In this episode of Business Casual, our hosts explore the appointment of Rupal Gadhia as the new Managing Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard Business School. Despite her unconventional background—being a Harvard MBA alumni from the Class of 2004 with no prior admissions experience—her selection signals a unique approach by the institution.
The hosts speculate on potential changes she might introduce to the admissions process, emphasizing her role as a public-facing program ambassador and highlighting the alignment of her marketing and brand management background with the school’s vision.
Furthermore, the podcast showcases successful career transitions of MBA graduates and underscores how MBA programs attract diverse students, challenging the conventional MBA stereotype and emphasizing the value of this diversity in business education. Tune in for valuable insights.
[00:00:07.130] – John
Hi everyone. It’s John Byrne with Poets and Quants. Welcome to Business Casual, our weekly podcast with my co hosts Maria Wich-Vila and Caroline Diarte Edwards. Big news over at Harvard Business School this past week. They finally named a new managing director of MBA, admissions and Financial Aid. It’s something of a surprising pick in a way, because this individual has no recruiting or admissions experience whatsoever. But she is a Harvard MBA alum from the Class of 2004. Her name is Rupal Gadhia and she currently works, at least for the last eleven months, for Shark Ninja. I have a vacuum from Shark Ninja and maybe you have one too. Actually it works pretty well. I’m kind of happy with that one. She is actually in charge of global Marketing for their know their robots, meaning their vacuum. And so she was picked as the new managing director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid. She will start in October. In fact, she’ll start when Harvard actually sends out its interview invites for Round One candidates. So obviously she will not be involved in any way in the selection process for Round One candidates. But I’m wondering what Maria and Caroline think about what possible changes she could make and whether or not those changes could even be applicable for Round Two when she will in fact be involved.
[00:01:38.630] – John
Maria, what do you think?
[00:01:41.010] – Maria
Yeah, I think in terms of substantial changes, I would not expect anything know, any differences to say, the rubric or how they choose, whom to invite to interview and then from there whom to give an offer of admission to. I mean, first of all, it would be quite strange for there to be a difference between Round One and Round Two of the same year. So right off the bat, I don’t think HBS would want to provide a different lens or a different type of admissions process for people depending on which round they applied in. That doesn’t feel fair to me. I think that’s part of the reason, for example, why they’re not accepting the GMAT Focus Exam, right? They want to make things as level of a playing field as possible and given the timing of that exam so for that same reason, I don’t know that if she were to come in and want to suddenly, completely change the essay or completely change how they assess for leadership or what have you. I don’t think that that would happen between round one and round two. I think the HBS Admissions Office is full of lifers, basically.
[00:02:42.200] – Maria
There are a lot of people there who have been there for 10, 15, 20 years in some cases or more. And so what I like about that is that I do think it gives the Admissions Office an opportunity to bring in a fresh face as the Head of Admissions while also making sure that there is this institutional knowledge in place such that there won’t be a radical difference. All of a sudden, it’s not going to be like, oh, submit some finger paints and here’s a Rorschach test of ink blocks. What do you think? And that’s how we’re going to pick people. I don’t anticipate anything like that. And I do think that the HBS has honed its admissions process down to a pretty well oiled machine. So I would expect that in the immediate term her impact may be more outwardly facing. That is being a face of the brand, being someone who is trying to communicate to people who are applying and trying to convey. To them the value of the MBA in general and the HBS MBA in particular, and trying to be more of a public facing liaison. Know Chad, as well meaning as he was and as talented as he was, I do think that he maybe perhaps did not relish that role of essentially being an ambassador for the program.
[00:03:53.210] – Maria
Or if he did, he did not maybe show it as actively as he could have. So if I had to say, okay, what’s the one thing I think we’ll see from her in the first few months? I think it might be something more along those lines as opposed to a changing of how they assess candidates.
[00:04:08.630] – John
Yeah, and that makes a lot of sense, including it makes sense of her background. I mean, her entire career has largely been in marketing and brand management. And we know when Harvard Business School put a call out to its alumni and said they’re still looking for a managing director of MBA admissions, it was explicitly stated that they wanted someone with sort of marketing or branding expertise. So she certainly fits that bill. And it almost suggests that Harvard thinks that’s a real need right now, for whatever reason. Now, Caroline, you’ve held this job, you held it at INSEAD as someone coming new into it. I would imagine, as Caroline suggested, know, particularly if you don’t have admissions experience, what you want to do is just basically learn the job and go through a full cycle without making any changes whatsoever. Is that right?
