Katie Perri and Karim Isa couldn’t understand why their employer, Adobe, one of the largest tech companies in the world — and consequently one of the biggest employers of MBAs — didn’t have a professional development group for MBAs like them.
So they started one. And MBAs@Adobe has been a roaring success, gaining around 250 members in under four years. The group runs big events year-round for MBAs at the multinational software company which is headquartered in the Bay Area of California, including a summit for MBA interns and new hires, an executive speaking series, and regular peer learning sessions.
Now Perri, a 2016 graduate of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and Isa, a 2017 grad of Duke University Fuqua School of Business, wonder why MBA groups like theirs don’t exist at other tech companies.
“Every time we do a recruiting event or a summit, we always say, ‘We are the only major tech company that has a professional development program like this,’” Perri says. “And every time, all the interns, new hires, go off to their Slack channels with their business school or their GroupMes and ask if anybody else does it. And then they all come back to us and say, ‘No, you guys really are the only ones that have this.’
“And so I always joke, ‘If you guys hear of anything else, let me know. We always want to learn from what others are doing.” But so far, no one has brought it up.”
LABOR OF LOVE
Perri, a group product marketing manager who started at Adobe as B-school intern before joining the company full-time after getting her MBA, and Isa, part of the software company’s business development team, launched MBAs@Adobe in 2017. The group started small, as a way to help new hires understand the company’s “big picture.”
“When I joined Adobe, all of our onboarding was combined with undergrads as well as Ph.D.s, technical master’s, and MBA students,” Perri tells Poets&Quants. “I was chatting with a lot of my peers, and I think the first thing that we noticed was it was just really hard to find the other MBAs. There was no centralized way for us to know who was who.
“We had just come from business school where we were learning all about corporate strategy and business strategy — understanding go-to-market and how the company is thinking about competitive threats, all the kind of detailed business school learning, and applying it within the context of Adobe. So obviously roles that are very focused in niche and specific parts of the business, but not being able to see that big picture.”
Isa, who co-leads MBAs@Adobe with Perri, says the group was a way to continue the level of involvement he’d become accustomed to at B-school.
“I was hungry myself, coming out of business school and being used to a tech club and a finance club and all these extracurricular events,” he says.
Both run the group in addition to, and not part of, their day jobs.
“I wanted that same feeling and to get to know my other MBA peers once I joined,” Isa says. “And so it just felt like a natural fit to partner with Katie and work together to grow MBAs@Adobe.”
“It’s a labor of love,” Perri adds. “It’s definitely a passion.”
FROM A SMALL CONFERENCE ROOM TO A GLOBAL IMPACT
The group started off small, just 15 MBAs in a conference room doing Q&A sessions with company executives. But the events quickly grew from organic roundtable conversations to a more formalized program.
Now, Perri says, MBAs@Adobe serves several hundred interns, new hires, and its existing MBA population every year. Its annual two-day summit for U.S.-based interns helps welcome the company’s annual crop of 50 to 70 MBA summer hires, with a better-than-95% attendance rate. A monthly Executive Speaker Series gives MBAs a chance to build relationships with executives in a small group setting, and bi-monthly peer learning sessions promote professional development with topics like switching roles internally and preparing to manage a team.
Now, after a year of coronavirus lockdown, Perri and Isa are exploring a new event to help boost employee engagement: a case competition.
“We did an Executive Speaker Series with Hannah Elsakr, a Harvard MBA grad and chief of staff to Shantanu Narayen, our CEO,” Isa says. “And she said, ‘Hey, with Covid almost going on a year now, one of the things that we’ve noticed is that people are still productive, but they’re not as engaged as they used to be.’ And so one way to engage the broader MBA population — or just anyone, it’s not just for MBAs — is to talk about how Adobe just recently hit their $15 billion revenue milestone, and now the next thing on the CEO’s mind is how we get to $20 billion in revenue.
“And so this case competition that we’re going to have in April is going to be specifically on that: How can the everyday person like myself come in and have the opportunity to potentially present my idea to Shantanu, of how we can accelerate our path to getting to $20 billion in revenue. There are some VP judges who are going to essentially judge the semifinals; they’ll select the top three winners. And then the top three will present to Shantanu.”
