2018 Best & Brightest: Laura Gao, Wharton School


Laura Gao

The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

Describe yourself in 15 words or less: Laura the explorer, designer, star-gazer, pickup baller, horror genre lover, and everything in between.

Fun fact about yourself: I 3D-printed a biomedical device on the International Space Station for astronaut health diagnosis.

Hometown: Dallas, TX

High School: Coppell High School

Major: Economics with a concentration in Business Analytics

Minor: Animation

Favorite Business Course: Culture and Institutions of the Tech Sector

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles During College:

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles

– Founder and Director of The Sign.al, an organization that encourages the exploration of unconventional career paths at Penn by featuring interviews, data projects, and resources on our website [see: www.thesign.al].

– Instructor for Wharton’s first “Design Prototyping” seminar – a 6-week initiative I started to teach 75 students design principles and prototyping tools.

– Penn Entrepreneurship Design “Expert in Residence” Program in which I assist student entrepreneurs in product and graphic design

– Business lead for ProtoFluidics, a space biotech project that designed and manufactured medical diagnostic devices for astronauts in space.

– Previous Director of Penn Aerospace Club, an organization that competes nationally in space aviation and hosts speaker events for fellow space-enthusiasts.

– Mentor for Tech It Out Philly and MoneyThink, two organizations in which I taught web development and financial literacy to high school students in West Philadelphia.

Awards and Honors

– 1st Place team in the Uber Philadelphia Case Competition

– 1st Place team in Penn’s Aerospace Pitch Competition for ProtoFluidics

– 1st Place team in National Space Society’s Space Manufacturing Competition for ProtoFluidics

– Herbert S. Steur Award for Outstanding Wharton Sophomore

Where have you interned during your college career?

– Business Data Analyst Intern at Amazon in Seattle

– Product Management Intern at SmartyPal, an ed-tech startup in Philadelphia

– Trading Intern at Belvedere Trading in Chicago

– Policy Analyst Intern at Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Washington, D.C.

Where will you be working after graduation? Associate Product Manager at Twitter in San Francisco

Who is your favorite professor? Kartik Hosanagar from my Enabling Technologies class. Not only was his course one of the first to convince me of tech and product as legitimate career paths, but he also helped me land my first product job at one of his tech startups, SmartyPal.

What did you enjoy most about your business school? Wharton gave me access to some of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met. Over the past 3 years, I’ve met Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Cuban, Jeff Weiner, and Scott Kelly through the Authors@Wharton program and the San Francisco Industry Exploration Program.

What is the biggest lesson you gained from studying business? If what you want doesn’t exist, create it yourself.

Three years ago, I was one step away from transferring out of Wharton. Suffocating under peer and parental pressure to conform to what they believed to be the “ideal Whartonite”, I was certain the school had sent an acceptance letter to the wrong Laura Gao. After all, the Laura Gao I knew loved building apps, not excel models; perfected her artwork, not her resume; and devoted herself to art galleries, not corporate coffee chats.

However, I realized transferring was nothing more than running away from the problem. This dissonance in interests I had experienced was shared by many of my peers. In response, I created The Sign.al to give myself and others a chance to explore a plethora of uncommon career paths as well as a “Design Prototyping” seminar to develop the foundation for a permanent design curriculum at Wharton.

What advice would you give to a student looking to major in a business-related field? The term “business” is incredibly vague and it can be both good and bad. If you’re anything like I was in high school – directionless and interested in everything and nothing at once – then studying business lets you learn a bit of everything before you hone in on what excites you most. After all, every industry requires people with great business acumen, and increasingly more interdisciplinary tracks are being offered at business schools (e.g. Business Analytics). However, this lack of structure and certainty can be off-putting for students who are easily influenced by those around them or are risk-adverse. My advice is to avoid siloing yourself into an end-all-be-all career situation. Instead, use college as your playground to explore as many interests as you can and stay open to new opportunities.

“If I didn’t major in business, I would be majoring in or studying…animation to use my artistic, creative, and nonsensical mind to tell important stories.”

What has surprised you most about majoring in business? Frankly, my first shock after arriving at Wharton was learning that “bankers” were not the people who exchanged checks for cash or chained pens to desks.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? My closest role model has always been my high school Economics teacher, Ms. Alexander. Growing up, I had always been passionate about a million things at once and she was the only adult figure who didn’t discourage it in lieu of so-called “focused practicality”. I told her my dream was to build a company one day that could change lives but I couldn’t decide if one career was truly better for achieving that than any other one. The moment she told me that entrepreneurs come from all backgrounds and aren’t expected to specialize or settle, I was sold on pursuing that.

