Harvard MBA Application Q&A, Interview Practice Learnings & Articulating Your Why - E206

· Harvard,Q and A,Mentorship,Popular,Podcast Episodes English

At the end of day, they are trying to find out if you are a good fit for them and they are also trying to find out if they are a good fit for you. To some extent, that is the perfect world where both sides are not trying to deceive and both sides are being honest with each other because it is a matching dynamic. Obviously, when you talk to me, to some extent, the questions were like, how do you load the questions or frame the questions to be more positive? However, for me, I am trying to encourage you to think if at some point during this conversation and next one or two weeks, you find out exactly why you want to do it and bank yourself half a million dollars. - Jeremy Au

Nadim is a Singaporean venture investor focused on the Southeast Asian region and its growing consumer market. Nadim invests in startups through his holdco, Blue Bamboo. After three years of consumer venture investing with DSG Consumer Partners, Nadim is now an MBA candidate at Harvard Business School, graduating in the Class of 2024. Nadim is also a member of the Milken Institute's Young Leaders Circle (YLC) where he contributes to consumer, health and food research and initiatives for the Asia Center.

Jeremy Au (00:29)
How should we be thinking about entrepreneurship for HBS and in preparation for the interview and after listening to the previous entrepreneurship podcast?

Nadim Muzayyin (00:42)
Yes, that's fair. Maybe I will take a step back and just give you the story that I applied with or the one that is motivating me to do my MBA. I'm in venture capital. I have done venture for about two and a half years but it is specific to consumer. I want to transition from investor to operator. My long term goal is to build my own consumer brand here in Southeast Asia and my short term goal is probably to work at a fast growing growth start up in the United States or Southeast Asia.

Since I have been working in the early stage of the venture capital industry, my goal is to build a holistic toolkit to understand how to run a larger growth business because I have only seen 0 to 1 and 1 to 5. I want to understand 5 to 10 and 10 to 100. I want to understand what kind of resources at HBS that you have seen entrepreneurship students take and use?

Jeremy Au (01:36)
Yes, that broader context is really helpful because there is a lot of whats there and I just listed in no particular order such as the classes, the network, entrepreneurial finance, founder's journey, and entrepreneurial management. There are many classes they can take and a lot of whats.
I think the biggest question is why that is really important. Someone told me, “Hey, Jeremy. I want to be a founder. I want to go to Harvard”.
I told him, “going to Harvard to be a founder is the worst idea ever because why spend about 250 to 500 grand and two years of your time on a Harvard MBA to be a founder when you get to spend all that time being a founder instead”.
It is an interesting dynamic here because in your case, it's a good idea to do a Harvard MBA. Somehow when the other person asked me that question and I told him that I think it is a bad idea.
It is a bit weird, right? I think that is really important because if you do not have that articulation of why, you do not have a good reason going into the interview about why you care. Also, you would not go to school knowing why you care and you would not even take the right classes or the right set up. Everything falls apart from there. The idea of it is that it makes sense to pursue an MBA when you want to change your career or when you want to change your geography.
For example, if you want to move to America, go do an MBA in America. That is the obvious one. This is easy and a no-brainer. If people from India, Singapore and China want to move to America, just do an MBA. If you want to move to consulting or to a big tech from consulting, that is also a big no-brainer to some extent because you can do that through MBA or through a recruiter as well.
I think this is where the fuzziness comes in where your articulation was right. I am a V.C. and I see my career being in tech. I want to explore and see myself in different roles. I could be a tech generalist, a tech executive, an operator and down the road, I can potentially be a founder.
However, there is still that fuzziness to the exploration phase. I want to build that skill ladder and then therefore I'll add other things such as network, the exposure, the rigour and the signal in terms of credentials.
All those things will help you to open up doors for more opportunities and to execute quickly on opportunity when it does show itself right. That being said, I heard recently from a podcast with Jasmine and she said it very nicely. If you know your goal too clearly, there is no point doing an MBA. If you know that you definitely want to be a founder, then you should not do an MBA because you might as well save your 250 grand of school fees and your foregone income of 250 grand. That is half a million of income and it takes two years of your time which is super expensive in a different geography from Southeast Asia.
What can you do with half a million dollars of income during a side hustle in Southeast Asia instead of being in Boston or New York? You could be a founder quickly. Does it make sense? If you knew exactly what you wanted to do or if you knew exactly that you want to be a management consultant, there is no point pursuing an MBA to be a consultant right now.