[00:05:03.100] – Caroline
Yeah, I think so. I think she’s going to have a big learning curve because she doesn’t have the admissions background. But as you said, she’s got really interesting professional experience as well as a broad range of experience across a number of different organizations and employers. So I think that background will be very useful. It does look like, given her profile is quite different from the people that they’ve put in that role before. It does suggest that they’re looking for a fresh approach and as you know, they’ve put the emphasis in the hiring process on marketing sales experience. So I think Maria is absolutely spot on that they are looking for someone who is a more visible and vocal ambassador for the program and who will be more sort of public face for HBS in recruiting. You know, I imagine that there’s no sort of burning platform that she has to deal with. It’s a very well oiled machine HBS admissions. So I think she will have the luxury of a bit of time to get her feet under the table, get to know everyone, understand the background and understand the history and understand all the processes before she makes any radical decisions about things that she wants to do differently.
[00:06:18.710] – John
Yeah, and let’s face it, even Chad, who had been in that job for six years, he was a former bank consultant who had worked closely with the former dean at Harvard Business School in the dean’s office and was well liked by the dean and got the job largely because of it. Frankly, over the six years he was in the job, he made two changes that were of some significance. One, he eliminated the round three deadline. No big deal. I mean, I think Harvard got roughly 10% of his applications in Round Three. It did mean that peer schools to Harvard were missing out on late people who filed who were of high quality, some I would guess would be of higher quality than even some of their admits because Stanford and Wharton and other peer schools were getting a look at them when Harvard no longer was. And then the other big change he made was just simply putting a word limit on an essay that had been unlimited in the number of words you could apply. And then he did make Harvard admissions less transparent. His predecessor in the job was more forthcoming about data in her blog on admissions, trying to demystify an anxiety ridden process.
[00:07:37.960] – John
So it’ll be interesting to see if Rupal will bring back round Three, if she’ll change any of the essay requirements, and if she will be a bit more transparent and take the curtain away a little bit more. And I’m not talking about major decisions here. I’m talking about how many applications did you receive, how many people did you admit, what was your acceptance rate? I mean, basic stuff that Harvard in the end tends to provide much later to US news for its ranking, but holds close to the best under Chad, I think, know the school can be much more transparent. Now, the other thing that’s interesting to me is she is the first woman or person in admissions at Harvard of Indian descent. And why I mentioned that is because is now has had two consecutive deans of the school, both born in India. Rupal wasn’t born in India. She was actually born in Rochester, but her parents are Indian and basically went to Rochester as refugees from Africa. And I wonder if the fact that we’ve now seen two Indian born deans at Harvard Business School and now the first admissions director who is of Indian descent, will we see the school open up a bit more for Indian candidates?
[00:09:00.180] – John
We know that is the most overpopulated part of the applicant pool, not only at Harvard, but at all the elite MBA programs. And I’m wondering if you make a difference. You think that will make a difference? Because I do think that when Harvard had a Mormon in the job as dean, and I should mention that there were a bunch of senior faculty in leadership positions who were Mormons under that dean, there was an increase in the number of Mormons accepted to Harvard Business School in the MBA program. Maria, do you think this could have any impact on Indian applicants? The door might open a little bit wider for them.
[00:09:42.330] – Maria
I’m not sure that it would, because I still think that the criteria that are used to assess applicants probably going to be pretty similar. If I had to pick, if you said, okay, Maria, she is definitely going to impact things for one group of people. What is it going to be? Maybe the children of immigrants, like first gen, but that’s also currently a very heavily overrepresented group in the applicant pool. If I had to pick, I would actually say younger applicants, because she did enter HBS quite early in her career. I believe she only had one year of work experience upon entering, which is quite uncommon. And so if I had to pick any group that I think will benefit, it might be those earlier career applicants.
[00:10:25.110] – John
Yeah, I mean, the other interesting thing about her is she went not only did she only have one year of work experience, but she has an undergraduate degree from a school that is not considered highly selective, kettering University, which actually was originally set up by General Motors as a feeder to the General Motors Corporation and then split off from them. Which may mean that she could be more open to people who have undergraduate degrees from less elite places. Because once you look at the feeder colleges and universities and employers to Harvard Business School, you see a heavy emphasis on the Ivies, on the public IVs, on the near IVs. With very little emphasis on state universities and public universities. And that has always been somewhat surprising considering all the talk about how the school has a very open and holistic and admissions process. It’s really based on merit and nothing else. Do you think that that could be possible, Caroline? That she would be much more open to people without highly selective undergraduate degrees?
