Finding your unfair advantage – Wharton associate professor – Laura Huang


Hello!各位 CAREhER 的讀者大家好,我是 Tiffany,今天我們要去費城的賓州,人生很多時候是要下決定的,不管是畢業後是要繼續唸書還是要工作、工作後要去哪裡、要不要生小孩等等,這些下決定的過程到最後變得已經有點像直覺了,但這些直覺可以能是之前一直不斷的下決定、反省、修飾以後,發展成一個最適合自己的步驟。
今天我們邀請到賓州大學華頓商學院的副教授 Laura,她在台灣出生,紐澤西長大,甚至到過比利時、新加坡、上海,也在 Irvine 拿了 PhD,現在在費城教書已經三年了,Laura 本身的研究非常有趣,她除了替美國許多知名的新創團隊做顧問之外,也會教大家如何在早期做成功 pitch 的課,還有一個研究室告訴大家女性創業家通常在募資和工作上會遇到哪些歧視,今天她要跟我們聊聊這些東西,也希望可以從Laura的故事裡了解該如何為自己的人生下重大的決定。
編按:本次錄音為英文訪談,有興趣的讀者亦可閱讀中文翻譯稿
I had a lot of transitions in my career, hopefully this will be inspiring on some sense, career changes can be made often, sometimes career changes you make actually work in your favor because they end up giving you perspectives in the new role you are in.
I started my career in engineering, I majored in engineering in university, always really interested in math and science, more of the technical side of things, and also got a masters degree in engineering. When I left, I started to work in Johnson & Johnson in a technical role, my degree was in both Electrical engineering and biomedical engineering. I added the biomedical engineering find it something I could combine real world with the technique that I have. Started at a team looking at stance-cardio vascular surgery. The more research side engineering, research, designing on the stance product development.
At some point I got pulled into a technical marketing role, which was basically somebody who will take the technical specifications be able to translate those and help the marketing team design marketing materials.
I found it really interesting and I've never thought of getting into the sales and marketing part of organization, but the more i was doing that the more i find it was interesting. Then I was asked to go to Belgium, where they had the European HQ and work more on the sale and marketing type of projects. Then when i was there, my manager said to me " you know you really ought to think of a MBA" so I took his advice and applied to MBA program, and I ended up going to INSEAD. I chose to go to the Singapore campus and from there I really started getting to know a lot more about business. I had always been interested in people side of things, the more i was into business, the more i realized i actually like that, even more so than the technical aspect, so that is how the transition happened.
After I graduated, I have all these student loan to pay back. so I asked people "what is the quickest way to pay off MBA loans?". They said go into investment banking so I did. I ended up going to Standard Charter, in capital banking in Singapore, then they moved me to Shanghai, there I was a senior relationship manager. After several numbers and stops of getting married and having children, and I finally went to get my PhD. and we moved back to the U.S. and the rest was history.

All that happened in what time frame?

I finished school, work to engineer for 2~3 years and got my MBA. So I got my MBA probably around four years after I graduated, which is actually quite early. Now people are going much later. They work little bit longer. Then I was in banking for three years, my PhD is four years and now I have been a faculty member for three years.
So how long is that?
Definitely more than a decade.

I know that you've been doing a lot of research on “decision making process”. How do you evaluate each opportunity whether you are gonna go for it or not? After all this journey , when you look back, do you actually have your own decision making process to share with us?

People tell me your career has such a nice trajectory to it, you have both a significant other and you made it work. It's always been quite difficult, its mainly been a result of opportunities that have come up and a lot of time you just taking the leap and trying the opportunity. I am always a firm believer that and lots of my research actually shows that there are decisions that we make , and we think we made that decision. Sometimes when you are convertible , the decision haven't been made.

First of all, you have to know that is not right. It sounds like a lot more intuition. How do you find out the intuition through out the whole process?

A lot of it is about intuition or this feel you might have. Unfortunately some of it just comes from experiences, some of them also comes from having these great mentors, looking at people who have been done careers where they have changed often. I have a good friend of mine who I asked "why did you decide to be an entrepreneur when it was such a risky kind of thing to do?". He said:"I was doing great in my career, and I looked to people who were now 10 years older than I was and where they were in their career. Some of them are starting to have been life crises and all these sort of things. That's what I am aiming toward. In this job right now, that's where I am going if that depresses me now of what it is I'm striving for 10 years later then probably not the right move and sometimes."
We get so caught up in the day today and what we're doing and so that's part of the intuition as well. Being able to put yourself in the shoes of other people that may be 5 , 10 , 15 years along the same path, that looks like you are heading it, and see if it looks like what you would want to be going.

