Learning my way from Wall Street to McKinsey to Tanzanian NGO to Colombian startup studio
Seven years ago, as a junior in college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I was primarily driven by extrinsic motivators such as prestige and social proof. Today, I’ve gained a much better sense of what I like and where I want to head, and I feel much more intrinsically driven.
Optimal learning — a statistical concept about how to efficiently maximize an objective given numerous options and a high cost of search — has helped me immensely in speeding up this transformation. In this story, I’d like to share how so.
Note: To better understand the motivation behind this story or to read more details about optimal learning, read my previous story here.
College underclassman years: naively nerdin’ it up in school
I was not at all sure what I wanted to do — and was generally very ignorant about the world outside of the Ivory Tower. I was thinking about pursuing a PhD in the sciences, not necessarily because I was passionate about research but because school was the only thing I really knew. I had very limited understanding of my strengths other than the fact that I knew how to take classes and do well in exams. I was primarily motivated by collecting academic accolades, and I cared a lot about doing something prestigious so that my parents would be proud of me and others would respect me.
Junior summer internship: dipping my toes in corporate America
After 2.5 years of doing science research on campus, I decided I really couldn’t do any more pipetting and turned against pursuing academia. I felt lost and confused, devoid of knowledge around job opportunities outside of the PhD path. I applied to anything and everything that appeared on the on-campus recruiting job board and stumbled into an M&A investment banking summer analyst gig at Credit Suisse (the only reason I landed this offer was that they asked zero banking-related questions throughout the interview process).
I learned a TON during the internship — both about the corporate world and about myself. But as much as I appreciated Credit Suisse for the opportunity it gave me, I realized I just couldn’t get excited about finance. The typical folks in finance and I shared very little in common in values and interests. Also, I found that the high pay simply wasn’t enough to get me motivated for 80+ hour per week of work. So by the end of the summer, I ruled out finance from a potential career path.
First job out of college: maximizing learning through McKinsey
Going into the senior year, beyond the fact that I didn’t like finance, I still didn’t have much clue around what jobs to go after. I didn’t have a specific problem space that I was interested in. So I was naturally led to focus my efforts on the non-finance employers that recruit heavily on campus — consulting firms — and ultimately decided to join McKinsey. Given my very undefined career interest, I believe McKinsey was arguably the best learning opportunity I could pursue at that point. It offered an enormous breadth of work as well as unparalleled exit opportunities.
Honestly, my 2 years at McKinsey was transformational — in fact, I would say, an order of magnitude more so than even my 4 years at Princeton.
- By getting thrown into such a variety of unfamiliar professional environments (from financial services to industrials to social sectors working with clients ranging from CEOs to mid-level managers), my understanding about the professional landscape, what I enjoy working on, and what I’m good at grew exponentially.
- At the end of my time at the Firm, I was able to frame much more nuanced questions about what I wanted to learn about myself next.
- McKinsey gave me a golden ticket that opened doors to all sorts of opportunities.
Below is a chart that summarizes what I’d learned and what key questions/uncertainties had arisen by the end of my time at McKinsey:
Second job out of college: maximizing my learning by choosing an “extreme” role
Based on the uncertainties I wanted to address through my next move, the types of jobs I was mainly considering at the end of my two-year BA stint at McKinsey were:
- Startups in the social impact space in the US and abroad
- NGOs in the US and abroad
- McKinsey Implementation Group
- McKinsey Public / Social Sector practices
I ended up choosing Touch Foundation, a USAID-funded NGO working to improve the health systems of Tanzania. As one of the most “out there” impact-driven opportunities I could pursue, Touch promised to be an incredible way to plunge into a very unfamiliar environment (in terms of geography, role, and organizational model) where I could learn a ton about myself.
Here is a summary of what I’d learned and what new questions I had at the end of my time in Tanzania. I want to point out that because my experience at Touch was so different from my time at McKinsey, after just ~9 months at Touch, I felt I had gotten sufficient answers to many key areas of uncertainty. The only area where I still was largely unsure about was the problem space / problem-solving approach that I should focus on.
Third job out of college: diving into the LatAm entrepreneurship scene in my search for a better fit
By the end of McKinsey and Touch, I had gained a good sense of how big private sector corporations and nonprofits function and had addressed many of my uncertainties around job preferences. The biggest uncertainty I still had left was around identifying “the problem space / problem-solving approach that is best aligned with my interests and skill set.” I needed to find an organization that tackles problems in a very different way than what I’d experienced to date.
Startups were a very natural type of organizations for me to explore next (and I’d always been curious about entrepreneurship). I considered starting something in the US with a college friend but decided against it for practical reasons (difficult to pull off something so early stage as a foreign national with all the visa challenges). So I started browsing AngelList and other similar websites to find a startup.
When I encountered Polymath Ventures, a startup studio in Colombia that designs and launches new businesses to tackle problems of the middle class in Latin America, I immediately knew it was the opportunity I was looking for. Polymath focused on solving high-impact problems through entrepreneurship, operated in a new geographical region for me, and was young enough that I would be able to wear a lot of different hats and play a significant leadership role.
Out of all the jobs I’ve had so far, I felt most “in my element” at Polymath, and I realized that entrepreneurship is indeed a great fit for me. The fast-paced, collaborative, casual, and flexible nature of startups match my work environment preferences. And I believe startups have a much higher probability of developing an effective solution than other organizational models because of their relentless focus on fast, iterative solution finding.
Where I am now — grad school: building my platform to dive deep
After a year at Polymath, I left Bogota and moved to Boston to start my current program (MPA in International Development) at Harvard.
While I loved the company, I wasn’t sure that Latin America was the right long-term home for me. I wanted to make sure I continued to construct a strong platform for my career, and I felt that going back to the US would help me build a more robust track record at this stage. Enrolling in the MPA/ID program was therefore not only a way for me to deepen my content knowledge around international development and the social impact space which I have come to really care about over my time in Tanzania and Colombia, but also a ticket to return to the US and surround myself with smart, motivated people who would be willing to take on a serious entrepreneurial endeavor together.
Reflecting back to the last 5 years since graduating from college, I’m amazed at how much I’ve grown. I still have uncertainties that I’m testing about my career path (and I’m sure I will continually be testing for many years to come), though my questions are much more specific and nuanced at this point. I truly believe the optimal learning mindset has accelerate my development — not to mention spicing up my life by encouraging me to plop myself into unknown places, meet people from all over the world, and just try things out.