[00:11:41.870] – Caroline
Yeah, it’s an interesting point. And also it’s become much more difficult to get into those Ivy League universities over the past 10, 20 years. Right. So the admissions rates have dropped. The competition is kind of extreme, which means that you also have incredibly capable, talented young people who are not necessarily getting into the Ivy League anymore, who may have done so a generation earlier, and they are going to those other universities that you mentioned, the public universities and so on. So I think it would make a lot of sense for schools like Harvard to have a broader perspective on where they’re drawing talent from in that context.
[00:12:29.970] – John
Yep. In any case, new face, new voice for Harvard admissions. We’ll look forward to hearing from her and what her initial thoughts are in our story on Know, Harvard Business School released a PR kind of style interview, but it does provide some interesting details about her life and the different transitions she’s made as a Harvard MBA in the world of work, including details on her family. She has two kids and a husband, which is why she in fact moved to Boston in the first place from New York City. Seems a very likable person. I’m sure she’ll do a fine job at Harvard Business School. But the bottom line here is no worries to any of the current applicants. We don’t think anything at all will change in this cycle because she’s moving in with no admissions experience to speak of or recruiting experience. Sometimes business schools hire corporate types to lead admissions, but more often than not, they played a role in recruiting MBAs at their companies. This is not the case here. So she does have a learning curve. And I think the first year she’s going to probably just sit in, take advantage of all the experience her team has at the Harvard Business School, and move from there before she makes any kind of significant decisions on admissions.
[00:14:00.190] – John
So the other thing we wanted to turn to is every year we recognize MBAs to Watch. These are graduates in a given year who we think are exceptional for a number of different reasons. Could be the leadership roles they already had at their schools, could be their academic credentials that they graduated at the top of their class, could be just because they’re unusual and they added a lot to the MBA experience with their classmates. So our MBAs to Watch story really was a pretty big one. Had a lot of candidates in it, a lot of profiles, and I asked Maria and Caroline to pick out a few. And let’s just talk about some of the unusual graduates of the class of 2023. Maria, what were your favorites?
[00:14:51.290] – Maria
Well, I mean, it’s a long and very accomplished list. So, as a side note, if anyone right now is stressing over submitting their round one applications and they’re looking for a palate, cleanser, mentally sort of a way to distract themselves, it’s quite a rabbit hole. It was really hard for me to pick who I was going to talk about, but one of the first people that jumped out at me was Elizabeth Shia from Georgetown McDonough. And the first reason full disclosure the first reason I was drawn to her is because she is from Baltimore, Maryland, and I am also from Baltimore, Maryland. All right, let’s go. O’s, we love it there. Han so, first of all, I was like, oh, Baltimore cool. Let me click on her. But the reason I really wanted to highlight her is that her background? I love the fact that she was able to use McDonough to make a career switch. And actually, as I was thinking about all the folks that I chose to perhaps highlight today, one of the things that I liked a lot was a lot of them were able to use the MBA to really pivot their careers, even if they didn’t go necessarily to the fanciest schools.
[00:15:52.580] – Maria
I mean, whenever we are on this podcast and we are complaining and ripping apart the rankings and how they can be useful but they’re not the be all and end all, I think there is this perception that, oh, if you don’t go to a school that’s ranked top five, top ten, m seven, whatever, then you might as well not go. But nothing could be further from the truth. And one of the things that I found fascinating about her profile is that her undergraduate studies were in sort of the public health domain. And then after she graduated from college, she worked for what appears to be a logistics firm. But she was able to use the Georgetown MBA to pivot into real estate. And Georgetown is one of those schools that has a real gem of a real estate program, and a lot of folks out there don’t necessarily realize or value it for that. And so I just wanted to highlight her because I’m excited that she was able to just take those resources at McDonough, make the most of them. And now she has a job in the real estate industry in New York City.
[00:16:48.870] – Maria
So the other stereotype being that, well, if I go to a school like To, I will only be able to get jobs in DC. And jobs in other cities will not be available to me. But she is proof that it is indeed possible with some hustle, elbow grease and brains. And so I was very impressed in particular with her.
