2020 Best & Brightest MBAs: Ilana Walder-Biesanz, Stanford GSB

Ilana Walder-Biesanz

Stanford Graduate School of Business

Hometown: Portland, Oregon

Fun fact about yourself: I learned to read in Japanese before English!

Undergraduate School and Degree: B.S. in Engineering: Systems (Olin College of Engineering), M.Phil. in European Literature and Culture (University of Cambridge)

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Product Manager at Oath (Yahoo!) in Sunnyvale, California

Where did you intern during the summer of 2019? MBA Strategy Intern at American Ballet Theatre in New York City

Where will you be working after graduation? Bain & Company in Houston, Texas

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: 

Leadership Roles:

  • Co-president, Jewish Business Students Association
  • Vice President, Wine Circle
  • Co-chair, Student Association Academic Committee
  • Member, Student Association Social Committee

Awards and Honors:

  • Siebel Scholar
  • Social Management Immersion Fund Fellowship

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? The annual pre-GSB trip to Lake Tahoe happened during Rosh Hashannah in 2018. I borrowed prayer books and a shofar from my synagogue, bought challah and apples and honey, and led a prayer service on the beach. I’ve also hosted a Seder for 40+ students, small group Shabbat dinners, and a challah baking workshop. It’s important to me that Jewish students at the GSB have spaces to celebrate and share their traditions, and I’m proud of my role in creating those spaces.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I started at Yahoo! right before a complete overhaul of my product (the Yahoo! Mail app) launched. Shortly after the launch, my manager – the only other product manager on the team – left the company. This was my first real job, and I had to manage the fallout from major product changes and get a strategic roadmap in place to ensure the success of this app with tens of millions of daily users. I’m proud that when I left the team a year later, our usage numbers, ratings, and customer feedback were stronger than ever.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Alyssa Rapp. She teaches Global Dynamics of the Wine Industry, which is such a good strategy education that I took it twice (once as a student, once as a TA)! She’s always pushing students not just to analyze past events but to put ourselves in the shoes of company leadership and make difficult choices for the future. She has also been a wonderful mentor and helped me source my summer internship in arts management.

What was your favorite MBA Course? Managing Growing Enterprises (MGE) with Joel Peterson. Joel is a GSB legend. It’s a testament to how well he managed the class that the best learnings came not from his words of wisdom (great though those were) but from my classmates. MGE is about dealing with difficult leadership moments: making hiring decisions, firing key employees, leaving your own company, handling a PR crisis, etc. We did a lot of roleplays in class, and my classmates approached conversations in ways I never would have thought of. It really expanded my repertoire of techniques for tricky business conversations.

Why did you choose this business school? I knew I wanted to stay in the San Francisco area, and I fell in love with the GSB when I visited campus. I only applied to Stanford and figured if it didn’t work out, maybe it wasn’t time for business school yet.

What is your best advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? The only secrets to the “what matters most to me and why” essay is honesty and passion.

Think back two years ago. What is the one thing you wish you’d known before starting your MBA program? Budget more time and money for travel.

MBA Alumni often describe business school as transformative. Looking back over the past two years, how has business school been transformative for you? I met my girlfriend, so that was transformative!

Thanks to the luxury of two years of introspection, I’ve changed how I view my priorities in life. I came into business school with one professional goal in mind: become the executive director of an opera company. That goal isn’t gone, but I now have a more holistic view of what I need to be happy and the many options for getting there.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Melanie Goldstein, an outstanding professional cellist and one of the kindest people in our class. She somehow managed to plan her picture-perfect wedding alongside first-year MBA coursework, so mad respect for that.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college?

I didn’t particularly like my business classes in undergrad, so business school was a surprise twist! After I was accepted to the GSB, my mentor Shirin Oskooi (yes, that Shirin, for any Survivor fans reading this) persuaded me to attend.

What was the goofiest MBA term or acronym you encountered – and what did it mean? EANABs: Equally Attractive Non-Alcoholic Beverages. Pronounced ee-nabs. A good thing to have at parties, terrible acronym.

“If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…Single. (Probably.)”

What are the top two items on your bucket list? 

(1)Commission a new opera, (2) Attend the Aix-en-Provence festival

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? Intense but not aloof — always willing to help a friend or classmate.

Hobbies? Singing opera, ballroom/social dance, theater, fencing, reading, tea parties, travel

What made Ilana such an invaluable member of the Class of 2020?

“I had the pleasure to have Ilana as one of the students in my Optimization and Simulation Modeling class during the fall quarter of 2018. To provide you with some context, this is a required class in the first-year MBA curriculum at the Graduate School of Business and is perhaps one of the most technical classes that our students take. Ilana was enrolled in the most difficult level of the class (Advanced), which was taught in Python and involved a significant amount of coding and very advanced conceptual topics. This level usually attracts the most quantitative of our students, with solid backgrounds in mathematics, engineering, or sciences. Even within this highly selective group, Ilana’s performance easily stood out: she achieved the highest overall score in the class (among all 140 students), with a perfect score of 100/100 on our extremely challenging final exam.

Beyond grades, perhaps the most impressive thing about Ilana was her intellectual curiosity and her determination. I typically push the students quite a bit in class, by covering some topics that are closer to masters-level engineering classes. I normally want students to just have some exposure, and do not expect them to master the concepts; so most view the ideas as brain teasers and do not strive for any deeper understanding. In contrast, Ilana was clearly very interested in the inner workings and details, asking a lot of questions and being one of the very few volunteers to answer my in-class quizzes. It was great to see her question (and appreciate) the intellectual merit of the ideas – this shows both depth of thought, as well as an innate curiosity that is emblematic of high achievers.

Lastly, I would like to comment briefly on Ilana’s commitment to her peers. I had already gotten a sense of Ilana’s drive to help others during class sessions, as I watched her explain more difficult concepts to some classmates (we usually reserve some class time for group exercises, which gives students a chance to interact with each other and share thoughts on how to tackle certain problems). As it turns out, Ilana was quite instrumental even outside of class, helping her peers understand and keep up with the material by hosting Python sessions, doing catch-up tutoring, and holding late-night homework help sessions. All of this work, which was done on her own time and with zero incentives or rewards, is emblematic of her kindness and her selfless drive to help others.”

Dan Iancu
Associate Professor of Operations, Information and Technology

Other things to know about Ilana:

    • She graduated from undergrad at 19 and from her first master’s at 20
    • She knows six languages at an intermediate level or above
    • She sits on two performing arts non-profit Boards of Directors



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