Do I Really Need an MBA?

Dear Mandy,

I’m Elysia from Taiwan:) I am a co-founder of a fashion tech startup.  Recently, I saw your career story on Columbia MBA’s alumni website and was deeply impressed by your idea of how technology can help shape the fashion industry. I am planning on applying for my MBA degree this year and hoping to integrate my fashion tech company experience and family business (manufacturing in the fashion industry) in the future. Can you share with me how Columbia’s learning experience and resources combined helped you in the fashion industry? Thank you very much.

Sincerely,

Elysia

 

Hi Elysia!

When I was first applying to the MBA program, I remember going to a prospective student panel on campus at Columbia. I wore fancy shoes and blow-dried my hair. I was so excited to get off at the 116th Street stop on the 1 train, it was like I was trying on a different persona and it felt like coming home. I was now Mandy, prospective MBA! One of the students on the panel – a bright, razor-sharp, and poised woman – proclaimed that the degree was an “accelerant” for your career.

I thought that was so freaking cool. The idea that you could unleash rocket fuel on your career and accelerate to your destination (a straight line from MBA to Director, VP, then land in the C-suite) seemed like a sure ticket to me. In my imagination, the MBA was a time when you could solidify your business skills, “figure out” what you wanted to do with the rest of your life, and then fly at 1,000 mph towards the bullseye of your goal.

I’m now six years out, and as I’ve navigated my own post-MBA journey and watched my friends do the same, I’ve witnessed the following:

  • Friends leaving their high-powered jobs to take a much needed mindfulness break, to recalibrate their next step
  • Friends quitting their six-figure jobs at stable, big companies and going to smaller funded startups
  • Friends going from full time to part time positions in order to take time off with their new babies

What I’m saying is that you should expect a certain level of change. There will be volatility, uprooting, starting over, beginning fresh, “failures,” and quiet exits. Now I think the idea of an “accelerant” is a curious one. Assuming that you know exactly what you want to achieve, then getting there should be an easy task. Work hard, map out the steps, be an efficient machine, make the right connections, and sooner or later you will succeed.

The problem is that life often gets in the way. You realize, oh, I actually hate investment banking. Or, oh, I really want to try this startup thing. Or hey, I just had a baby and maybe I need to readjust my priorities a little bit. This can be very frustrating for Type A women MBAs like ourselves, it’s like an unexpected betrayal. Damnit, you might tell yourself, why can’t you just follow the path, why do you have to be so difficult and change course. Now what am I going to do?!  

So I’ll tell you how the MBA becomes useful. Because it teaches you, in some part, resilience. As in, I come from the fashion industry (as you do, yay!), and have no idea how to do a valuation in Excel. OK so, you say to yourself, I’d better learn this stuff. As in, I don’t really understand finance, and so – you ask a ton of questions and study your ass off, and become friends with all the bankers so they can teach you something, and over time you get better at it. You learn the language of business.

Essentially what you’re doing is you’re cross training your brain to go from one thing (i.e. fashion, family business) to a totally different other thing (i.e. sitting in a room with a bunch of really smart dudes in suits, a talent that if you go on to raise money later, becomes surprisingly useful – sigh/that’s the truth) and excelling at it. When you’re able to do that, you become more confident. You think to yourself, holy shit, I’m really doing this…what else am I capable of?

In your case, it might be applying to leadership management programs at Chanel and LVMH because you have a new level of confidence and connections. Or, you might have the support to start your own fashion tech company, and talk to alums to help you raise money to get your business off the ground. Really the options are limitless. But I don’t think it’s because the MBA suddenly opens up every door for you; but rather, because you give yourself permission to do the things that maybe you were afraid of before.  

So I would encourage you to pursue the MBA for the core reason of pushing your own personal boundaries and expanding the critical thinking capacity of your own mind. It helps you realize that you don’t need permission from anyone, anymore.  You give yourself permission.  It will likely make you more humble, more self aware, and have a more gangbusters attitude in life.

At the same time, the MBA is not the only path. I really believe this. You can also achieve this by say, taking six months off to hike the Pacific Coast Trail, starting your own company now (who needs a fancy degree), traveling and doing photography in rural India, doing something different and risky for yourself and not for the benefit of pumping up your resume or impressing other people, etc.

One final word about the idea of an “accelerant.” Now I’m of the mind that what we need more of is to decelerate (is that a word?). To slow down, look inward, take our time, and really do the work of figuring out what drives us. That way, when we do have the rocket fuel, we’re going fast as hell … in the right direction.

