The Right Mindset – In Conversation with Ria Joneja

“I never thought I’d get into Wharton”, Ria Joneja said with a smile growing on her face. She graduated from Jai Hind College in 2015, and is now pursuing her MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

“People kept telling me that I was making a mistake transitioning from Science to Commerce that early but I chose a career that interested me, and did not give in to the stereotypical views and beliefs”

She had been a part of Jai Hind since Junior College in the vocational Science stream, and had therefore been familiar with the dynamic environment the institute offered; her experiences with the administration as a student, the cultural diversity she observed and her father’s support were driving factors that led her to make the decision to pursue her undergraduate education here as well. This next step came with a bold change to the field of commerce. We asked her to speak more about how she made this decision, to which she said, “I was extremely clear that I wanted to be independent, and pursue a career that offers global mobility, BFM opened a lot of possibilities and avenues of exploration here”

Ria at Wharton’s iconic Huntsman Hall

“Balancing academics and extracurricular activities had been challenging, but working through them has forged time management skills and enabled me to manage responsibilities effectively”

Investing her time across a broad spectrum of activities, played a catalytic role in her holistic education. Being General Secretary of The Student Council was a highlight amongst these. This role allowed her to work with students across all streams, giving her access to the administration which she leveraged to create positive value for students. As General Secretary, she organised a voter registration drive during the 2014 General Elections in India, in collaboration with a local non-profit. This project enabled seamless registrations of over 400 students on campus, overcoming the lack of inertia amongst them to get registered. This role meant a lot to her as it put her in a position to create tangible impact on students and the community, and helped her foster her communication and leadership skills. Being involved with the Social & Dramatic union, played a contributive part in the development of her creative and cultural side, she participated in many events via the club and believes the experience helped solidify her stage presence and accorded her journey as a singer.

By virtue of being in the Department of BAF, BBI, BFM, another defining experience was Heading the marketing team of Entourage, our annual inter-collegiate festival. The marketing role came to her as a surprise, but the role proved to be highly autonomous and immersive. Speaking to TV Channels and media houses, gave her an understanding of building a pitch and creating value for external entities.

Ria was a Mumbai University Gold Medalist, and class valedictorian

Ria greatly encourages students to get involved with activities across Jai Hind, she personally values the experience of interacting with people from diverse departments, and learning of their academic, co-curricular and research experiences. 

She speaks greatly of the supportive and developmental environment that the faculty at Jai Hind creates. In her opinion, to grow extensively in this environment one needs to be proactive about their own development. By doing so, she wielded this environment’s agents of development to help her with her growth, namely from Yasmin ma’am, Ms. Adarsh Suri, Ms. Snehee Shah and Dr. Ashok Wadia, who in her experience always goes above and beyond to ensure students get the best version of what they propose to work towards.

Ria Graduated from Jai Hind in 2015

“You would never see me around two weeks before exams, there is a time for being involved with extra curriculars and a time for focusing on classes and academics. Balancing your priorities, and not getting overwhelmed is key, make sure you know what value you’re getting out of investing your time in an area/project, so you don’t flake off and do them well.”

When asked about her apprehensions and thoughts pertaining to her career development as a second year, she said she never imagined being at the world’s best business school, and that she had little confidence. To summarise her words,- having anxieties and dealing with uncertainty, is normal, one always deals with these emotions pertaining to future plans, employment prospects and so on. Securing an internship over the summer helped with the uncertainty, it nudged her career progression and put her on a path of learning and exploration, as a result of which she was able to set better goals, and drill down on what she likes. She encourages students to work with organisations to get more exposure and gauge an understanding of their interests. “It does not necessarily need to be a formal internship, you can take on part time consulting roles and project based roles; there’s an organisation somewhere that could always use help, you just have to put yourself out there and keep looking. Secondly, talking to as many people as you can is pivotal, LinkedIn is a very powerful tool”. Ria landed an internship with KPMG during her undergrad summer where she was subsequently placed at a full time role. She also advises students to explore their areas of professional interest, and if they narrow down these interests from 10 to 4, that’s still a lot of progress at the undergraduate level.

“The CFA exams for me, were completely self-study centric. It is a big commitment that students must see through to the end .”

