2021 Best & Brightest MBAs: Katie Cech, University of Virginia (Darden)

Katie Cech

University of Virginia, Darden School of Business

Psychologist turned analyst, using data to build better human experiences and a better world.”

Hometown: West Hartford, Connecticut, USA

Fun fact about yourself: I have a fascination with architectural floorplans – I spend my free time looking through hundreds of them!

Undergraduate School and Degree: Colgate University, BA in Psychology and Women’s Studies

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Wayfair, People Analytics Manager

Where did you intern during the summer of 2020? EverQuote – Cambridge, MA, USA

Where will you be working after graduation? Senior Manager at EverQuote

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: President of the Darden Marketing Club, tutor for Marketing and Decision Analysis classes, recipient of the Faculty Award and Class of ‘62 Reynolds C. Siersema Memorial Scholarship

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Honestly, I am most proud of getting into Darden in the first place. While I came from a good undergraduate college, I did not have the strongest GPA – I took classes that challenged me but that resulted in grades that reflected that challenge. And I did not have stellar GMAT; in fact, I wasn’t even close to 700. And while I had done some cool things in my 4 years of work experience, I still felt very junior and very green. Overall, I was not super confident about my chances. But I knew my curiosity could really ignite at Darden, so I put my heart and soul into my application. I did tons of research, talked to countless alumni and students to get their perspectives, and even visited Charlottesville three times – I think the admission team might have started to worry about me! Ultimately, I was blessedly and very thankfully admitted to the Class of 2021, an honor I’ve worked very hard to earn each and every day I am here. And the rest has been icing on the cake!

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? While at Wayfair, I helped design a forecasting model that showed the leadership team how the company’s headcount would grow over the foreseeable future. Prior to my work, there was not a reliable way to know how fast we would grow, which caused problems like not knowing how much office space we’d need or if our benefits programs would be robust enough. By piecing together some basic inputs – current headcount, retention rates, recruiting capacity – with research into key moderating factors for growth, I was able to build a model that accurately projected future headcount within 5%. While the impacts of the work were important for Wayfair to grow sustainably into the future, I was most proud of my ability to start with some raw data and a good bit of intuition and turn that into a realistic and effective model that correctly captured the state of the world.

Why did you choose this business school? For me, it was all about Darden’s commitment to the case method. Coming from a liberal arts undergraduate program, I have a deep appreciation for learning how to think vs. learning material. The case study allows you to get into the weeds of real-world examples and uncover relevant concepts and strategies naturally, rather than being force fed them from a textbook. By seeing the scenarios unfold and grappling with how I would respond in a similar situation, it made the learnings feel like lived experiences, even though I have yet to experience even a fraction of the things we discuss in class! This embodied way of learning felt much more intuitive and long-lasting.

What surprised you the most about business school? Candidly, how much work you have first-year. I was certainly not fully prepared for the mountain of responsibilities you have – between academics, recruiting, career exploration, social engagement. At times, balancing it all truly felt like a juggling act that was seconds away from total catastrophe. I am extremely grateful to have an incredibly supportive partner who cheered me on the whole way, even though he did not see me much during those first few months! And ultimately, I came out the other side better for it, as the pressure of first-year helped me identify my priorities – both professionally and personally – and I learned to make tough tradeoffs in order to focus on the things that mattered most to me.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? Being very selective about the school to which I applied. I did my homework early and set my sights on only three schools that would be game changing for me. By narrowing my search and focus my research, I was able to really tell my “Why Darden” story because I knew the program very deeply. Through my essays and interviews, I was able to demonstrate how committed I was about Darden specifically, and get beyond the general excitement about business school in general. I believe that passion set me apart in a sea of incredibly talented and accomplished applicants.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? This is such a hard question because as cheesy as it sounds, I can’t think of a classmate who’s not inspiring or incredible in some unique way. If I’m thinking about someone I aspire to be more like, I’d choose Nikita Sachan for her unending well of empathy. With a background in psychology, Nikita brings a kindness and openness to every discussion. She asks the most brilliant questions and actively listens without judgement. Her ability to make everyone in a conversation feel heard and understood makes her an invaluable friend and classmate.

