Our ‘A Day in the Life’ series highlights alumni in various fields and positions, offering a glimpse of what life after graduation is like. This post comes to us from M&T alumna Cynthia, formerly of Google, who recently worked for startup accelerator Unreasonable at Sea.
Please briefly describe what industry you’re in and what your previous position entailed.
Unreasonable at Sea is a social impact startup accelerator program based on a ship. Launched this year by the founders of the d.school at Stanford and the Unreasonable Institute, 11 startups were selected to sail to 13 ports around the world.
When I was working for Unreasonable at Sea, my role as Director of Partnerships was to reach out to entrepreneurs, investors, and government officials at each port to determine opportunities for collaboration.
I quit mid-March, about two-thirds of the way into the program, and am now exploring opportunities in sustainable agriculture.
What time do you normally get up for work?
When I was working for Unreasonable, I would typically wake up on the ship around 8:30 am. Now that I’ve quit, I still wake up around the same time.
What time do you normally start working, and what time are you normally done for the day?
While at Unreasonable, we would kick off with a daily 9 am team meeting. An on-ship day would typically end after a fireside chat with a mentor around 10 pm. An off-ship day would typically start with a lunch reception ending with drinks into the wee hours.
Now that I’ve resigned, I have no schedule per se. That said, the last two days, I participated in the inaugural Goa Project, an arts-society-and-entrepreneurship unconference. Events started at 9 am IST and the beach mostly cleared out by 11 pm.
What were some of the projects you worked on today or for your previous position?
I have a confession: When I took on the partnerships role at Unreasonable, I knew it was going to be a logistical nightmare. Trying to create amazing events and attract the right crowd in more than a dozen countries with only a few weeks of preparation, unreliable on-ship satellite Internet, and a brand that was mostly unknown (except to certain circles within the US) would be an exercise in futility.
I did what any sane, rational person would do. I outsourced the work. Specifically, I created local pop-up teams of well-connected, self-directed individuals (leaning heavily on the TED network, my former colleagues at Google, and friends-of-friends). I provided a framework, budget, and some branding guidelines but offered significant autonomy and ownership to the local teams.
Depending on the port, I would focus my time on nailing down a particular element: a keynote by a political figure, such as a U.S. State Department Consul-General, to lend gravitas; appearances by distinguished guests, such as an up-and-coming VC who was also the prime minister’s son-in-law, to create buzz; in-kind sponsorship of a venue by an established brand, such as Innovation Works in China, to create legitimacy; or a scrumptious dinner party, such as one held at the best restaurant in Cape Town, to generate an aura of exclusivity.
In truth, my most important project was to build high-impact teams in each country, and then get out of their way.
Now that I’ve left Unreasonable, my current project consists of researching sustainable agricultural communities around the world and building relationships with experts in that space.
Who specifically did you interact with today, besides coworkers (clients, interns, researchers, executives, founders, etc.)?
The Goa Project brought together a fascinating community of artists, entrepreneurs (some backed by the likes of Khosla), investors, and social activists.
Are you currently traveling or about to travel for work?
What are your favorite parts of the work day?
I love listening to other people talk and asking follow-up questions. Everyone has a story to tell and a life to share; the best part is figuring out what lesson you want to learn.
What were some of the challenges within your previous positions that you particularly enjoyed?
I relish the freedom of every day being a blank slate and only doing the work I would be willing to do for free. The challenge is waking up every day, choosing liberty over the security of a regular paycheck, and then having to constantly explain my decision and plan (or lack thereof) to my traditional Chinese parents who always wanted me to go into finance.
How did you end up in your positions after graduating from Penn?
When I graduated from Penn, I knew that whatever job I took wasn’t going to determine my long-term career. Instead, I wanted to work for someone I admired. That person happened to be an M&T alumnus. I didn’t care much for the industry, but I learned a lot from him. When he left the company, I figured that the chances of my finding another great manager were slim, so I landed a job at a company that I admired: Google. Five years later, bitten by the startup bug and hoping to try something more entrepreneurial, a senior Google VP that I adore referred me to the role at Unreasonable at Sea, where she was a mentor. Two-thirds of the way into the program, I quit. Long story short, it’s incredibly important for me to respect my manager and a series of events caused me to lose personal and professional trust in the CEO.
How did M&T help prepare you for where you are today?
A few data points:
• My first manager graduated from the M&T program. I told the company I would take the job if I could work for him. Luckily, he liked me too.
• When I was offered my first job at Google, I asked the hiring manager why she ultimately chose me. She listed a number of reasons, one of them being that I could speak the language of both business and engineering. Most other candidates only had finance or consulting experience.
• At an event in India, I bumped into an M&T alumnus and angel investor who matriculated at Penn the year I was born! He has since offered me a role as an entrepreneur-in-residence for a fund he’s setting up.
• Some of my closest friends, whom I look to for sanity checks, graduated from the M&T program. I lived with an M&T roommate in San Francisco, my mail is currently being delivered to an M&T friend in New York, I’ve been honored to attend the weddings of several M&T alumni, and it looks like I’ll have an M&T campmate at Burning Man this year.
• My girlfriend of five years, who’s completing her PhD in robotics, likes that I am geeky enough to edit her research papers. She also finds my Wharton education useful in certain situations: negotiations, which she loathes; contracts, which she has no patience for; and modeling risky life decisions.
• The value of an M&T education boils down to people and perspective, in that order.
What advice do you have for those who might be interested in pursuing a similar path?
• Develop a finely-tuned ear for your gut. It will tell you who to trust, when it’s time to move on, and whether you’re being true to yourself.
• Invest in your “freedom fund”. A financial safety net will allow you to fulfill your obligations (family, mortgage, etc.) while pursuing your passions or while walking away from situations that would ask you to compromise your integrity and values.
• Know yourself. You may have a taste for fine food, enjoy exotic travel, desire a flashy car, believe that a private school education would be best for your children, or feel a need to send monthly remittances to family. Understand what makes you happy, make peace with any resulting expenses, and then optimize for freedom given those constraints. To be clear, I’m not advocating asceticism; we’re only human and life is too short for self-deprivation.
• Remember that you might die tomorrow.
• Take all advice with a grain of salt. No two paths will ever be the same.
Cynthia is currently a lady-of-leisure, an explorer, writer, and founder of [stealth]. She graduated from Penn and M&T in 2006 with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Systems from Penn Engineering and a Bachelor of Science in Economics from the Wharton School with concentrations in Legal Studies, Management, and Marketing. She enjoys dining in world-class restaurants, reading anything by Isaac Asimov, and traveling across the globe.