It wasn’t until 6 months after she had been working with KPMG and out of Jai Hind that Ria took her Level I CFA examination. “You need to understand why you want to take the CFA: Is it because it truly interests you? Or are you doing it because everyone is?”. She further spoke about the importance of being disciplined during the preparation process, by recalling how much effort she put across 8 hour study days on weekends. “It was a tumultuous task, preparing for CFA simultaneously with work”. In her opinion, Level II had been comparatively more technical and 2x-3x more difficult as compared to Level I. “On clearing Level I, I had charted out a study plan that included a lot of reading supplemented by a lot of problem-solving. I also registered for Level II as soon as I got my results for Level I in January, because I wanted to be prepared well in advance, additionally my father and colleagues helped me dig deeper into complex financial terms”.

She never felt the need to take coaching classes, and believes self-study is the most effective way to proactively prepare for the exam and build a tangible and authentic knowledge base. After completing level III, she realised that her future interests lied in pursuing a career on the buy side, where she could make actual decisions about a deal that she could see materialise. “That’s where NIIF came in, fortunately I worked in infrastructure Mergers and Acquisitions at KPMG, which gave me a background to taking on a role at NIIF, as infrastructure is a very niche sector”.

Before starting her new job at the National Investment and Infrastructure Fund (NIIF), India’s sovereign wealth infrastructure fund, she took two months to prepare for the GMAT. She had appeared for the examination once after her third year of degree college which helped refine her mindset and preparation on her subsequent attempt. 

“This role was very different. Being on the investor’s side, real money is involved, the stakes are much higher, it’s not like a consulting role”. This role allowed her to brush shoulders with various ministry officials, people from the Department of Economic Affairs, Consultants, the whole experience of working at NIIF, gave her the confidence boost she needed to apply to Wharton.

“Your network is your net worth, and I can’t stress on this point enough.”

On joining NIIF, she had the privilege of working with several professionals with rich industry experience and MBAs from esteemed universities. These were the very people who supported her and encouraged her to apply to the world’s best business schools. 

“I was driving home from work when I received the acceptance call from Wharton”

Digging into the application process, she advised students to research thoroughly before writing their essays, “It is important to be genuine and to have the right mindset going through the application process”. She emphasised on the importance of having an answer to- why this school, and to- why an MBA now. “It’s imperative to communicate your authentic intentions, and to tell your real story in the process”. After having finished her essay, she took into account different opinions before submission, “Bouncing off ideas from people who know you, and whom you trust is extremely important, this paves way to a higher quality essay and a broader perspective of thought”.

“Qualifying for the interview round was in itself a big achievement”.

When we asked her what her selling points to the admissions officer had been, she jokingly responded by saying “I wish I could ask the Admissions Committee that”. However, she believes that her evident career progression as well as her varied interests, which included singing played an important role in selling herself as an appropriate candidate. “I did not have any managerial experience of leading a team, neither did I crack multi-million dollar deals daily, but I showed genuine progress throughout my professional roles and that proactive growth attitude is what built my case of candidature” Her interesting and fun demeanor is what made her stand out. Her advice to students is to be original and to put their best foot forward!

“Getting into Wharton had been an overwhelming experience but a rewarding one nonetheless.”

“Wharton has an exquisite and diverse range of clubs that play such an important role in the B School journey” she said enthusiastically. There are 100+ clubs that provide diverse forums for students to engage with each other. You name it and I’m sure Wharton has a club for it. However, some of the clubs that had piqued her interest were the Food Club and Coffee Club. “I have become an amateur Masterchef and coffee connoisseur,” she jokingly added. Meeting people from various cultural backgrounds was the highlight of her experience at Wharton, picking up cultural nuances and truly allowing oneself to be immersed in these experiences has been a huge part of her Wharton journey.

Ria co-founded Wharton’s Music Club

However, out of all the clubs, Wharton surprisingly didn’t have a music club. Vehement about music, Ria, along with some of her batchmates, took it upon themselves to co-found  the Wharton Music Club. “It feels like I’m leaving my legacy behind and providing future students to explore their musical inclinations”, she said.

Some other schools which Ria applied to include Stanford GSB, Duke Fuqua, Columbia, Cambridge Judge, NYU Stern, and London Business School. She has already secured admission to ISB, but decided she wanted a more global experience and hence is now at Wharton. She advises students to segregate their applications into three tiers, Dream Schools, Target Schools and Safety Schools, to build a structured risk-balancing approach when applying for an MBA.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from, once you get in, everyone is on the same playing field”.

When asked whether she felt insecure about being the youngest in her batch and from an under-represented university, she said that each and every individual admitted into Wharton was keen on learning from the community, and once you get in, it doesn’t really matter, as being there already indicates the level of achievement that makes you stand out. She was only 25 years old upon joining, whereas the average age of her batchmates varied between 27 and 29. 

