The Holiday Cheer at Darden

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A very happy 2013 to all my readers (yes, all three of you out there :) !).

My last blog-post came more than 5 months ago. I attribute my inaction squarely to the idyllic and lazy lifestyle of a Darden Second Year – a welcome change after an action-packed First Year. That’s not to say I haven’t been busy – I have been. Very.. But its been ‘good’ kind of busy – busy by self-selection, busy without countless looming deadlines, busy exploring stuff I’m REALLY interested in, and busy deepening my relationships with larger Darden community. Oh how I love being an SY! Anyway, I just wrapped-up my long-awaited vacation back home in India – a whirlwind tour of 6 cities with friends and family in tow. But I wasn’t be too sad saying my goodbyes: Because in Darden and in all its awesomeness, I feel snugly at home. And what reinforces this feeling is the way we celebrate the holidays here.

The holidays are a particularly warm and festive time for internationals students at Darden.  As an incorrigible foodie, I’m particularly passionate about the events that bring the community together over some delicious feast.  The Office of Student Affairs’ (OSA) Thanksgiving Dinner is a great example of this.  Note: the OSA is awesome, in general.  The staff support you through the coursework and recruiting (which can get overwhelming at times) and quite often organize events these kinds of events to make international students feel at home in Charlottesville. It has been great to learn about this fun American tradition while devouring delicious turkey and sipping wine.  This is a meal I’ll cherish long after I leave Darden.  Because, how often do you get to flash the ‘Rock-On’ sign with the best business school dean in the world?  This super-candid moment is an accurate advertisement of what Darden experience is all about..

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Photo credits: My Darden classmate and dear friend, Shep Friedman

But the cultural experience at Darden is a two-way street.  Not only do international students get to experience American customs, we also have the opportunity to share our own cultural traditions with the Darden community.  The Darden South Asia Society’s Diwali Cold Call – a celebration of the Indian festival of lights – is a particular favorite of mine that is held in Darden’s main PepsiCo Forum (although I may be a bit biased as one of the organizers of the event!).  The event is open to the entire Darden community and guests are encouraged to eat tasty Indian food and dance to boisterous Bollywood numbers.

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Photo credits: Ankit Virmani (D’14)

One-third of my Darden MBA class (D’13) is made up of international students – from South America to Europe to Africa to Asia. One of my absolute pleasures being here has been sharing the MBA experience with Darden’s global community, through events like Thanksgiving or Diwali, or through Darden’s many student affinity clubs which help to turbo-charge the school’s efforts to integrate the student body and facilitate community interaction.  I couldn’t ask for a better way to celebrate the holidays.

The Darden Advantage: Musings of a Summer Intern

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Last December, Forbes magazine uncovered an interesting insight about the Darden School

… The second most satisfied b-school alumni are at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Darden grads ranked their school tops in terms of M.B.A. education and preparedness …

Quite expectedly, the Forbes story created a buzz on Grounds. Many of us saw it supporting the widely-held view that Darden has THE best faculty among B-schools globally. Naturally, I was pleased too – the news seemed to validate one of my main reasons for choosing to come to Darden.

But in midst of all the euphoria I remained skeptical. And I had my reasons:

  • My general suspicion of opinion polls  / surveys
  • Alumni loyalty: Darden alumni network is one of the most fiercely loyal of any MBA program. This is why each past graduate batch tries to outdo the others in donating back to Darden enabling the school to raise record funds year after year. Maybe alumni’s extraordinary affinity to school skewed results in Darden’s favor?

Make no mistake, I was sure I was sharpening my business skills under teachers of unmatched pedigree but was that enough to stand out in an unrelenting corporate environment? I decided to reserve my judgment until I saw evidence of this “Darden Advantage” myself.

Which brings me to today. I’m exactly halfway through my summer job and perhaps in a better position to offer my 2 cents on how Darden prepares one for the “real world”. So, what do Darden students/grads do that really differentiates them at workplace?

Conquer ambiguity

Ambiguity is unsettling. But at Darden, its the way of life. Every single day, we vigorously analyze and debate three ambiguous business problems – synthesizing information from many sources, questioning prevailing assumptions and ultimately developing a solid viewpoints. As a result of this constant practice and repetition, Darden produces leaders who not only are comfortable with ambiguous business problems, but often thrive in such situations. So when others see ambiguous problems, Darden grads see opportunities to shine.