Which academic, extracurricular or personal achievement are you most proud of? I’m most proud of my work as the founder and director of The Sign.al, an organization that encourages the exploration of unconventional career paths at Penn by featuring interviews, data projects, and resources on our website [see: www.thesign.al]. In particular, I worked extensively to tackle Penn’s career diversity and culture issues through two projects: the Amazon HQ2 to Philly Case Competition and the Squirrels Without Morality card game.

Since our launch in January 2017, I’ve galvanized a team of 15 people to write over 40 articles that have been read 50,000 times by 8,000 readers. These articles cover people from all backgrounds, some high-profile and experienced (e.g. Sal Khan of Khan Academy) and others young with fiery ambition (e.g. Bing Chen from Bing Studios). Despite these differences, each has juggled passion against practicality, social pressure against personal identity, and countless bouts of career pivoting during their time in college and beyond.

In addition, I’m proud to have organized and hosted the “Amazon HQ2 to Philly” case competition as part of The Sign.al this past Fall. Drawing attendance from the Mayor of Philadelphia, Vice Deans of Wharton, and several major media outlets, this event enabled 30 student teams to engage directly with the city and think critically about the integration of business, tech, and policy in a real-life situation: convincing Amazon of Philadelphia’s candidacy for its next headquarters [Click here].

Lastly, the Squirrels Without Morality card game aimed to encourage students to ponder the absurdities and realities of Penn’s culture. Not only does the game provide a light-hearted medium for students to vent, destress, and laugh about their undergrad experiences, it opens up group discussions on sensitive topics like mental health, hyper-competition, and racial diversity [Click here].

Which classmate do you most admire? My friend Kayvon Asemani, whom I met on my first day of college in math class. Honestly, this article should have featured him instead because he is one of my biggest inspirations at Penn. Kayvon grew up parent-less due to a traumatic incident at a young age and instead of blaming the world, he channeled his emotions into his music. Today, he’s rapping at sold-out concerts, sustaining financially off his brand and merchandise, and unabashedly exposing issues in elite colleges through his candid lyrics about socioeconomic stratification, hyper-competition, and mental health. Above all, his most admirable quality is his ability to radiate happiness and ambition into everyone around him. Even after overcoming such circumstances and accomplishing such feats, Kayvon’s humbleness would never let you know it. I encourage all to read his story here: https://penncurrent.upenn.edu/interviews/student-spotlight-with-kayvon-asemani.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? My grandmother for using rice to teach me multiplication at age 4 because “she doesn’t believe in limits”.

My mentor in high school and Economics teacher, Donnette Alexander, for staying late every day after school to listen to my endless stream of often-nonsensical startup ideas.

My mentor at Wharton, Lee Kramer, for showing me that old schools can learn new tricks.

What would your theme song be? “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles. George Harrison originally wrote it after rediscovering his love for music. As my morning routine anthem, the song preludes a new day with new adventures waiting.

What are the top two items on your bucket list?

  1. Get on a flight to space
  2. Work on an animated feature film

Favorite book: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Favorite movie: Zootopia

Favorite vacation spot: Barcelona, Spain

What are your hobbies? Sketching random people in class, playing pickup basketball, and organizing “friend-sum” (friend-dimsum) brunches.

What made Laura such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2018?

“Laura Gao cares so passionately about making a difference in other students’ lives. Laura cares deeply about making sure others follow their true interests. She makes every effort to inspire her peers to find true meaning in their lives. Laura was inspired to create The Sign.al for this purpose – to help students carve their own path and to follow their heart when it comes to pursuing a career. By interviewing countless alumni about their path and advice, Laura has created a platform to highlight a plethora of career options for her classmates. As someone who felt pressure to go down a certain career path, Laura wanted to allow her classmates to see the endless possibilities of what they could pursue after college. Laura’s passion for tech also allowed her to flourish both inside and outside the classroom whether it was bringing the “Amazon HQ2 competition to Philly” to Wharton or by teaching a class on prototyping. She has been an instrumental mentor through the Wharton cohort system and in her other co-curricular endeavors at Penn. For carving her own path while at Wharton and for helping her peers follow their own dreams and passions, I give her my highest recommendation for the Best and Brightest.”

Lee Kramer
Director of Student Life
Wharton Undergraduate Division


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