2016 Best MBAs: Justine Lai, Wharton

Justine Lai Wharton

Justine Lai


The Wharton School

“Justine embodies the message she’s worked so hard to deliver to her peers — you don’t have to be an entrepreneur to innovate.”

Age: 28

Hometown: Woodside, California

Education: Barnard College, BA in Psychology and Sociology

Where did you work before enrolling in business school?

Project Manger/Analyst in the Innovations Department at the Institute for Community Living (ICL), one of NYC’s largest behavioral health agencies.

Where did you intern during the summer of 2015? co:collective (innovation & strategy consultancy), NYC — strategy intern

Where will you be working after graduation? I’ll be freelancing for the summer, working on strategy and design research projects, and then I plan to transition into a full-time strategy role at an innovation consulting firm in NYC.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

  • Co-President of the Wharton Innovation & Design Club
  • Member of the Dean’s Graduate School Advisory Committee, a student group that consults to Wharton’s Dean and administrators on important strategic issues. Over the past two years, I have worked with Wharton’s CMO and the Wharton Entrepreneurship program on how to help Wharton grow its entrepreneurship/innovation brand and offerings.
  • Teaching Assistant for Professor Christian Terwiesch’s OPIM614: Innovation course to support curriculum redesign
  • Wharton Social Impact Fellow (Finance & Strategy Consultant for the FastFwd Accelerator Entrepreneurs)
  • Wharton Social Impact Initiative consultant to USAID Development Innovation Ventures’ portfolio company BioLite, part of student team that built company-wide carbon emissions measurement model
  • Wharton International Volunteer Program consultant, part of the student team that developed a new client segmentation and growth strategy for an Indonesian-based international microfinance cooperative
  • William Foster McKenny Fellowship for excellence in academics, leadership, and service

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Traditionally, Wharton has been perceived more as a “finance” school rather than as a hub for innovation — but that’s quickly changing. Although the innovation and design community has traditionally been relatively small at Penn, it grows bigger and bigger each year as more students realize the value of integrating creative problem-solving methods with the quantitative skillsets we learn at Wharton and into their everyday work and careers.

In my role as co-President of the Wharton Innovation & Design Club, the only multidisciplinary club at Penn that spans across all schools, particularly Wharton, Integrated Product Design, and Engineering, I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside an amazing group of fellow board members to help students build skills and careers related to innovation and design thinking, expand the greater innovation and entrepreneurship community across Penn, and grow Wharton’s identity and brand as a thought leader for innovation and design. I’m particularly proud of leading teams that drove the Penn Design Challenge, a month-long challenge where student teams used the design thinking process to solve a problem for American Express; the launch of our Wharton Innovation & Design Blog with over 1,000 views; and designing/teaching large-scale design thinking workshops and competitions across Penn.

My role on the Dean’s Graduate School Advisory Committee (DGSAC) where I work with Wharton’s administration has allowed me to expand this work to help shape the strategy and policy of how Wharton and Penn grow their entrepreneurship and innovation offerings over the coming years. The work of my DGSAC Entrepreneurship team also helped spur the re-launch of Wharton’s Entrepreneurship website and led to the first Wharton Entrepreneurship “design hackathon,” where students used the design thinking process to come up with new ideas for how Wharton can reimagine its Entrepreneurship program going forward. They presented their final vision to entrepreneurship faculty and staff, who were blown away by their insights and ideas.

I chose to come to Wharton because I felt that it would be personally transformative — but I also felt I could contribute to the growth of the school, as it aggressively grows its offerings across entrepreneurship, innovation, and social impact. One of Wharton’s best qualities is that students are encouraged and supported in making an impact on the school itself, and it’s been amazing being part of that community.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? In my job prior to Wharton, I was responsible for developing government-funded training and consultation programs for managers of New York State’s mental health clinics. One-third of these clinics were on the brink of closure, and we had been asked to provide new services that would help these managers turn around their organizations.

Based on client feedback, I led the development of an entirely new consultation model, serving over 150 individuals and 50 organizations in the initial launch. Based on its success, two years later, this model has now been expanded to serve the entire mental health system in New York State.

I’m passionate about helping organizations transform and pursue new opportunities for growth — this experience was incredible because it gave me the ability to impact numerous organizations serving some of the state’s most vulnerable communities.

Who is your favorite professor? Professor Sarah Rottenberg, of Penn’s Integrated Product Design program — through her classes, I’ve gotten to work on design research and strategy projects for General Mills and Penn Medicine. She’s been a fantastic mentor and advisor to me in building out my design and innovation skill sets, and helping me place them in the context of my greater Wharton education.

