Akash Premsen is currently Sr. Brand Manager, Pizza Hut Delivery, at Yum! Restaurants (India). He graduated with an MBA from the Darden School of Business, University of Virginia, in 2008, after which he worked with Johnson and Johnson for two years in California and India. He is a member of Darden’s India Alumni Chapter Leadership Team.
1.What was your pre-MBA profile?
I had a very a typical pre-MBA profile. After a BA (Honours) in History from Hindu College, University of Delhi, I spent 4 years in the media industry. I was first a radio jockey with Radio Mirchi and then a member of the launch team of CNN-IBN as a TV anchor. At the time I applied to Darden, I had my own weekly TV show on gizmos, gadgets and cars. These credentials elicited surprise in the US because MBA aspirants from India are usually typecast as having a background in engineering or IT.
2. Why did you decide to do an MBA?
I felt a glass ceiling in the media world – if one is not a hard news person, there isn’t much vertical movement possible after a point. I felt that I needed to move into strategy or general management. I also wanted to develop a new skill set because I felt I used my creative skills almost exclusively. For me, an MBA did not mean a ticket into the financial or consulting sectors, as it so often does in India. I viewed an MBA as an opportunity for my own growth – intellectually, academically and, thereafter, professionally.
3. Do you think your choice of B-School has been proved correct?
Absolutely. The Darden School is consistently ranked in the Top 10 B-Schools in the United States. It is one of the best General Management schools and one of the select schools in the US that follow the case study method one hundred percent. It is well-known for its top-notch faculty, its focus on pedagogy and its world-class curriculum. It is also a gruelling program and definitely not meant for the faint-hearted! Darden makes you truly earn your degree and get the maximum for the tuition you pay!
Moreover, Darden is a close-knit community and the two years spent there foster a camaraderie that lasts a lifetime. This also translates into its alumni network, which is unusually accessible amongst B-Schools. If a Darden alum from 2010 writes an email to an alum from 1989, the latter will definitely respond. Friends of mine who have graduated from other top B-schools (most of which have rather large graduating classes) have related to me that they are still awaiting replies from alums they wrote to three years ago! Every time I experience the closeness of Darden’s alumni network, I get reminded of what a great decision it was to go to this school.
4. What are the most important things you learned during the MBA?
Foremost, time-management. Someone who has to prepare three cases a day cannot afford to suffer from analysis-paralysis! One has to assess a situation quickly, weigh the issues, take a decision and move on.
At Darden, class participation is mandatory, making up 30-50% of your grade, so I also learnt how to create and use collective knowledge, how to harness knowledge from others. One ends up learning as much from fellow students as from professors. Being open to learn from your equals and setting all ego aside is the mark of a true student.
5. Has the B-School experience helped mould your personality?
Business school teaches you a way of life and completely rewires your brain, almost like in joining the military. Darden’s case method, brilliant teaching and focus on class participation made me start thinking through arguments and theories very differently and sharpened my problems-solving skills. It also made me much more methodical and efficient in all areas of life.
6. Where did you do your MBA internship? How hard was it to get the internship? Did you get adequate assistance from your B school?
My internship was with Walt Disney’s ABC News division as a Global Strategy Summer Associate in Manhattan, NYC. Darden has a very robust career services department. I do feel strongly though that MBA students should not use the school’s career services as a crutch. The school will assist but they can only lead you to the pond; it’s up to you to drink. I conducted a lot of research online and engaged in extensive off-campus recruitment. Because of my background in the media, I contacted ABC News for an internship in a strategy-oriented role. They liked my resume and, even though they did not have a readymade summer program, tailored one for me according to my strengths and interests.
7. If you are asked to pick the 3 best things about your B school, what would those be?
First, the case method. The biggest takeaway from B-School is the development of a business sense. The case method does this effortlessly, seamlessly, through discussion of real-life situations. Most B-Schools use the case method as a complement to theory. Only a handful, like the Darden and Harvard Business Schools, rely on it a hundred percent. The case-method classroom is a crucible of ideas, experiences and cultures, and one emerges from it as a competent global manager.
Secondly, its emphasis on honor and ethics. The Darden curriculum includes several courses on Business Ethics. The University of Virginia believes in the ideals set forth by its founder: the great statesman Thomas Jefferson. One of these ideals is the Honor code, which followed by all institutions affiliated to UVA. To see it up close is quite an experience. At Darden it was considered normal for a student to leave her laptop, cellphone and wallet lying in a study room and know that it will be still there when she got back hours later.
Thirdly, the sense of camaraderie Darden classmates develop with each other. I will never forget the kind of overwhelming support I got when, four months into my MBA, I lost my father. I got the news in the middle of class. As I stepped out of the classroom in shock, the professor dismissed the class and, from that moment on, my classmates took over my actions. Someone booked a ticket for me to New Delhi, someone else helped me pack, and another drove me to the airport at Dulles, a 100 miles away. Emails and phone calls poured in while I was in Delhi. It was only this deluge of support and understanding that gave me the strength to return to the US ten days later.
Some say the solidarity amongst Darden students results from its small class size of 300, others say it’s because you are in a smaller town, yet others say it’s the shared “suffering” we undergo in Darden’s rigorous program. I think it’s all these, plus the personality of the school. Darden is about cooperation amongst students and not cut throat competition.
8. What will be your advice to MBA aspirants targeting your B-School?
Firstly, a little soul searching on whether Darden is the right personality match for you. Are you looking for general management or something more specific? Are you looking for competition or collaboration? Is the case method your cup of tea or are you more at ease with textbook knowledge?
Secondly, I would recommend that you show yourself as a well-rounded personality in your application. Bring out what makes you different and why Darden should choose you over all the other equally accomplished applicants. Also, I urge you to be completely honest in your application. Market yourself well, of course, but be aware of the line.
Thirdly, keep an open mind about your future. I know many students that entered Darden fixated on a career in investment banking and ended up in entirely different field. You are going into a transformative program. Your priorities, goals and values could change fundamentally. Any set notions about your future will only slow down your learning curve.
9. And finally, given the current economic slowdown, is this the right time to embark on an MBA programme?
Yes, the time could not be better. If the job market is in the dumps, you may as well go study! No one knows where the economy will be in two years but it will hopefully be in a better place. Even if it’s in recession, I firmly believe that smart people always get jobs. Companies need good people to work for them in difficult times. Moreover, if middle management is too expensive to retain, a talented fresh MBA is a cheaper option to take their place. So, go ahead and apply. It’s never a bad time to invest in yourself.