Woken awakes you to meaningful career opportunities [Show summary]
Are you wondering what your career path should be? How to create it? Our guest today is an NYU Stern MBA and associate-certified coach who also serves as a consultant for the Career Design Lab at Columbia. In addition, she is the founder and CEO of Woken, an online platform to help you discover which job you will love. Let’s learn her story and see how this interview will help you find that amazing career.
Interview with Rachel Serwetz, NYU Stern Tech MBA grad and Founder & CEO of Woken [Show notes]
Our guest today, Rachel Serwetz, graduated from Binghamton University after majoring in human development and minoring in Spanish, management, and global studies. She then worked for Goldman Sachs for three years, followed by shorter stints at other companies, and earned her MBA at NYU Stern in technology in 2019. She also founded Woken, way back in May, 2013, and has served as its CEO ever since.
Let’s talk a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up? What do you like to do for fun? Things like that. [3:35]
I grew up in Long Island, New York, in Hewlett, a very exciting place. I’ve got a few jobs at the moment, so with my limited time outside of work, honestly I wish it was more exciting, but I try to just really hang out with family and friends, work out when I can, explore the city, travel. I wish there were times that I could fit in some more interesting hobbies, but work has sort of taken over this.
Let’s go back a little bit to your time at Goldman Sachs. Were you in a HR role there? Obviously that’s your focus now, but did you start out in HR? Were you an investment banker at Goldman Sachs? What were you doing there? [4:10]
So that was my first job, and I was in operations. I did cash management, I was part of the treasury and the liquidity team. And that doesn’t have much to do with what I do now. And it wasn’t really what I necessarily had an interest in, but when I started, I knew I liked the idea of operations. In hindsight, I think I probably should have gone more for those HR-type teams and path. But at the time I didn’t really know that that was right for me. So I was able to land in operations, and it was a really good experience, but I was lucky at that point to take on projects that ended up relating to HR.
But I took on those projects just because I found them interesting, I wanted to help our teammates develop skills, and to coach them and to help with recruiting, and so I just dove into things that seemed interesting to me. And then after a few years of doing that, I realized I was ready for the next thing, and I realized that a lot of what I had been doing was in the HR realm. And so I was lucky to be able to pivot more closely into that world after I left Goldman.
Did you go back to NYU Stern for your MBA to get specifically more training in, let’s say, career services and HR, or was there another goal? And if you were so interested in HR, why did you go for the one-year tech degree? HR isn’t known as the most techie of fields. [5:37]
There are a few answers to this. First and foremost, I always knew I wanted an MBA. I actually took my GMAT at my senior year of college. I wasn’t a business major; I just had this intuition that I really just wanted more education, and I had a strong interest in business. I didn’t really know where it would lead, or where I’d be at the time of getting that degree, but I just really knew there was more for me, and I knew I had that business orientation, even though it didn’t end up being my major. So I knew from early on that I wanted that experience.
Once I had ended up working more in HR, and learning about coaching and developing that, that’s when I started really getting interested in the problems I was helping people with when I was coaching. I was helping with career exploration, and I started to get interested in, how can I assist them at size and scale, and create products out of what I was doing. And that’s when I started to say, “Okay, I can combine my interests in coaching and career exploration with products and technology, creating a business concept out of that.” I had known I wanted the MBA, but then I found the tech MBA program, and it just seemed like this perfect mix of everything I wanted.
Linda: Are you, on some level, taking an operations approach to career management?
Yes. So it’s funny because, when I was at Bridgewater, they use a lot of digital tools to systematize people-oriented processes. Over there, it’s very much focused on feedback. But when I was there, I saw how they use tools to think about people processes, and that’s when my wheels started turning, because I’ve been helping people with career exploration ever since I graduated. So once I saw the problems people were facing, and then I saw how technology can really support people-oriented processes, I just started to explore, how can I systematize a process that I’m guiding people through manually, in a way that they can feel empowered to take these steps in their career on their own. So it’s a coaching perspective. It’s a coaching approach, by leveraging technology to facilitate a process for the individual.
The tech MBA that you did it at NYU Stern is a one-year program. Are you happy you had this tech focus, and did the one-year timeframe seem very pressurized? Did you have any second thoughts about pursuing the one-year as opposed to the two-year program? [8:29]
Am I happy I did this tech program? Yes. I think tech is the way of the future for every company. I think almost every company is becoming a tech company, whether they want to or not. And so, to me, it just felt like learning about the future of business, no matter what. I felt that was great, especially for me trying to build a tech business. So I was really happy to leverage that program.