COVID BOOSTS GROUP GLOBALLY
Between its launch in 2017 to last year, MBAs@Adobe “went from Costco to Shantanu,” Isa says. “Because we do events and we buy snacks and stuff out of our own pocket, out of Costco. And then by the end, we were getting Shantanu, who’s our CEO, to come and speak at our events. And it was just amazing to see somebody like him just coming into a room with 40 or 50 MBAs and just say, ‘Hey, what do you all want to talk about? Ask me any question you want, you have me for the next hour.’ And so for us, that was almost like a turning point.”
Far from slowing them down, the pandemic that struck in March 2020 may have helped them build faster, Perri says. In a locked-down world, it became even more important to maintain connections.
“It was huge for us,” she says. “We were so Bay Area-focused previously and our executives very much preferred in-person interactions, which I think many executives do. And then all of a sudden, in-person interaction wasn’t an option. And so I think everyone pretty quickly became really comfortable on BlueJeans and hosting these types of events on BlueJeans. And so that was a game-changer in terms of really bringing in our communities in Lehigh, in New York, without it ever feeling like that’s the New York group, or that’s the Lehigh group — everyone’s just on BlueJeans. No one knows who’s sitting where, and also, obviously not everyone’s still located in the Bay Area.”
That includes Europe, where Adobe has offices in 15 countries.
“We had organic growth last summer where we were just really pleasantly surprised,” Perri says. “Once we went virtual for all of our events, we started having MBA interns in Europe show up to some of our speaker events. We started having MBA full-time employees out of Europe showing up. So that was pretty exciting.”
And that got Perri and Isa thinking about even more global expansion.
“We started to really think about what could ‘global’ look like,” Perri says. “And so we’re in the process of building out a pilot partnership for India. We know we have a large number of MBAs coming in in India.”
HOW B-SCHOOLS & GRADS MUST ADAPT
Because they see a lot of MBA interns and a lot of new hires during the onboarding process, Perri and Isa have some thoughts on what business schools could be doing to better prepare graduates for the world of work.
“One thing that we’ve heard consistently is that there hasn’t been a lot more volume of applicants — because everything is virtual, everybody is applying to more jobs,” Isa says. “I think the question becomes, ‘How does the school help their candidates stand out if everything is virtual?’ And in some ways the playing field is a bit more level. I don’t have a good answer, but I know essentially, that’s the challenge that we hear from a university talent team.”
For Perri, the question has more immediate import. She is recruiting for a summer intern right now.
“In the past, there were on-campus partners and we recruit from very specific universities,” she says. “And then once we go through that process, we see what roles are open, and then it becomes more of a general open process. And all of that is totally changed. Now anyone can apply online. Anyone can be considered, which I think is amazing. It doesn’t limit us in our university partnerships. I think the impact has been that recruiting starts much earlier. And then I think that it also leads to options overload for students.
“When Karim and I were in business school, the tech events conflicted with the consulting events, which conflicted with the banking events. And so you kind of had to pick a track and stick to it. Whereas in the virtual world, no one’s really keeping track of what Zoom or BlueJeans meetings you go to. You just drop your application and that’s what happens. There are just so many options. The students are not being forced to narrow in. I wouldn’t say it’s decision fatigue, but definitely choice overload. And so I think that schools are really going to have to rethink their approach to how long offers are required to be open, and what all that looks like, in order to also help students become more focused so that there’s not just this massive churn and burn of cycle of candidates.”
MBAs, meanwhile, are going to need more self-awareness about what they want, Perri says. “That to me is the biggest thing — students just don’t know what it is they want. Which I think is a classic MBA dilemma, anyway. There’s just so many different pathways. I think it’s just magnified in the Covid era.”
One more key change that B-schools and MBAs must grapple with: understanding that working virtually is now a skillset.
“You have to be able to have examples and be able to demonstrate that you are comfortable working in a virtual environment,” Perri says. “I hear a lot of students say, ‘Well, when are you going to be back in person?’ and ‘This other company is telling me that I might have an in-person internship experience. Can you guarantee me an in-person internship experience?’ But instead of looking at it as a negative or a downside, they should see it as an opportunity to prove that they can be effective in a virtual environment. It’s a little bit of a shift of mentality. This is a skillset that is now required for anyone graduating business school, so lean into it.”