Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Data-driven corporate strategy

That title could pretty well summarize the previous session we had in school. It was a three-day weekend packed with classes and events. In the New Product Development class, we went into the details of conjoint analysis and how that can help derive insights about consumer interests in product choices. In the Competitive Strategy class, through case discussions around experience curves in the semiconductor industry, financial analysis for a new entrant in the carbonated soft drink market and profitability analysis of the airline industry, we delved into the depths of how useful data and analysis can drive good corporate strategy.

In our first exposure to International Corporate Finance, we learnt what a pain spot rates and forward contracts and "American  terms" and "European terms" are, and why its best to just stay domestic - well, maybe that wasn't the lecture, but that's how it felt :). Prof. Bodnar seems to be a great combination of Prof. Smetters' irreverence with Prof. Abel's dry wit and cerebral humor - all for the best. Looking forward to a lot of laughs in this class. Looks like Wharton Finance department does seem to have humor as a requirement for qualification, maybe to keep the subject matter more interesting.

The weekend was pretty eventful outside of classes as well. We had the CFO of Nordstrom, Mike Koppel visit us and talk to us about Nordstrom and their vision for the future. We barely let him get through the first half of his slides with all of our questions about  the company and their plans. Moreover, the class itself seemed to have several loyal customers. We also had Bain and Company present to the class about opportunities at Bain. Two Wharton alums and  current Bain employees, Unmesh and Amit were present as well.

The three-day weekend also gave me two nights at the Pub to chat with my new classmates and get to know some of them better. It was pretty amazing to see the number of folks with years of experience and interest in nonprofits in this class. So it was with entrepreneurship and class 37ers that have decided to start their own companies. Maybe these merit more detailed posts at a future date.

For now, we're bracing ourselves for the first busy weekend of this term - one midterm, class project, two homework assignments, one case report, three case readings and several other assigned reading chapters - all due in a short two-day session. Lets see how that goes!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Class 36 Graduation

Given the importance and grandeur of the event, I didn't want to dilute it with any other title. Last Sunday I had the pleasure of rushing up to Herbst Theater after a weekend in school to watch all my friends from class 36 graduate officially from the program. Out of the initial cohort, 84 made it all the way to the end. My heartfelt congratulations to these brave souls for having weathered the storms and seen each other through to the end. An even bigger pat on the back to all their supportive families for having tolerated their impossible schedules for two years to make this day come true.

This day would not have been possible but for the incredible amount of work put in by the Wharton SF leadership and staff. We might be a small outfit out here in the Bay area for now, but watch us grow! It was an evening mixed with happiness and some regret - that I have another year to go as my erstwhile classmates are on their way out. But there's a right time for everything, and so it shall be.

It was also wonderful to see Prof. MacDuffie and Prof. Ziv Katalan at the event. Its a testament to both the size of cohorts and the individual attention we get from our faculty, as well as to the incredible memories and passion for teaching from these professors, that they still remember our names and backgrounds. There were several other faculty on the dias as well who I did not get to meet in person at the dinner, so all-in-all it was a special evening indeed!

My classmate, Howard Willson, or Howie (or Doc) as we call him, spoke eloquently to the class about their journey so far, so I can but be a cheap imitiation. What I find amazing about this class is the following. Even in the midst of busy careers and a demanding MBA schedule, there were 15 babies born to this cohort and 4 weddings. At least half a dozen companies started during these two years, while several others changed jobs or are in the process of doing so, some making moves to other countries. The Career Management Services at SF is growing slowly but surely in the able hands of Steve Hernandez and quite a few of my classmates were able to benefit from interactions with him and the CMS team. Having watched class 36 from the sidelines in year 2, what was incredible to me was that several  of these folks ended up accomplishing what they used to state as their goals from the MBA program at the start of the program.

After the graduation ceremony at Herbst Theater, the class went across the street to City Hall where we all had dinner with friends, families and faculty. In most of the faces, you could see relief, happiness and some remorse that the program was over and they all go their separate ways, for now.

Given that the program is in the SiliconValley, I wanted to end on a note about entrepreneurship. Both class 36 and 37 have an amazing number of students interested in starting companies, or ones that already have started companies. The administration is consciously helping steep the students in this culture as well, through programs such as the Wharton Entrepreneurial Programs, workshops, Venture Initiation Program, and a host of electives in the second year focused around entrepreneurship. What is also interesting that many of these startups came out of a combination of personal pain-points in the life of the founder(s) and some insight they gained out of the program itself, or a co-founder that they found through Wharton. You can either talk about entrepreneurship, which people like me do pretty well, or actually go do something about it, like these classmates of mine have shown. In the words of Emily Dickinson:

“Finite to fail, but infinite to venture.
For the one ship that struts the shore
Many’s the gallant, overwhelmed creature
Nodding in navies nevermore.”

Hope to see that spirit running high in all the cohorts to come!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Second Wind..

The last time I sat through a full weekend session at Wharton was a year ago. For several reasons I had decided to take a year off. So it was with a good amount of excitement and nervousness that I landed up on campus yesterday. It took a full ten minutes to peel my eyes off of the gorgeous view from the dining area and focus on my new class cohort. Warm welcomes from Doug, Bernie, Len Lodish and others almost made me think I had never taken the break.

It is an interesting and disconcerting experience to take a year off and find yourself on a new campus, with new classmates, new lecture rooms, and new everything else, while the folks running the place are all the same and recognize you. Had to sheepishly get directions several times yesterday from them while I tried to settle into the new campus. Watching my classmates meet and greet each other after a well deserved three-week break brought back faint memories of how relieved class 36 was after Term 3 was done.

In keeping with running analogies, this experience felt like trying to rejoin a marathon race after taking a break halfway due to muscle cramps. You were in your stride, feeling great and just hitting that tempo that would have seen you through to 20 miles when suddenly you had to stop due to cramps. As your breathing slows down and sweat makes your shirt cling to your body, you suddenly start feeling cold and missing the pace of the race. Soon enough you acclimate yourself to the stall and enjoy the beautiful day outside as others run past. When you feel ready to run again, you see the new cohort of runners going past you at a trot, while you huff and puff and try to warm yourself up again and get into rhythm. You wonder how you'd made it that far and whether it was worth it to do the second half or just call it quits.

Nevertheless, I must say that class 37 made me feel a lot better of getting back into another year of a stomach-churningly crazy ride. This term seems to be backloaded for me given my choice of electives, so it was great to ease into it with fewer classes than on an average weekend. We had Strategic Management by Prof. Dyer and New Product Development, which is a mini-Conjoint-Analysis class by Prof. Seenu Srinivasan from Stanford, who was one of the key players behind the research that spawned the amazing field of conjoint analysis based market research. So far it promises to be a lot of work, but looks like it might be worth the work.

Being the start of the second year, all classes have study teams for assignments and these can be formed randomly outside of the learning teams from Year 1, so this gives me a great opportunity to get to know my new classmates. I'm signed up on three non-overlapping teams for three classes - lets see how that goes!

The only downside I've seen so far with the postponement is that for reasons not clear to me, this class seems to have voted out a core marketing elective, because of which no one in the class can major in marketing, unless they fly out to Philly in Term 5 to do the course. It seems a bit heavy handed to me and I'm not sure if the class understood the gravity of their vote. But more on that gripe on my personal blog. To be fair, I did reach out to Prof. Anjani Jain and he tried to give this a second look, but at this point it seems to be too late to make any changes, which is unfortunate - both because I believe that market research is an important class for any person interesting in marketing, and to a lesser extent, the fact that this is a requirement for the major makes it important as well.