as the normal Kellogg two year MBA program but now starts one quarter early, in the summer. Though this does come with additional cost, this also means you get to enjoy the summer in Chicago! Another great benefit is that you will become very close with your MMM program mates, the other 59 students (the program is limited to 60 per year).
I personally define Design Innovation as an end-user empathy lens for looking at the world, but one that is not just relevant to developing products. If you manage a team, you need to be able to put yourself in team members’ shoes before you can create a rally point. If you are trying to sell a product, you need to know what your target customer is thinking – who they are, why they do what they do. It’s not that someone is just “stupid” or one of “those people” you can generalize. Everyone is unique and design thinking helps you use those lessons in your career.
From my time working in Southeast Asia, I used empathy in order to succeed at creating compelling products for different types of people as well as to win trust and motivate teams despite cultural and language barriers.
After the program, I am looking to return to smaller tech startups or perhaps start my own. However, the range of careers that others in the MMM program are seeking is very broad. Many are looking to enter into consulting, with more top firms now embracing design innovation, but there are also students looking to go into finance, consumer packaged goods (CPG), and technology.
Like the MBA, I think the Design Innovation degree is a toolset you can adapt for any career trajectory. Simply, the Innovation is the change you make in an existing product, process, or organization; the Design is the user-driven approach.
Accepted: It looks like you’ve got an interesting work history! Can you talk about a few of your most recent projects?
Michael: Previous to Kellogg, my professional background for the last decade has been in Business Operations at multiple startups. My first work experience was helping RedOctane become acquired for the Guitar Hero game franchise by Activision. I ran its e-commerce operations, including shipping logistics and customer service.
I then spent 7 years in Vietnam, becoming COO of the first social networking service there, Cyworld Vietnam, a 70 person startup funded by SK Telecom and IDG Ventures Vietnam. During my time in Vietnam, I worked closely with partners such as Nokia, LG, and Yamaha as well as local mobile carrier giants such as Viettel within the restrictions of one of the rare capitalist-socialist governments in the world.
During this time, I co-founded the most popular Vietnamese microblogging service, Mimo.vn, in 2010, helping it grow to 2 million users. Before I left Vietnam, I also worked on another side project which became a dating app called FriendsPlus. It was sold pre-launch to the largest dating service in Vietnam, Noi.vn, and the technology and service concept was integrated into Noi.vn as a whole.
In general, I have a deep interest in how different types of people connect with and add meaning to each other’s lives.
Accepted: What is your favorite thing about Kellogg so far?
Michael: When you are in a good class (happens more often than not thankfully), you can compare it to seeing a brilliant performer, whether that be musical, athletic, or theatrical. In many ways, that’s exactly what it is – a professor with a tremendous academic and real work pedigree who is educating you about different aspects of business. Because of this, I actually like to sit in the front to get the best view. After all, I am paying over $60,000 a year for this show!
What most surprised is me how every class links to each other. In a business setting, that wouldn’t be surprising because well, that’s business. If you run a company, you cannot just be a product guy with no understanding of finance and vice versa. But in this class format, you will see each class bring in aspects of the entire MBA education. Thus, if you are taking Finance, you are not asked to just do math. You are asked to think about what firm and market strategies change the math in the real world and how you sell that story to someone else (your boss, management, investors, etc.).
I feel that in every class, you are not challenged to solve the problem but to create and then sell the story so it can be implemented in a company.
Accepted: If you could change one thing about the program, what would it be?
Michael: In the busy lives of the MBA students here (classes, groupwork, recruiting, competitions), it’s not easy to make deep connections with others in the student body. I think this problem likely exists at many schools, so despite Kellogg’s reputation as a great school to make friends and be around team-focused individuals, no school can create the perfect social setting for everyone.
Thus, if you are an international student or more of an introvert, Kellogg’s emphasis on big social group events may be uncomfortable at times. CIM week can feel like a rehash of your undergrad years where the majority of students solidify their social groups within the first few weeks and do not go outside their comfort zones to befriend people that may be unlike them.
It is something that Kellogg is aware of and looking for initiatives to help address the issue. In fact, a friend and I are working on a mobile product that we hope will help with this and we are looking to get the Kellogg administration’s support for it as well.
Accepted: Looking back at the MBA application process, what would you say was your greatest challenge? How would you advise others who may also be facing that challenge?
Michael: I actually decided to apply to MBA programs two months before Round 1’s began, and I also wanted to make sure I applied for Round 1. This meant I needed to prepare for the GMAT and every other part of the application in a very short amount of time – an MBA was something I had not seriously considered for the previous five years. Fortunately, things worked out, and I got into a great school.
However, others should not follow this route. An MBA program is a very serious time and financial commitment, one that is essentially your last chance to use an academic setting to create a long term impact on how people view you professionally. Do spend the time (at least 1 year in advance) to prepare your applications properly to maximize your chance into getting the program that’s best for you. Beyond that, also use that time to get a proper understanding of which schools you can actually get into.
I am not a big believer in backup schools. If you there is a school you absolutely want to go to, and your background is a good fit for that school, spend the most time on that school. Even if that means working an extra year to improve your professional accomplishments, I say do it!
Accepted: Do you have any other admissions tips for our readers?
Michael: Although we are asked to pretend we know what we want to do after our MBA, few people really do. Because of this, don’t be worried if you really will follow-up on everything you talk about in the application. What’s most important is to think about what you would want to do right now and think through how going to a particular school is well suited to help with those specific goals. I think schools like Kellogg are not judging your ambitions but your ability to construct plans and build towards them.
For Kellogg MMM specifically, it’s a great program that is not getting a lot of publicity right now, likely due to the recent curriculum change. However, I recommend (to everyone) to look at it more closely and talk to people in the program (like myself). Many people I’ve met at Kellogg regret not applying for it because they had misconceptions about the program or thought it wouldn’t be relevant to their career. Once they better understood how the program works, however, they realized its applications were much more broad than the words “Design Innovation” may initially suggest.
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