Interview with Kavita Singh(Columbia MBA Alumnus)

F1GMAT: Tell us a little bit about yourself

Kavita Singh: I have grown up and lived all over the world: Calcutta, Dubai, Delhi, Oxford, London and New York. It was a great experience and has shaped who I am quite fundamentally.

I am extremely passionate about innovation, and have spent my entire career in new product and new business development. I was lucky to have discovered my passion early on in my career and realized that as long as you follow what you are passionate about, you are much more likely to be successful in whatever you do. It also made me realize that as your interests develop, you should ensure you let both you and your career evolve with it. We now have the opportunity to make multiple career shifts in our lives, but the common link between those shifts should be what you are most passionate about. I have worked across several different industries – confectionary, personal care, healthcare and education -  but the common thread across all of those was innovation.

I have found that an MBA lets you make those career shifts and changes because it helps you develop the skills and thinking you will need to in order to do so.

F1GMAT: What motivated you to do an MBA?

Kavita Singh: I had been thinking about whether or not I wanted to do an MBA for some time. At the time I was working for one of the leading marketing strategy consulting firms in India and we were discussing a role wherein I would open and run a new office for them in one of two potential locations. The option was extremely attractive and would have given me the entrepreneurial and general management experience I was looking for.

However in the end I decided to do an MBA because I really wanted to get global experience and round out my skill set. Also, I wanted to move over to the client side and I saw an MBA as a great bridge to do so.

F1GMAT: What are some of the biggest takeaways from your MBA Experience?

Kavita Singh: For me, the biggest take away is the network I made. It’s a network of close friends, colleagues, and acquaintances and potential peers, advisors, and investors. I walked away with a great set of friends who all act as informal advisors to me and even now I continue to build more contacts through the Columbia network, which is extremely supportive.

When they say your time at Business School is ‘2 years as a student and a lifetime as an alumni’, it is something that really rings true for me.

F1GMAT: Only top candidates are selected to Columbia Business School. What were some of the strategies that you followed for getting admission to Columbia Business School?

Kavita Singh: When I visited the Columbia Business School campus, I fell completely in love with it and knew that it was the school I wanted to go. I came back and thought rationally about what I really wanted out of an MBA program and Columbia was the only school that fit all my requirements perfectly. So I decided that I was going to apply to Columbia – and that was the only school I applied to. As you can imagine, that made it really easy to answer the ‘Why MBA and Why Columbia Business School’ question.

In thinking about my application, I thought about my strength, talents, and weaknesses. Most importantly I thought about what made me unique as an applicant and what would set me apart from other applicants. I then focused on demonstrating this to the admissions committee through my resume and essays. The important point here is ‘demonstrate’ – I made sure I followed the ‘show rather than tell’ principle so that the admissions committee could really understand my strengths and differentiating factors.

F1GMAT: How important was your Pre-MBA experience in the MBA Admissions process?

Kavita Singh: My Pre-MBA experience helped me in two ways. Firstly, and most importantly it helped me clarify my goals. Had I not had a sense of where I wanted to go in the future, it would have been hard for me to figure out why I needed an MBA and what type of program would be best suited to me. When I refer to my goals, I don’t just mean my immediate post MBA goals but also what I was looking to do about 8-10 years after I graduated. Since I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur eventually, I ensured that I focused on developing my skills and experience in this area.

Secondly, my Pre-MBA helped me to differentiate myself from other applicants and to show the school how I could bring a unique perspective to the classroom.

F1GMAT: Is there a myth about MBA programs that you want to break?

Kavita Singh: Yes, the biggest myth is that as long as you go to a top brand name school that’s all that matters. I don’t intend to suggest that brand is unimportant; in fact I think it is very important. What applicants should think is what make one top brand different to the other and which one is best suited to you. I have close friends and colleagues who studied across the top 10 MBA schools globally and while most of them were happy with their choice, several people did realize they had chosen the wrong school.

F1GMAT: On looking back, were there any classes or activities in your MBA that haves helped you with the day to day operations of your Business?

