What are some of the best soft skills you’ve acquired at Tulane?
Presentation skills are a big part of the real world – I learned that firsthand as a predictive analytics intern at Dell last summer. My internship culminated in a presentation in front of a group of executives. Thankfully, the business school helped prepare me.
Most classes involve a presentation of some sort, and one class, in particular, Management Communication, is designed exclusively to teach presentation skills. I even led a session at the Burkenroad conference, speaking in front of dozens of high-powered investors. But my best exposure to public speaking practice was actually after hours in the Tulane Toastmasters club. My uncle has been an avid Toastmasters member for decades and encouraged me to join, so I gave it a try.
The best thing about Toastmasters is that it gives you opportunities to practice both prepared speeches in a controlled environment and to practice extemporaneous speaking on topics you haven’t encountered beforehand. I was regularly the table topics master at our meetings, meaning I was in charge of giving the prompts for the extemporaneous speaking sections. I enjoyed taking on a leadership role within the club and think Toastmasters is a great group that everyone should try at least once. Toastmasters helped me gain the confidence necessary to audition for being the commencement speaker at Tulane.
Ultimately, I spoke in front of about 4,000 people attending in the room, with more watching online. I doubt I would have been ready to do that four years ago before I started at Tulane. My public speaking journey is not over: I plan on joining Toastmasters when I start my new job in Austin and expect to find more opportunities to speak.
Another soft skill the business school helped hone was working in teams. I think I could count on one hand the classes that didn’t have a group project of some sort, and many had several. I’m not going to lie – group projects can be a challenge in a school environment because there’s no accountability. No student, and not even the teacher, is really the ‘boss.’ There’s no clear hierarchy or authority figure to appeal to, so it’s doubly important to try to find a way to work with others.
Personally, when I work in groups, I tend to take on a leadership role but make a concerted effort to get buy-in from every group member, with special attention to other introverts like me who sometimes are too shy to speak up without being asked first.
With all the things you’re involved in, how do you take care of yourself?
Health is incredibly important to me. I’ve internalized that health is the most important factor that determines one’s quality of life, and I recognize that the actions I take now will determine how healthy I am down the line. Even if my metabolism can stand staying up late or eating junk today, the effects will be felt later on. Thus, I make sure I eat a healthy diet.
When students first come to Tulane, they are told that after eating all the free food at club functions, they are likely to not only gain the Freshman Fifteen but the Tulane Ton. I did not gain any weight during my four years in college (besides maybe a little muscle). This is partly because I’m gluten intolerant, so I have an excuse to not succumb to the temptation to eat free pizza or doughnuts. But even at Bruff, Tulane’s dining hall, I regularly ate salads and almost never ate processed foods. In business analytics, you learn that any model is only as good as the data you feed it. People are only as good as the food you feed them to (and if they eat the right stuff, they might actually be a model too!).
In terms of exercise, I lifted weights with a friend three times a week. I don’t have particularly athletic genes, so I was probably the weakest person at the gym every time I went in. But I persevered because I know a few things: First, I know that as a young adult, this is the easiest time in my life to get fit, so it’ll only get more difficult if I wait. Second, even though it can sometimes feel scary to think about other weightlifters judging me, I know that most people just don’t care what other people are doing. I can’t let the fear of judgment keep me from being healthy. That being said, I definitely appreciate that my friend was going with me. When it was early in the morning and I’d rather sleep in than lift weights, the accountability of having someone waiting for me kept me on track.
My favorite form of exercise is ballroom dancing. When I was a freshman, I had never ballroom danced before but thought it would be a good way to have some fun exercise. Over the next four years, I practiced with the club twice a week. I ultimately became a finalist in waltz and cha-cha at a competition at the University of Alabama and became the treasurer of the club for two years. My favorite dances are east coast swing, waltz, Viennese waltz, and tango. Now that I’ve graduated, I plan on keeping up with ballroom dancing.
Finally, I value sleep and rest time. I endeavor to get eight hours of sleep every night. When I work, I try to follow the Pomodoro method, which is designed to build in breaks to boost productivity and not burn me out. I think I probably have a high risk of becoming a workaholic, so I try to schedule in fun and rest time often. And when night comes, I complete my work and make sure to have some downtime before bed so I can sleep without worrying about my work. A work/life balance is key.
What has your time at Tulane been like?
Tulane has an excellent team of campus programming planners who bring some great guests to campus. I made it a goal of mine to go to as many events as possible and to ask questions of guest speakers whenever the opportunity arose.
When Bill Nye came to campus, I said I had a couple of questions about his feelings, and he mock-cried and then answered my questions. When Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s came, I asked him if they had ever considered calling it Jerry & Ben’s. He laughed and said they had but decided Ben & Jerry’s sounds better. He’s okay with being second because Ben has to write in the ampersand whenever they jointly sign something. With those stories, I jokingly tell people I made Bill Nye cry and Jerry Greenfield laugh.
I had lunch with the former vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve Roger Ferguson Jr. and a private interview with a producer of The Amazing Race and Big Brother. But one of the coolest moments of my Tulane experience was when Edward Snowden skyped into the Tulane Auditorium to give a speech from Russia. Questions were submitted beforehand and only one was chosen – mine. I asked: “What protections would you like to see put in place for whistleblowers? Do you think implementing protections for whistleblowers is an inherently self-contradictory concept?”
Looking back, I’m proud that I used my time at Tulane to get over any feeling of being starstruck and instead embraced the opportunity to learn whenever I could, from some of the most influential and successful people of our time.
Rejection and growth: What has job-seeking been like for you?
My grandfather was an independent insurance agent. When he started out, he worked 16 hours a day going door-to-door trying to find prospects. He knew that only maybe one out of ten would be a sale. As you can imagine, he found a lot of rejection. But he didn’t let a rejection demoralize him; on the contrary, he knew that each rejection meant he was one rejection closer to that golden one out of ten who would buy.
