The Indian Engineer Who Got Into Stanford

A classroom at IIT Bombay, from which Riya Gayasen graduated in 2012

It is a common belief that an Indian IT engineer’s best bet for getting into an MBA program is to appear for CAT, the Common Admission Test, crack an astounding percentile, and get accepted to one of the Indian Institutes of Management or some other business school in India. For us, getting into the likes of Stanford Graduate School of Business or Harvard Business School is unimaginable. But hey, stereotypes are meant to be broken. And this is the story of how I broke that stereotype.

After graduating from IIT Bombay in 2012, I started my career as a programmer at Oracle. Supposedly, I joined as one of the millions of Indian IT engineers coding at their desks from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., fixing bugs on websites. But my story is far from those million engineers.

Before I joined my first job, I got a chance to learn Android app development. Why? Because my father had gifted me a Galaxy S2 and I was fascinated about making it do whatever I wanted it to do. And that changed the course of my career. After I joined Oracle and finished the mandatory training, I was about to be put into a team of web developers. Just as a passing comment, I told my then-manager about my interest in Android and the apps that I had built for my new phone. It turned out they were just starting a project related to Android and needed someone who knew it, and they had very few people. I was a perfect fit! I was quickly shifted to a new team altogether, a team that started off with just three people.

This helped me grow immensely in the Android field. As an individual contributor, I got some of the best projects the company had to offer, like Augmented Reality, something I am proud of having done, even after four years. As I learned more and more, my manager (who ultimately became one of my recommenders for B-school) trusted me more with complex projects. I even got a chance to be one of six people in the entire company to work on Windows Phone 8.

I was happy as a coder. My company and my manager were happy. My parents were happy. They were probably looking forward to getting their daughter married, as she seemed to be settled. But things were about to turn into a rollercoaster. How? Because of a Facebook poke that changed my life.


It was a hot April evening in 2014. I had just finished up work at my office and was taking a walk outside on the office lawn. I had my smartphone with me, and at that moment, a guy poked me on Facebook. At first I dismissed it as just another guy trying to flirt. But then — I am not sure why — I decided to poke back. And we started talking. He turned out to be a senior from Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. He told me about his startup idea and how his team was looking for someone to code for them. I felt this could be an opportunity to learn and grow as a programmer, so a few days later, after checking Oracle’s policies, I asked my boss if I could take up a side project outside of office hours. After making sure there were no hurdles, I said yes to working on the e-grocery startup Grocshop.

Grocshop was a new experience. For the first time, I was working with people who were so driven that it was almost impossible to stay ahead of them. All were from my college. Though I was working as a coder, I got a chance to interact with many people from other verticals: operations, finance, business development. I even made friends with a girl from Germany. I worked with Grocshop for close to eight months — and they were a transformational eight months. Suddenly, I was fascinated with spreading my wings. Suddenly, I did not just want to be a coder. I wanted to be more.

And suddenly, I was thinking of an MBA.

But hey, for Indian IT engineers, the best bet is CAT. So yep, in 2015 I started preparing for CAT. I told my Grocshop friends that I would no longer be working with them; a few months later Grocshop shut down. Around that time an IITB classmate of mine, a close personal friend who had completed his own post-graduate diploma in management from IIM Bangalore, told me that I should give the Graduate Management Admission Test a shot. I knew that having worked as a coder — with no official managerial post on my resume, nor any stellar position of responsibility in college — aiming for a school like Stanford, Harvard, or the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania seemed like a long shot. Some of my friends even told me to forget about Stanford, as it is the toughest U.S. business school to get into. Looking at the people these schools rejected made me think that I wasn’t good enough. Yet in December 2015 I sat for the GMAT — and scored a 760. So, with round 2 deadlines just around the corner, in January 2016 I applied to Harvard, Wharton, and the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

At the time, I was happy with the choices I had made. I also thought that if I got into any of these schools, it would help me spread my wings, just as I had wanted. I had also resigned myself to the belief that Stanford GSB was way out of my league because it was the toughest school in the world to get into. Oh, how wrong I was.


The first B-school rejection was from Harvard — without any interview. Frankly, I was expecting a rejection. I was also expecting a rejection from Wharton. But to my surprise, Wharton invited me for an interview and team-based discussion (TBD); a few days later, Rotman, too, invited me for a Skype interview and scheduled it just a week later. And five days after that, Rotman admitted me to the Class of 2018. I was happy. And it was a massive boost for my Wharton interview at the end of February.

