‘South Asian Trailblazers’: How A Wharton MBA Is Building A Media Company In Between Classes

Simi Shah, Wharton MBA ’25, interviews SEC Director Gubir Grewal for a live podcast event organized by her company, South Asian Trailblazers. Courtesy photo

You’d think starting an MBA at one of the most prestigious MBAs in the world would be enough to hold one’s attention. For the first week at least.

Not so much for Simi Shah. Within a week of arriving in Philadelphia to begin her Wharton MBA, Shah launched the agency arm of her growing media company, South Asian Trailblazers. Trailblazers hosts an influential podcast in which Shan interviews South Asian leaders from all corners of industry such as Priya Singh, chief strategy officer and associate dean of Stanford Medicine; US Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal; and Broadway star and actor Nikhil Saboo. The company also hosts popular live events and networking opportunities.

Launch day for Shah’s new agency also happened to be her 26th birthday and the day of her Wharton Convocation.

In between building her company and pursuing her Wharton MBA full-time, Simi Shah is a choreographer for Dance Studio. They just presented their showcase in March. Courtesy photo

“My dad – I’ll never forget it – said that there was something about just being in the Wharton MBA environment that already had my gears turning,” says Shah, MBA ‘25 at The Wharton School.

She hasn’t slowed down. Two weeks ago, she hosted a live podcast interview of Gubir S. Grewal, Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, in New York City. In February, she was invited to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchanges with the National Women’s Hall of Fame. And just recently she choreographed a showcase with Dance Studio with 35 dancers.

In between running her company, she is involved in Wharton Storytellers as well as the Wharton Hockey League. She is also a McNulty Leadership Fellow.

“It’s not an easy balance and often comes at a cost (to my sleep schedule), but I want to highlight that it CAN be done for all future MBA students. And there’s a lot of joy in it,” Shah tells Poets&Quants.

Poets&Quants was able to snag a few minutes of Shah’s very limited supply to talk about being an MBA founder, getting into Wharton, and building Trailblazers in between in all. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about where you grew up and your professional background.

I was born and raised in a suburb of Atlanta. My parents immigrated there from India about 40 years ago now.

We’ve been a very entrepreneurial family. My dad sort of stumbled his way into the hotel business, and so I always had a penchant for entrepreneurship, business, and finance, broadly speaking. I went on to college, decided to study economics with a minor in government because some part of me saw myself going into international affairs or politics.

I spent a lot of my summer internships primarily working in either microfinance or traditional finance. After graduation, went to work as a PE analyst for the Audax Group focused on consumer, industrials, and tech. I left that job after a little under a year because I just kind of knew that late stage private equity wasn’t for me. It was an amazing learning opportunity that has served me very, very well in the broader context of my career, but I just looked five years up the ladder and realized that I wasn’t going to be a late stage investor.

So I pivoted out of that role about a week before the pandemic hit, which obviously wasn’t planned. I was in conversations with a number of companies that actually went on pause, and I went back home to Atlanta, leaving my Boston apartment standing as it was. I just started doing a lot of cold outreach.

I sort of stumbled upon a media startup that was being incubated out of a venture studio in New York. I joined their team as an intern, and then was fortunate enough to be hired full time as their first official employee. That was truly an incredible experience, being on the ground floor of a startup and also being in a space that I’d always been excited about. I think even in straddling that world of economics, government, finance, and International affairs, I had an embedded passion for media, writing, and understanding the world beyond.

I then got recruited to join the team of Indra Nooyi’s, the former chairman and CEO of PepsiCo. I had connected with her team sort of through happenstance. On the side of all this, I had been working on my own podcast and platform called South Asian Trailblazers where I interviewed leading South Asians. By way of that, someone on her team reached out and said she was looking for a chief of staff to help spearhead her book launch for My Life in Full. It was one of those phone calls that you can’t say no to. I worked with her various PR, marketing, and publishing teams to help launch the book in the UK, US and India.

Why did you want to pursue an MBA?

Simi Shah on her first day at Wharton. Courtesy photo

I always knew I was gonna go. My dad did his undergraduate degree in India, as did my mom. He got his MBA at Georgia State as a night degree, and I think it was just so life changing for him. He came to this country and emigrated as a nuclear engineer. I think he thought that’s what he was going to do for the rest of his life until he realized that he didn’t like waking up and leaving work and not seeing the sun. I think it was so formative in teaching him how to think about the world of business that, from a very early age, it was just like a given that I would go. I recognize that to be a privilege.

