My Story: From World Expeditionist to Columbia

Jennifer Lynch of Columbia Business School

While non-U.S. business schools often differentiate themselves from their U.S. counterparts by touting diverse student bodies and high international student rates of 30% or  sometimes higher, an American student at Columbia Business School shows what it truly means to bring a multicultural perspective into the MBA classroom.

At just 25, Jennifer Lynch has traveled to 40 different countries and can have a conversation in nine languages. After receiving her undergraduate degree in International Relations from Georgetown University, she spent two years working in Islamabad, Pakistan on a United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded project in economic development.

While in Pakistan, Lynch came face to face with poverty and realized that the challenge of economic development is not an issue of funding or the lack thereof. Rather, it’s the mismanagement of these resources. Now she’s pursuing an MBA at Columbia Business School to arm herself with the hard skills to do something about it. Lynch’s extensive travel and work outside the U.S. adds a unique value to the MBA classroom in that she brings a global outlook plus the experience to match.

Poet or Quant?

Definitely a poet. The last math class I took was when I was a junior in high school. I’ve always enjoyed studying different cultures, languages, and politics.

My Story:

I was born in Maryland, but lived in Germany for a good part of my youth. My father was in the Air Force which caused us to move around a lot. Moving around and constantly having to adjust to new environments was a huge challenge when I was young, but it was completely an asset as I got older because it has made me who I am.

After undergrad, I worked in Washington at an international development company that had contracts from USAID and the World Bank. While these agencies fund various initiatives to promote things like health, education, and economic growth in developing regions, the company I worked for concentrated just on economic growth. Some of our focus would be on economic policy reforms, some if it would be working with private sector industries to help them be more competitive. As a project manager, I helped manage USAID contracts which we were assigned to do economic development work abroad.

I was with the company for a year and a half before I moved to Islamabad. My mission was to stimulate economic growth in the region by assisting female micro entrepreneurs in starting their small businesses.

There were hundreds of thousands of dollars pumped into these projects to help alleviate poverty, but so much of it was mismanaged. I saw that the challenge of economic growth was not a resource problem and it wasn’t a technical expertise problem. It was a management problem.  For example, the current system in government and NGOs is generally not designed to give individuals clearly defined roles and responsibilities or monitor and incentivize performance.

That’s when I decided to pursue an MBA. I applied to Stanford, INSEAD, and Oxford. I was looking for a program that was really international and had a strong social enterprise component. I was accepted into Columbia, INSEAD, and Oxford. Columbia was my first choice because of its location and its resources for social entrepreneurship. The school provides a lot of resources for social entrepreneurship. For instance, they match you to do pro-bono consulting with social enterprises throughout the school year and subsidize summer internships with social enterprises.

But Columbia also has a really strong core curriculum and I wanted to get a strong foundation in all aspects of business. For now I’m heavily focused on social enterprise, but that could change 15 or 20 years from now. In our generation, it’s not uncommon to have three or four different careers so, by having this broad foundation, I’ll still have these skills that are easily transferrable to whatever I decide I want to do in the future.

Other international experiences I’ve had. I spent my junior year of undergrad studying in Madrid, Spain. I also spent a summer in Cairo doing intensive Arabic study. I have a passion for travel and meeting new people so I’ve traveled to almost 40 different countries. Some of my travels have been alone, some with friends and family, some to visit friends who are living all over the world. Others have been study abroad or professional reasons such as my work in Pakistan.

I’ve also studied and learned nine languages. While I was in high school I studied Spanish and French (and English). During undergrad, I studied Arabic, Portuguese, and Persian. While living in Pakistan I learned some Urdu and Pashto and my best friend is Croatian so I’ve learned some from my travels there as well. In general I like to know at least a few words of the language of any country I visit; it’s a way to respect your host culture and endear yourself to random strangers you meet along the way.

A major culture shock I’ve encountered? That’s a tricky question. Because I moved around a lot as a child, I grew accustomed to making big transitions. Because of this, I have a high tolerance for diversity and ambiguity. You develop a mindset where you just open yourself up to different cultures and different lifestyles.

Of course, there are small cultural things. For example, Americans smile a lot. When I studied in Spain, I noticed that smiling is not as common. A lot of Americans can perceive this as unfriendly, and Spaniards can perceive Americans as goofy. On the other hand, I found that it is very common for people to stare in Spain, while in America this is seen as impolite.

There’s also reverse culture shock after being overseas and coming back to America. Going to suburban America where shops are massive and grocery stores have no less than 40,000 different products to choose from. The consumerism in America lends itself to a reverse culture shock because many other regions just don’t have it.

I’ve acquired a wide range of business perspectives from my international experiences. In America, efficiency is prized almost above everything else. When you meet someone, it’s very common to shake hands and get right down to business. In other places, it’s considered rude not to get to know a person first; to get to know more about the person’s family and their background. The way you show respect to a person in some other cultures is to be unrushed and by giving them the impression that “you’re important enough that everyone else can wait.” I would say this is especially true in Pakistan, but also in Arab and Mediterranean countries.

I think a big reason business schools are promoting the need for international experience is because the best ideas and the best innovation come from diverse teams. That diversity doesn’t have to be cultural; it can also be professional. The more exposure you have to people who are coming from different backgrounds, the easier it is to be effective because you’re able to navigate those differences successfully. You don’t waste time learning to adapt to one another.

My international experiences have also given me a unique perspective that I bring to class. For example, in a strategy class we took a look at pharmaceutical companies and the AIDS crisis in Africa. The question was posed: should pharma companies donate or give highly subsidized drugs to African citizens? Coming from a background in international development, I was able to contribute to the conversation in ways that others could not. I had fellow students come to me after class and say, “I really appreciated your perspective.”

International exposure also gives you a degree of humility. For those who only come from one discipline or have only spent time in one culture it’s human nature and easy to say there’s only one way of doing something. But it’s always important to see that what you consider normal is considered abnormal to others and vice versa.

Four adjectives that describe Columbia Business School are challenging, diverse, practical, and collaborative. I’ve been really impressed with how collaborative the students are. We look out for each other. I think there’s a sense that there’s enough of this amazing experience to go around. Students are also really helpful with giving advice about their industries of experience or in sharing study materials. Also, with 40% international students, there are a lot of diverse perspectives both inside and outside the classroom. Being in New York City is a huge asset and gives everything we do a practical touch. I had a social enterprise class my first semester where seven CEOs of top social enterprises came to speak and I just started an internship at an organization that promotes entrepreneurs in emerging markets. This is what Columbia is all about, bridging theory with practice.

What significant life challenge have I faced? In the grand scheme of things I can’t say I’ve had massive challenges. I’ve had a pretty charmed life and in general, I take a positive attitude toward everything that I do. Some people keep a running tally in their minds of the setbacks and hard knocks they’ve experienced, but I think that’s counterproductive. Where other people see challenges, I see opportunities for growth.

That being said, I had the tragic experience of having one of my coworkers assassinated on his way to our office in Peshawar, Pakistan. And I felt the blast in my apartment when the Marriott Hotel was bombed in Islamabad. Yet dealing with violence from the periphery pales in comparison to those who deal with it first hand: the victims and their families.

Consulting is a great way to build new skills that are immensely transferrable therefore, after grad school, I’m going to apply to do consulting in the Middle East. I’m passionate about women’s entrepreneurship so I hope to find something in this area. In the long run, I’d like to start and run my own social enterprise probably in the Middle East.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.