As The World Sterns: Parting Reflections & Lessons Learned

While the program is ending, I’m very lucky to continue to become
co-workers with some of my favorite classmates.

When your time at NYU Stern is coming to a close, you do a lot of reflecting. And one question that comes up, more often than you’d think, is this…

What did you learn?

Most students come into MBA programs with preconceptions about what they will find. Most arrive with some intention to change or advance their careers. Some want to expand their network through the numerous social opportunities. Some, like myself, are hoping to learn more about the world economy and how businesses operate.

No matter why we came, we all walked away with a multitude of lessons learned.

When I arrived at Stern, I was expecting a world of new experiences. I had never worked in an office or heard the acronym “EBITDA” (“Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization” for those who are also unaware!). Like most, I was utterly baffled by the idea of microeconomics. However, one of the first lessons I learned was perhaps the most valuable: You’re bringing more to the table than you realize. The most important thing is figuring out what you already know, and being able to use that to your advantage.

My farewell to Violet, after a cumulative 5 years of being a student
at NYU!


As I mentioned in my first article about MBA recruiting, I came from a background that varied from years of acting to running a small vintage ecommerce business from home. When I started classes, I thought everyone would quickly realize I had no idea what I was talking about. While my resume differed from my classmates in many ways, I realized the skills that I had were applicable to any environment, and I knew more about business than I thought I did.

During our first week, I was sitting on a bus next to one of my new classmates. He mentioned that he was interested in starting an ecommerce business selling apparel. To my surprise and delight, I discovered that I had relevant knowledge to share. Over the course of the 30-minute bus ride, I talked him through the pros and cons of print-on-demand services versus holding inventory of custom apparel. He has since gone on to develop his startup. It has been so cool to have even been part of one conversation that led to someone’s entrepreneurial debut.

It was not just my knowledge set that was useful in my time at Stern; I was constantly surprised at how much the skills I had developed throughout my career aided me in every group project. Many of my classes involved group presentations. This usually involved a PowerPoint. In fact, business school was the first time in my career I’ve had to use any of the Microsoft Office applications. As an MBA student, I found myself utilizing skills that I developed while a teacher at an outdoor science school and a black bear tour guide in Alaska: the ability to learn a lot of information at once, make sense of it, and present it back to someone in a clear and concise way.

Additionally, the combined experiences of having been onstage from age 8 to 21, plus my jobs that included leading activities and large crowds, provided me with years of experience in giving presentations. Eventually, I was able to share some of the exercises that made public speaking feel natural. In my second year, I even led a small improv workshop to my peers, walking them through some of the ways that improv is applicable to a business environment.

Through these combined experiences, I gained my first big lesson at Stern: we all bring value to every environment – we just need to figure out what that value is.

A final goodbye to the Grad Lounge – where I spent countless hours
working on group projects and chatting with friends.


During consulting recruiting, we did interviews called “cases,” in which we approached business problems through different frameworks, brainstorming, and recommendations. It’s much more complex than this simplified description, but I share all this to say this: I learned a lot from casing.

By doing cases with the MCA (Management Consulting Association), a student-run club at Stern, I practiced analyzing different industries, the types of problems that businesses face, and ways to approach those problems (aka, frameworks). A “framework” is essentially just a way to organize your approach to a problem. For example, one of the first basic frameworks we learned was the 3C’s – company, customer, and competition.

For example, a case might ask whether a company that produces canned sodas should offer a new flavor of soda. In order to evaluate whether that was a good strategic decision, we could approach it through the lens of the 3C’s. This would lead us to asking questions that consider the perspective of the company, the customer, and the competition. A question under the category of “company” might be: What do our recent sales look like for new flavors? A “customer” question might be: Have customers expressed interest in and demand for this new flavor? And for “competition”, we might ask: Is our competition offering this flavor, and if so, what has been the response?

Before I learned how to case, I would approach problems in an unstructured way. Meaning, if you asked me a question like, “What are some ways that we could market this product better?”, I would just start listing random, unrelated ideas. Through practicing with my peers, I developed the ability to approach these questions with a framework. For example, for a case about marketing, we could look at it through the 4Ps – product, price, place, and promotion. By providing myself with categories of how to approach a problem, it became easier to come up with ideas, and easier for everyone to follow my train of thought.