Onward,

Mandy

PS.  Elysia, you sound smart and savvy and like you will achieve anything you put your mind to. Thank you for writing to me. You should name-drop me (“after talking to Mandy Tang ’10 about entrepreneurship, I am confident that CBS is my first choice…blah blah”) in the application. Any little bit helps. 

 


I Decided to Stay at Home...Now What?

Hi Mandy,

I used to earn six figures at a high-powered job, and after I had my second child, I decided to stay at home.  I couldn’t bear to watch my kids in daycare at such a young age.  My kids are three years old, and three months.  I am launching my new entrepreneurial venture, so that I can work from home and live anywhere.  But I simply don’t have the time (between breakfast, lunch, dinner, feeding the baby, taking the kids to the park, grocery shopping, bath time, putting the kids to bed), to get any work done and I feel like I’m always falling behind. Should I just ask my husband to support us fully and focus on the kids (for now)?  Am I betraying my talent and contribution to the world by doing so?

Thanks,

Miriam (“Sleep Deprived”) T.

Miriam,

You are my soul sister.  I started this response by typing one handed, as I was burping the baby with the other.  THE STRUGGLE IS REAL.  We try to do everything.  We multitask.  We run around, picking toys off the floor, while keeping a mental tab of everything that we want to create for our businesses.  We listen to podcasts for entrepreneurs while washing the dishes. We are ALWAYS one step ahead.

I do this, day in, day out.  Here’s the problem, and something that I’m struggling with as well.  The problem is that by racing around, doing everything all the time, we’re never HERE.  As in, our mind is already in the future.  We’re already solving some theoretical problem in our minds, spaced out and floating.  So we’re not living in the present.  We’re not mindful of all the beautiful, tender moments that are happening right in front of our eyes.  We get burdened and stressed by the weight of everything we have to do and how little time we have to do it.  We collapse at the end of the day.

What I’ve been trying to do lately is to stay PRESENT in the moment.  If I’m giving my kid a bath, I put my phone down.  If I’m feeding the baby, I focus on her little lips and make sure she isn’t spitting out the bottle.  If I’m taking my kids to the park, then that’s what I’m doing.  In that moment, I am doing my best.  Motherhood is not sainthood.  You are a person, too.  Don’t try to do 234234324 things at the same time.  Just focus on this one little thing, right now.

I make time for myself.  For example, right now my son is at his daycare which he goes to once a week, so I have time to write and work.  Last night, I stayed up late on my laptop after the kids have gone to bed.  If I’m ever on a train, or a bus, I’ll bring my laptop and create a little magic.  I have yet to wake up early before the kids (I’m only human, after all), but you could try that – I hear it works.

Let’s also talk about this idea of betraying yourself.  For 20+ years, you were taught to be all about YOU.  What were YOU going to achieve?  Do well in school, get good grades, get a good job, get a promotion, another promotion, succeed at a diet, run a 5K.  All of these things are about you, and you could keep accumulating these little trophies on your invisible feel-good wall.  This is an achievement based mindset.  Being a parent turns that on its head.  What can you “achieve” in parenthood?  Being present, and loving, and careful, and thoughtful…harder to quantify right?  So we feel like a loser!

NO.  YOU’RE NOT.  You’re amazing.  You’re flexing an entirely different set of muscles, and using your deep intuitive side to solve problems, develop patience, and for once in your life, prioritize someone else before yourself.  That shit is HARD, man.  I swear to god, raising two kids while running a business from home is probably FIFTEEN times harder than pitching in front of a crowd of 100 investors.  It’s just that the world doesn’t recognize it or value it.  But that’s cool.  You weren’t put on this earth to get recognition and validation from other people.

As my spiritual advisor once told me, there’s only one person who can be mommy.  And that’s you.

Now go wipe that booger!

Sending you patience and love,

Mandy


Stuck in an Old Boy's Club

Dear Mandy,

I work in an environment that’s an old boy’s club:  it’s 80% men and I often feel like the odd one out.  It is so frustrating, I feel myself being sidelined and like I’m invisible sometimes.  How do I build credibility as a minority female?  

Sincerely,

Olivia L.

Dear Olivia,

Your question is a good one because it effects all of us.  It’s universal.  For you, it’s about being a woman in a man’s world.  For all of us, it could be anything:  where we come from, the way we look, the way we talk, the kind of sex we like. What we are really talking about is being different.  Being unusual.  The “other.”  The friction and discomfort of knowing I’m nothing like them, and will suffer some small injustice because of it.  Maybe I’m not invited to the same parties, to the same study groups, to the private meetings, to the boys-only Crossfit sessions after work.  Maybe over time, the gap becomes larger and larger until one day you realize you’re still a Senior Manager and all of the chummy dummy boys have made Director and VP and you want to punch a hole in the wall.