Nadim Muzayyin (05:24)
I totally agree and I think this is where I am at in my journey. Maybe in 5 to 10 years, I want to be a founder but there are still steps I need to do to get there. I need to understand that growth stage. I know how to launch businesses. I have done it before while at my current role but how do you scale businesses? How do you optimise for global businesses?
Businesses that are cross-border. Businesses that are regional. I do not know how to do that yet. And again, building that holistic tool kit is something that I want and maybe that is how I should communicate in my interview as well.

Jeremy Au (06:04)
Exactly. There is that challenge of going into the interview but also going into this whole process. Being that tool centric is going to box it into the things and the whats I have to do.
What is more interesting is the why. The why fundamentally is to say, I know that being a V.C. is no longer the thing I want to be for this next stage and that is okay. That being said, I know that tech and the geography is interesting to me.
I love tech and I love Southeast Asia but which company and which role is still in the exploration phase in that sense. I also know that I want to be the best. I want to be the leader. I want to be the executive and I am a leader. What does that leadership role look like? I think that clarity of saying I want to be the leader that makes a difference is clear and saying I want to be an executive means that I have that clarity.
The MBA programme therefore gives me a lot and becomes larger than classes. These classes would have been the most obvious answer from a skills perspective, which would have been like knowledge and tools. You would have changed from saying, “okay, there are 3 courses which are very boring from an individual perspective but also tactical” to saying, “well, if I really want to be an executive, a leader or an operator, I want to take Southeast Asia from where we are now at a cost of something amazing and I want to transform millions of lives across Asia but from a more tactile and a more executive role instead of a V.C.”.
I want to do that. Therefore, there are things that are much more interesting to me now. For example, the HBS case study approach, where I am the decision maker and I am in the executive role working with my peers to debate, discuss and to make a decision about how to allocate resources, time and energy in crisis, as a company and as a team.
It is about team learning. That is a really big part of it because we are going to be doing thousands of cases across two years. The classroom learning is really important. It is less about the knowledge but more about the experience and the practice of being a decision maker.
Next, the network is important because again, if all you cared about was learning how to be X, Y or Z leader, it will be knowledge. However, now you say, “I care about the network. I care about getting to know different folks in the industry and being very clear about discovering things”.
I love Southeast Asia but I feel like I want to zoom in and say, “these are the verticals that I want to play a role in” and then activating the Harvard Network and tying down a global basis. For example, if you are in Asia and you care about health care, you obviously activate the Southeast Asia Harvard network and also activate the global health care network across Harvard. It is a matrix in that sense.

Nadim Muzayyin (09:06)
Correct me if I am wrong here but you talked about building deep connections with high performing individuals across diverse geographies and industries as a leader in your previous podcast. As a leader, you want to be around other leaders discussing problems but you also want to clarify for yourself if this person in this job and this industry is interesting to me or not.

Jeremy Au (09:32)
Exactly. At the end of the day, that is one line of logic that you have to go through in terms of what am I trying to achieve because it sounds like you are clear about the fact that you are going to focus on Southeast Asia.
You are less interested in V.C. now. You want to be an operator or a founder but you also have to be clear on which industries are you more interested or less interested in. That is going to create a pyramid and you are working your way down. Obviously in the interview which is going to be much shorter, you are going to have to invert the pyramid and articulate the other side of it which is to summarise the things that you want to be.
I want to be an operator and a founder or in other words, an executive. I am interested in exploring 3 key industries while I am at Harvard. For example, Health Care, Consumer and Logistics. I care about these different aspects of it.
What is fuzzy to me is that these are people I respect. I have talked to Person A, Person B, Jeremy, etc. Then you sort of go from there. The truth is the interview is of course still a screening tool. It is not pastoral approach whereas you talking to me is more of a pastoral coaching dynamic but not an interview format.