I have had a lot of successes at Tulane, but no one can get into every program they apply for or win every award. When a lot of qualified individuals apply for a position, there’s a bit of randomness as to who gets in and you can’t be discouraged by every failure. The right approach is to consider rejection a necessary precondition to success: perhaps if I apply for five programs, I’ll get into one. I don’t take rejection as a sign of my worth but simply as a step towards my next success.
That being said, I did try applying to several jobs and was disappointed at how difficult the process could be. Submitting a well-crafted resume and cover letter to some companies was like sending them into a black hole. I received a rejection letter from one company ten months after I originally applied! One avenue I considered was working for a major consulting firm, and I passed the first round of interviews. But to tell you the truth, my heart was not in it. I didn’t want to work at a place that didn’t value work/life balance, and I was disturbed by some of the scandals I was hearing coming out of the industry. I don’t ever want to work at a company that puts me in a compromising situation. They rejected me, but I wasn’t too broken up about it. I found a company that is regularly ranked as one of the most ethical companies and values work/life balance. That’s why I’ll be working at Dell. The rejections were just steps on the way to success.
I was always a good student and knew that merit scholarships would be the best way for me to attend a good school without getting massively in debt. I undertook a research project with my mom to find the schools that offer full tuition merit-based scholarships or better. I still remember the day we went to the bookstore and found the Princeton Review’s Top 384 Colleges in America book. We wanted to cross-reference the schools with scholarships with the schools with other positive qualities. We narrowed the list to 13, then to nine, and finally, those were the nine I applied to.
I was accepted at Tulane University, The College of Idaho, Willamette University, The University of Puget Sound, Furman University, the College of William and Mary, Southern Methodist University, and I was waitlisted at Washington University in St. Louis and Vanderbilt.
I earned over $750 thousand dollars in scholarship money, but Tulane was the most generous. I was awarded the Deans’ Honors Scholarship, a full-tuition and fees scholarship, from Tulane. While this was certainly a big factor, it was not the only reason I chose to Tulane.
Tulane had a great business school and a nice climate. But what really stood out to me was the balance of prestige and a sense of humor. I had my own comedy music business, and I liked that Tulane put an emphasis on fun, probably because it’s in New Orleans.
When you’re a high-achieving student in high school, you get hundreds of flyers in the mail for different schools. The Ivy League schools would take themselves so seriously, but Tulane knew how to appeal to me: They had the Dalai Lama speak at graduation a few years ago, which is very prestigious. But instead of playing it seriously, the promotional material they sent me was titled “Hello, Dalai!” That was the kind of culture I wanted to be a part of.
I thought the fun culture was a nice bonus, but I suppose some other people went to Tulane solely for the fun. Sometimes, I felt lonely because I did not want to party the way other students did. Still, I never really doubted Tulane was the right place for me. And to be perfectly honest, Tulane spends an awful lot on campus programming that most students ignore while they go out and party. Tulane took me to a basketball game, a horse race, a safari, butterfly catching, an art museum, an escape room, and even a school for New Orleans cooking, all for free (well, included!). I had little competition to get into these events, and I have the partying culture to thank.
Did I expect to be the commencement speaker for my business school cohort when I first joined Tulane? Definitely not – after all, the Freeman School of Business never had a speaker at their graduation before me, so there was no reason to expect it! But I hope I was a good inaugural speaker for my class.
You’re about to enter the world of work with a generation of brilliant peers. What do you have to say to them?
I think business ethics is really important and that we can’t lose sight of that. Business is business, and I understand that competitors will compete. But money, or even job security, is not worth doing immoral or illegal actions. As a finance student, I was disturbed hearing about some of the scandals coming out of banks like Wells Fargo. You can’t control anyone else, but you can control yourself, so when asked to do something illegal, don’t make a rationalization. Say no. Report to HR, your boss, or even a whistle-blowing organization. Many business students are going to quickly find themselves in charge of other people or large sums of money.
Like Uncle Ben says, with great power comes great responsibility. We must remain vigilant: if we treat every action as though we have a fiduciary responsibility, the world will be a better place.
What among all that is happening in the world right now is closest to your heart?
I am worried about the state of the internet. One of my favorite classes at Tulane was the History of the Digital Revolution, taught by former CNN CEO and Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson. Professor Isaacson really opened my eyes to the original vision for the internet – a decentralized platform for the exchange of information.
The internet has created a world of good but has also introduced new questionable business models and questions of privacy as it has matured. Even worse, it is betraying its origins by starting to centralize again. In the early days of the internet, people created their own webpages – their own slice of digital real estate. But now, people put their personal stamp on their pages on social media, giving all the power to just a few hands.
I do not like the centralization of the internet and believe our generation needs to fight for the internet. We need to reinstate net neutrality, regulate big technology behemoths that are the monopolies of the 21st century, and come up with new business models that don’t depend solely on advertising. The intersection of ethics, technology, and business is one of my key interests.
What is a belief you try and live by?
The golden rule I live and work by is that self-improvement is a never-ending process.
Across the board, I am always trying to get a little better. Whether I’m doing crossword puzzles, lifting weights, making a model in Excel, or ballroom dancing, I’m always trying to be a bit better than the day before. The world changes so fast that if we choose not to keep learning and engaging with the change, we’ll fall behind. And life is too short to settle for mediocrity.
I don’t believe in competing with others in a cutthroat way, but I compete with myself vigorously. If I get a little better every day, I can be proud that I’m always being my best.
2019 COMMENCEMENT SPEAKER SERIES:
KRISTINA YOSIFOVA, UC-IRVINE MERAGE
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