Words From A Whartonite: The Power Of Optionality

Over this past summer, I worked at a real estate investment firm. It was a great opportunity to learn more about the world’s largest asset class and see first-hand how adept investors think about the New York real estate market. One of the highlights of the experience was being allowed to sit in on meetings with the CEO and Investment Team as they were discussing potential acquisitions and developments. As you might expect, hearing from industry veterans talking about multi-million dollar deals was an enlightening, and frankly just cool, experience. However, one of the peculiarities I noticed—which led to one of the biggest lessons I took away from the summer—was our CEO’s obsession with options.

“What if we made the warehouse five stories instead of one?” “What if we built a ramp up to the second floor for trucks to access?” What if we added more leverage on the property?”

The Investment and Design teams were constantly bombarded with these hypotheticals and additional complexities—at one point I simply felt bad for them. But seeing these “assaults” reinforced one truth in my mind: There is power in optionality.

Nicholas Imam


Optionality is very simply defined as the state of having many different options with no particular commitment to one outcome. There are varying schools of thought on whether having more options is a good think or a bad thing (some studies have shown that having too many options leaves you less satisfied as you are left wondering what could have been had you taken a different path). Upon reflecting on optionality in my own life, I realized that it has proven to be a huge benefit my growth, especially with my choice to attend Wharton.

One of my biggest hesitations with applying to an undergraduate business school was my concern that I would be barred from courses outside of finance, accounting, or management. Having been interested in areas like computer programming and government in high school, I feared I would no longer have the optionality to explore these passions. That’s where Wharton came in and shattered these false misconceptions.

“Business is everywhere. And a Wharton degree will allow you to excel in any field you choose to enter from medicine to media to start-ups to sports.”

These were the words spoken at my first information session on Penn’s campus. For some reason they kept ringing in my head on the car ride home that evening.

Maybe I could go to business school and one day join a Silicon Valley tech company or end up in a Capitol Hill office. After all, if Wharton’s 100,000-plus alumni can genuinely be found leading and innovating in every industry, geography, and capacity there is, really no reason for me to worry about not having options when I graduate. These words quite literally gave me the confidence to submit my Wharton application and on March 28, 2019—the day college decisions came out and I received my acceptance letter—the greatest journey of my life began.


And upon arriving as a first-year, Wharton’s promise that I would have flexibility in not only my career, but in my academic experience too, rang true. At Wharton, a third of your classes are outside the business school, affording you the option to explore philosophy, classics, engineering, or wherever else your other interests may lie. Penn gives you access to courses in four undergraduate schools, eight graduate schools, and over 450+ non-Wharton clubs to expand your horizons. I’ve certainly been fortunate to take as much advantage of as many of these opportunities as I possibly could, and they’ve impacted my view on business more than you might expect…

Frankly, the last place you would expect to find a business school student on a Tuesday afternoon would be in a Classic American Constitutional Law class. Why? Well, where business decisions are often guided by heavy data analytics and rigid numbers, Con Law demands that scholars take a much less guided approach. Understanding our constitution, and the laws stemming from it, guides the way we live and requires a deep understanding of history, philosophy, and logical thinking.

When reading briefs or court opinions, you learn very quickly that the law is not necessarily as straightforward as business decisions often are. For example, did you know that the court ruling on the Affordable Care Act relied partly on a 1942 court case about a farmer who was growing too much wheat on his land? Or how about that loosely-regulated “big money” campaign spending was permitted on the basis of the first amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech? Whether or not you agree with the rulings, it’s easy to understand how a lawyer and a business would have to approach their work differently. Law relies heavily on precedent, while business success is often grounded in innovation and strategy.

Wharton students. Courtesy photo

Needless to say, I went into Con Law thinking I would merely satisfy an itch I had to study the subject; I didn’t necessarily believe I would gain anything that benefit me for my business classes. Of course, I was wrong. In reading statues and understanding how some of the greatest judicial actors thought, I learned how to be more rigorous in my argumentative writing, I learned how to think creatively and how history could inform my future decision-making. All of these are essential in business and they’ve held me in good stead — not only in my other classes, but also in my brief foray into the professional world during my summer internship. The lesson here is that I would not have been able to develop these skills had Wharton not provided me with optionality and the ability to go beyond what the traditional notion of “business education” encompasses.

The last three years of exploration at this school have reaffirmed that enrolling at Wharton was the best choice I could’ve made. Wharton has also helped me see the value in having options and different paths when having to make decisions—whether those are billion-dollar investment decisions or in choosing classes for the next semester.

It’s no wonder that my summer internship company’s CEO—a Wharton grad—has an obsession with optionality. His business school experience probably taught him the same thing.

Bio: Nicholas Imam is a Junior in the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He grew up in Kentucky and now lives in New York City. At Wharton, he is concentrating in Finance and Business Analytics with a Double Minor in Computer Science and Political Science. Outside of classes, he is involved with numerous clubs and organizations including Young Minds Matter NY, Wharton Ambassadors, and the International Affairs Association.

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