Thinking back to the one-year versus the two-year, of course there was pressure, but what’s funny is that I came out of that one-year with this new mindset of, you have to make the most of every single day, because we were jam-packing two years of value into one year’s time. So now I’ve got this amazing mindset of, live your life every day.
Yes, there was pressure to get so much done. I don’t regret it. I was able to save a little money on the time, and I think I got a lot out of it. You never know what would have happened with the second year. There’s so much that probably could have and would have happened, but I think I had an amazing MBA experience. I loved my cohort and yeah, I don’t have any regrets.
Do you remember anything particularly challenging about the MBA application process itself? What was the hardest part for you? [10:00]
It’s funny, even the undergrad application process was stressful for me. The part that I think was just most stressful was just the administrative nature of it. Just getting it all done, and one application felt like so much work that I wish I could have applied some more places, but I was so exhausted by the process that I only really ended up applying to very, very few places.
It’s a lot to do. It’s overwhelming. What’s funny is the essay itself was less of what was overwhelming for me, because if I’m in the career clarity game, you would hope I have some myself, and I did, and I do. So that part wasn’t as hard, but it was just a lot. It’s overwhelming, they say the hardest part’s getting in, right?
Right. On some level, that’s true. Did you just make a schedule for yourself, make a list? How did you handle the time demands or, what did you do? [11:00]
I actually did apply two years in a row to a few different schools, that’s number one. And I always remind people that that’s okay. And what else did I do? I had some schedules. I tried to organize myself. I leveraged Accepted and it was super, super helpful, especially on the essay help. And honestly I just did my best to get as few applications done as I could. I was just like, “Just get one done,” or, “Just get two done,” and manage through it.
What did you like most about your MBA experience in NYU Stern? [11:39]
The people I was with were just so amazing. We had this small cohort, as part of the one-year program, and somehow there was still such diversity within our group. It felt like we were each a piece of a puzzle and I was the token HR person in our class. It was just so amazing to come together with a group who had a similar mindset and interest in innovation and technology and business, but different experiences and backgrounds, and different mindsets, and different perspectives on various things. So to be aligned with a cohort in terms of why we were there, and being able to have just stimulating conversations about lots of topics, was what I was there for. And there was a culture about our class that was just truly amazing.
Linda: Could you describe the culture?
Yeah, I think our class was a down to earth group who was just genuinely and deeply interested in the future of business, and innovation, and society, and where tech plays in. Does it play in, what are the impacts, how do we go about this? What is it already doing, and what is it not doing? What should it do, and when and how and why? And just really questioning all those things. It was just our shared interest, and yet we approached it in different ways. There was different ways that that played out, different industries that we were interested in. And yet there was a shared common feeling of, let’s question this stuff, together, and how it impacts our future in business and society, and all this stuff. So being a part of that conversation for a year was really cool and really special. And there was just a genuine bond amongst everyone. We also got along super well and had a lot of fun, and traveled, and did so many fun things together and just got along really well. So that’s invaluable.
What would you like to have seen improved about your MBA experience? [13:37]
We were the first year of the tech MBA, so we were guinea pigs, and there were certain things, of course, that weren’t perfect, but we knew that going in. We were able to laugh at certain things, when it didn’t go perfectly well. It’s hard for a new program to figure out the best way of teaching business students about technology — that’s not easy with a mixed variety of skills within technology. So there were challenges that we all had to come together on. For me, I was starting a business. So how do you teach somebody about business, and yet how do you teach somebody how to start a business, run a business? That’s what I was there for, and that’s not easy to execute on.
I try to teach entrepreneurship now, to undergraduate students and it’s not easy to do, but it’s also not easy to teach. I tried to grasp as much as I could, and I’m still learning. There’s always things you look back and say, “All right, I wish I focused more on this. I wish I learned more about that.” But I think, for as much as I could have gotten out of the one year, I tried to get as most as humanly possible. I leveraged every entrepreneurship program at NYU. So I did my best to take advantage of everything I could.
Can you tell us about Woken? What is it? How does it work? We’ve skirted around the edges of that, but can you tell us? Dive in? [14:56]
Woken is a web-based career exploration platform. We help guide professionals through a step-by-step process to figure out which career path they actually want to pursue.
The steps are based in learning and reflection, and that’s an iterative process, and that really leads somebody to find clarity and confidence in which path is right for them, which path they’ll be happy in, which path suits them. Whatever phrase you want to use, but we just see so many young working professionals, sometimes mid-career professionals, who are in the wrong spot, they’re in the wrong role, the wrong company, the wrong industry, and sometimes so drastically far from where they know they should be, or could be, but they don’t know what they want, or how to figure out what they want.