“I was proactive in ensuring my summer internship plans were on track. I was fortunate to secure a role with the Infrastructure and Natural Resource team at the IFC, whose role in financing emerging economies during this tumultuous time has become indispensable. The work I’m doing is rewarding and very relevant to how the investment landscape will evolve post COVID-19.”

She took up a summer internship with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), this year, where she is working with both the Energy & Mining teams in Washington D.C. While she has worked in Energy before school, Mining was a sector she was new to, she excitedly spoke of how valuable this experience has been. Ideally, Ria would have been working in San Francisco this summer, but given the geographic constraints owing to the pandemic, she has been working virtually with IFC from Mumbai, India. “A lot of the aspects of working is speaking with people, you want to understand how the industry works and how people have progressed in their career, so it is a lot harder to connect with them virtually. Under normal circumstances, a co worker would go like – ‘Hey Ria! Welcome to the team and let’s grab lunch’, these small nuances of building relationships are unfortunately impossible, so you have to take the lead inbuilding relationships, and go the extra mile to reach out to teammates”

“You need to maintain a schedule!” Plan out your activities and take regular breaks, it may be difficult to create boundaries between work and life at home, so you need to ensure that you are working effectively.

Maneuvering this situation has taught her 3 things –

  1. You need to be flexible, and have a plan B, things don’t always work out as originally planned.
  2. Be proactive, you can’t sit on your bed and crib that things that aren’t happening; there always are opportunities- be proactive, and maintain relationships with people you’ve spoken to.
  3. Have the right growth mindset as every situation has something to teach you. You might not get an ideal role right now, and maybe the world is currently not in your favour, but that’s fine! As students, learning is the biggest take away you can take from these experiences.

“Working from home is difficult!, the urge to take a nap, or watch TV can be very prominent” A difficulty she faced is drawing time bound boundaries around her work, owing to working and living in the same room. Being in a different location, she now has to navigate working across different time zones, which she describes optimistically as “another new experience!” .

“In the last quarter at Wharton, I had been a part of the Wharton Global Impact Consultants Initiative”

The initiative enabled her to work with 2 global social enterprises :

Sanergy- An Urban Sanitation NGO based in Nairobi

Working at Sanergy, she helped in developing a product-service matrix and also, provided her expertise in revamping their operational cost models.

GerHub- An innovative social enterprise developing Ger districts in Mongolia

Ria is helping GerHub in developing their 3-5 year aspiration metrics and strategic roadmap. She enjoyed working with GerHub as it presented her with an opportunity to meet some amazing personalities, who themselves had studied at Ivy League Universities and had returned to their home country to help develop rural Mongolian districts.

However, in the wake of the pandemic, an onsite visit was not possible and hence, she worked on these projects virtually.

When asked about what advice she would give to students with regards to goal setting and a vision for the long run, Ria emphasized on the following points –

Keep refining your goals as you progress in your career.

Goal setting is a continuous process-not a one-stop solution. Keep reviewing and re-evaluating your goals as you progress. 

Spend time with yourself and figure out what you want to do.

Take a step back, evaluate yourself, and understand your likes and dislikes. Not enough people pay attention to their true instincts and skill sets- focus on what you want to achieve first and reflect on the possible paths to achieve that. 

Don’t follow the herd mentality.

Just because the people around you are pursuing a particular career, doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to follow the crowd. Understand your niche, your passions and where you will be able to contribute the most.

Speak to people who have recently been in your shoes.

Take advice and consult the people you know and ask them about their career experiences. Ask them the questions that have been looming over your head, no matter how amateur and silly they might sound to you.

Always have a Plan B

Things will not necessarily go the way you presumed and hence, having an alternative plan of action is indispensable.

Build confidence and track your development using wider metrics

Don’t define growth as just completing the CFA, or getting into B school- build a holistic base. Interpersonal and communication skills will take you way farther in the business world than just technical skills. Learn how to hold a crowd, I can’t stress enough how important these softer aspects are.

“Coming from a family of doctors, architects, and pharmacists, I took very unconventional decisions in my family because I knew what I liked and what I wanted to pursue. Making a transition from science had been a significant decision but I knew in a year that it was the right decision for me. Don’t be afraid to change course. Break against stereotypes and do what you want to do. And most importantly, believe in yourself and shine on.”

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