The Cornell Connection: Finding Your Own Campfire — Why I Chose Cornell Johnson

A bunch of 2021 MBA students celebrating Varun’s birthday in downtown Ithaca (Varun is center in the blue shirt)

It was September 3rd, 2019, my 29th birthday, and I was wondering how I would celebrate. I had only been on Cornell’s campus for a few weeks for MBA orientation.  My family and significant other were in Boston – almost six hours away. While I enjoyed getting to know my new classmates, they were still basically strangers.

After classes that day, one of my classmates asked if I could help with an errand. I agreed and we walked down the hill to downtown Ithaca. To my surprise, when we arrived, a large group of my peers were waiting to celebrate at an outdoor brewery! Turns out, my friend had emailed my classmates earlier in the week and organized a surprise party for me. Even better, the evening was capped off by sitting around a campfire overlooking Cayuga Lake listening to music. As I sat with my friends laughing, eating s’mores, and commiserating, I couldn’t help but think about how lucky I was to have classmates who genuinely cared about me – and how this was exactly the kind of experience I was looking for at business school.

That experience validated why I came to Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, and my experience has only gotten better since.

Varun with his girlfriend at homecoming 2019 posing with our mascot “Touchdown”


The crazy part about that anecdote is that it’s hardly a one-off occurrence. Those types of experiences are the norm at Johnson. Since Covid-19 has made it challenging for prospective students to get a real feel for a school, I’m going to try and give you an honest opinion on why Cornell Johnson was the absolute right school for me to pursue an MBA.

Like most applicants, after taking my tests and looking at rankings, I made my initial list of schools based on the competitive set. Ironically enough, Johnson was not on the initial list. That changed after I met someone at my previous job. He was a manager on a team that I worked with on several projects. I admired not only how intelligent he was, but also how he led with empathy and humility and gave his employees autonomy to make their own mistakes. When I picked his brain over coffee, he mentioned that his experience at Johnson was truly transformational and enabled him to lead with confidence and compassion. Since I respected him a great deal, I figured that Johnson was worth a look. After all, it had yielded someone with such strong leadership skills.

Thereafter, my research yielded a positive view of Johnson. For starters, it seemed to be a place where I could successfully transition into a career in strategy consulting or tech, nothing uncommon at a top business school. However, it was the environment where I could pursue my goals that set Johnson over the edge. I could take classes in essentially a castle that is Sage Hall (we also endearingly refer to the building as “Hogwarts” from time-to-time). Furthermore, if I needed to take a break, it was the only place where I could literally walk to a nearby waterfall, farmers market, or vineyard to relax.


Fast forward to my interview. I came to campus on a Sunday in the dead of winter and it happened to be the night of the Super Bowl. I was reconciled to watching the game in my hotel room. To my surprise, some of the current students I had spoken with invited me to a Super Bowl party at one of their houses.

I have two distinct memories from that party:

The first was the reception I received upon arrival. When I walked in, students came up to me unprompted and actually wanted to get to know me. They all tried to see if my interests aligned with those of anyone else at that party or in their class. Additionally, they went out of their way to ensure that I could attend a particular class only open to second-year students, Physical Product Entrepreneurship taught by Ken Rother. No one treated me like I was still an outsider, and I was amazed that I actually knew so many students walking through Sage Atrium the next day.

Varun with his student council co-chair, Marisa Werner, at Diwali

The second was an inspiring conversation I had with a second-year student, Donnie Hampton, about his career journey. Coming into school, he had wanted to pursue both entrepreneurship and consulting. While students usually pursue one career path, he ended up being able to do both by partnering with one of his classmates, who would focus on the business when he was in his internship. Through the support of several resources on campus, including eLab, Consulting Club, and his Career Work Group (second-year students prepping small groups of first-year students for interviews), he was not only able to help get his business off the ground, but also had landed a consulting offer at McKinsey & Company, which he planned to pursue after establishing his business.


Coming out of that party, I saw that Johnson students were incredibly intelligent and driven, while remaining down-to-earth and humble. I also experienced a tangible sense of inclusivity, community, and genuine commitment to the success one another. However, most importantly, I learnt that I could be myself without compromise if I pursued my MBA at Johnson because I was surrounded by people that embraced and inspired me.

The Super Bowl party really helped me answer the question “Why Johnson?” during my interview. Afterwards, I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the students I befriended that night texted me to ask how my interview went. That was the first time that current students had checked in on me after my interview, and it validated everything I learned about the Johnson culture.

After I was accepted, I attended Destination Johnson, or “DJ”, which is Johnson’s accepted students’ weekend. I attended a few of these events during my decision-making process, and I realized very quickly where I fit in and where I did not. It was honestly a gut feeling. After being at Johnson for a year, I whole-heartedly recommend going with your gut on what feels right!

During DJ, I participated in a few events that helped me understand the program a little better.

The first was a small-group conversation with our Associate Dean Drew Pascarella, where I found that Johnson operates on a “partnership model”. This means that there is two-way dialogue between students and administration that can impact strategic priorities of the program. Johnson students can voice their opinions to make their MBA work for them in a world where priorities are ever-changing.

At Deloitte University representing Cornell Johnson in the Deloitte National Case Competition. From left to right: Gregory Wool, Shirley Zhao, Varun Ramadurai, Vikas Venugopal


For example, Johnson instituted a “grade non-disclosure” policy in 2018 in order to encourage students to take classes that they wanted to take without worrying about grades. This initiative was driven by students, and the administration listened. Now, I know several of my peers who taking class in the Law School or the Engineering School, and they don’t have to worry about employers seeing their grades.

I also learned about my classmates during a challenge where we worked in small groups in order to build Lego structures without instructions under a time constraint. Some of the parts were hidden, and it forced us to think outside-of-the-box in order to complete the task. During this event, I saw that my future classmates were receptive to my opinions and encouraged me to literally build out my ideas. They also cared about the success of the team. I remember that before we started building, we all talked about how we would attack the problem and then delegated responsibilities before proceeding. From this exercise, I felt like I would work well with my peers and would also build enough trust with my classmates to provide my unfiltered opinions during times of disagreement. It was after DJ when I accepted my offer of admission; I knew that I had found a place where I could achieve my goals through being myself.

I hope my road to Cornell Johnson gives you some insight into how to approach your own MBA admissions journey and why Johnson might be a great place to spend two years of your life. Here’s what I urge you all to take away: when trying to make a decision about an MBA program, make sure to choose a place where you feel comfortable and supported. Choose a school where you can be yourself; it is the only way to achieve a truly transformative experience from your full-time MBA. While most of your interactions will be virtual during the pandemic, you will probably know when it feels right. At the end of the day, you want to find yourself in the position that I did at the beginning of my first year: sitting by your own campfire so to speak and realizing that the school you picked is 100% right for you.

Varun Ramadurai is a MBA candidate at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, where he serves as one of Johnson’s Student Council Co-Presidents and an admissions ambassador. Prior to Johnson, Varun graduated from Davidson College with degrees in History and Spanish, and subsequently worked at HubSpot as a Technical Consultant in Cambridge, MA. Varun is pivoting into strategy consulting and interned at Altman Solon, a tech/media/telecom strategy firm based in Boston. Outside of school, Varun enjoys playing and watching sports (he is a HUGE Boston sports fan), hiking, skiing, and wine-tasting at the local vineyards around Cornell.

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