Competitive tennis in India is as tough as it gets. But it’s not just the quality of play. The system seems designed to winnow out those without the means to dedicate their lives to it. That’s Mallika Saharia’s story. After playing since she was seven years of age, Saharia was unable to secure a sponsorship that would allow her to compete full-time and had to quit the game. What she did instead should be an inspiration to business school applicants everywhere.
Mallika played on India’s national juniors circuit as well as the international juniors circuit. The structure is similar to the professional circuit under the ATP/WTA/International Tennis Federation, with different levels of tournaments in order of difficulty of play and rewards for players based on their progress. In India, there are four categories and four age groups, from age 12 to 14 to 16 to 18. Mallika competed until the highest level in all the national juniors categories, winning several tournaments in all the levels — but by the time she was 16, the financial strain had become too much on her family, and it was unrealistic to hope for outside help. “Financing my play was becoming difficult,” she tells Poets&Quants. “Securing a sponsor required me to compete professionally, i.e. give up going to school and travel full time, which my parents were unable to afford.”
Instead, she switched gears, turning her focus to school. Having grown up in a military family, Mallika chose to pursue a degree in engineering, earning an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur. But her career as an engineer would be short-lived. A brief stint in Munich, Germany at a beer research lab sparked an interest in factories and “the prospect of translating concepts to practical, tangible solutions,” and her journey in the manufacturing sector had begun. A short time later, working for the Indian consumer goods giant ITC Ltd., Mallika “developed skills in working and leading in a manufacturing setup while getting exposure to how business is used as a force for good. Our strategies and operations translated to so many rural communities being exposed to technology, best practices in agriculture and sustainability.”
A UNICORN WITH A 750 GMAT
Business as a force for good has become Mallika’s guiding principle. She realized her passion was in the “propagation of tech-enabled manufacturing in rural India,” in helping less-developed areas improve economically — and she realized that an MBA was a necessary part of her journey to get there. Now 25, Mallika set her sights on acquiring global exposure and “well-rounded self-development” and applied, with help from a consultant, to three schools: Harvard Business School, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and Stanford Graduate School of Business.
By most measures, they are the top three schools in the world. By mid-December of 2018, Mallika had been accepted at all three.
At 6.3% and 11%, respectively, Stanford and Harvard have the two lowest acceptance rates of any business school in the world. Wharton is not far behind, at 20.6% for the most recent incoming class. They are also schools that “get their man (or woman) though no figures are yet available for the fall 2019 cohort at these schools — and while we have no data for how many applicants get accepted to all three programs — we can safely assume Mallika Saharia is an exceedingly unusual case. She is, in a word, a unicorn.
JUST THREE WEEKS OF STUDY PREP FOR THE GMAT
Certainly one aspect of her rarity is her preparation for the Graduate Management Admission Test. She only studied for the GMAT for about three weeks, she says. She scored a 750 that put in her the 98th percentile of all test takers around the world. In other words, only 2% of the people who take the grueling exam do better. It was a score, of course, that was solidly above the average of all three of her target schools and a remarkable 167 points above the average by all test takers in India (see The World’s Top 25 GMAT Test Takers). “GMAT was only a very small part of the entire process,” she says.
Mallika got the good news from Harvard first, on December 11; a day later came the call from Stanford, and a day after that came word from Wharton. “I did not know what to expect,” she says, “but I was very surprised to be accepted to all three.” Adding to the surprise: All three schools offered sweeteners — scholarships of $100,000 from both Harvard and Stanford, and $80,000 from Wharton.
Through the winter Mallika mulled her big choice, researching the schools and talking with friends in the States; but she was not able to visit the three campuses because she did not yet have a visa. “Each school is great in its own way and it’s very difficult to turn down one without giving good thought to how I can leverage their strengths to the fullest,” she says.
IN THE END, THE CHOICE BECAME CLEAR
By the first week of February, about a week before the deadline, she had made her choice. Here’s how she made it.
Almost from the start, Mallika says, Wharton was out of the running. Money was a factor, but reputation and community were more so. Deciding between Harvard and Stanford, however, was very difficult.
“After I spoke to around 10 to 12 people from either of the schools, there were a few who advised me to sit back, think, relax, and just think about yourself,” she says. “Now you have enough input, so it finally comes down to you, so you think about what is most important to you — and it’s OK to be confused. It’s OK to go with your gut, if you feel like that school is good for you — I mean, you can’t go wrong with either of the schools, so even if it comes to the fact that you just wanna go with your gut, there is no wrong choice, that’s what I see.
‘I SPOKE TO A LOT OF ALUMNI FROM BOTH BUSINESS SCHOOLS’
“I think I would tell someone in my situation to talk to as many people as possible in the beginning, and then spend a good amount of time looking, and thinking about yourself as well. I think it becomes pretty clear toward the end — that’s how it happened for me.”
In the end, Mallika’s choice was Harvard.
“I spoke to a lot of alumni from both colleges, and I spoke to a lot of people with a similar background as mine who had similar post-MBA plans, and Harvard slowly became the clearer choice,” she says. “The main reasons why I chose Harvard was because of the strength of the alumni network and the penetration of the brand across industries in India. I have plans of coming back to India and it’s a much more recognized brand and there are alumni straight across the country.”
MANY KIND WORDS FOR STANFORD — AND LOOKING AHEAD TO CAMBRIDGE
What was the most difficult part of Mallika’s choice?
“I think, especially for Stanford, it was the people,” she says. “Wharton I did not consider as much as I did Harvard and Stanford, so I don’t think I would want to comment on Wharton as much — but Stanford, yeah, the people made it just so difficult. I mean, at first I thought that the school was asking me to talk with alumni just to try and push me to the other side, but it was not so. It was just that the community in itself is so close-knit and so tight, and they’re like family, you know? In fact, I feel more connected to the Stanford community as of now than I do for the Harvard community. I got to know so many of these alums in India. Because it’s small, everyone knows everyone, and everyone is more in touch with each other, so I think that was very appealing — the focus that they put you as an individual.”
Though she has a clear idea of what she plans to do post-MBA, Mallika says it’s too early to decide on a track of study. She plans to come to the U.S. in the second week of August, then report to Harvard’s campus in Cambridge on August 28.
Until then, she plans to prepare for her MBA journey not by studying texts or binge-watching TED talks but by traveling, spending quality time with loved ones — and looking ahead.
“I plan on traveling a lot, spending time with my family and friends,” she says. “I will probably also look for an internship in a venture capital fund so that I can get an idea of what it’s like to be on the opposite side of the table when it comes to pitching and investing.”