2020 has been a trying year for just about everyone. Business schools face the continuing challenge of adapting to large-scale safety and distancing restrictions while keeping students on track to earn their degrees. The weight of world events falls most squarely on students, who have been thrown into a new and strange world of remote learning, isolated from their classmates and professors and figuring it out on their own. International students, in particular, have had the toughest road, as they study far from home.
Dan Mandelman, a 29-year-old Stanford Graduate School of Business MBA student from Toronto, Canada, has persevered through inordinate hardship during the pandemic, including illness in his family and an existential crisis in his business. But as the dust begins to settle and he looks ahead to graduation after this semester, Mandelman has a positive outlook on the slew of challenges he faced — and overcame — this year.
“Everyone has had a difficult year, and you have two options,” he tells Poets&Quants. “You can be the victim of your own story or the hero of your own story. With the support of professors, faculty, and friends, I’ve come out the other side with renewed conviction and a new set of values.
“Dare I say, I’m happy it all happened, that this rough time I’ve had may have been a blessing.”
A TRIPLE WHAMMY
Mandelman grew up in Toronto, Canada. He completed his undergraduate degree at Queens Commerce, then went to work for consulting giant Bain & Company. Shortly after, he was hired by the National Basketball Association, where he assisted in developing an e-sports league around the popular game NBA 2K.
An MBA beckoned. Accepted to the hardest graduate business program in the world to get into, Mandelman began his journey at Stanford with a vision of founding his own startup — and there were few better places to be to make it happen. Within that first year, he and his team founded Equipped, an app-based series of physical lockers designed to lend sports equipment in public recreation spaces such as parks, beaches, and campgrounds around the San Francisco Bay Area. Equipped was successful right out of the gate, and Mandelman was preparing to raise another round of funding around March, when coronavirus hit.
Equipped was up against extremely unfavorable circumstances; quarantine restrictions made sharing physical items in public spaces nearly impossible. Mandelman’s team stopped to think, “Are we going to be able to survive this?” After speaking with investors and partners, and faced with the prospect of a pandemic that could last months — maybe longer — they made the difficult decision to shut down.
Wrapping up his business was painful, Mandelman says — and it wasn’t the end of his troubles. Soon after his business shut down, a close family member fell ill, then his long-term relationship ended. It was a triple whammy — and a collection of circumstances that he says he wouldn’t wish upon his worst enemy.
A MUCH-NEEDED BREAK
To Mandelman’s relief, Stanford was a leader in flexibility when uncertainty reigned in the first weeks of the pandemic. In March, the GSB preemptively offered students the opportunity to take a leave of absence — an offer that removed a huge amount of stress for Mandelman, who would have otherwise had to grapple with the logistics of asking for a leave of absence. Instead of a tortured bureaucratic struggle, he was able to ease into a much-needed break — and to see his situation not as a failure, but as an opportunity, a chance to re-evaluate his journey and take a new path.
Mandelman describes his break in terms of four accomplishments. First, he wrapped up Equipped properly, having lockers removed, exiting contracts with partners, returning investor capital. Then he took time to physically be present and support his family. He also gave a talk to his classmates at Stanford, and undertook a summer internship working in venture capital fund investing at Pear VC.
Having taken the time to reconsider his career interests, Mandelman returned this fall refocused on high-growth technology companies, those that are performing at the top of their industry. After graduation he plans to join a startup that assists people in shared social experiences. At some point before long, he says, he will take another stab at starting his own company.
Before last spring, Mandelman felt as though he were on a rigid schedule with expectations for what the timeline of his academic journey should look like. He let go of those expectations when he took the leave, and embraced going at his own pace. He felt as though the leave was exactly what he needed, allowing him to return to GSB refreshed and prepared for his future as an entrepreneur or investor.
MORE THAN JUST STUDYING
Dan Mandelman is one of approximately 400 in his GSB cohort. Asked why he chose Stanford, he explains, “I picked Stanford because I thought it would ultimately give me the best shot at being a successful entrepreneur.” He was eager to be surrounded by the bright and ambitious people notorious for attending the perennial top-3 in the rankings.
Mandelman’s advice to prospective GSB students? “Think about grad school at a time that works best for you, not what your friends or coworkers expect from you.” He urges those seeking admission and those currently pursuing a degree not to stress about conforming to unwritten expectations of a traditional timeline.
B-school, he says, is more than studying. Mandelman says he might have crumbled without his community during his lowest period.
“The fact admin made it easy to take a leave of absence was really a lifesaver,” he says. “The career counselor was amazing; she checked up on me around September and checked on a few others on a personal level. Professors also reached out. My peers and friends served as a support system; they all supported my leave.”
Mandelman commends Stanford on offering leaves of absence in March, something his friends attending other universities weren’t given the option to pursue. He now feels much stronger and has a renewed sense of confidence — and he knows a triple whammy like the one he experienced is unlikely to occur again. Having learned from experience, he reminds all who may be struggling to overcome adversity:
“From the hottest fire comes the strongest steel. If it doesn’t break you, you’ll be stronger.”
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