Jeremy Au on His Journey to a Harvard MBA, Top 3 Lessons, Memorable Moments & Application Tips - E13

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"Because of this incredible amount of resources. I had to learn how to be intentional about what I would do that day and be present for whatever I was doing... I remember having to sit down and write down on a piece of paper, what I wanted to get out of my time, what I wanted to do with my life and what experiences should let me get there." - Jeremy Au

In this episode, Jeremy reflects on his education journey, leading up to a Harvard MBA. He shares what he learned at Harvard Business School and his favourite moments there. We hope that this reflection will be useful for you, as you consider whether an MBA is the right choice for you.

You can find our community discussions for this episode at

This episode is produced by Adriel Yong.

Adriel Yong: [00:00:45] It's so great to have you, Jeremy. Your journey to the Harvard MBA has been such an incredible one. Many of us, like me, are so interested in what that journey looked like for you. Could you share with us more about it?

Jeremy Au: [00:00:58] Thanks, Adriel. It's a privilege to be able to have this journey, and I'm so happy to be able to share my journey with everybody so that they get to make a choice for themselves about what they want to do.

My educational journey starts in junior college, which is high school. At that time, I thought that I wanted to be a medical vaccine researcher. I was studying biology, chemistry, and was on the pre-medical track.

Unfortunately, I had a personal loss in that time, and I was very distraught, and I actually spent my time there grieving and just processing what that loss was to me. One of the unfortunate consequences as a result was that I ended up doing poorly academically and had terrible grades at the A levels. And I didn't have any university offers.

My time in the army was a great experience and it's this own story. And during the time, I actually got to have the time and space to complete grieving, but also to reflect on what I wanted to do on the path ahead. One of those decisions was that I wanted to go to university. So, I started wrapping my head around what it meant to apply to universities. During my reflection, I basically reflected that I needed to improve my academic track record. I saw the opportunity and was considering whether to retake my A levels, as some people were doing, or whether to study for SATs. So, I decided to study for SATs and ended up doing a ton of work. And it was an interesting challenge because, while I was in the army, you're obviously engaged with the cadence from reveille to your operation, to time the barracks to doing map planning to late nights. Figuring out how to study the SATs at that time was an incredible challenge because it's priority number two and number three, number four, compared to everything else that's in the military life.

I would have my SAT prep books and I would cut them up into 10 or 20 pages each and put them inside a Ziploc so that I could carry them into the jungle for the field exercises. We would be in the trench or we'll be sleeping in the rain or just getting food to eat. And during those times I would be reading it in the waterproof Ziploc bag, and I would study them by torchlight. When we had the opportunity to book out, I would sometimes stay in camp just to read the SAT and practice the questions. So, I used that time to apply to both Singaporean and American universities, and also put together the recommendation letters from my teachers. That was a good experience where I got to do all those things.

I had decided to focus on my second-best subject, which was economics at the time. I applied to universities that had a stronger economics bent, and I was able to get into UC Berkeley, which was this incredible opportunity for me and very honored to be able to have the opportunity. I went in thinking that I would become an economics researcher because I had wanted to be a vaccine researcher, so now it's changing just the topic. Before I headed out, I actually had the opportunity to meet an alumnus from UC Berkeley and she told me, "Hey, based on what you told me, you really care about economics in one way, but you also really care about your background and medical work and helping out through your volunteerism work. So, make sure you check out this student group called The Berkeley Group where it does that." And I had no idea what it was.

I went to UC Berkeley and started out as a freshman, and I found out that The Berkeley Group was "management consulting group for the social sector." I remember the first case interview where; it was a tough question that they'll give me a business problem. They asked me, "Hey, Jeremy, how would you basically distribute 100,000 doses of vaccine across the city and distribute them for the best effectiveness and coverage and fairness and equity and all these other things? To be frank, I aced that interview, not because I knew how to do a management consultant case interview, but because I had so much prior interests and exposure to medical vaccines. And so, I was very lucky to be accepted by that group as a result and I got to do a lot of social impact consulting and learned a lot about what it meant to work with just so many incredible nonprofit and social enterprise leaders in the Bay Area.

We got to work with the re-entry, ex-convict population from a healthcare perspective. I got to work with fundraising and operations for a home that helps shelter domestic abuse survivors, as well as to work with the San Francisco Unified School District. And so I got a ton of exposure and saw that I actually enjoyed the work of actually bringing those research skills and applying that in a way that was more action oriented, and ended up doing many projects during my time at university, while also adding a business degree as my double major at the Haas School of Business. I remember that I was weighing what to do and my mentors and my club actually recommended that I explore corporate management consulting as my internship for the next step.