Persuade people

Sitting in a Darden classroom and listening to classmates make and defend their arguments, one develops an ear for discerning good arguments from bad ones. In other words, you start appreciating what ingredients of an argument – quality of reasons to back it up, way of presenting etc. – persuade and shape other people’s perception. In my opinion, this is a very advanced leadership insight that business executives take years to perfect. In Darden, this learning is greatly expedited.

Size up a situation

Having strong opinions and arguments is only one side of a coin. Knowing when and how to make these opinions, so as to optimize their impact is just as critical. Imagine this: You’re in a business meeting and a high-level executive makes a remark that you know is incorrect or inaccurate. Is it appropriate to interject him and make your point? In my Darden classroom, I have seen best of the arguments fizzle out because they were made with little consideration of the “temperature of the room”. In that sense, Darden is a training ground to help you size up a situation and mold your actions to not only “do the right thing” but do it the right way.

Succeed with teams

People have their preferences. Some do their best work alone, and some feed off energy of teams. For better or for worse, the corporate structures is heavily skewed towards team. Consequently, doing well in teams is critical for one’s success. At Darden, there are:

  • structures (Sections, Learning Teams, Project Teams)
  • events (Darden Cup, Case Competitions), and
  • incentives  (joint project team grades, participation points at Darden Cup)

to help students learn (sometimes the hard way) what makes team successful and what makes them fail. Having this exposure, Darden grads are (more often than not) smart about managing delicate team dynamics and to help teams succeed.

I’d conclude that Darden Advantage is no myth. Interestingly though, the source of this advantage is not in the critical competencies in areas of Finance, Marketing, Strategy, Operations etc. – something a top MBA program is anyways expected to help build. Instead it lies in product of some of the more subtle day-to-day experiences that a Darden student has on Grounds.

Entering a new phase

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Last week, we ended core portion of our Darden experience. From building the basic competencies in core subjects like Accounting, Finance, Operations, and finding a suitable summer internship, the students’ focus at Darden has squarely shifted to:

Taking up the mantle: With the elections last term, the first year class has now started transitioning into leadership roles of various clubs and other student bodies. We have had an amazing SY class and in their leadership, the clubs – both career-focused and social/affinity – organized great events all year round. The first year class has a lot to live up to!

Darden Cup: The annual Darden Cup comes to close with a 5k race this weekend. For over an year, the 5 Darden sections have been locked in some intense rivalry in a number of sporting events: softball, flag football, bowling, soccer etc. Last weeks Darden Cup event was a special, as Cricket made its debut. For the days leading up to the game-day, Darden found itself in a cricket frenzy with sections organizing impromptu learning-cum-practice sessions. With over 330 showing up to play and participate, the actual event proved to be a huge success.

Getting ready: Summer jobs are round the corner and Darden places great emphasis on ensuring we are the best prepared to succeed and hopefully return with full-time offers. The mix of electives offered in the current term give students the options to explore variety of subjects in some depth. so, A ‘Marketing Intelligence’ elective can prove handy for somebody who is marketing over the summer, or a course on ‘Valuations’ can build the skill-set a banking intern would need.

While many of us welcome the opportunity to choose from a wide course selection and the prospect of easing up a regimented class schedule, there is an element of poignancy in the air as we’ll not have another formal class together as a first year section (D). I know I’m going to miss all of my section-mates immensely, in-fact, I’ve started to already.

Looking back and ahead

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As we – the Darden class of 2013 – prepare to kick off our 2nd semester, it’s fitting to pause and review the semester that went by and acknowledge the key lessons it taught us. My classmate and fellow student blogger, Brian Cramer set the ball rolling by eloquently listing some the memorable business lessons he learnt in the Darden classroom. Focusing on learning beyond the classroom, here are my key takeaways:

  • Organize yourself! Darden demands self-organization and time-management from Day 1. Students are challenged to develop their own ways to manage the continuous stream of curricular and extra-curricular activities at school. I found myself relying heavily on my online calendars and other tools like physical and virtual files/folders to tame the complexity of my day and reams of the data I needed to manage. Funny things however is that once you develop your method to overcome the madness, the system mercilessly points out the shortcomings in your approach and forces you to rethink. Thus starts the process of self-‘Kaizen’ – a concept I was blissfully unaware of before I took the Operations class at Darden. Nonetheless, a concept which nicely describes the iterative improvement I have undertaken (yes, it’s still work in progress) to work productively at school.
  • Depend on others, be dependable. If you’re I-think-I-can-do-it-all-by-myself kind of person, Darden will change your thinking in days. While discussing the academic workload Darden students face, Prof. Martin Davidson made a cheeky yet a very profound remark and I’m paraphrasing here:

“Darden consciously loads you with more work than you can possibly handle. The key is be smart about handling it”

That key for me is to leverage your teachers, section-mates, learning-teammates to expedite and validate your learning. As a corollary, whenever possible, you should be willing to help out your classmates need you. This two-way commitment form the backbone of Darden’s famed collaborative culture.