We just try to make that process easy and manageable, and hopefully fun and enjoyable, and give you the tools and the process so you can reach that outcome of clarity.
How did you think of this idea? [16:05]
It’s been a long time coming, in the works, so to speak because ever since I graduated, well even before I graduated, I was actively trying to figure out how to figure out my own career. How to land the Goldman? I did a ton of networking to think about job search myself. And then once I landed there I was referred to tons of friends, and friends of friends, to help them with their career journeys.
So over the years I was seeing the problems people were facing, and I realized they were struggling with job search because they didn’t know what job they wanted. And when you’re asked for help over the years, you come up with solutions, you come up with frameworks, and you’ve come up with ways of helping people. I was naturally good at it, and that just spiraled, and it builds on itself over time.
So, that helped me develop some frameworks. And then I got coaching training, so I learned the fundamentals of how to really help somebody achieve goals. And then I started exploring, what could this look like as a web platform. And how could we give somebody a tool to guide them through this process. So, it just keeps growing and developing and enhancing itself over time. It’s just been organic.
So if I were a young professional, struggling to figure out what I want to do, and I can remember a time when that was exactly what I was, I was probably a senior in college, and I had decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer, but I didn’t know what I wanted to be, or what I wanted to do. What should I have been thinking about? If I went to Woken, what would I pay? What would I do? What would I find? I want to use it. [17:21]
Our first step is helping you commit to the process. How is this going to fit into your life? Because it does take time. And then we really start by reflecting on your interests. So we have an assessment. It really just helps you think about what it is that you love doing, what types of content you love, things like that. We’ll tease that out in several ways. From there, we make sense of those interests when we actually translate your interest into potential roles and industries. So right away we’ve got options that directly relate to things you’re interested in.
And then, from there, we want you to learn more about those options. So we would guide you through different steps, ideally bite sized steps, that’s where you’re doing research, networking as a way to learn, and experiential learning, as well as work selection. Then it becomes an ongoing learning process, and as you’re learning, we’re helping you process what you’re learning and what it means and what to do about it. It’s a fluid process. You might learn about things you really like and things you don’t like. So we learn, and we reflect, and we iterate, over a few weeks or a few months, and that’s really what leads our clients to say, “Okay, I think I know which path I want to go pursue.”
Are you meeting with clients, or is it all online? Is it at all an automated process or is there some combination of online filling out forms, and feedback, and then human intervention? [19:03]
We want to use technology where it works, but we definitely don’t want to over-engineer or automate things that shouldn’t be automated. So we leverage technology to say, “Here’s your platform, here are the resources, here’s what you need to do.” But we’ve got myself as a coach, behind the scenes, reviewing the work that you’re doing and supporting you. So I’m still there checking in, answering questions, making sure you feel supported, accountable, motivated, and really answering your questions and helping you think through everything you’re doing. It’s a combination of both.
How have NYU Stern’s resources helped you with Woken or have they? [19:52]
There is a ton at NYU for entrepreneurship, so we leveraged the Leslie eLab for a bootcamp. We were part of the Stern Venture Fellowship over the summer. We participated in the Berkeley Lab $300K competition. We were part of the Tandon School competition intervention. We have leveraged so many different resources. I did classes and clubs, you name it. I could probably go on. Mentors. There was just so much, and I did as much as humanly possible when I was there, because this was my focus at school. They provided me with resources and knowledge, and workshops, and connections, and guidance, for the early stages of, “What can I do to begin?” and, “How can I get this off the ground?”
So when you were in NYU Stern, you already had started Woken. I think online I saw it started in 2013, right? [20:54]
The technology aspect of it. Basically the spring before I started the tech MBA. While I had been coaching people for years, the productization of it was newer to the process. So I was toying around with, “How do I start this company?” And we visualized our first prototype, the spring of 2018, so two years ago. And that was a few months prior to starting at Stern. I started in May, 2018, so I was doing my best to start beforehand, and then by going and attending Stern, I really was able to get even more resources, more support, more momentum to push forward.
Now on one hand, Stern was giving you all these tools and all these resources. On the other hand, it also takes time to pursue an MBA, right? How did you manage the demands of b-school and running a business? And you’re now out of school, but your business is not supporting you entirely, so you have multiple jobs. One is as a professor at the University of Binghamton, that we’ve discussed. You also mentioned to me before we went live that you’re working with Columbia Business School’s career services. So let’s do the b-school thing first, and then the second chapter. [21:46]
So, how did I manage the time? Well, an MBA in general is a game of prioritization and choosing your time wisely, especially in the one year. So, that was already there. And so, while my peers were recruiting, I was building a company. It was long days, every day was packed. But we wanted to gain that value anyway. So it was just a matter of how you choose your time. Before I had any clients, I was able to really decide the pace of the business, and how much we spent on it, and how fast we wanted to grow. The minute we started having clients, that changed a bit. And so the spring semester of my MBA, my peers will tell you I was a little more checked out then the fall. It’s all about choices, and that, I think, is one of the biggest lessons an MBA will teach you.
