2021 Best & Brightest MBAs: Di Gao, Northwestern University (Kellogg)

Di Gao

Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management

Pharmaceutical/biotech professional, foodie, and community builder.”

Hometown: Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, China

Fun fact about yourself: I raised pandas for a year in college when I was volunteering for a zoo!

Undergraduate School and Degree: B.S. in Chemistry, Nanjing University. Ph.D. in Chemistry, University of Michigan – Ann Arbor

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Research & Development Manager, AstraZeneca. I was supervising 18 people to perform 150+ types of analysis to support clinical development of AstraZeneca’s biotech portfolio

Where did you intern during the summer of 2020? GlaxoSmithKline, Research Triangle (RTP) North Carolina

Where will you be working after graduation? I’ll be returning to GlaxoSmithKline to participate as an Esprit Leadership Rotational Program Associate for their US Commercial business.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: VP of External Marketing, Kellogg Healthcare Club

  • Director of International Initiatives, Women’s Business Association
  • Mentor, Kellogg Career Management Center
  • Volunteer of Cancer Ministry of Hope, Willow Creek Community Church
  • First prize, 2020 AbbVie Innovation Challenge Case Competition
  • Kellogg Spring 2020 Dean’s List

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school?  Built a team of 65 Kellogg students to help a Kellogg classmate suffering from brain damage.

Our classmate got into a car accident in her first year of the MBA program and she suffered severe injuries. However, she really wanted to complete her degree, so she returned to Kellogg as soon as she was medically able to. Moved by her story, I decided to do something to help her and her parents. Knowing I could not do everything alone, I started sharing her story with people around me and invited my friends to join me in this effort. I created a Slack channel and a WeChat group to facilitate communication, and a spreadsheet to coordinate activities among volunteers. Within several months, 65 Kellogg students joined the group. People signed up to visit her and the family, help her take notes, and give them rides. We felt so humbled to help our classmate have the best experience possible.

I’m so proud to be a part of a community like this one, where so many students were willing to help our classmate and friend, many of which were strangers. I also am so inspired by my resilient classmate, who clearly can do anything she puts her mind too.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? When I was a scientist at AstraZeneca, leading multinational pharmaceutical company, I was asked to replace another colleague in the last minute to lead the operations launch of the company’s first biologics drug. I had to lead 12 people from eight groups across four locations in the US, UK, and Japan – all while reducing launch-to-market time by over 50%. This was quite the challenge with no example to follow and much ambiguity. By talking to different stakeholders and coordinating activities, I was able to formulate and execute a creative plan. We also had to do a lot of things for the first time. In the end, we exceeded the expectation by reducing launch time by 80%. The oncology drug products were shipped out within 16 hours after regulatory approval. This process became a standard for future product launch at AstraZeneca.

In healthcare, time means lives saved, or helped. I am proud that this novel oncology drug could get into cancer patients’ hands sooner and that I contributed my part.

Why did you choose this business school? The Kellogg community. When I was applying to business school, someone said to me: “Do you really think the resources differ a lot among top schools? No, they all have top-notch professors, helpful staff, and abundant resources to help you with your career. What matters is that when you need help, you have a reliable, and collaborative community that will support you.” I could not agree more. I cold-called Kellogg alumni who graduated two years ago, five years ago, and even 15 years ago. The passion in their voices when they were describing their MBA experiences told me how much Kellogg was different from its peers, and how exceptional my experience would be.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? Spending more time with classmates to understand who they are. Many people (including myself) probably thought the last two quarters of our experience would be perfect for this as most people would be done with recruiting. But now, we’re reaching a year of COVID-19! My lesson learned: don’t always push things to tomorrow because you do not know what will happen! Especially when it involves people that you care about (including friends and family). Spend more time with them when you can!

What is the biggest myth about your school? Kellogg is “a marketing school”. While Kellogg certainly has an impressive marketing program, it is so much more than that. For example, I really enjoyed my finance classes, venture capital and entrepreneurship classes, and operations classes. Kellogg professors are not only knowledgeable in their disciplines but also really good at teaching.