  • Make lifelong friends. The last 6 months at Darden has seen us do it all: grapple with the intense classwork; dread and then eventually trump the end-term examinations; participate or cheer for our favorites in the various extra-curricular activities; and try hard to find ourselves a suitable internship job. The best part is that we’re all in this together and this empathy breeds very strong bonds of friendships. So take time out to cement these bonds even further!

Dining with my Darden learning team!

Bringing It: The Darden Classroom

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.. Bring the powers of your imagination, your fresh and unique points of view, and your highest levels of engagement. Quite frankly, we expect you to bring to the classroom nothing but the best you have ..

I might be paraphrasing, but this was essentially the gist of Prof. Peter Rodriguez‘s message. Prof. Rodriguez, the Senior Associate Dean for Degree Programs was addressing us two months ago in August 2011 during international students’ orientation for Darden’s MBA class of 2013. Two months, as most of my fellow classmates would attest, is a very long time in the Darden timescale; one would be hard pressed to recall memories (even fond ones) from back then. But I vividly remembered the above passage from Prof. Rodriguez’s speech. Why? Because I tend to remember things that confuse me, and admittedly I couldn’t fully understand what he really meant. That was until I experienced the Darden classroom first hand and saw Professor’s words coming to life.

A panoramic shot of my First Year section.

Each case-based class discussion aims to drive home key business concepts which further lead to managerial learning. The students are expected to come prepared and be ready to defend their analyses and recommendations (more on the case preparation in a later post). So let’s take a moment here and look at the situation we have: A group of 60-odd bright, business-minded individuals are sitting together in a semi-circular formation and have between themselves potentially 15 different ways to look at the same problem. The best part? What transpires in the next 85 minutes is as dramatic and as intellectually exciting as it promises to be. So much so that I’ll stick my neck out and claim that there are not many parallels to Darden’s classroom in terms of intellectual stimulation. What makes the experience so rich? Let’s break it down, shall we?

The Cold Call

A typical class begins with a cold call – an age old Darden tradition. The Professor calls on a lucky (?) student to lead the class discussion for the day. The expectation is to lay out the key case issues and set the class off to a flying start [No pressure, of course! :-)]. Some people feed off the limelight, while some others detest it, but most end up doing a great job of it anyways.

Student Led Learning

Darden attracts students with diverse functional and industrial backgrounds. Consequently, the student body represents an immense resource pool by themselves. Darden’s case-based classrooms are designed to extensively tap into this resource. Students – both experts on the subjects and others – are encouraged to lead the discussions with their thoughts. Almost every case discussion can be tied back to students’ past experiences – making the learning process all the more powerful.

Faculty Influence

Darden’s faculty is rated amongst the best B-school faculties worldwide. And it isn’t hard to see why. Their display of regulating the class discussions without curbing the flow of idea generation from students is masterful. They also employ swift interventions to prevent discussions from going on irrelevant tangents. They tease out the best comments from students by posing probing, catalyzing questions. Just Brilliant!

Value Left on the Table

“There are no right answers” is a common refrain you’ll hear about Darden cases. And this adage is true to an extent. Business world is filled with ambiguity and Darden cases just mirror that. In fact, some of my favorite cases are the ones that trigger passionate discussions even hours after the classroom. You just can’t put those cases to bed and move on. The classroom discussions make you think about the problems from multiple perspectives and equip the future manager in you to make the right decision, which may not be the best one.

Darden represents an extraordinarily busy and intense B-school experience. Since there are 142 things vying for a student’s attention at a time – many of them non-curricular – it might be tempting to disengage and not spend as much time preparing for the class as one should. Looking back, I realize Prof. Rodriguez was exhorting the students to do their best to preserve this basic tenet of the overall Darden experience: The classroom. And judging by the quality of classes thus far, the students have taken his advice very seriously!

Yes, every student of Darden Class of 2013 does bring it.