So you have to perceive the future and cut the losses. Also you have been teaching and researching a lot about entrepreneurship, especially female entrepreneurship and female founders, biases against them. Why did you choose to focus on that? What triggered you to focus on that?

I think when I start thinking about organization and people progressing through their careers. What I realized is two things:
The first was that a lot of times people faced these glass ceilings, especially females, minorities. They start to facing these glass ceilings within an organization for executive level positions. When they face these class ceilings what a lot of people would do was that they would move into entrepreneurship, because that's a way for them to independently be successful and become executives of their organizations in a different type of career path.
The second thing was when I start to looking entrepreneurship as an alternative career path, a lot of entrepreneurship was thought to be the very meritocratic thing that was based on the quality of your idea or how strong the market was good, with a profile, your education, your background, these things that were mere based. Based on things that were very fair.
And that was entrepreneurship, it's based on the idea and how it will going to do in the market.
But as I start to digging deeper, I realized that is actually not so much as meritocratic as we might think, that there's actually lots of implicit things, settled things that people are doing or represent who people are, that will make a lot of differences now. And that was starting to shape the way that people would interpret whether or not you were worthwhile for receiving funding and so forth, so I found that in terms of genders, females were actually one of the implicit things that getting bias against.

There is lot of female-dominated VC fund. They are trying to found more female entrepreneurs. Does that actually help change the system? Because it sounds like huge system that is not easy to break in the near future .

I think there's a lot of things as people begin to realize that this is a bigger issue. There's been a lot of things that people trying to institute to do. And I'm not sure that's the solution especially.
You hear a lot in Silicon Valley about what's your unfair advantage and I believe a lot in that what is your unfair advantage. Everyone is different and everyone has different experiences whether you were in engineering and then you went into business, and then you went into banking ,and then you went to something else. There's something that is very unique about who you are and other people can use that as a bias. They can say you have such as scattered career or they can or you can position in a way that gives you an unfair advantage of other people who haven't had all of these broad range of experience to draw from. And this gives an additional flavor and perspective ,and went to identify what is it that is your unfair advantage.
I believe that that kind of allows you to the fight against these merit-based biases. For females, for women entrepreneurs are women that are in the workforce that's one of your unfair advantages. If you can position away that on your gender and your experiences together make these all in the mix. I think that's the way that you're going to be able to convince people and show that your worth whatever it is you're looking to do.

So not to over generalize this cause unfair advantages are really interesting especially for women. Are there any examples that you see among female entrepreneurs that's their unfair advantage and they didn't know, so if any of our readers want to start their own business that's something to think of.

I am actually doing some research now with a co-author who is also in Wharton. It's still very early research, our hypothesis is kind of that especially entrepreneurship that people want to see like entrepreneurship passion. But they also want to see you won't just giving things and you're willing to show the persistence and perseverance, when you do that and have been given lots of opportunities that those things are hard to demonstrate so if you can take being a female for example and show I am in this industry that is heavily male dominated. It's masculine type. But I am a female and I'm an engineer. Having the technical background but also being able to show that you are a female, that's an asset. Being able to combine those things that in a unique way.
Take Rent The Runway founders as an example.They were both bankers, neither one of them came from the fashion industry and they ended up starting a fashion company and very innovative. They were females and none of them know about data. Everything is based on big data, what they are able to do is use that unfair advantage. We are female, we obviously understand retail and fashion and take that as a given.
But then be able to demonstrate other stuff we do know in terms of banking, profit and margin. I think what I tell my students a lot is recognized advice is that people have against you and use this in your favor. That's how you can actually turn people around because you have that additional information.

A lot of our readers they have tech background. They are very skillful. But a lot of people especially women, we lack business sense. So as an MBA professor, do you think MBA training still worth getting?

I think it's a really interesting, sort of debate that is going on right now about whether a MBA even worth it because it is very expensive. It's a two years commitment. If you goes to any of the traditional MBA programs, it's full two years commitment plus the cost of admission, the tuition as well as opportunity cost of what you're giving up by pausing your career for two years, so I think that is really important think about, is that opportunity cost worth it.
The answer that I tend to give is that when you think about an MBA if you have a specific reason for wanting the MBA. When you are thinking about whether or not to get an MBA, what's really important is to know the purpose of the MBA.
If you are interested in getting a MBA because you want to make a career change, you want to make a career switch then you have a distinct reason for the MBA or if you realize that a MBA won't give you an extra skill set that will allow you to be more compelling and whatever role it is that you are in, that's a stint reason. So having a reason for getting an MBA allows you to really think through that two years and will you actually getting a MBA, make it a much more worthwhile two years.