How disruptive was it to shift to an online or hybrid environment after COVID hit? The disruptions have come in waves. To Darden’s credit, the administration moved mountains in the initial days to make sure the pivot to an entirely remote learning environment was a smooth and painless as possible – to this day, I am still in awe of what they were able to accomplish in less than 10 days. Then as we settled into “virtual school”, we dealt with new challenges like how to remain focused when your email is just a click away and what to do when you’ve been staring at your computer from the same spot on your couch for 10+ hours. Over the summer and heading into the fall, the whole Darden community did its best to embrace the new normal, finding the silver linings in hybrid classroom set ups and cherishing social opportunities when they arose. It would be foolhardy to say it wasn’t – and still is – an incredibly challenging year that none of us expected to navigate when we originally showed up on Grounds in August 2019. But I have to believe that through the challenges and disruptions, we’ve become more resilient and perhaps even more grateful than we were to start.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? I actually did not pursue business in college – I studied psychology, thinking I would become a psychologist or social worker. But with some doubts as to whether I could withstand the emotional toll either of those professions require, I landed in a rotational leadership development program, the classic exit ramp for college grads who don’t know what they want to be when they grow up yet. That was where I met Mary Smith, my first manager out of college, and she planted the seed of pursuing business long term. From some of our very first interactions, I remember Mary touting the importance of understanding all the dimensions of a business in order to fully appreciate any one of them individually. She was a champion of holistic thinking and taking both a wide and long term view of any decision to consider the impacts across the business. After one of our talks, I vividly remember looking at a sample curriculum from Harvard Business School only a few weeks into my job and thinking “I want to get an MBA someday”.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list? First, I want to build a product from scratch – start with a consumer insight, develop and test the product along the way, and ultimately launch it to the market. Second, I want to build products across a number of industries in order to see how consumers’ relationship with products change as the nature of the product changes. For example, how does a consumer’s relationship with their car differ from their sentiments towards their breakfast cereal, and how can a deep understanding of the role the product plays in the consumers’ lives (relative to other products) help us to continue to enhance and improve consumer experiences?

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

“I have had the pleasure of getting to know Katie in three capacities. First, Katie was elected President of the Marketing Club and I am the faculty advisor so I have watched her embrace her leadership role with unusual compassion and success. Second, I had Katie in my marketing elective and have observed her insightful thinking and discussion-based impact. Third, I worked with Katie as she went through the interviewing process for different marketing jobs, and had a first-hand opportunity to observe how she learns and grows.

Across these three different experiences, I have found that Katie is a singular and special leader. She is a ­deeper thinker, one who uniformly contemplates issues from multiple sides of an issue and who approaches discussions from an unexpected, and often more enlightened, perspective. This makes her a different thinker – and diversity of thought is a hallmark we aspire to see in excellent students.

When she speaks, others listen. In my elective, the students had to develop a new-to-the-world product for Tabasco. After several days of discussion, the Chief Sales and Marketing Officer of Tabasco and I were reflecting on student comments. We both singled out Katie for her depth of insight and ability to see what others didn’t. On top of it, she had a unique ability to contribute in a way that pulls others in—that influences their thinking and actions.

I witnessed this same leadership trait as she led an effort to create a combined conference that included marketing and other clubs. This was an effort that had been in the works for years and Katie provided the leadership to make it happen. It is one thing to think through issues and have a vision of what is right and another to get others on board. Katie is able to both with unique capability. I believe that her ability to think through all sides of an issue with an open mind enables her to not only form better and deeper thoughts on challenges and opportunities, but it also enables her to engage others in ways that drives acceptance.

Lastly, I want to highlight something that in all of my years working with students during their career searches, exemplifies Katie’s uniqueness. I often get asked by students, aspiring to achieve C-level marketing roles, to provide counsel. I have had a lot of advisory discussions with students, but few with the coachability and integrative thinking of Katie. In the first discussion we had, I provided some thoughts on how she could improve her interview. She took the advice, built on it, and in the second discussion, had surpassed my expectations of growth. This pattern persisted across a number of discussions. As a former executive, Katie is among the best I’ve ever seen on this dimension. Again, I bring it back to her thinking, deeply rooted in curiosity and a “growth mindset”. She visibly wants to understand and to grow. This fuels her passion for thinking harder and more deeply about problems—to look around corners that others ignore. In the job-seeking process, I have rarely seen somebody work so hard, to take every morsel of insight from a diverse set of views and turn it into remarkable progress. I seek to find “superpowers” in students and Katie’s is both her depth of thinking and her supreme coachability – both of which enable her to learn and succeed.”

— Darden Professor Kimberly Whitler


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