So many of my classmates are pursuing careers in healthcare, consulting, private equity and venture capital, investment banking, design, and entrepreneurship. I was able to find a venture capital internship through one of my classes during the San Francisco Immersion Program. In my class Forging and Funding Healthcare Start-ups several CEOs from local startups were invited to pitch their startups to our class, and we were expected to evaluate and write investment memos. I felt one company particularly fit my interests, so I cold-emailed one of the investors of that company!

What surprised you the most about business school? How open and accepting the Kellogg community is to people of different faiths and the number of Christian students and professors I would be surrounded by. I am a Christian and faith is very important to me. When I was applying to Kellogg, I was curious if religion and faith would be a topic of discussion – I was pleasantly surprised! The Christian Fellowship Club organizes weekly bible study sessions and other events which was an awesome opportunity to bond with my peers. People may have different opinions on religion, but everyone I have met at Kellogg is very open-minded and willing to learn about different types of faith and cultures.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? Being myself. I know this sounds cliché and people probably hear this all of the time, but this is really the best advice I can offer. The more you frame yourself into something you think the admissions committee wants to see, the more likely you will look similar to the other applicants. Creating a diverse student body is really important for Kellogg, so just be who you are.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Marilyn Caton. When the pandemic just hit Kellogg, everyone panicked. Marilyn immediately started an initiative called “DIY” to pull Kellogg students together. Many students volunteered to host self-care, social, and all kinds of events. A lot of Kellogg faculty members and alumni volunteered as well. To me, this quick response is a great example of “high impact, low ego” leaders that Kellogg strives to nurture.

How disruptive was it to shift to an online or hybrid environment after COVID hit? I personally did not feel any disruption. Instead, an online or hybrid environment has offered some unexpected advantages. For example, I am now able to collaborate and converse with more students during class. Before Covid-19, we would only discuss with neighbors; nowadays we are always put into different breakout rooms with randomly selected students. Moreover, I think a virtual environment prepares us as future global leaders who will lead people located in different places. 

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? Marie-Flore Nabor, who used to work at AstraZeneca and ironically whom I have never met in person. I contacted Marie-Flore for a phone call when I was still a scientist at AstraZeneca, because I noticed she also holds a Ph.D. in science and then became a leader for the commercial side of the business. She shared with me why she made the decision to switch to commercial, her journey to complete an MBA and her decision to join a commercial leadership program immediately after graduation. I realized this was also a fit for me based on my interest.

Neither of my parents went to college and I came to United States by myself, so I have always relied on mentors, colleagues, and friends for career advice. I am really grateful that I have met so many kind people such as Marie-Flore along my journey.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list?

  1. Working overseas. I grew up in China, but I have only worked in United States. To prepare me as the future global leader, I want to gain some international working experiences.
  2. A personal and professional goal – Attending a culinary school. I love food and I have a food blog DtheFoodie.com to share my home cooking and review restaurants. I am hoping to get some professional training so that I can cook more varieties of dishes for my family and friends!

What made Di such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2021?

“Di was a student in my Values-Based Leadership course and clearly stood out among the 110 students in the class. Her enthusiasm, desire to learn as much as possible, and ability to ask excellent probing questions was fantastic. She actively contributed to each class by sharing her broad healthcare experience in both pharma and biotech.

Di was accepted into the Kellogg full-time program with a merit-based scholarship and her Kellogg team won first prize in the 2020 Abbvie Innovation Challenge, competing against students from all of the top MBA programs.

Di is also very involved in community service. Prior to Kellogg, Di founded the first employee resource group “Network of Women” (NOW) at AstraZeneca’s largest biologics manufacturing site. At Kellogg, she Built a team of 65 students and coordinated activities to help a classmate suffering from brain damage. Team members took turns to visit the family on a regular basis, help her with coursework, offer rides, and translate between English and Chinese.

Her energy level is contagious, and she is a wonderful example of a Kellogg ‘values-based’ leader – low ego, and high impact.”

Harry Kraemer
Clinical Professor of Leadership



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