I went off to apply to multiple consulting organizations and had the opportunity to be accepted into Bain and went there as an intern. While I was there, I actually saw that many people were applying to Harvard Business School for an MBA. And many people were also returning from Harvard Business School to be a consultant at Bain. During those conversations with them, that's when I realized that it was an incredible opportunity and that's when I started lining up the recommendation letters, the GMAT test results, and eventually put everything together so that in my senior year, I actually applied for an early admissions under the HBS 2+2 Program and was able to receive an offer letter from Harvard Business School in my senior year, in my last semester at school.

That's when I went back to Bain, built a business on the side and then bootstrapped that out, exited the business, and then eventually went to Harvard Business School between 2015 to 2017. And it was an incredible experience where I got a ton of learning and also built some lifelong friendships that I have to this day.

Adriel Yong: [00:08:14] Well, what an incredible journey, Jeremy, how did you feel when you got the MBA offer?

Jeremy Au: [00:08:20] It felt incredible. At that time, I had chosen to graduate early in three and a half years because of how expensive school fees are as an international student. I was already packing up to leave, I was already packing my room, and all my friends had already gone back home to their parents' home. I remember waking up in bed in the empty house. I opened up my email on my phone and saw that I had received an offer and I was so happy. It just felt so incredibly great. And also, very humbling to also have that offer because suddenly you have got to understand like how rare the opportunity really was at that moment. And I felt that resolution myself to figure out how to do better, do more with this opportunity. But a few friends who still happen to be nearby or live nearby, we went out near the campus to get dinner at a local restaurant.

Adriel Yong: [00:09:29] It sure sounds like it was an incredible day for you, Jeremy. I'm sure many of us will be curious what your time at HBS was like. Could you share with us more about that?

Jeremy Au: [00:09:40] I often tell people about the three things that I learned at HBS, the first is really huge exposure across industries, geographies, and leadership problems. Harvard focuses and using the case study method, which is a debate around a set of known facts that they have published and collated for your behalf. So, we get to hear this incredible company profiles of the top players and the startups and the challenger companies, and so many different industries and geographies. One day you're working on the diamond mining industry and suddenly next, you're talking about how to tackle inequality in society, to a fashion brand back in the 1950s. There's a huge amount of opportunity to dive deep into the role of the protagonist and think from their perspective that if you knew what they knew at that time, what decisions would you make and how would you make those decisions and debate that with so many other great people in the room. So that lets you just have incredible amount of exposure and knowledge about things that you just would never have learned on your own or chosen to learn on your own as well.

I think the second thing is you get these incredibly deep conversations with high-performing peers. All the other students are people who have strived and worked hard, and they've worked at Unilever or venture capital or in logistics, and they come from different countries as well with their own upbringing and journeys.

So, in the classroom, we'll be having this robust debate where everybody would bring in their own point of view and debate the pros and cons and the different strategies tackle the problem. I learned so much from my peers and I learned so much from having my point of view getting challenged by them. And to this day, I actually continue to think to myself, "Hey, what would Brandon say and do in this situation and what would Damon say and do in this situation?" They have a different point of view and a different angle of attack.

And the last thing was I got to deepen my own skillset and networks. I've always been passionate about technology and innovation and just been fascinated by how the world continues to change faster and faster. So, I took the opportunity to learn from some incredible professors. One of the professors of course, was Clayton Christensen, he was the professor who developed a theory of disruptive innovation. So, when we talk about this company is disrupting Apple. This company is disrupting Microsoft or General Electric, he coined that word, and he did it under the book called “Innovator's Dilemma”. I remember reading about him where an economist would say that he was like the most influential management thinker of the time.

I remember reading about how Steve Jobs felt like this was the only business book that deeply influenced him. I got an opportunity to learn from his course about that and how companies are disrupted by new challenges, but also how new challenges choose to disrupt incumbents and the whole ecosystem of ideas around that. There was this incredible opportunity to sharpen my point of view and map what I was seeing in the world onto this framework, and also to see how this framework fell short or succeeded and explaining the reality.

And another an angle of how I developed my own skillset and time to this exposure was that, I also got to hear him speak about this book called, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” Which is a great way of thinking about how, as business leaders, how do we balance our responsibilities to our friends and our family and society? There was this incredible personal education about the various roles and the way that we wanted to solve those problems in a more responsible way.

So overall, those were the three things I learned at HBS. Again, that huge cross industry, cross geography, cross the leadership exposure, the great conversations with incredible peers, and lastly, just the opportunity to deepen and pressure test my own skills and process.

Adriel Yong: [00:14:08] Wow, that sounds like such an incredible learning environment to be in. What was life outside of the classroom?

Jeremy Au: [00:14:15] Life outside the classroom was just really amazing, so many things to do. One day we would have a great CEO come by for a fireside chat, another day, a friend would be hosting a dinner conversation at their home. Another day a club would bring back some alumni to speak on a panel about latest technology trends and the list just goes on and on and on. There's so many resources, you would speak to the career services officer, you could go to the library and do research on companies and case studies, or you could grab coffee or a professor who wasn't teaching a class because they'd be open to talking to you.

