An Interview with Wharton’s Admissions Gatekeeper

Named deputy admissions director in May of 2010, Kumar says Wharton has played a crucial role in her life on three separate occasions: first. as an undergraduate student who majored in finance and economics; then as an MBA student who used the degree to switch careers, and finally as an employee who returned to the school as senior associate director of admissions two and one-half years ago.

She was born in Norfolk, Va., where her mother, now a physician, did her residency. Kumar’s now retired father was an engineer. They both had come to the U.S. from India some 36 years ago. Kumar grew up in Potomac, Md., just outside Washington, D.C., and spent most of her life shuttling between D.C. and New York. In high school, she did the requisite internship with the National Institutes of Health and initially enrolled at Penn as a pre-med student.

“I thought I was going to be a doctor,” she says, “then, I went to college and my eyes got opened up a bit more. I realized I was a businessperson. I was very quantitative and loved numbers.” With her undergraduate degree in hand, Kumar signed up as with Morgan Stanley, eventually working in corporate finance.

When she returned to Wharton in 2005, her goal was to use the MBA to transition from finance to human resources. “I realized I had a real interest in helping develop people and understanding how people and organizations worked well together,” she says. After a summer internship with American Express’ organizational effectiveness group, she picked up her MBA in 2007 and went to Marakon, the consulting boutique.

When she quit her job to return to Wharton, the chief financial officer of the company she worked for tried to talk her out of the decision. “He sat me down and said he didn’t want to lose me. He doubled my salary on the spot, and he tried to walk me through some ROI (return on investment) and NPV (net present value) calculations. I said, ‘It’s not about the money. It’s about the experience. My life will never be the same. I want to go and push myself. I want to go and learn things. I want to go and open my eyes to different things.’”

And that’s exactly what she did. “For me,” she adds, “it’s the ultimate bridging of my background, my strengths and my interests. I spend all day focused on people, whether it’s applicants, the people on my team, or alumni and other stakeholders.”

We caught up with Kumar on a recent trip to New York City where she was attending alumni and admission events.

Did you have an explicit goal to enroll a new record of women at Wharton?

First of all, we are absolutely thrilled to have 45% of our incoming class of women. I am thrilled for the women who went to Wharton, for the women currently at Wharton, and I’m thrilled as a Wharton graduate. This wasn’t an overnight occurrence. We didn’t wake up one day last year and said we we’re going to get here. There was a lot of thought, effort and partnership that went into it. There wasn’t a target per se. When I started in ‘09 we thought we needed to be more personalized in the way we were speaking with a number of populations within our applicant base and one of them was women. And so we started thinking about how to do that.

We did a couple of things in terms of events. Two years ago we started having women visit days on campus so there are four days every fall where women can sign up and come and spend a day with us where they really get to learn more about Wharton, speak to other Wharton women to hear their perspectives and experiences. That has been a great success and part of the reason we got here.

We also have been partnering with a lot of organizations internally and externally—the Forte Foundation, the women’s undergraduate associations at Penn, the Seven Sisters schools, and with undergraduate women at Harvard, Sloan, and Wellesley. Our women students and our alumnae have been telling their stories. I think their visibility, their achievements, and their personalities have resonated with women. And that has translated into women being an increasingly larger part of our application population.

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