Well, being a complete novice about B-schools, without even knowing it I completely blew up the interview (though I think the TBD went well). Next month, I learned that I’d been rejected by Wharton. But hey, I was heading to Canada! To Toronto, the most livable city in the world!

But it was not to be.

After the initial euphoria subsided, the reality of financing my MBA came into focus. I still remember going to a local bank with my parents and being told that they would fund just 40% of tuition, but we would have to keep an immovable property as collateral. It was a massive blow. Several other banks said something similar. On top of that, because of a medical issue which I had expected to get resolved, I was advised not to move to a country so drastically different from India in terms of climate. It was as if divine forces were preventing me from going to Rotman. I told the Rotman adcom about it, and they were very gracious in hearing me out and accepting that I was not able to come.


Once it was clear I wasn’t going to B-school that year, I suddenly had more time. My CAT score wasn’t good enough for the older IIMs and I didn’t want to go to the new ones, and IIT Bombay Shailesh J. Mehta School of Management had rejected me, too. I knew that my own work profile would improve. I thought that it would be best to spend more time researching business schools, so that I could make a more informed decision in the next cycle. This time, I knew several new people who had been accepted into Wharton (my TBD teammates). I consulted with all of them and started building a network. I cold LinkedIn-messaged several alums from different schools and discovered that the more GSB alums I talked to, the more I knew Stanford was the right fit. Stanford’s people, too, were so approachable and willing to share their knowledge about their school. I started having actual dreams about heading to Stanford GSB.

I had already resigned from Oracle and had joined a startup, Urbanity Multisol Private Limited, full-time, because I wanted to work on women’s empowerment. Urbanity worked to provide vocational training to women coming from poor backgrounds. I had already been promoted as a product manager in January 2016. My job now? I was entirely in charge of the company’s two mobile apps, one for customers and one for vendors. And not just their coding, but also design, development, analytics, user acquisition, usage, and user experience. At this time the Urbanity CEO became my primary recommender.

I grew as a product manager at Urbanity. My stint at Grocshop also helped me while working on various features of Urbanity’s mobile apps. I had also already pitched Urbanity’s business model to a tech evangelist from Microsoft, securing a place in their BizSpark Plus program, which selects just 20 to 25 startups a year from India. I also started volunteering with a nonprofit, Swadhaar Finaccess, working for financial inclusion of poor women. I made field trips to slums in Mumbai, interacting with several women, teaching them how to manage money. I also chalked out the initial workflow of a money management app that Swadhaar has now launched. In short, I got a chance to help women from poor backgrounds live on their own terms. Overall, 2016 was the year I spread my wings.


And with my wings spread, being confident this time, I once again applied in round 2. This time, I knew myself better. And this time, my goals had changed and were now clearer. Stanford GSB and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management were my first and second choices (Kellogg is really improving the tech scene in its MBA program). I also re-applied to Wharton and Harvard. MIT’s Sloan School of Management was a final addition to my list. The order of choices might seem absurd to a lot of people. It certainly did to many of my friends.

I got rejected by HBS, MIT, and Wharton without an interview. And I got accepted by both the schools that were my top choices. Maybe it was the effort I put in the applications for those two. Maybe it was the fit. But I was delighted and honored to be accepted by Kellogg (with a $100,000 Forte Foundation scholarship) and by Stanford, my dream school.

You might wonder what matters to me the most and why. The answer is living on my own terms — and helping others do the same.

I came from a small Indian city, Bhilai, Chhattisgarh. As far as I know, I am the first person from that city to head to Stanford for an MBA. When I came to Mumbai to join IIT Bombay, I hardly had any idea about foreign B-schools. I just knew that I had to study hard, to shun any extracurricular activities, and to secure a well-paid job. Even when I graduated, I never thought that one day I would get a chance to attend one of those schools, schools that reject even the best candidates with stellar academics, loads of extracurricular activities, and jobs in the likes of McKinsey/ Facebook/Google. But this fall, I am heading to Stanford GSB for my MBA, and it is a great honor.

Riya Gayasen graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in 2012. She loves coding, cooking (she has her own recipe blog) and eating. Apart from her career, she also aspires to work on getting more women into the field of technology. 

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