Lucia Huang – MBA Candidate at Stanford (P.1)

Lucia Huang just completed her first year at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Prior to that, she led finance and operations at Verge Genomics, an early stage AI-driven biotech startup in San Francisco. Lucia started her career in healthcare investment banking and then healthcare private equity. She is a native Bay Area resident and loves all things California, including the ocean – swimming, scuba diving, and surfing – and Asian food. Embarrassingly enough, Lucia hated “ethnic” food growing up and only realized her mistake when she studied abroad in China!

1. What has your experience been like as an Asian in America?

It’s definitely been a journey in so many ways. My self-awareness and relationship with my identity has changed throughout the years and are by no means figured out.

I was actually born in Minnesota and one of just a handful of Asians in my school. I remember that myself and a Persian-American girl in my 1st grade class were the only ones who didn’t get invited to a (white) classmate’s birthday party. At the time, I was too young to realize that this might be racism, but through later conversations with my parents I realized that this was a common occurrence for my family.

When we moved to California when I was 7, things swung in the opposite direction completely. My high school was probably about half Asian, so I didn’t think much about my cultural heritage. It was easy to fall into the comfort of hanging out with people who looked just like me.

My cultural self-awareness really only took off when I went away for undergrad at Yale. I was back in a more balanced racial environment, and I struggled with defining my identity. Was I too Chinese? Too American? I remember being embarrassed of my parents’ accents when they came to visit; but I simultaneously joined our Chinese American Students Association and made really close Asian American friends. This feeling of limbo continued throughout college. I saw many of my peers go through similar journeys and struggle with how much to “white wash” themselves to fit in.

Ultimately, a combination of singular- and multi-cultural experiences helped me embrace the duality of my identity. I studied abroad in Beijing (and finally learned to appreciate Chinese food!) but also learned to make close friends from cultures all around the world. I realized there’s a way to appreciate where my family is from and to recognize who I am because of it, but also to apply that curiosity to appreciating those nuances in other cultures.

2. What led you to attend business school? How much influence, if any, did being Asian or having Asian parents play in your decision? 

I’ve been working in business since undergrad and have really enjoyed making an impact in healthcare. I realized that many of the healthcare leaders I looked up to had MBA degrees. In addition, in my last job, I helped an early stage startup in Silicon Valley raise funding and saw the prevalence of MBA degrees around me (especially from Stanford). I guess you could say I realized the lifetime value the network would have for me. I also wanted to attend an MBA program that would help me develop personally (in addition to professionally), e.g. developing a leadership style, gaining empathy as a leader, etc.

Being Asian definitely had an impact on this decision as well. My parents have always emphasized higher education and only half-jokingly declared that getting an MBA was the minimum. So I obviously did what would be the least amount of work to please them! I don’t always take their advice, but I figure that given both of them have worked in industry for many decades, they knew what they were talking about.

3. What did you do before business school?

I led finance and operations at an early-stage AI-driven biotech company in SF. Basically what that means at a 12-person company is doing anything but R&D! The CEO and I worked primarily on fundraising, hiring, and building out scalable internal processes.

4. What was your strategy to get into business school? What do you feel you did right and what might you have done differently?

Hindsight is definitely 20-20 with this question. I was pretty sure since undergrad that I wanted to go to business school. My idea was to do two years of investment banking and two years of private equity (like every other good Asian!) before going, with the ultimate career goal of being an operator. However, about half a year into my private equity job, I realized I really didn’t like it and wanted to move straight to being an operator. I was worried that this would throw a wrench into my business school plans, but in hindsight it all worked out really well because I differentiated my profile by coming from a startup rather than finance. I can’t claim total credit for that being a conscious decision, but I think traditional paths are less and less well-received in business school, so it worked out for me to take a risk.

5. What was the hardest part about the application process? How important is work experience? How did you prepare for the MBA admission interview?

Work experience is definitely very important and probably what you will be most judged on (via letters of recommendation). They really don’t care about your undergrad experience much because your work is so much more relevant now.