And so now how do I manage it all? We are a startup that is bootstrapping. So that means that I am bootstrapping myself, I support myself with different jobs, and the company was able to actually earn some money through different programs, right? So we’re just continuing to the best that we can. But of course our resources determine our pace. And so I just manage it all. I wish there was a better answer, but I just balance it all to the best of my ability.
Did you choose not to go for outside funding, or did that just not work out for you? [23:55]
I’ve never tried. In the MBA program, I tried to learn what to do and what not to do. And there’s a lot of horror stories that you will hear about raising institutional money. And I do think that that’s something that we will do. It’s just, from what I learned, many people will tell new founders, “As long as you can to be on your own, be on your own,” as long as you can build, and gain momentum, and make progress and provide value, and do the things you’re supposed to be doing, then do it, right, because investment brings in other factors. So that’s our goal right now, is to push forward as much as we can. And the rest will come down the line.
What top tips can you give listeners who are trying to clarify their professional goals before pursuing graduate education? I’m a big believer that every graduate student should have a professional goal. Grad school is not a place to discover yourself. There is a small percentage that can pursue a graduate degree just for personal interest, but most people can’t afford it, either the time or the money. So let’s deal with the 99% of people who are doing it because they want to get some professional benefit out of it. How do you determine what your goal should? Anyway, I know that’s your whole business, so I don’t expect you to do the whole thing, but, top tips? [24:46]
I agree with you. I always say that an MBA is a really expensive way to figure out your goal or your path. And I would say, if you’re going to do that experience, know what you want out of it, know why you’re there, know what your career clarity is. I’m happy to talk about how to get there, but I just really want to reiterate that, that you can find career clarity before you go, and you should, because you want to leverage this experience in the right ways. Leverage the time, leverage the classes, the clubs, the recruiting, in a way that will serve you. By having done the exploration beforehand, it will make everything else just so much better, and so much more worth the time and the money.
That being said, for career clarity, I take an interest-based approach. I believe that if you care about what you’re doing and you’re interested in it, you’ll be more successful and engaged in your job, and happy in your job. So think about your interests, think about what you love doing. And then secondarily, what types of content areas do you love? I like to separate those two, because one relates to the roles, and the second relates to the industries. And so reflect on your interests, and then think about, “What real world opportunities allow me to do those things, or be in those environments, or solve those problems, or act in that same vein?” So continue to reflect on those things, have some options in mind, and simply learn and reflect. If you can learn and reflect iteratively, you will reach a point of clarity and confidence. And if you’re not at 100% clarity yet, you haven’t learned enough, or reflected enough.
And to the extent you can, keep doing those two things. If you have multiple options, there’s going to be differences between those options. Learn. The more you can learn about those differences, the more you will realize which one’s better or worse for you. Research, networking, experiential learning and reflection. Those are the core steps. But approach those, use those steps as a way of learning, and then reflect, and stay fluid. If you learn about things you like, or you don’t like, just continue to get closer and closer and closer to what you think you want. And then, Steve Jobs says, “You’ll know when you find it, you’ll know when you get there.” So it’s a feeling, and you have to keep pursuing it with persistence and patience, until you know you’ve reached that outcome.
It seems like researching and figuring out what is a good field and a good industry for you is foundational, and really, really important. Can you give us some examples of good ways to do that exploration? [28:02]
Absolutely. So we will just start by a little bit of online researching. That can only get you so far, but it’s a great place to start when you’re first considering different options. There’s a lot of information out there, but it’s not always the real nuanced information. Then you really just want to hear from real people. The issue from hearing from real people is that you also want to connect the dots across companies, because one person might say one thing, and the other might say another. So if you can talk to five, 10, 20, 30 professionals in the options that you’re considering – that might be all it takes, 20 people – and that does take time. But that’s not crazy. The ROI on doing that is, if these are prospective employers, is so worth it. So talk to professionals, ask them lots of questions, just genuinely learn, what are the jobs like, what are the companies like, what are the industries like ask, treat it like a research project.