One more concept that we discussed when creating a framework is the idea of “MECE,” or “Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive”. This means that whichever categories we choose should cover all of the relevant perspectives without overlapping. This was one of the hardest concepts to master, and as one of our professors reminded us, it is basically impossible to cover every single relevant piece of information. However, when using these in a professional environment, keeping “MECE” in mind can help prevent two team members doing duplicate research, or missing key factors when considering a strategic decision.

And so, I learned my second big lesson at Stern: by using a structured approach, it becomes easier to evaluate a business’s strategic decisions.

I have been incredibly fortunate through my time at Stern to make
such unforgettable and incredible friends.


Pre-Stern, I did not like the term “networking.” In my past experience of trying to make it as an actress, networking meant something different. Generally, it felt like trying to impress others or use them for your own gain. When I lived in Los Angeles right after graduating from acting school, the first question I would get when meeting someone new was: “So what do I know you from?”

Naturally, when I arrived at Stern, I was hesitant when I heard how important networking is to get a job. I felt uncomfortable approaching someone and asking them for their time, even though I knew I had to do it and that they were actively expecting it. Still, when I started the consulting recruiting process, I initially found it difficult to reach out and ask for coffee chats.

However, I quickly realized that networking in the MBA environment was very different than what I was expecting. I had thought coffee chats would be formal, almost like a pre-interview for the internships I was applying for. And while I’m sure they played a role in our recruiting process, I was constantly surprised by how friendly everyone I met was and how open they were to chatting. Despite my instinct to be intimidated by every professional consultant I met, they were determined to make me feel comfortable.

Of course, it was important to show up prepared – I was always ready to share my story, and I always researched companies beforehand to have relevant questions. Ultimately, it turned out that the coffee chats and corporate events were what they claimed to be: an opportunity to build relationships and learn more about the firms.

A big part of this, I’m sure, was that the majority of people I connected with during recruiting were Stern alumni. Stern truly does focus on EQ, or Emotional Intelligence, when recruiting its MBA students, which showed through every interaction I had with students and alumni.

When I asked at every firm if they had any Stern alumni who came from a non-traditional background, there was always an effort to find someone who I could talk to and ask questions. And while networking at several consulting firms, I was surprised that almost every coffee chat with a Stern alumnus ended with me being referred to yet another Sternie to talk to.

Perhaps most rewarding was that once my recruitment journey was complete, I could help connect others through the network I had developed – something I have already been able to do, and know I will continue in the future.

This is all how I learned my third big lesson: businesses are run by people, and the relationships you can build through your alumni network are priceless.

NYU Stern Interior


When I arrived at NYU Stern for my MBA program, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was worried that I would never fit in, and that everyone else would know so much more than me that I would never catch up.

What I found was that the business world, and the people in it, are not as intimidating as I had always worried. Through recruiting and group projects, I was able to discover that we each have our own unique strengths and skills that bring value. Through my classes with Stern’s faculty, I was able to find that even the most complex business problems could be broken down to be understandable and approachable. And through interacting non-stop with MBA students and alumni, I discovered that business people are really just people, and that networking is all about building relationships.

It has been a wonderful two years, and I cannot wait to continue to learn throughout my career. And I hope that hearing just a little bit about my experience has helped you on your journey to discover whether an MBA is for you, and whether Stern is the right fit. For me, I can unequivocally say: going to Stern was one of the best decisions of my life, and my life will never be the same because of it.

Penny is a current second-year student in NYU Stern’s Full-Time MBA program. After graduating with a BFA in Acting from NYU Tisch in 2015, Penny spent the next five years exploring a number of adventurous hospitality roles. In the summer of 2020, she started looking into MBA programs and discovered it was difficult to find information specifically geared towards non-traditional candidates. She hopes to pay forward everything she has learned about applying to MBA programs, the student experience at Stern, and entering the business world through a non-traditional lens.



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