Nadim Muzayyin (10:47)
I really appreciate that. Again, just getting more clear on the why is definitely helpful. I am not sure what you did in your interview. Were you very specific with the courses that you wanted to take and what you wanted to do in the first and second semester or were you just more broad in the idea that the network will help me. I want to do this now but I also want to explore more. This is why and I think I'll be able to do that at HBS.
What would your advice be going into the interview?

Jeremy Au (11:17)
Let’s zoom out a little bit because you are asking how do I give answers to a test but I think the question is, what is the test. The test is basically saying, at Harvard, they want to pick the future C.E.O.s, the V.C.s and the partners.
They are looking to West Point for capitalism. That is what they say. The leaders who are going to make a difference. They are going to select for that which is they looked your resumes, your references, your GMAT and your scoring. They are just looking for the best. At a stage they are obviously doing a behavioural interview and they are looking for your why. Does it make sense?
They are not looking for your what. When you are talking about the course, the goal is not to come across as pedantic and detail oriented, which is the risk of you going through this thing but to come across as saying what is your why.
You want to be an executive? You want to be number one or whatever that means without being an ar****** or douche because nobody wants to work for and with that person. Nobody wants to collaborate or learn alongside in that classroom with a douche.
That's the thing. If I was your interviewer, I will ask myself if we are happy to groom this person who is going to be an executive to the next level or is this person a douche?
Those are two things. The flipside of that is you do not want this person to come across as super obsessed about these ten courses they are going to take and come across as too detail oriented or neither you want this person to come across as lost in the weeds.
To some extent I think you are very focussed on the way we articulate about the what of the contents but it is going to be about the how you articulate more than the what. What is more important than the how you articulate that again is why you are there. Does it make sense?

Nadim Muzayyin (13:20)
Yes, it makes sense. That is actually a great way to think about it. I think I have the why but I just need to break down that why, what I need to still explore and then how I am going to do it as well. I think the exploring part is something that I definitely need to work on.

Jeremy Au (13:34)
Exactly, at the end of the day, the interview is going to work out. You have done job interviews and you have also been an interviewer before. Am I right? You are not going to remember all these individuals.
They are going to walk out and you will be thinking, “wow, this person knows exactly why he or she is here”. That is a perfect fit. Those two things line up. Sometimes that does not happen. Sometimes you will be thinking, “wow, that person knows exactly why he or she is here and that is not this company”.

Nadim Muzayyin (14:05)

Jeremy Au (14:06)
Sometimes you are thinking, “wow, that person is in this company and they have great skills but that person should not be here at all because they should be doing something else with their life. Does it make sense?

Nadim Muzayyin (14:17)
That makes total sense. Again, I just need to triangulate that why and make sure I communicate it well.

Jeremy Au (14:25)
Yes, because at the end of day, they are trying to find out if you are a good fit for them and they are also trying to find out if they are a good fit for you. To some extent, that is the perfect world where both sides are not trying to deceive and both sides are being honest with each other because it is a matching dynamic. Obviously, when you talk to me, to some extent, the questions were like, how do you load the questions or frame the questions to be more positive? However, for me, I am trying to encourage you to think if at some point during this conversation and next one or two weeks, you find out exactly why you want to do it and bank yourself half a million dollars.

Nadim Muzayyin (14:59)
I appreciate the way you are framing it. You are not asking to think about X, Y and Z. You are saying to take a step back and just clarify the why so that when you actually have that conversation with the interviewer, it is more of an authentic conversation than trying to fill in boxes.

Jeremy Au (15:19)
Exactly. The truth is, you are probably a good fit based on your profile. Obviously, I do not know your package but from what I know about, you are probably a good fit overall from a technical and quantitative perspective. I think Harvard has a lot of upside for spending half a million dollars and I think a lot of people used to ask me if Harvard is worth it for MBA. I always tell that I have met a lot of people talking about how Harvard MBA is not worth it but I have never met an alumnus who said it.

Nadim Muzayyin (15:52)
Interesting. I imagine the doors that it opens is great but again, they also filter for why you are there too.