And then as you do that learning, if you think, “Okay, I think I want to pursue this path,” how can you gain some experience? Could you shadow somebody? Could you do an online course? Could you actually do a project where you start to do that type of work, and you make sure you actually really like it? And of course there’s reflection throughout this whole process, because you may learn about things or try things that you do or don’t like. So continuously stay fluid in what does that mean as you’re learning? It sounds simple, but if you commit to that process for roughly about three months, you just wouldn’t believe the outcomes and the insights, and the relief, and the excitement you could feel by the end of putting in that effort.
Linda Abraham: It’s also important to realize what you don’t like. Sometimes people try something and they don’t like it and they’re very disappointed, but actually it’s a very valuable lesson. If you learn that after you’ve done your MBA, or after you’ve gone to medical school, after you’ve gone to law school, it’s an extremely expensive lesson. I’m talking about doing that learning before you make a major commitment. I’m glad you mentioned that.
I see so many people who’ve gotten a graduate degree, sometimes two graduate degrees, sometimes working in careers for years on end, knowing that they don’t like it, putting in time and money. There are opportunity cost of what you’re doing, and each person has such amazing potential. So, where should your potential, your time and energy go? I see so many people who have wasted so much time and money. So that’s what pains me, and I don’t want people to do that.
Linda Abraham: Right. I can remember a couple friend of ours years ago, who as a result of parental pressure, became lawyers. Both of them didn’t want to do it, didn’t like it at all. And I’m not saying it was entirely wasted because obviously they learned something valuable, but it was not worth three years and whatever the tuition was at that time. And I think in both cases they also practiced for a little bit, which they also didn’t like. Yeah, they did it, but it was such a waste.
Yes. I think about the reason that people go into the wrong paths, and I think that, from a young age, we lack the right information. We lack the right support. We also have pressures, whether it’s on ourselves or from other people. There are so many reasons of why we might be directed in the wrong ways. That’s unfortunate, and we’re trying to do our best to fix that and get ahead of that, but it’s real. There are several reasons of why this is happening today, and right now we’re serving, sometimes it’s a bandaid approach to help people fix that. We want to help people from the beginning, but often that’s not the case, just for all these different reasons.
But to the extent you can really try your best to remove what feels like pressure from others, and really just focus on yourself, because the only person that matters in the end of the day is you, as an individual. What is your journey? You’re the one who’s going to do the work and get paid to do it and feel the feelings of either you hate it or love it, or somewhere in between. And you’re the person that matters.
And of course sometimes we have responsibilities to take care of our family, but I always say the most secure path is the one that you’re the most interested in, because I believe that that drives even more success than the path that you think is secure, and end up hating and not doing well at. So you have to really think about the impacts of these choices, and why you’re making the choices.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [33:03]
I think I shared a lot with you about what it is that I believe in. I just want everyone to know, it sounds fluffy, but it is possible to actually enjoy your job. And the reality is, we see people who hate their jobs and who think that that’s what work is, but it takes up too much time in our life to have it any other way. And if 85% of employees are disengaged at work, and 15% are engaged, that means 100% could be engaged at work. It’s just we have to figure out how those people got there, and how you can get there.
So just take your life into your own hands and figure out what you need to get you there, and really know what it is that you want, and what you deserve, what you think work should feel like. And just question that journey for yourself, versus looking around you and seeing what you think other people are accepting as the status quo, or what paths they’re pursuing, especially in an MBA program. There’s three paths people think they can pursue.
But the MBA is such an amazing place to pivot. So figure out what it is you care about, and then it’s somewhere in the world. Everything is an option to you, so what is it that you care about? What problems do you want to solve, and who else is solving them and thinking about them and how can you go join them? It’s as simple as that, but you have to open yourself up to that question.
Linda Abraham: So questioning, that questioning is valid. Whether you’re thinking of an MBA or an MD or a JD or the whole alphabet soup of graduate degrees. Or career paths, period. Maybe you don’t need the graduate degree. Maybe your career path is one where you can be perfectly happy and achieve your professional and life goal, personal goals, without a graduate education.
I help people reposition themselves and pivot without a graduate degree. Yes, you need to ask yourself, “What do I want? Is a degree necessary to get there? If it’s not necessary, do I still want the experience or not?” But figure out what you want first. Don’t just see a degree as a way out, or a way to choose a path. Yes, it is a path, but learn about that path before you invest the time and the money. Especially, all of this will also make your applications and your essays a million times easier, and the job search, because if you know where you want to go and why, your essay wrote itself. Your interview speaks for itself. The candidate who knows what they want and why they’re there is the person that I believe gets hired. That’s all. That’s the bottom line.
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