Let’s unpack this.

It’s hard for me to give you advice on how to “fit in” because the feminist in me says you shouldn’t have to (see:  The Feminine Mystique).  That you should just be you, and if you’re constantly feeling tension and friction at being “the other” then you should leave and find your own place in the world.  Of course, the counterargument is that we’re letting The Man win if we do that.  Shouldn’t we break the glass ceiling?  Aren’t we responsible for “teaching” the powerful white man how to be more accepting, and to integrate ourselves into leadership positions to be the change that we want to see?

This is the real conversation, I think, that happens in our minds and hearts.  You so badly want to succeed within the system, but you feel edged out of the system.  Am I betraying myself, you think, if I slip on my “man up” persona and showcase displays of bravado?  What’s the plan here?  Do I just start talk over people in meetings, wearing power suits, and channeling my masculine spirit animal to succeed?  What will it take, goddammit, to get to the top?

I’ve seen it so many times:  the job is simply not a “culture fit” (translation:  you hate the place!).  You push and push only to realize that oh god, it isn’t going to work, and you frantically text your best friends things like “I’M NOT GOING TO MAKE IT.”  So you have to ask yourself:  what’s the long game?  Do you want to climb the ladder at this company?  Do you like the culture?  Do they inspire you (and vice versa) to succeed? And lastly, plain and simple: do you like the people there?  If not, well you know the answer…it’s probably time to start looking elsewhere.

To address your point about credibility, keep doing what you’ve always probably done:  work harder than anyone else – irrespective of gender.  Be invested.  Do your homework.  Do your research.  Be the subject matter expert.  Make friends with people (male, female, trans, whoever!) that you genuinely find yourself being drawn to.  Understand that gender is a spectrum, and that being masculine does not equal strong, and feminine does not equal weak.  Sometimes the quietest, most vulnerable warmth is what ends up shining through.

Here’s the kicker though:  at the end of the day, you can only be YOURSELF.  You have to be you, without any masks or pretenses or make believe.  So if you happen to love bro culture, and are obsessed with sports, and have a fairly militant / traditionally masculine personality, then more power to you (I’m generalizing here, of course, some of my BFF girlfriends have militant personalities).  But if not?  Run the other direction, as fast as you can.  Be you.  Why?  Because that’s the ONLY long-term plan that works without unraveling and leaving you exhausted.  You simply cannot pretend to be someone else.  It’s UNSUSTAINABLE and EXHAUSTING and sooner or later the wheels will come off the bus.

Keep the wheels on the bus, and keep moving forward.

Love,

Mandy


Desperately Seeking Namaste

Dear Mandy,

I want to completely overhaul my job and industry.  I hate being an accountant and want to pursue my dream of being a yoga instructor.  I don’t know how much longer I can take it, but I worry about the impact it will have on my growing family and finances.  How do I make this viable?

Sincerely,

Jenn S.

 

Dear Jenn,

Girl, you are preaching to the choir.  We have all, at some point, dreamt of reinventing ourselves.  Who hasn’t fantasized about being a yoga teacher?  Or a travel agent?  Or food trucker?  Trying on these NEW and DIFFERENT evolved versions of ourselves is healthy, and a necessary part of our growth.  But let’s just make sure it isn’t an escapist fantasy, or an uninformed daydream; that your dreams have substance and are guiding you from an honest place.

Let’s start with why you chose accounting in the first place.  At one point in time, maybe many years ago, pursuing a career in accounting seemed like a good idea.  Why?  Well, your father and brother and uncle were all accountants.  You fell into being a math major and were always just so good with numbers.  And, it did feel very safe and warm to say you work at Ernst & Young (or wherever), and to have such good health insurance.  I’m making this up, but you get the idea!

You had your reasons, and it was enough to compel you to go down that path.  Your rational brain said “yes, do that” and so year after year, there you sat, in your grey cubicle with fluorescent overhead lights, manipulating spreadsheets eight hours a day.  Something kept you there.  What was it?  A need for stability?  Credibility?  Professional clout?  Some manic voice that whispered that you weren’t good enough and if you left, you were throwing away your potential?  Girl, we all have our demons that feed on fear, and there is only one way to expel them.  You have to look at your fear head on, acknowledge its existence, lie down next to it, stroke its hair, and then kindly ask it to leave.  Your baggage (for lack of a better word) isn’t going to magically disappear just by switching jobs.  Until you do the deep soul work of exorcising it and cleansing it from your psyche, you will likely carry that with you, in some form or another, into the next job, and the one after that.