The timing was a bit strange. My sister, who’s 10 years older than me, went straight out of school. She did her JD MBA right away, and so my parents were like, “When are you going?” But I think after doing three jobs in three years, which again wasn’t planned, I felt like I’d cultivated enough range of experience that it was now time to come to school, double down and figure out what my longer term career trajectory looked like.

Did you apply to other schools? Why Wharton?

I was lucky enough to be accepted to Columbia through their 2+2 program. I applied to an additional three or four other schools to see what might happen and think critically about what made the most sense for the gaps in my experiences and my goals. It was one of those decisions where if I was going to go, and if was going to spend the money, time, and resources, I wanted to go to one of the best. From undergrad, I spent a summer at Penn and genuinely enjoyed my experience.

Also, a lot of the work that I continue to do with Trailblazers is in New York City and the proximity from Wharton is so underrated in my opinion.

I also think of Wharton’s emphasis on leadership. I’d had the chance to meet Adam Grant through my work with Indra, and he was such a big proponent of the school and the experience I’d have here. He’s been so right.

Walk us through your application process. What did you do right?

One of the things that I came to appreciate after going through the process is the amount of reflection it requires. I think people view the reflection as a “have to do,” but I was so grateful for what all the applications brought out in the process. They really challenge you to think about who you are, why you’ve made the decisions that you have, and what it’s leading to next.

There is this unfortunate misconception that you need to concretely know what’s happening next. But I think being forced to vocalize and put on paper the driving force behind your decisions is a really important exercise. So many of us are just ushered through the conveyor belt of life. You go to high school, you take the SAT, you apply to college. For many of us who have the privilege, those are table stakes.

Business school is not a thing you have to do. I think many of us are like, “Oh, I might as well throw my hat in the ring.” That’s great, but there should be some compelling reason as to why. I think really taking a step back to understand myself and what has motivated me throughout my life was probably what helped me most in the application process. And certainly in the interviews.

Were there any missteps in the process?

For missteps, there is no formula, I think, in applying to these schools. There’s a lot of consultants and people that you can talk to. I found the most helpful resources often to be students who were at these schools. But again, they have a singular lens into what got them in. There’s no way your story is exactly the same as theirs.

I think just remembering that there is a really fine line between writing what you think they want to hear and writing what is true. I don’t think people understand how quickly people can see through you writing what they want to hear. Those are missteps I’ve made in past application cycles, and certainly something I tried to correct for this time around.

The final thing is that I wrote very different essays for all the schools I applied to. It was interesting to see where I got interviews and what resonated where. That part of it is not very different from undergrad in that there is no one size fits all. Business schools all have very different personalities. Wharton’s application was very concentrated on, “What do you want out of this experience? What can you give to this experience and to this community?” And I think that is really reflected in the leadership ethos here.

Simi Shah and classmates on a trip to Japan. Courtesy photo

Any other advice can you offer people considering an MBA? What resources did you find most helpful?

First, do your research. The best resource available to you is the school’s website: What do they emphasize? What’s their tagline? What are the things that they’re highlighting on the front page? Personally, because there was still a bit of COVID, I didn’t do campus visits. But I have a lot of friends that did and I do think it’s a useful and important exercise.

I read a lot of blogs on sites like Poets&Quants. There’s so many out there that will tell you that Wharton is a school that’s very global leadership focused. Each school has its own ethos. Keep those considerations in mind.

There are a lot of packets you can read that have former students’ essays. I think they’re very illustrative when some of the questions can be super broadband. I did speak to a number of consultants, particularly for the interviews, but I didn’t work with any through the whole process.

I used a platform that ran a mock team-based discussion interview for Wharton. It is very difficult to practice for a group interview, but I think it was such a useful exercise to have at least done it once. And they actually use the prompt from that year so you can go in and practice the exact things you’re going to say. I think just getting used to that environment was one of the most helpful things that I did. I also did a lot of mock interviews with friends.

Tell me more about South Asian Trailblazers.

