How I Did It: First-Generation Student Of Immigrant Parents Earns Booth MBA At 22

The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business

When did you start thinking that you wanted an MBA?

Within the first year and a half of me working, the pandemic happened. It took me back to Los Angeles from San Francisco, and I was still helping out with my parents with their business. They lost so much revenue in the first months of the pandemic, and it really put me into high gear, serving as, like, a Chief Digital Officer and digitizing the experience. We started doing UberEATS, DoorDash, and redid the website. I really thought about the customer journey and made it a 100% digital, contactless experience. It was a lot of work, a lot of stress, but it put a lot of things into perspective. It really helped me rethink what I wanted for my career in terms of leadership and entrepreneurship. 

I started thinking about an MBA in March of 2020. At the same time, I found myself navigating a lot of situations at work that I felt a bit ill prepared for because, in my family, I was one of the first people to work a corporate job and have a white collar career. There’s a lot of, I would say, both hard and soft skills that I was lacking, and it prevented me from really taking full control of my career and charting it in the way that I wanted to chart it. 

Talha Siddiqui

That really caused me to start exploring MBA programs, because I felt that I didn’t have the foundation or social capital. My undergrad degree was in political economy, so very liberal arts, social science heavy. I had some coursework in business, but I didn’t know what a balance sheet was, and yet there I was working at a bank. 

I think that really caused me to seriously consider MBA programs, both in terms of wanting to learn more about leadership and entrepreneurship, but also to learn how to navigate situations in the corporate world. I’m navigating situations of power, influence, and career advancement while coming from a first-generation immigrant background and being a first-generation college student. I thought that an MBA program would be like a great equalizer. 

And how did you tackle the application process? Walk me through it.

I took the GMAT, and I would say standardized testing is a strong skill set for me, so I felt pretty confident about that. I wouldn’t say the GMAT was easy, but it was the easiest step for me. 

How long did you prepare for it, and what did you end up scoring? 

I studied for two months, and I got a 700. For part time MBAs, I would say, it was on the higher end. I know in terms of full-time MBAs, that’s a bit lower. But I was able to, I think, strike a good balance between the amount of effort I put in and the score I got.

Were you only looking at part-time programs, or were you considering full-time as well?

I was only looking at part-time programs, and that’s why I only studied for the GMAT for two months. For one, I wanted to continue getting work experience. I understand work experience is very valuable for MBA programs and being able to contribute to the classroom. So, I felt like if I took two years off from work, I wouldn’t be able to provide as valuable as insights. But secondly, I would say, in terms of continuing my career, taking time away would hurt me. Financially speaking, taking time off and then having to take student loans was something that I personally did not want to do. I wanted to stay in product management, so I didn’t really need to rely on campus recruiting, which I would say is the biggest benefit of full-time programs. Full-time programs provide great access to investment banking and consulting recruiting opportunities, but frankly I wasn’t interested in those. I knew that if I wanted to join product management, a part-time program still offered a variety of benefits.

What schools were you targeting in your search?

I was primarily looking at M7 schools, but not a lot of them have part-time MBA programs and not a lot of them have early career part-time MBA programs. Those are niche. Even at Kellogg, you need two years of experience in their early career MBA program. They were pretty strict about that, and I applied for Kellogg but did not get in.

Whereas Booth was a bit more flexible. They were willing to accommodate less than two years experience or just at the two year mark. To strengthen my application, I took classes at Booth before I officially became a student in the Graduate Student At Large program. That’s a special program that the University of Chicago offers where you can take graduate level courses without officially being admitted to the school. You’re applying for grad school, take a couple classes to see if you do well in them, and obviously you invest the money because the classes are pretty pricey even without knowing you will get in. But you get the classroom exposure. Additionally, the program advisor does an excellent job of coaching applicants into succeeding in the application process. 

So, I took the Graduate Student At Large courses in the autumn of 2020. I took one class in financial accounting, I liked it, and I got a letter of recommendation from the professor. I also got support from the program advisor at the grad school at the University of Chicago and I was able to get in. 

What do you think put you over the edge, in terms of getting that acceptance from Chicago Booth?

For part-time MBAs, I think my GMAT score was decent. My undergraduate GPA of 3.7, I think, was also at the higher end as well. So I think my academic credentials were fairly strong, and that graduate class helped strengthen my academic profile. I would say, in that way, I was a strong candidate. Furthermore, I would say my professional experiences showed a pattern of growth, of increasing responsibility, and entrepreneurship through my support in my parents’ business. I think all those experiences helped me show myself as someone who really takes my career seriously and who has valuable experience.

Did you get any outside help in the process?

I did it on my own with some support from friends. I had a couple of friends from undergrad, one of them who is actually at Booth with me, so we applied together. The grad school advisor at the University of Chicago was, again, providing me a lot of help on what to write in my essay, how to write it, what the admissions team is looking for, etc. And then I think reading Poets&Quants, reading blogs, and finding free information was very helpful as well.