What this means is that the void you are trying to fill must be nourished from within.  It starts with loving yourself, and accepting yourself, unconditionally.  It’s tough.  But try this:  do you love yourself as an accountant?  Say yes.  Explain why.  Forgive yourself for the choices you made.  Stop beating yourself up.  Give yourself credit for realizing that this is no longer what you want to do, and that’s okay.  Will you love yourself as a yoga instructor?  Again, the answer is yes.  Not because it is a cooler job that essentially mandates a sense of calm, but because it is closer aligned (hopefully) to your true self.  Will you love yourself, six months from now, if you wake up and realize oh shit, you hate yoga and resent peddling to the upper middle class yuppies who are masquerading as zen when in fact they are workaholic monsters?  Yes, and yes, and yes, and yes.  Always yes.  Keep on this path and no matter what you do, you’ll always have yourself to come back to.

Now in practical terms, how do you do this?  How do you execute on a plan to make the switch viable?  I’m getting paid a nice six figures right now, and being a yoga instructor I’d barely be making what I was paid in my first job, twelve years ago.  Is this a step back?  Am I throwing everything away that I worked so hard for?  It’s so damn terrifying that I think I’ll just keep crunching numbers for another minute, month, year, lifetime.  OK slow down.  You can do this.

Let me draw out a little analogy for you.  Imagine you’re planning a trip, a nice little one week vacation for you and your lover to Paris.  You’re going to book a nice AirBnB, reserve your train tickets, buy your flight, and maybe bookmark a few cafes with croissants that you have to try, right?  The whole point is to enjoy the fuck out of Paris and live spontaneously, but you also need to make sure your hotels are booked and your seats are reserved.  Because otherwise that creates unnecessary stress and detracts from your comfort of traveling.

The same theory applies for the career switch.  You’re going to be driven to choose something based on your heart (i.e. yoga), but you also need to make sure the basic needs are met (i.e. breakeven, not be homeless, etc.).  I suggest doing an evaluation of your current expenses, and see which ones can be cut out or reduced.  For me, I decided to reduce expenses drastically by moving from New York City (where rent was $3,200 a month, I know – it’s mental).  In doing so, we left our son’s fancy pants Upper East Side daycare (where 3 days a week cost $2,700 per month) to a combination of me being the primary caretaker and sending him to a loving local daycare one day a week.  I cancelled my subscriptions to Spotify, Netflix, Tivo, started cooking from home a lot more, and pretty much stopped shopping.  I honestly didn’t really even miss any of these things.  I was just fine.

Before you make the leap, there will likely be an “overlap” period.  This is where you will need what I call a “raft” to keep you afloat.  This might be teaching a few yoga classes a week, or maybe even doing some personal accounting consulting on the side.  For me, I did a combination of MBA consulting (helping pre-MBA kids get into b-school) which allowed me to work virtually on my own schedule, and later did my own digital consulting for a few months (helping companies, large and small, launch their websites).  Leverage whatever skills you have and let some friends and co-workers know you’re looking for a few consulting jobs.  Is there something part-time that you can do to make ends meet?  Maybe talk to your current employer and ask to work remotely on a part-time basis for 6 months while you earn your yoga certification?

Get creative, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.  I know I can get shy sometimes and talk myself out of asking for help, convinced that people think I’m crazy for taking so many different gigs and switching my career so many times.  I promise you though, people don’t care; they’re too busy running their own lives to judge you.  They will either help you, or not.  Either way, you haven’t lost anything.

Now, for the advanced peeps out there, there will come a point where you realize all your free time is being eaten up by your “raft.”  Wait a minute, you might say, I left my corporate job to become a yoga instructor, and now all I do is spend time on the phone with my accounting consulting clients?!  How do I break the cycle?  I don’t even have time to work on my stuff…I’m so busy still working for other people.  Here’s the hard part:  at a certain point, you will have to ditch your raft.  This is where things get really scary and shit gets real.  You watch your bank account go down.  You say no to consulting jobs.  You put all your chips in, and say, OK fuck it, it’s just about me now.  This is graduate-level on the precipice of greatness stuff, not for the faint of heart.  If you are at this moment, the only advice I have for you is:  keep going.  Go all the way.  PUSH THROUGH this moment, glory is on the other side.  I commend you, I applaud you, and I give you a big, long hug of moral support.  So, keep it real and good luck with the yoga.

Namaste!

Mandy