I started Trailblazers in 2020 during the pandemic when I left my job in finance and was figuring out next steps. I started it primarily as a podcast to highlight the stories of leading South Asians across a swath of industries because I felt like everywhere I looked, there were South Asians leading and breaking barriers across so many different spaces. But we had no way of hearing their stories through the lens of identity and certainly not in any sort of aggregated forum.

The other piece of it was I had been very involved in the South Asian community my whole life growing up in the Atlanta area. My parents embedded my sister and I in it a lot through high school and college, and I was involved in leadership of student South Asian organizations. Then I was in this new professional chapter of my life, and I was like, “Okay, how do I retain this connection to my culture, but also do that in a way that feels applicable to the professional context I’m now in?”

Getting to talk to these prominent leaders about how they got to where they were just felt like such a natural segue and felt informative to my own career, even if they weren’t necessarily in the same industry.

Eventually, I sensed that there was a greater hunger to have this community go offline. So we started by hosting our first ever live podcast at the World Trade Center in New York City for the launch of Aparna Shewakramani’s book. She was one of the breakout stars of the Netflix hit show “Indian Matchmaking.” We had like 100 people show up and it was a total blockbuster event for her amazing book. It made me realize that I’m someone who gets a lot of energy from being around people. There’s something special about bringing your community to life and I realized, “Oh, these are the people that might actually be tuning into our podcasts week to week whose faces I never got to see.”

Simi Shah interviews Congresswoman Pramila Jayapl during a live podcast event in June 2023. Courtesy photo

From there, we started to build out our community engagement arm where we started hosting a lot of live events. We just did one in August with the CEO of Novartis in Boston. We did one with Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal in Washington DC last June. And we did one with Gurbir Grewal, the director of the SEC Division of Enforcement, in New York just a couple of weeks ago. We also do a lot of dinners and networking mixers to gather South Asian professionals in the various spheres where we have an influence.

Then the third piece that I launched, somewhat serendipitously, when I arrived in Philadelphia to start my time at Wharton was our agency. I realized there was an untapped need for people who want to connect with this amazing South Asian talent but don’t always know where to start. So we launched our agency where we now represent many of the trailblazers in our network for speaking engagements, brand partnerships, and other engagements.

That’s been really special because I think people think media companies need to look one type of way. But this is an integrated platform where we started with a podcast, we started doing events, and now we’re doing an agency. I don’t think people would necessarily think of those three elements together, but it’s been really special to build it.

How many employees does South Asian Trailblazers have?

We work with a team of interns, so I’m the only full time employee. We have a team of about four to five fellows that are working with us at any given time who range from college students to people that are working full time but just want to engage with the community on the side.

What are your aspirations for the company? Do you hope it to be your full time gig after Wharton?

That’s a great question. I think a big part of why I came to Wharton is to give myself the time and space to figure it out.

We live in a world that has always made us think we have to choose. But, everyone in my family is a multi-hyphenate. We are all genuinely incapable of only doing one thing. My sister is lawyer but she’s also a banker. My dad was a hotelier but also did community banking as well as nine thousand other things.

Where I really see my trajectory is somewhere at the intersection of media and business. I see that in continuing to build Trailblazers as a platform and agency. It doesn’t look the same way it did four years ago, and I expect it won’t look the same in another four years, but I absolutely plan to continue building. I think it’s necessary, and I think it’s powerful, and I think it’s been really special to see the impact and community we’ve been able to cultivate.

At the same time, my family has a real estate business based in the southeastern United States, and so I’ll continue to work on that as well. I started my career in finance for a reason; I still have a brain that gets really excited about that world. So, I see myself at the intersection of those two sorts of careers.

What are your goals for Year 2 at Wharton? What are you most excited about?

There’s a couple of things. Like I said, Adam Grant is someone that has had a momentous impact on my decision to come to Wharton. I am going to serve as an MBA mentor for one of his undergraduate classes, which I’m really excited about. I think it’s a really cool opportunity to pay my experiences forward to younger students. I certainly could have used some of that guidance when I was younger.

I’m also working with another professor, negotiations expert Professor Gus Cooney, on launching a negotiations class at a local Philadelphia area prison. It’s another important way we, as MBA students, can give back.

For me, one of the general themes in my life right now is to continue to leverage the skill sets and experiences I’ve had to actually pay them forward to my community. I feel like with Trailblazers, we do that in a lot of ways, but this is a little bit more concrete and specific to my work experience.


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