This Wharton MBA Is Chasing Reality TV Glory On ‘Survivor’

Kellee Kim, Wharton ’19, is a contestant on the 39th season of Survivor, currently airing Wednesday nights on CBS. The show was filmed in Fiji in March and April, when Kellee was preparing to graduate from Wharton. CBS photo

Editor’s note: Kellee Kim was voted off the island in the Survivor episode that aired November 13. During that episode, Kim accused a male contestant of inappropriate touching, prompting producers to address the issue in an unprecedented way. Click here for more on the story. 

The CBS reality television show Survivor may have been on for 39 seasons, dating back to its launch in May 2000, but Kellee Kim only started watching about three years ago.

She was immediately hooked — so much so that during her research into MBA programs in 2015 and 2016, Kim, a Costa Mesa, California native and Harvard undergraduate, applied first to audition for the long-running CBS juggernaut that sparked a programming revolution.

“I fell in love with the game!” Kim, 29, tells Poets&Quants. “I started listening to podcasts and reading articles and blogs, and there is very much a culture of ‘You can get off your couch and do it, too.’ Right before business school, I decided to apply, hoping I’d be a last-minute candidate to film before school — but I didn’t get it until a year and a half later!”


CBS photo

About that timing. In 2017, Kim joined 867 others in the MBA program at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Deep in her studies, she was unexpectedly chosen last fall to audition for Survivor: Island of the Idols. Filming occurred in March and April of this year in Fiji, approximately 8,000 miles and more than 16 hours’ flight time from Philadelphia.

How did she pull it off?

“It was really difficult to do Survivor during my final days at Wharton!” says Kim, who holds a bachelor’s degree in history of science from Harvard. “I absolutely loved school and I knew that this time at business school was really special. I was able to get away because I had finished the majority of my classes after three semesters: I took a bunch of classes during Q3, knowing that I was going to be gone for Q4. Filming started right after spring break, so I was able to take my last final and then fly out the next day to Fiji.

“Auditions occurred during the final exam period, and since all of my finals were papers or take-home exams, I had the flexibility to do them anywhere. I honestly got very lucky with timing overall. I was very fortunate that the scheduling really aligned with Wharton’s academic calendar!”


Kellee Kim. CBS photo

Something else aligned, too. Many of the lessons Kim learned at Wharton helped during her Survivor experience.

For those who aren’t familiar with the show, it has undergone many twists over the years, but basically it involves “tribes” competing in challenges, some physical, some mental, many that are both. There are Reward Challenges that gain the winning tribe food, equipment, or some other useful thing; and there are Immunity Challenges that keep the winning tribe members safe for that round. 

Kim says two of her Wharton courses were particularly helpful as she navigated the difficulties (and treacheries) of the game: Influence with Cade Massey, and Power Labs, an experiential learning course. “They gave me frameworks on how to think about the power dynamics between people and within groups to better understand what was happening,” she says.

Survivor, in many ways, is all about gossip. It’s who can tell the most effective stories, lies, or half truths to get a group of people to perceive certain things about them and the other people around them. Business school is quite similar, since there is such a heavy focus on socializing and networking. ‘Gossip’ is a word that has been primarily associated with women, but the truth is that everyone does it. It is what establishes and spreads culture and power.

“In business school and in Survivor, information and storytelling is moving at a rapid pace. One day feels like a few weeks and things can change in an instant. Being able to gauge a group of people comes in handy on a show like Survivor!

“Wharton was certainly not cutthroat and a lot more honest than a reality television show, where lying is the norm, but I learned a lot from just socializing and observing how information flows.”


Kim has been sworn to secrecy about the outcome of this season, but in the episodes that already have aired, she has been impressive. Early in her castaway life she utilized another good B-school skill: remembering details about the people she meets. After past champs Rob Mariano and Sandra Diaz-Twine inundated her with a flood of personal details about their lives, she passed an unexpected quiz about the info and won an immunity idol good for two tribal councils, the episode-ending meetings that result in one contestant being “voted off the island.” Episode six, titled “Suck It Up, Buttercup,” airs this Wednesday (October 30) on CBS.

No doubt, Survivor is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Kim says that rather than detracting from her time at Wharton, the show came about at exactly the right time in her life.

“Business school is one of the only periods where someone might have that much free time to disappear for two months, and I’m so grateful that I was given that time that I will likely never get again,” says Kim, who worked for a biotech-focused hedge fund before Wharton and now is an associate with a major real estate company in Los Angeles. “I also realized that the social pressure or anxiety I had from missing out on things was a construction of my imagination. Since then, I have become a lot more comfortable listening to what I might need or want, rather than trying to do everything.

“On the other hand, I missed spending the last two precious months with my friends in one place, running into each other in Rittenhouse Square! There were also some classes that I couldn’t take. I had to audit a few classes like Taxes and Business Strategy with Jennifer Blouin, because I couldn’t make the second half. I actually brought the tax book with me to Fiji, thinking that I would read it (nerd alert!), but I got worried that people would think that I was too strategic if anyone saw me!

“I got back from filming in April, went back to school to graduate, and then started job hunting. I knew I wanted an energetic, entrepreneurial company with big focus on mentorship and growth. Fortunately, real estate recruiting doesn’t work on any specific timeline, and I am incredibly fortunate to have found the right fit.”

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