At Wharton, Professor Saikat Chaudhuri taught one of my favorite classes, Managing Strategic Partnerships. He really pushed us to think rigorously about how we could be creative in creating new partnerships and business models, and was personally invested in the growth and development of his students’ analytical capabilities over the course of the class. He’s also been a great advisor to myself and the Innovation & Design Club in his role as the Executive Director of the Mack Institute for Innovation Management.

Favorite MBA Courses?

  • Managing Strategic Partnerships with Saikat Chaudhuri
  • Negotiations with Cade Massey
  • Product Design with Karl Ulrich
  • Global Supply Chain with Marshall Fisher

Why did you choose this business school? I loved Wharton’s entrepreneurial and student-driven culture, where I felt I could play a role in shaping the school. Wharton also provided the perfect balance of being a competitive environment that also emphasizes collaboration, where I would be challenged and grow both personally and professionally. And, I knew that Wharton’s academic rigor and focus on analytical methods would provide a great education where I could better combine my soft skills with in-depth technical abilities.

What did you enjoy most about business school? Being surrounded by the smartest and most talented peers I’ve ever met who keep me on my toes and challenge me on a daily basis to redefine my personal best.

What is the biggest lesson you gained from business school? Figure out what you want and go for it. Having passion coupled with strategic focus, analytical ability, and an ability to work with people is what truly makes a good leader. Hard skills can make you successful in the short-term, but if you don’t have the passion, big-picture vision, and people skills, then you won’t succeed in the long run.

What was the most surprising thing about business school? Given the overwhelming number of opportunities and time commitments, it’s incredibly difficult to use business school as a time to “find yourself” and figure out what you’re truly passionate about. The best advice I got before school was to figure out what I wanted out of my MBA before I even started, so I could make sure I achieved my goals rather than getting distracted along the way.

What was the hardest part of business school? As a non-traditional student coming from nonprofits and academia, it was tough initially to adjust to both the culture and the academics at Wharton, where the assumption is that you have a certain baseline business understanding. Talking to fellow students at other business schools that cater more to non-traditional students, I think it could have been an easier adjustment — but I feel that having to adapt was a valuable learning experience, which has prepared me well to enter the private sector and pursue my long-term goals.

What’s your best advice to an applicant to your school? Above all, Wharton students have passion, grit, and aren’t afraid to work hard to achieve their goals. Tell stories that highlight how you share these qualities and characteristics.

I knew I wanted to go to business school when…in my first job as a research assistant in Mount Sinai Hospital’s psychiatry department, I loved creating billing systems to turn around our struggling clinic and hated writing papers for publications — a bad sign for an aspiring clinical psychology PhD, but great for a potential MBA.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…still on track to achieve the same goals — but at a much slower pace. I’ve already tried out all the other dreams I had and this one fits best!”

What are your long-term professional goals? To lead an organization that works across the private and public sector to create new products, services, and business models that provide novel solutions to significant societal challenges.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? My parents have been a tremendous inspiration to me as immigrants who escaped China’s Cultural Revolution and built personally and professionally successful lives for themselves in the US. They’ve always pushed me to be the best I could be, but also trust me to follow my gut and follow my own winding path — even if they disagree.

Fun fact about yourself: At 18, I planned to become a professional ballet dancer.

Favorite book: Pride & Prejudice, Give & Take

Favorite movie: Inside Out

Favorite musical performer: Adele

Favorite television show: Sherlock

Favorite vacation spot: Stockholm

Hobbies? Ballet, jewelry design, photography, travel

What made Justine such an invaluable addition to the class of 2016?

“Justine Lai isn’t afraid to reinvent the wheel — in fact, she thrives on it. At a school renowned for its prowess in qualitative analysis, she created her own major in innovation management and has made an impassioned case for increasing the emphasis on intrapreneurship for MBA students.

Throughout her career, Justine has focused on the training and development of social intrapreneurs to drive organizational innovation and foster creative problem solving. She’s put this experience to good use as co-president of the thriving Wharton Innovation & Design Club, raising awareness about design thinking and its role in driving innovation. She’s been an invaluable asset on the Dean’s Graduate School Advisory Committee in shaping Wharton to become an educational leader in entrepreneurship and innovation. In this role, she has helped to organize university-wide design challenges, launch a new health care innovation challenge, and develop workshops to teach skills that can help any student innovate within their chosen industry and function.

She’s been an invaluable asset on the Dean’s Graduate School Advisory Committee in shaping Wharton to become an educational leader in entrepreneurship and innovation.  Most importantly, Justine embodies the message she’s worked so hard to deliver to her peers — you don’t have to be an entrepreneur to innovate.”

Howard Kaufold

Vice Dean of the MBA Program

The Wharton School


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