2020 First Generation MBAs: Naeem Muhammed, Wharton School

Naeem Muhammed

The Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania

Class: 2021

Hometown: Bronx, NY via Accra, Ghana

Fun Fact About Yourself: I am the self-proclaimed, undisputed macaroni and cheese champion. I’ve been challenged multiple times, but my recipe remains undefeated.

Undergraduate School and Major: DePauw University, Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Management

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Goldman Sachs, Investment Banking Associate

What did your parents do for a living? My mother was a Certified Nurse’s Assistant (CNA) and my father drove a yellow cab.

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your father? My parents never received a formal education

Which family member or mentor is your biggest inspiration or role model? Why? As cliché as it sounds, my mother will always be my biggest inspiration. She worked two jobs – the night shift at The Jewish Home and Hospital and then a day shift at Columbia Presbyterian or she would just work a double shift at her first job. She worked 12-16 hours a day out of necessity and made modest earnings that she took great pride in. She taught me the importance of humility and effort. Because of my mother, I don’t really fear adversity. I know I can accomplish great things if I work hard and stay focused. I can’t thank her enough for raising me to take challenges head on. I’m often in environments where I feel like the people around me are much smarter than me, but I’ve rarely been in an environment where I feel like I am being outworked.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? I always knew higher education was going to be important for me. My mother pushed me to let education take me to places that she couldn’t go. In a way, she is living vicariously through me. Equally as important, growing up in River Park Towers in the Bronx, I never really saw anyone go to college or pursue higher education. I want to show kids in my neighborhood that education can be a path to success. We need more role models with strong educational backgrounds.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? I was worried about financing my education. I knew that in order to grow, I needed to leave the environment I was in, but at the same time I knew that “out of state” schools did not give much aid. Ultimately, DePauw ended up giving me a great scholarship / financial aid package.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? As much as I thought I was ready to be away from home, I didn’t appropriately consider the distance between the Bronx, NY and Greencastle, IN. Going home was very costly since flights halfway across the country were not cheap. During my freshmen / sophomore year, I had a lot of personal issues that impacted my close friends and family back home. Not being able to be there really took a toll on me and that was reflected in my performance. I eventually regained control of my college experience. By the time I graduated, I was a two-sport student athlete, held a variety of leadership roles on campus and a repeat Dean’s list student.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher experience that you wish they would understand better? I wish I could talk to my mother about my experiences on campus. Ghanaian culture is very prescriptive about parent-child relationships. What I often saw as absence because I was busy studying for finals, at practice, or running chapter meetings was often seen as disrespect because a “good son” is always present. Over time, my mother started to understand how involved I was and the support she was able to give me made a meaningful difference.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? Business school was on my radar for a long time. Many of my mentors had obtained MBAs from different schools and I really admired the experiences they shared and the network they were able to build. I wanted to create a similar experience for myself.

How did you choose your MBA program? When I was applying to business school, Wharton had started using the hashtag “#MyWharton” and this really resonated with me. I believe that my best self is my most authentic self and I wanted to be in an environment that wouldn’t pressure me to be a certain “type.” #MyWharton really empowers every student to curate their own experience, such that everyone can have different priorities ranging from entrepreneurship to socializing and everything in between. I really wanted to be at an institution that would help me grow, without forcing me to conform. I can’t really think of a better place for me to be.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? I was a little concerned about fitting in. After graduating college, I started at Goldman Sachs and never worked at any other company. While I worked in a few different roles, I always had a close-knit community. Coming to Wharton was my first true fresh start as an adult. The cool thing about Wharton is that there’s a place for everyone. I feel like I settled in quickly.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first-generation student? Wharton generously gave me a fellowship that covers some of the cost of attendance. I finance the rest with a combination of loans and savings.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? You can’t pour from an empty cup! It’s easy to feel responsible for everyone’s well-being but remember that you must save a little bit for yourself. Try not to put the pressure of the world, your family or your friends on your own shoulders. It’s very important to stay engaged and continue to help the people you love but try to carve out a little bit of time for yourself so that you can continue to perform at the highest level.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation?  I’m still trying to decide what’s the best next step for me, but I know it’s somewhere at the intersection of finance and strategy, so more than likely private equity or investment banking.