Women Of The C-Suite: Dr Kat Cohen Of IvyWise On The Five Things You Need To Succeed As A C-Suite Senior Executive

Charlie Katz
Authority Magazine
Published in
13 min readFeb 23, 2022

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We can’t wait for things to come our way; we need to go out and make things happen.

As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Kat Cohen.

Dr. Kat Cohen is the founder and CEO of IvyWise, the world’s premier educational consultancy, and one of the leading independent university admissions counselors. While earning two master’s degrees and a PhD. at Yale University, Dr. Kat started her career as a Reader in the University’s Office of Admissions, evaluating applications to Yale College. Dr. Kat is the best-selling author of The Truth About Getting In and Rock Hard Apps, a sought-after speaker and expert on university admissions, an NFT educator, and a member of YPO, the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA).

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

After graduating magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Brown University, I headed to Dhakar to perform with the National Ballet Company of Senegal, but typhoid fever sent me home and back into academia. As a graduate student at Yale University, I received a fellowship to study Latin American literature. While writing my dissertation, I worked as a Reader in the Yale University Office of Admissions, evaluating applications to Yale College. I noticed that many students made mistakes on their applications that would be easily avoidable had they had expert guidance through the application process, which inspired me to found IvyWise. Over the past two decades, I have grown a team of former deans and directors of admissions with over 300 years of collective experience in admissions at schools including Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, and MIT. I have also worked with my team to diversify IvyWise’s services over the past years beyond just college counseling to include K-12 school placement, early college prep, graduate school admissions counseling, academic tutoring, and test prep.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The most interesting thing is the way inclusivity, bringing people together to noodle about our students and parents and the way in which we work, has helped us grow and develop as a company. Early on I hired experts in their fields, former deans, admissions officers, and others. We would discuss our students and realized that this input from each person would be of great value to each student. From there, we started what we call the IvyWise Roundtable Review, which is what I would call our “secret sauce.” All of our counselors work together at the weekly review, where they simulate the actual admissions process, giving students the advantage of a mock admissions committee and the benefit of our entire team’s expertise. In general, large internal gatherings have helped our company to address challenges and develop solutions, becoming policies and procedures we still follow today.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Very early on, I opened a second office in LA and quickly realized we didn’t need a physical space. Parents would ask for tutors to be available in person, and we would explain that virtual sessions were better for a number of reasons. We’ve been providing virtual services for over 15 years. After months of rent, phone, furnishings, and so on, I realized that the second office was costing a lot of money and was so unnecessary. I think about that today and laugh. Since the pandemic, our clients request almost only remote tutoring and counseling!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Yes, John Katzman who was CEO and co-founder of the Princeton Review. He also founded 2U and helped to start Noodle Partners. He’s really been my mentor since I was in high school, believe it or not. I initially met him when I took the Princeton Review course myself, as he and his business partner coached me for my own standardized tests. What’s funny is that when I was just about to start my business, I went to John for advice. He told me that there was no money or future business in college counseling. After thinking about it, I told him I was going to go ahead with my business and prove him wrong. That was very hard for me to do. We look back on that conversation and laugh. Since then, he has advised me in all different capacities. He has invited me to participate in panels and talks and has advised me on growing my business, including making key hires, and so much more. I am very grateful for his advice and our collaborations.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

As an entrepreneur, it is important that I pencil in time for self-care in order to stay at the top of my game. I enjoy online workout classes, such as Baby Momma Fit, to unwind while also keeping my mind engaged by following along with the movements. I make it a point to work out weekly, no matter where I am in the world, either by tuning in to an online workout or finding a local trainer. It’s been especially important to me during COVID. I often come up with some of my best ideas for my business while working out! I can also hold a plank for over 10 minutes!

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

In order for companies to successfully adapt to the evolving world, it’s vital for executive teams to be comprised of people from different backgrounds. Otherwise, all conversations would exist in an echo chamber, and it would be very difficult to enact change as needed. I have always made it a point to hire a diverse team of counselors and staff members and am fortunate to lead alongside a strong executive team of female leaders who are experts in their fields.

Additionally, our company works directly with students from a wide range of backgrounds, representing different races, countries, socioeconomic backgrounds, and more. As our services are highly personalized, it is critical that these students feel represented by the people on our team. Working closely with such diverse families and using a team-based methodology keeps us very close to different issues affecting specific demographics.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

When I started IvyWise, it was very important to me to be accessible, fair, and equitable. From the start, we have offered a pro bono component for those students who do not have the wherewithal to pay for our services. Our website has become a destination where anyone — including high school counselors — can find the latest, most relevant information on the admissions space. I’m very proud that we’ve made this information accessible to anyone who wants it.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

There are many skills that all leaders should have in common in order to succeed, such as strong communication and problem-solving skills. In addition to being strong in these areas, executives should be creative and nimble, and able to easily adapt to the changing world to ensure that their company’s products or services continue to be relevant.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

People often assume that CEOs and executives should be harsh, strict leaders, which couldn’t be further from the truth! The most successful leaders are compassionate and make it a point to build strong relationships with each member of their team on both a personal and professional level. This ensures that the company is able to thrive and that each team member can grow to their highest potential. We plan company excursions where everyone bonds. And a part of everyone’s compensation is tied to how well the company is doing. We are all in this together!

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Having frequently been in situations where women leaders are the minority, it is difficult for strong women to be assertive or direct without being seen as bossy. When a man is assertive and direct, he is often considered a good leader. On the other hand, if a woman is seen as too soft, she’s criticized. She is also criticized if she is considered to be too tough. It’s about finding the right balance and changing this narrative so that strong female leaders are seen in a more positive light.

