Meet the MBA Class of 2023: Cindy Gao, Northwestern University (Kellogg)

“I’m an equity-driven urban tech by day and hobbies by night.”

hometown: Shanghai, China

Fun fact about yourself: I became a quarantine thirsty plant mom and name all my plants based on their places of origin.

Undergraduate school and major: Georgetown University, Walsh School of Foreign Service, International Economics

Latest Job Title and Employer: Senior Assistant, Go-To-Market Strategy & Operations at LinkedIn

Apart from your classmates and location, What was the major part of Northwestern Kellogg’s MBA programming that led you to choose this business school and why was it so important to you? For me, attending business school is about learning from others and investing in relationships. I chose Kellogg because of the school’s community-oriented culture that would help me achieve this goal. Kellogg is known to be very helpful and was evident the moment I started getting involved with the community. Each informational interview led to introductions to others who shared my background or interests. Professors proactively prepare lunches and coffee with students. The care each person takes to invest in those around them truly makes Kellogg a special place.

What course, club, or activity excites you the most at Northwestern Kellogg? I am very excited to be one of the first year chairs of the Student Experience Committee (SEC) for the MMM program. The SEC at Kellogg is part of the Kellogg Student Association. We organize professional and social programming for students, collect feedback, and advocate for changes that will benefit current and future students.

Being part of the SEC has been an opportunity for me to advocate for the needs of our community and advance our values ​​especially in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion. For example, we have organized large and small group events so that extroverted and extroverted classmates alike are excited to participate. We also partner with classmates who have experience leading education and human development workshops to facilitate opportunities for the Kellogg community. Finally, we want to put DE&I at the forefront of our efforts to network with potential applicants so that we can continue to attract diverse candidates. It has been amazing to be able to take advantage of the student-led culture at Kellogg and work with classmates who want to leave the program a little better than we found it.

What is the best word to describe the Kellogg MBA students and graduates you have met so far and why? kidding. I like that my fellow Kelloggs don’t take themselves too seriously. Many class traditions require creative fashion—in my first month here, I actually wore an animal suit in a restaurant and wore a space cowboy theme on a Chicago wagon. Even the professors take part in birthday celebrations and pranks. Getting to know each other during these silly moments helped me form stronger, more realistic relationships with my classmates. Besides, it’s so much fun!

What makes Chicago a great place to get an MBA? Pursuing an MBA near Chicago means that you have all the resources at your disposal to work hard and play hard.

Professionally, many highly sought-after companies in finance, consulting, and technology have head offices in Chicago. The entrepreneurial community is growing rapidly as well. Through these career opportunities, you’ll find a large group of Kellogg alumni within Chicago who are willing to help you get your foot in the door. You can also do quarterly internships during your time at Kellogg, and being so close to Chicago makes it very easy to land a coveted role.

Socially speaking, there are a myriad of things MBA students can do with their classmates in Chicago, from visiting museums and parks to exploring the city’s cosmopolitan food scene. One of my favorite Kellogg memories so far is attending the Lollapalooza Music Festival with my classmates—something we can only do because of our proximity to Chicago. With the University of Chicago and Loyola University nearby, there is a vibrant student community outside of Kellogg as well.

Kellogg is known for its team culture. What quality do you offer as a teammate and why is it so important to success? I am a firm believer that teams are most successful when they highlight each individual’s strengths. As a teammate, I always strive to understand the strengths and areas of interest of others when working with them. Usually when I start working with a new team, I will purposely make time to get to know everyone and their backgrounds and interests in the project. This allows us to better understand where and how each person can contribute to deliver the best work while staying motivated throughout the process. For me, being a good teammate means identifying and empowering others on my team to contribute their strength to the group.

Describe your biggest career achievement to date: At LinkedIn, I’ve had the opportunity to do some very exciting initiatives to launch new product features and sales teams. The example I am most proud of is the creation of a new sales team for our advertising business, Small and Medium Business (SMB) customer service. For this project, I designed a new set of sales movements, collaborated across functions to enable required tools and systems, interviewed candidates, and helped train new hires. Despite being in a large company, this project was fast-paced and practical. I walked away from it after learning a lot about how sales teams work and excited to know that we built something new to serve our SMB customers.

How has COVID-19 changed your view of your career and life in general? Like so many others, COVID-19 has really forced me to think about what matters to me and how I live these values. At the time, I was living in San Francisco working on LinkedIn during the day and studying a professional development class at San Jose State University at night. When the pandemic hit and everyone moved to work from home, LinkedIn introduced a myriad of policies to support that transition such as home office salaries, flexible working hours, and a leave policy for caregivers. In that moment, empathetic leadership really stood out as a value I wanted to complement throughout my career.

While we have all had to adapt to the new normal under the pandemic, the impact on some communities has been more severe than on others. For the first generation of college students I studied at San Jose State University, the early pandemic was devastating to their job search. Many companies have frozen staff, delayed start dates, and canceled shows. Coming from low-income backgrounds and without reliable professional networks, the disadvantages of these students are becoming more apparent. Watching this little piece of how the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequality in society assured me that I wanted to create products and services that promote equality.

On a personal level, the pandemic has also helped me realize what motivates and motivates me. With more free time on my hands, I read novels for the first time since college and discovered my love for playing the piano. Having to spend more time at home has made me better at focusing myself, and I hope to continue to practice this skill.

What prompted you to pursue an MBA at this point and what do you hope to do after graduation? I wanted to do an MBA because I was also interested in exploring the technology space of a smart city. Growing up, I commuted a lot and lived in a number of cities across China, Canada, and the United States. I loved the liveliness of cities, but I also saw the disparities they could harbor. This upbringing has inspired me to work on the challenges of the world’s most populous cities. Having spent the past five years in the tech industry, I want to bring my experiences and skills to create a tech solution to solve urban challenges.

What other MBA programs have you applied to? I applied to London Business School because of the international student body, but in the end I gave priority to the MMM program at Kellogg because of its unique curriculum and offering.

What advice would you give to help potential applicants gain admission into Northwestern Kellogg’s MBA program? Bring yourself fully to the application. Yes, it’s important to showcase your skills and influence, but Kellogg isn’t just a career hub – it’s a community of people who want to learn from each other and have fun together. What makes you get out of bed in the morning? How do you show the people and things you care about? They want to know what really matters to you and what kind of legacy you will leave with the program.

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