I think some people thought that MBA is a time that they can find themselves or when they are confused that their career path they want to rediscover something that they are passionate about. But MBA course probably isn't for that function.

And that's exactly! I think that's a great insight. A lot of people tend to get a MBA if they're confused,"I don't know where are my career is going, I'm not sure what I wanted to, let me go get an MBA and I have two years to think about it." That is going to be very tough because the MBA goes by really fast. You got course for, internships for banking, the interview process start almost immediately for your first summer internship, and so if you haven't thought about these things before you start the MBA, then you're going to be not as well served in terms of picking classes, getting involved in the activities that you should be involved in from day one, and all of this sort of things being confused on day 1 leads to you being confused two years later and still picking a random career or worse yet going back to the same career that lets you feeling confused and unsure to begin with.
So I think you should think about those things while you're still in your job and having a distinct career that you know you are wanting to switch into or whatever it might be is the way to go. Doesn't mean it's not gonna change while you're getting a MBA and that's completely fine, but you should have a distinct reason and a distinct goal for why it is getting that MBA.

As a professor, do you have any observations among female MBA students especially, do you see a significant transformation after they finish the course. Can you share with us?

I think that for female students it's a great opportunity just like it is for male students. I think for females, the effects probably even accentuated to the extent that if you have a goal, it becomes even more valuable for the females. And accentuated in the other extent too, if you're confused, it's gonna leaving you more confuse because you're going to see a lot of your male counterparts and your female counterparts who are getting the internship that maybe you think you want but you really not sure, and you know what ends up happening is that people are confused end up applying and trying to get jobs in banking, consulting and in industry. They spread themselves so thin that they're not able to focus and really apply themselves in any area ,and then it's just that much harder to get the internship for the job that you want in that area.

Is there an optimal age for MBA students,especially in Wharton?

The Wharton students tend to have about 5 years of work experience give or take. To be honest, I find the students that are a little older who have a little bit more working experience, get even more out of it. They are more determined and they know why they were there, and they know their strength, they know their weaknesses ,they know where is they like to go. So I do find that some of them who has six seven eight and up, sometimes a decade of work experience then end up going to get an MBA, the experience seems to be lot more rich for them.

Since there is an ongoing debate about whether MBA degree worth it. As a recruiter side, does that degree really as a plus factor for job applicants, especially after a certain age.

I think it's the way to distinguish yourself. I think that depending on the type of job that you're looking for there are certain industries and there are certain corporation that will exclusively or put a lot of weight on going to campuses to recruit. I don't know about all MBA programs, but I know in Wharton our career management services we have hundreds of companies that come specifically looking for people with MBA degrees, for roles that they are not offering openly to other individuals don't have that degree.
So there is this subset of companies that are looking specifically for that degree,so I do think it can be a way to do distinguish yourself. If that is something you are in the area that would be useful, especially in consulting, banking or upper level management position or even in entrepreneurship in terms of getting on the experience and the network.

Wharton has been known for a lot of alumni going to banking and finance. So it's interesting that now school focus a lot on entrepreneurship too.Is that a trend for the future?

I think so, that's why they brought me in. Let's hope that trend continues. We are now open to campus in San Francisco to be closer to the tech startup part. There's been a lot more emphasis placed on entrepreneurship because even within the organization, high level executives are looking for people who can think entrepreneurly. And I think that in terms of being an entrepreneur the sort of network that you get , the access you have to the capital, the access you have to people who can later on provide you with potential suppliers and customers and that's sort of things is really invaluable. Now I don't know that you necessarily needed to learn the needy gridy in terms it actually operate a business because a lot of that is just making mistakes on your own and learning, but that gives you this space,it gives you almost a foundation that I think it's pretty valuable.

Any last piece of advice ?

My last piece of advice I tend to give people is to be confident and to go for it. Everyone has their own insecurities, everyone has a reason for why they shouldn't go for something, but really just look inside yourself, figure out what it is your strengths and weaknesses are, throw yourself into it and just go for it, give it a try. No one is ever ready for anything. It's like having a baby, you are never ready to have a baby. But you know you never really prepared until you throw into it, you throw into the water and then think and swim, and 99% of the time if you care about it, you will swim. You will figure out a way into to make it a success.
Thank you Laura.

2015 / 10 / 28