I think the hardest part of the application process was the self-reflection piece – actually understanding why I wanted to go to business school and what I wanted to get out of it. Stanford’s essay is notoriously difficult – the prompt is “what matters to you most and why?”

I prepared for the MBA admission interview with my consultant (many people use one and I feel lucky to have been in a financial position to be able to afford one) and with coworkers who had attended the schools. 

6. How did you study for the GMAT? 

I was fortunate to have taken the GMAT during senior year of college (the only good decision I made all year!). I ended up self-studying for it, which I think works out well if you are taking it during undergrad because you still have the ability to self-study (don’t count on it once you start working…). I used the Manhattan GMAT books and blocked out a few hours a day in my calendar to do the practice problems and take all the practice exams from the official GMAT practice exam book.

7. How did you choose the schools you applied to and the one you are currently attending?

I ultimately chose to only apply to Stanford, Harvard, and Wharton for their Healthcare Management Program. I think you should be more selective when you are applying to business school versus undergrad because of the opportunity cost of attending. You’re paying tuition AND foregoing earnings during that period, which can come out to a cool $500K+. Only apply to schools you would actually go to.

I was fortunate enough to gain entrance to all of the schools and to have a relatively easy decision. My childhood dream was to go to Stanford (and I didn’t get in undergrad!). Aside from that, Stanford really matched up well with all the things I wanted to get out of business school – a network that would be valuable in the Silicon Valley healthcare scene and a program very focused on personal development (Touchy Feely is the quintessential class that basically creates a safe space to give your classmates brutally honest feedback on how they come off). I also liked that Stanford tended to have a more diverse group of classmates from backgrounds other than finance and consulting.

8. How are you financing business school? Is the cost of an MBA justifiable in your opinion?

I unfortunately am paying out of pocket. I’m lucky to have saved up enough, but given my past work experience, don’t qualify for financial aid. This might just be me justifying my bank account depletion, but I think in the grand scheme of things, the dollar amount is not much, especially for what you are getting. It’s hard to take a long-term view if you’ve only been in the workforce for a few years, but we’ll be working for potentially 40+ years, so the cost of going to school for two years really isn’t much especially when the value will likely be re-gained.

9. How do you think Asians are perceived in business school?

Some of the themes I discussed in the first question are definitely in play. I’ve noticed that the Asian American community (not just in business school) tends to align itself with the white community to try to gain some of their benefits through association. At Stanford, there’s a bit of a self-segregation between the Asians from Asia who hang out together and then the rest of the Asians, who are almost all Asian Americans, who are dispersed in different social circles – which isn’t totally ideal because it undermines the cohesiveness of our shared Asian identity. What’s nice about Stanford is that I feel like there is less white elitism than there was at Yale. Because people have worked and developed their own sets of values, there’s less superficial judgment.

10. How would you describe what business classes are like to someone with no idea? What’s a typical day like as a business student, assuming there's such a thing?   

Classes can be varied in terms of quality. At Stanford, we take primarily required classes our first year and all electives our second. I’ve enjoyed electives the most because they tend to be better taught and focused on subject matter I care more about. The main differences I see between business school and undergrad classes are: 1) business school classes are much more discussion based. There’s often a participation component to your grade which encourages people to speak up. It’s pretty cool hearing people’s perspectives on business issues given they come from such different backgrounds. For example, in finance class, we had a good discussion on what delivering shareholder value means and if we need to take into account other stakeholders, the environment, society, etc. 2) we get some really cool guest speakers (or even professors!). I’ve heard from the CFO of Marriott, the Chairman of JetBlue, the founder of TPG Capital, etc. 

There definitely is no typical day, and it varies student to student. It really depends on your priorities. Most people, myself included, deprioritize academics because they feel that they get more value from other aspects of business school (e.g. working on a startup, social stuff, etc.). There is actually quite a lot of hours spent in class but not much time on homework. So I probably spend about 4 hours in class in the morning, catch up with a friend over lunch, get in a workout and some homework or startup stuff in the afternoon, and spend my evening socializing. There’s always stuff to do ranging from 6-person themed dinners to weekly beer pong nights with the entire class.

Part 2 of Lucia's interview is available here.

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