On a similar note, I tend to have interests that are considered to be more ‘masculine,’ such as cryptocurrency. One of my goals is to encourage young girls and women to follow their passions, even if others may think they are not a fit for women.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

The college admissions landscape has changed drastically since I founded IvyWise over two decades ago. Application numbers have skyrocketed while admissions rates have plummeted. There have been many changes to the landscape, such as the adoption of test-optional policies, the evolving Common App and supplemental essays that change year over year, a movement towards online learning, and scandals that have rocked the profession. While I of course had some initial understanding that I would need to quickly adapt to an evolving landscape, I could not have predicted how college admissions would look during the current 2021–2022 admissions cycle! In order to stay tuned into the industry, I stay abreast of the news in my field every day, test out the latest technology myself, and adhere to my moral compass. I am grateful to work with a team that does so as well.

Is everyone cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

Successful executives should have an entrepreneurial spirit, which is not necessarily something that can be taught. I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit — it’s just something that comes naturally to me. Having that type of drive is key to really sticking to your vision and ensuring success. Executives should also be tenacious, resilient and have a long-term vision for their company.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

All leaders, including women leaders, should be determined and think big when planning for the future of their company. Be confident and demanding to hold both yourself and others accountable to be the best they can be. Never be afraid to be a strong boss and avoid falling into stereotypical female patterns that can ultimately hold you back.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

IvyWise has worked with pro bono students for over two decades, with each of our counselors committing to work with at least one pro bono student each year. We introduced the new and improved IvyWise Scholars program in 2021. We offer pro bono college counseling, tutoring, and mentoring services to high-achieving high school students from low-income families. Readily available data from the Common App shows that first-generation, low-income, and minority students didn’t apply to colleges during the 2020–2021 admissions cycle at the same rates as in the past, in part due to COVID-19. We’re passionate about promoting access to higher education for these students.

Our IvyWise team is also dedicated to supporting nonprofits and community-based organizations that are focused on educating underserved populations around the world, including Wayuu Taya, School the World, Horizons, Amandla, and the Elma School.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

I wish someone had told me that it’s okay to delegate what you’re not good at. It took me many years to be able to hire a great COO who is really competent at operations. I’m not an operations person and am not a great manager by nature. In the beginning I thought I had to do it all myself, but now realize it is better to identify experts for tasks that don’t come naturally to me.

When you are starting out in your business, don’t be afraid to give away information. Create your networking lists and your social channels, and share ideas, tips, and links — information that will help others. These connections may help you grow faster and they will position you as an expert in the space.

Be prepared for the one thing that will jumpstart your business. I was fortunate to have a friend of a friend writing for Vogue when they were doing a college index. She asked me to tell her about the gadgets college students were using and the latest styles on campuses. She called several times and I gave her free information. I wasn’t expecting anything from it. A couple months later, Vogue called to say they appreciated the information and wanted to put me in the next college index as a resource and asked for a company phone number that they could list. I didn’t even have an office yet, no less a business phone. I quickly called the phone company realizing I could attach a toll-free number to it, and luckily my company has a 7-letter name, so I got the toll-free number for IvyWise. That small mention in Vogue brought me more than a thousand phone calls from all over the globe.

Don’t try to do everything. Be focused on how you want your company to grow. Be open to opportunities, but don’t accept every one that comes your way if it isn’t truly aligned with your company’s mission and goals. You don’t want to be stretched too thin or inauthentic.

Think about what is going to fulfill you, especially if you’re really young and just starting out. What are you feeling? What are you going to enjoy doing every day? That’s important. You don’t want to wake up in 20 years and say, “That wasn’t fun, right?”

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I am very passionate about educating others about cryptocurrency, as it is such a growing industry that anyone can dip their toes into. As cryptocurrency continues to play an increasingly important role in the overall economy, it is crucial that young people understand how it works and how they can invest in it themselves — even if they only begin by investing a few dollars at a time. Financial literacy has always been an important, yet often overlooked, skill and cryptocurrency is now an innate part of the financial landscape.

Beyond just cryptocurrency, the Metaverse and Web 3.0 will have lasting impacts on the future. The higher education model should drastically change by delivering courses and certifications at lower costs than in-person ones, using Web 3.0 for verification. Students would have access to a completely different experience than the traditional in-person one and would learn applicable life skills including financial literacy, ethics, and more.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If you want to predict the future, create it,” Peter Drucker, the widely known and influential thinker on management, said in 1991. When I heard it, it made such an impact on me that I had a ring engraved with it. I’m a believer that you have to be a doer in life. I’m fortunate that if I want something to happen, I have the drive to try to make it so. For example, I played the piano when I was little and really wanted to get back to playing again. But it wasn’t just going to happen miraculously. I had to buy a little keyboard and I signed up for piano lessons. Now I take piano lessons on a weekly basis, because having them booked is the only way that I’m going to really relearn the piano. We can’t wait for things to come our way; we need to go out and make things happen.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to meet Pranksy. For those who aren’t into cryptocurrency, she is the world’s best-known NFT (non-fungible token) collector. I have been investing in cryptocurrency for a number of years and made a bet on what was coming with metaverse very early on. I started investing in metaverse coins and buying up virtual land in various metaverses, which led me to NFTs. I’m currently on the investment committee for an investment group. Pranksy is a pseudonym and she is very influential in the space. I follow her religiously and there aren’t many women involved in crypto. She’s at the top of my list of people to meet right now because I would love to pick her brain.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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Charlie Katz
Authority Magazine

Executive Creative Director at Bitbean Software Development