Kavita Singh: There were specific classes that have been extremely helpful such as corporate finance, negotiations, turnaround management and new product development. However as I look back now, it has been less about the specific classes and rather more about the way an MBA program make you think about and view both a problem or an opportunity and potential solutions.

Being in a class with people from multiple difficult professional backgrounds and countries makes you think about how to view things from multiple perspectives and helps you to hone and adapt your own approach. At university, whether undergraduate or postgraduate, I believe you learn as much or even more from your classmates than from your professors.

F1GMAT: How important are MBA Application Essays and Interview in the MBA Admissions process?

Kavita Singh: They are critical.  I think a lot of people still think it’s really a lot about their grades and GMAT. While your grades are GMAT score are not unimportant, you will generally be competing with applicants of a similar capability. So your application essays and interview are your opportunity to demonstrate your skills, what makes you unique and why you would be a strong candidate for that particular school.

F1GMAT: What advice would you give to recent MBA graduates?

Kavita Singh: My advice would be to look beyond the regular companies that come to campus and look for opportunities that may not be typical ‘MBA jobs’. There are a number of companies that don’t recruit from Business Schools but do have great positions for MBA graduates. After Business School, I joined M&M/Mars who did recruit MBA graduates, but did not have a regular Business School recruiting strategy. I managed to get in touch with them by using my network of alumni contacts and in fact found two Columbia Alumni at the company. Had I just focused on campus recruiting I would have missed out on this opportunity, which turned out to be one of the best jobs I have ever had,

F1GMAT: Is an MBA worth the investment?

Kavita Singh: For me, it was. I knew what I wanted to get out of the program, spent time assessing whether that was realistic and hence was not disappointed. However, I have see that often people do not spend enough time thinking about their return on investment (ROI) to see if it is really worth it for them.  So what should you do?

First, estimate investment. This will include the cost of tuition, living expenses, travel expenses, any salary forgone, any interest on loans minus any scholarships or financial incentives offered. Be sure to create at least 2 possible scenarios – one where you get a job immediately after graduating and another where you have to wait for several months. In the second scenario, your costs could increase by as much as 5%.

Calculating your return is much harder to do and requires you to do your research thoroughly.  You need to try to estimate your starting salary as well as your future earning potential. For the universities you are considering, ask questions such as:

• What are the average starting salaries and placement statistics for the types of jobs I am looking for?. Don’t just look at overall averages.

• What are the average starting salaries and placement statistics in ‘boom’ years vs. ‘recession’ years?  Calculate your ROI under an optimistic scenario and a pessimistic scenario to ensure that you can justify the costs even if the economy goes south.

• Dig deep and understand what the starting salaries and placement statistics are for international students vs. domestic students. Are there differences? Why? Is it harder for international students to get jobs in a specific industry? To what extent do salaries and placement statistics for international students change in ‘boom’ vs. recession years? What are alumni doing 5 years, 10 years, 15 years after graduation?

• What are the average salaries increases alumni experience over 5 years, 10 years, 15 years? Look at the jobs/industries you are considering, not just broad averages.

• If you are considering coming back to India at some point, understand what your earning potential will be in India? What have retuning alumni experienced?

If you are considering going to a lower-tier university mainly because it costs less, then determine to what extent your ‘return’ will be affected. Make sure the type of companies you want to work with come to campus. Find out how big the alumni base is, how active is it and whether there are alumni in the type of jobs and industries you are interested in. Alumni connections can be critical to help you land jobs that are not advertised or don’t come to campus.

It’s not only about the numbers though. Going to Columbia Business School was one of the best experiences of my life – I got to live in New York and made lifelong friends from all over the world. Think about how valuable these intangible things are to you and factor them in when you are making your decision.

About Kavita Singh

Kavita Singh has over 13 years of experience working in the U.S. and India. Kavita is the CEO of FutureWorks Consulting. She is an MBA graduate of Columbia Business School and holds a BA (Hons) from Oxford University. She has worked for leading companies such as Mars, Colgate-Palmolive and Web MD at higher management and consulting roles.
Kavita writes for elite publications like the Hindustan Times

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