Jeremy Au (15:59)
Exactly. I always tell people to imagine walking out of an ice cream shop and all the people who have never eaten the ice cream can tell you the ice cream is not worth it. Yet, everybody who has eaten the ice cream tells you it is worth it.
You then think if the ice cream shop is worth it or not but the truth is, the ice cream shop is doing a good job selecting the people who enjoy the ice cream and vice versa. It is okay if there are people who do not want to eat it but for people who do eat it, they enjoy. That is where the self-awareness helps a lot. There is a good shot that this will help you because you say a lot of things that are quite true.
You want to do a career shift, you want to upscale, you want to improve your networks and you are clear about your geography. Those are all good things to have. I would not say you are a bad fit. I think you are a pretty decent fit from what I know.

Nadim Muzayyin (16:49)
Well, the job is not done yet, right? I will definitely keep you updated Jeremy but thank you. Thank you for the help. This really clarifies what I need to say through before the interview next week.
Jeremy Au (17:01)
Any other thoughts or concerns in your mind?

Nadim Muzayyin (17:04)
The days leading up to the interview, you are practising all the general behavioural questions but I do know that it is going to be more of a conversation than anything. I know my story, I know what is in my application and I think going through that application is important just to make sure that you have everything in mind. The thing that I am just not clear is that someone is going to ask me why? Why do you need an MBA if you want to be a founder? Just getting those steps in is definitely important to that answer.

Jeremy Au (17:34)
Yes, my biggest tip is to practise with someone else. For me, I applied and I was pretty fortunate because I applied under the two plus two programme. I was pretty early and I remember that I had come back from Bain and I was very fortunate because I had seen the other people who have applied to Harvard and it was possible. I was inspired and I found that earlier application.
I came back to UC Berkeley and I was the only person who was bonkers enough to apply. I had no peer so I bought books. Can you believe it. It was those books and one website. It was called Poise and Quants which is a great website. It is this one website at that time in 2010. I somehow got an interview and I was stressed.
I remember I was at a computer lab and I got an interview offer the next day and I was just writing that stuff. I was reading the Poise and Quants. The book had nothing about interview process. I was really stressed.
My friend Elaine and I were in the social impact consulting club together. As she walked by, she said, “oh, what's up?”. She thought I was stressed and I told her, “hey, I have this interview tomorrow with the Harvard MBA”.
She said, “oh, do you need help?”. As a guy, my natural instinct was to say no. It was just this macho bullshit but I do not know what happened. She was friendly and I will never forget as I said yes because I was so desperate. She just sat with me for hours and went through over and over again. It was just a huge relief to go through it and just feel comfortable talking about it.

Nadim Muzayyin (19:31)
I definitely have a few months. Did you go through general questions or did you go through your actual application such as general behavioural questions? Did she probe you on why you said this or when you said it on your application?

Jeremy Au (19:45)
For my practice, it was a mixture of both. She went through a bunch of my resumes. I will be frank. I do not think we were both undergrads and seniors at that time. I do not think we were both great interviewers or interviewees at a time.
The next day, my other friend drove me to the place and I was going to be late. I said to him, “I love you man” and he laughed because we were going to be late. He just did this manoeuvre. We always remember that day. It was stressful leading up.
Going into the conversation when I went through that interview, it was very conversational and straightforward. It definitely felt like a conversational behavioural interview. I had a very smooth and a very experienced interviewer. In retrospect, if I think about it, I have now done interviews as a professional interviewer as well as the interviewee and pressure testing obviously different parts of resume into a passive application package. Just be ready to go through all parts of it and also being able to articulate your why is very important as well.

Nadim Muzayyin (21:01)
Given what I mentioned to you, my why just needs a bit more tightening up. Do you think that is a good reason to articulate during the interview as well?

Jeremy Au (21:13)
I would definitely practise your why especially in your introduction. It will definitely come up at some point. Obviously it should synchronise with your why that you wrote in your application essay.

Nadim Muzayyin (21:24)
That is the thing. In the application it says investor to operator and to start my own business. I do not mention anything about short term goals, possibly joining a growth company but I will definitely work on that.

Jeremy Au (21:41)
Yes, there are different aspect to it. Awesome. Cool. Thank you so much.

Nadim Muzayyin (21:44)
Awesome, thank you for your time.