[00:17:06.630] – John
Yeah, I love stories like that because after know, in an ideal world, so many people go and pursue an MBA for the purposes of transforming their lives, and we immediately think, yes, transforming their professional life and making a big career switch. But frankly, there’s a personal transformation as well in how you can grow as a person and learn to work with others more effectively and learn to lead others as. And incidentally, she didn’t only go and work in real estate, she went to work for Tishman Spire, which is the real estate firm in New York City.
[00:17:45.980] – Maria
Yes, it’s a very impressive firm. And speaking of the personal transformation, she also noted that one of her favorite classes at Georgetown was one on meditation and leadership. So presumably the role that mindfulness can play in our job as leaders, and that’s something that is universally applicable regardless of which industry or position you follow afterwards.
[00:18:05.690] – John
Yeah, totally. You got to love that. And you got to love, incidentally, that there is such a course in an MBA school on meditation and leadership. You got to love it. It’s great.
[00:18:15.860] – Maria
I love it. I do love it.
[00:18:19.310] – John
Caroline, you have a favorite.
[00:18:21.730] – Caroline
Yeah. So one of the first ones that jumped out at me was Melissa Belleck. So she is at the Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson. She’s actually a scholarship holder at the school, or she’s just graduated. I guess she got a scholarship for her achievements during the program. So she’s from Montreal, which is a city that I have spent quite a bit of time in, I love very much. She’s a McGill graduate, great school, and she’s an entrepreneur at heart. So she talks about how she had a number of money making ventures when she was a teenager. She started a fitness company for women while she was in college. So not surprising that she was drawn to Babson, which is, of course, well known as being a great school for entrepreneurs. But when she graduated from McGill, she moved to Silicon Valley. So she was just down the road from Me in Redwood City, and I was really impressed that she moved there by herself without a job, not knowing anyone. So she literally just rocked up, I guess, with her suitcase, and she built a successful career here. So she joined a high growth software company.
[00:19:36.870] – Caroline
She started out really at the bottom of the ladder. She was sales rep, doing 100 cold calls a day for anyone who’s ever done cold calls. I mean, that is really a trial by fire. But she did very well. She rose up the ladder and more recently has been handling or was handling enterprise sales accounts. Babson. She was co president of the Tech Club, amongst other various other activities, and her post MBA plans, she’s moving back to Canada and she’s passionate about climate tech. So she wants to leverage the power of tech to mitigate climate change. And she would like to be an investor. And actually, Melissa, if you’re listening, you should ping me because my husband is a climate tech investor. So I’d be happy to connect you if that would be helpful. And anyway, the person at the school who wrote about her said that they really loved her contagious and positive energy, and I think that comes across in the profile. So I really, really liked Melissa.
[00:20:39.080] – John
That’s terrific. Also, I love her. Mean, obviously, I think this generation is far more interested in trying to land jobs that have some societal impact. Climate change and the environmental destruction that has occurred on the planet is way up there, if not number one, as the primary concern, other than probably the prevention of nuclear war of our society. And I see many MBAs wanting to enter this field in many business schools, loading up on courses, changing curricula, adding faculty, starting student clubs, and having conferences all around sustainability. So I think that’s also a positive thing. And you’re right. I mean, this is someone who’s worked really hard, and I think she’s a great bet for really having a great, successful career. Incidentally, we have 135 people that we’re recognizing in this feature from 77 schools all over the world. Maria, I know you picked out another one. Why don’t you go with yet another favorite of yours this year?
[00:22:00.170] – Caroline
[00:22:00.940] – Maria
So someone else. And it was hard to choose, but another person that did jump out at me was Michelle Weingartner from the Ohio State Fisher College of Business. So, Michelle, first of all, the fact that she chose to invest in herself by getting an Know, her pre MBA experience was she was working at a nursing college, I believe, in their admissions office. So really not at all a typical background. So sometimes when folks fret about, well, I come from a nontraditional background, will a business school take me? They will. They are interested. You can absolutely bring a lot to the table with that nontraditional background. I’m also very impressed that she has three children and they were young during the years that she was getting the MBA. And in her profile, she talked about having to get up sometimes at four in the morning in order to study in the morning, get her kids out the door to school, go to class, come back, pick them up. And so, Michelle, my hat is off to you, because I don’t think I would have been able to do done. I don’t think I could do three kids in general.