Because of this incredible amount of resources. I had to also learn how to choose and be intentional about what I would do that day and be present for whatever I was doing. And a fun fact is that the phrase, FOMO, fear of missing out, was actually created at Harvard Business School to explain the experience a few of the ages of that paralysis around what to do that day. I remember having to sit down and write down on a piece of paper, what I wanted to get out of my time, in two years and really kind of like put pen to paper around the self-awareness, about what I wanted to do with my life and what experiences should let me get there.

I wanted to prioritize two things. I wanted to prioritize deep conversations where I got the opportunity to get to know people on a deeper level than just like pure networking. And the second thing was I wanted to understand how technology and its intersection with bettering society. And so, I would go to these events that let me understand how technology was changing the world and also how the change the world better. And those were the set of experiences I had, and I really enjoyed it.

Adriel Yong: [00:16:16] That was such a great overview of the educational and social aspects of Harvard Business School. I'm so curious, what was your most memorable moment there?

Jeremy Au: [00:16:26] I think the most memorable experience was getting the opportunity to work on a consulting project in Istanbul, Turkey. We were put together as a team to redesign the customer experience and stores for a very large consumer retail store chain. We've got an opportunity to learn about design thinking, but also practice that alongside all the classic analysis that we had to do. And we were looking at how to optimize the store for more foot fall and to optimize the in-store experience. And so, we got to do these field interviews and customer intercepts and interviews of employees to come together with a set of recommendations about how to redesign those stores.

And we were doing all of that while we're in the middle of this extraordinarily beautiful city that was so unfamiliar to all of us. All of us had no experience being in Istanbul. Of course, we got an opportunity to eat great food and learn the cultural norms and understand the local culture as well as volunteer at local organizations. And during that time, I got an opportunity to also work alongside with great Harvard MBA students who are just extraordinary team members. I got to bond with them and laugh at the various obstacles that we encountered and actually built really strong friendships while there continues to be a strong lifelong friend as well for myself.

I remember I was so lucky to have the opportunity to take the elevator to the top floor, which is the CEO's office, which had this incredible view of the skyline and get a telescope in office. And we got opportunity to present our recommendations and he was like, "Great, let's execute it." And all the hard work that we had done from mapping up the store to prototyping an iPhone app to demoing it for them, all of that was so smooth. We got an opportunity to take a group photo at the end, and we were so surprised to learn that we were in Turkish newspapers after that. It was just a great learning experience, again, to learn, the local culture, to learn retail to do an optimization project, to make new friends and to present to a CEO about the business case. So those are just incredible social experience and also incredible learning experience for myself.

Adriel Yong: [00:18:59] I think you have shared a very great overview of what life could be like at Harvard Business School. For those who are keen to apply to Harvard Business School, what advice or resources would you point them towards?

Jeremy Au: [00:19:12] I get that question a lot from prospective MBA applicants, as well as from my peers who are kind of curious about what that process is. However, knowing what I know now, I find that the school really prioritizes Academy and professional achievements, your GMAT and your career aspirations. What I counsel people to do is to sit down and think true about why they want to do an MBA and to be intentional about how it fits into career aspirations? Because a Harvard MBA may not be useful for everybody based on the career path. And conversely, many people's courage and he could benefit from an MBA program. So, having that awareness really helps you tighten your journey and helps you think through, and it will shine throughout the entire application. Based on that self-awareness, it's much easier to therefore be more intentional about how you achieve your academic and professional achievements. It also allows you to be more intentional about thinking through how to apply for your GMAT and how much to study for it. And all those things, I think together, we actually play a much larger role in sharing your actual journey. So, I always tell people to focus on a concrete, parts of the journey first and that application package later.

Another thing I often share, in terms of the resources, is that Harvard and other top MBA programs are need-blind, and so they are very focused on making sure that financials are not a barrier for a promising person to get in. I think is a huge concern and an understandable concern about the cost of the MBA and the opportunity costs in terms of earnings. what I share is that these schools have substantial scholarships, grants, and financial aid There's also plenty of on-campus employment opportunities to supplement your income as well. These schools really want to meet people and I tell people that, "Hey, give it a shot. If you get in it is an incredible way to further your academic and professional career."

Lastly, there's a great online site called Poets & Quants. They have a ton of articles and resources about how to get in the experiences of student life, great professors to take classes with and all of those things really let you have a wealth of information. They're just huge and I find that that site alone has more information for the average prospective student than I did back in 2011 in applying where I had to go to the bookstore and buy a book to understand what a process is. So, I think that site has more than enough, and you can be reading it for like weeks.

Adriel Yong: [00:21:57] Wow, thanks so much for sharing everything you did today, Jeremy, it was so great to learn more about Harvard Business School and its admissions process from you. I really enjoyed listening about what your favourite moment at Harvard Business School was.

Jeremy Au: [00:22:09] Thanks so much, Adriel.

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