Having gone through the process, what advice do you give other people starting their MBA journey?

First, I think, is understanding your own story and what sets you apart. That is so important, because if you don’t have that unique perspective or the ability to define how you’ll enrich the classroom experience, then maybe you don’t know exactly why you’re going to business school to begin with. You also won’t be able to make the case to admissions staff. That’s very important, too. 

You also have to be flexible, and not just for the admissions process, but in your career as well. It’s not just about following the path that everyone thinks is the correct path, or that’s the most prestigious path, or the path other people have followed. Sometimes you have to take a risk and take a path that you believe is best suited to your circumstances and what you’re looking for in life. I got advice from some people who told me not to do a part-time program,  to wait two or three more years and try for places like Harvard, Wharton, and Stanford. That would not have worked for what I’m interested in or for my life circumstances. I would advise against forcing yourself into something that everyone else is doing just because it’s the prestigious path or it’s the path that’s well trodden. I think that’s very important throughout the application process: Really knowing why you’re doing something and how it fits into your life circumstances. 

And finally, if you get a “no,” being flexible, reflective and strategizing how you want to move beyond that. Because, I’ll be honest, I did not get into Kellogg and that was hurtful. It was demotivating. But I think it was that experience that helped me redefine exactly what I was looking for in the business school experience, and taking an experimental approach. By taking that financial accounting class before I got in, helped me get to where I’m at right now.

What was a piece of advice you learned from Poets&Quants, or reading the blogs and other research, that helped you the most?

I liked the profiles on Poets&Quants that lists the candidates and all the things that they’ve done. I think that helps you think about what sets you apart. From your website, I think I learned what’s most important is knowing your story. When you see other people talk about their accomplishments and get feedback, it helps you better understand your own career path. I think Poets&Quants is a great resource as a means of identifying and narrowing down your story and your pitch to business schools.

So, you’re graduating from Chicago Booth with an MBA at age 22. What was the experience like?

It was great. Booth has a very flexible curriculum so you’re able to take classes that are very specific to what you’re looking to get. And obviously Booth is known for its rigor, it’s known for being quantitative–I’ve taken like two or three stats classes, I’ve taken econ so I got that traditional quantitative experience. But I think the most meaningful thing was our social science professors. I’m taking a couple of classes this quarter that honestly have revolutionized the way I look at the workforce. I’m taking Power and Influence in Organizations, and Managing Organizations and Negotiations, and those classes have helped me understand:  What is my power base at work? How do I navigate conversations? How do I manage others? How do I manage myself? Those classes have been super impactful. 

Also, the hard skills classes you take in technology, strategy, financial accounting, and things like that give you a foundation of how to navigate the corporate world and entrepreneurship. For someone who did not have a lot of people around him from the corporate world or who knew how to navigate corporate conversations, these classes have helped me so much.

I work at Starbucks right now, and I’m able to look at the C suite and identify the top issues that they’re solving because of the classes I took at Booth. Then, within the context of my individual role and responsibilities, I’m able to use things I learned in power to influence and other soft skills to motivate people, to motivate myself, to identify ways to execute on the things that I want to execute on. So it’s really a mix of all those things. 

Were you able to land the job at Starbucks through your Booth connections?

It wasn’t through the Booth network, but I did use Booth’s career counseling services through the Career Center. They provided a lot of help throughout the job application process. Once I realized that I wanted to try a different company, the center helped with everything from sourcing job applications, to conducting networking, to resume formatting, to interviewing, to offer negotiation. All those things were made possible by the Booth Career Center. Being a first-generation professional, these things were priceless.

What were your MBA concentrations?

Strategic management and entrepreneurship. 

What is your role at Starbucks?

I’m the product manager for our payments platform, so I oversee the customer journey for paying for Starbucks. That’s everything from gift cards, to the app experience for paying, to the in-store experience, to strategic partnerships. I’m really helping move the needle on Starbucks payments being more customer centric and helping engage new Starbucks customers. Really, it just comes down to bridging business needs with technical constraints, and helping customers have a completely frictionless layer in paying for Starbucks.

So, as a young kid, running your parents’ social accounts for their small restaurant, could you imagine yourself with a corporate job in one of the most recognizable companies on the planet? 

Not really. To be completely honest, I wanted to be a lawyer up until undergrad, because I always think of myself as an advocate. I took the LSAT, and it was really something I wanted to do. But when I got into product management, it was just something I wanted to experiment with right after undergrad. I realized I’m still an advocate, I’m an advocate for the customer. My interest in building relationships, my interest in interpersonal communication, my interest in execution really was well suited to a career in product management. 

What’s next for you?

I’ve been at Starbucks for about six months, and I am really happy here. I have an incredibly supportive manager, and I see myself growing here. Outside of that, I’m hoping to continue with entrepreneurship once my business school career wraps up. I hope to start expanding upon my parents business and helping them take it to another level by obviously being digital and having a seamless customer experience.


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.