[00:23:02.480] – Maria
My hat is also off to Caroline, who has four children, but I could not do the MBA and three young kids at the same time. That’s incredible. And then in the quote, when they sort of asked the faculty or the staff member, why did you select her professors wrote about how she was a fierce advocate for helping other people in her cohort get jobs, how she gave 110% to all of her assignments and things like that. I think it would have been very easy for someone to say, look, man, I’ve got three kids, I’m doing an MBA, I’m going to show myself a little grace and maybe I will work hard, but I will not kill myself for this. But it seems like Michelle is someone who just gives 110% to everything she does, and post graduation, she’s going to be going to a sort of management rotation program at JPMorgan. So, I mean, what a fantastic outcome. Well deserved, Michelle. And say hi to those three boys for me.
[00:24:01.680] – John
Yeah. And that’s what I love about these stories, in a way. They kind of destroy the stereotype, right? I mean, the bro at a PE firm or something, who then goes and yeah, they go to Harvard and then they go to another private equity firm or something like that. And they make tons of you know, there are a lot of people out there from all walks of life getting MBAs. Not at the schools that are exclusionary and elitist. Just really good MBA programs, learning really important things and then using that experience and that degree to really transform their opportunities and the trajectory of their careers. Which is really, frankly, why I love this field. Caroline, you have another one?
[00:24:50.640] – Caroline
Yeah. So I have one. If I may, I would like to suggest someone for your next article, MBA to Watch. So this is someone that popped into my mind as I was reading through these profiles and I’ve just been in touch with a colleague about this fantastic young man. So he’s called Tyler Jackson and he’s just joined the Wharton MBA program. And he popped into my mind because they’d actually made a really nice little video about him so, you know, obviously they think that he’s a wonderful candidate and a great ambassador for the program. So he’s the grandson of Sharecroppers. He grew up assuming that basically economic deprivation was the norm. He spent his spare time after school collecting scrap metal and at weekends he would be visiting uncles in prison. So pretty difficult background that he came from a childhood, he studied hard. He was a Division One football athlete and got to the US Air Force Academy and realized when he was there that the background he came from was not the norm for everyone and realized how people like him were affected by essentially institutionalized and systemic economic neglect. And so that’s something that he has really made his mission to address.
[00:26:13.590] – Caroline
And I’ll mention in a moment his career goals. So he went into the Air Force, he rose rapidly up the ranks. More recently, he was the chief of staff to the commander of Buckley Space Force Base in Denver, Colorado. And he’s done a lot of other things as well. He’s the kind of person who is always looking for ways that he can help other people. And there are lots and lots of examples of how he’s done this. But one example that I really liked was that during his time in the Air Force, he launched an initiative to address the attrition rate of black cadets and he reduced that attrition rate by half. So I thought that was really impressive. He’s had many awards over the years for his athleticism, for his leadership skills as a public speaker and as a military officer. And while he was in the Air Force, he also pursued a part time master’s in Public Administration at the University of Texas and he got a 3.92 GPA. And he says that his mission at Wharton is to learn how to use financial markets, business acumen and social capital to uplift my community and to build global relationships with people on a similar mission, as well as to host the best NFL watch parties.
[00:27:35.430] – Caroline
And he’s really got a fun side. And I think him and his wife will be wonderful hosts of a lot of great parties. At Wharton. So he wants to go into consulting post MBA, and he’s actually already secured a summer internship at Bain for next summer. And then he wants to launch a search fund with a goal of scaling SMEs into a conglomerate of businesses. And at the same time, giving back will be a very important part of his mission. He plans to mentor and sponsor at risk youth. He wants to do SME consulting for businesses in underserved communities. So, as my colleague Judith Hadara, who knows Tyler quite well, as she described him, he’s a true first generation hero. So I wanted to give a big shout out to Tyler and suggest that you put him in one of your future articles.
[00:28:29.580] – John
I think he is a must. That’s a no brainer. That’s a great story. I love hearing it. And I hope all of you love hearing these stories, too, because I think it just gives you an idea of the fact that there is no one cookie cutter MBA student. And when you enter these programs, you’ll immediately discover that any ideas or expectations that you had about the old saw, about highly competitive, sharp elbowed, masters of the universe types, yeah, you might find a few of them there. But the truth is, the diversity, the richness of backgrounds is kind of remarkable. These are people you will want at your dinner table throughout your life. So to the new Harvard Business School Head of Admissions. Good luck. We’re wishing the best for you in this change in your career and for all of you other MBAs to watch who are now embarked on your career. Or in the case of Tyler, who has just started the Wharton program, good luck to all of you. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. You’ve been listening to our weekly podcast, Business Casual.