Sunday, September 9, 2012

Interview with Yasuhiro Karakawa, Cornell Johnson MBA Alumnus and Admissions Committee Member

This is the first of what I plan to be a semi-regular feature: interviews with people in the world of higher education, with an emphasis on admissions. This first interview features Yasuhiro Karakawa of the Cornell Johnson MBA program and I would very much like to thank Karakawa-san for his generously detailed answers to my questions about Cornell Johnson.

Yasuhiro Karakawa (Cornell ’12) currently has two titles. He is the Representative Program Manager of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, and in addition to this he is an Admissions Officer focused on the Asia region for Johnson’s Full-Time MBA program.  Karakawa-san was kind enough to answer my questions about Cornell Johnson admissions, as well as his own experiences as a student there.  As Karakawa-san notes at the end of this interview, he will be participating in an official Cornell admissions event in Tokyo on September 24, 2012. This will be a great opportunity to learn more about Cornell Johnson and I strongly encourage readers to attend and ask their questions. Details and registration is available here. More info about life at the Cornell MBA is available here

The Cornell MBA

Why in the end did you choose to do your MBA at Cornell?

For me, the Three Ps of the Johnson school made me decide to join.

The first P is the Program. I had a strong interest in learning about Sustainability. Sustainability means dealing with social and environmental issues while creating new business opportunities for global enterprises. Johnson had a very strong Sustainability program in that it had opinion leaders such as Professor Stu Hart who contributed to the development of the concept of BOP (Bottom of the Pyramid) and Professor Mark Milstein who directs the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise. Also, at the
Johnson school, we have the Immersion program in the second semester of the first year during which students choose their interest from amongst areas such as Sustainability, Investment Banking, Marketing, Entrepreneurship, or Strategic Operations and get involved with their projects for 4 months. This is a great opportunity for students to apply what they learn at school to real-world issues and this would be extremely helpful for students who want to get meaningful internship opportunities during the summer after their first year with the aim towards changing their careers after graduation.

The second P is the People.  Throughout the process of applying, I found students at Johnson were tight-knit and collaborative. Since we have a relatively small student body of 280 students and also spend our time together in the small community of Ithaca, when I was a student we got to know each other well and build great relationships that will last even after graduation. I could feel this great culture among students when I visited the campus and participated in the class. And this was not limited to the relationships among students. At Johnson, the professors are very approachable. For example, when I visited the campus to learn more about Johnson, I happened to attend Sage Social, a casual get-together held every Thursday. While enjoying casual food and drink provided by the school,  the students, professors, and school staffs mingled and spent time together with lots of smiles. I met Professors Stu Hart and Mark Milstein there and had a short but great conversation with both of them. That was definitely a key moment where I experienced the great culture of Johnson and enhanced my aspiration to join.

The third P is the Place. I have a daughter who was 3 years old when I enrolled. Choosing a great living environment was one of the highest priorities for me when it came to selecting a program. Of course, the definition of ‘great’ depends on the sense of values of each different person.  But for me, Ithaca was an ideal community in that it was safe, friendly, and offered lots of both natural and cultural richness. My two-year stay in Ithaca proved that this was the best community for us. Though away from New York city, Ithaca was not a prototypical rural community. People were open-minded, intelligent and liberal. My family enjoyed gorges and lakes in summer and skiing in the winter. And since I was self-sponsored, the high quality of life regardless of the affordable living cost was amazing.

Your Experience as a Student at Johnson

Can you tell us about one class which had an impact on you, and that you would recommend to future Johnson students?

One of the challenging things at Johnson is that it’s so difficult to prioritize your interests and choose classes among lots of great interesting programs, especially since we are allowed to take classes from other schools at Cornell. But let me dare to pick up one program. My most memorable class was the Immersion Program that took place in the second semester of the first year.

I chose Sustainable Global Enterprise immersion. From January to May, students form up a team of 3 to 4 members and work on real projects to deal with social and environmental issues by collaborating with companies. In my case, since I was interested in learning about how to develop practical solutions for BOP business, I chose a project in which we were asked to develop a solution for a Danish renewable energy company so that they could successfully launch their clean cooking energy in the Mozambique market. They aimed to replace the widespread usage of charcoal there used among 80% of all households.

We worked as a real consulting team. In the initial phase, we clarified the goals and real issues of the project with the client and developed a hypothesis while applying the theory and knowledge we had gained in the classroom. Then, during Spring break, we visited Mozambique to analyze the market (a trip sponsored by the client). This gave us an invaluable opportunity to observe the local consumers lifestyles and the market environment in an ethnographical way, and also allowed us chances to talk with key players including distributors and communication agencies. With those on-hands local insights, we refined the short-term and middle-term marketing strategy to launch and scale out the clients business and made a final presentation to the client executive at the end of the project in May.
The fact that I could go through all the practical process to develop the solution itself was definitely a great experience. But what was more meaningful to me was that this was not a class in which we were ‘taught’ the technical ABC. Instead, this class was definitely challenging and stressful in some phases because what we tried to do was develop a new solution that hadn’t existed in the market until then. In other words, we could not follow successful cases.  Instead, we needed to discuss, create, try, and refine the solution. This experience nurtured in me the mindset that I would not be afraid of creating the new solution with an out-of-the-box approach, and this will be a meaningful basis for my professional career.

What was your life like outside of classes? How much did you get involved in student clubs?

At Johnson, I could see many students enjoy being members of the approximately 100 professional and cultural clubs at the school. This allowed them to get the necessary knowledge and network for the careers they aspired to and helped me enrich their lives through hobbies and sports.

As far as I’m concerned, since I was prioritizing time with my family, I have to confess that I was not so active in student clubs. I belonged to the Sustainable Global Enterprise (SGE) club in which I played a role as a group leader for ‘Sustainable Marketing’. For example, I organized on-campus seminars with professional consultants or marketers who had done great projects in Sustainability. Also, I was the President of the Johnson Japan Club, organizing a donation event for the Tohoku earthquake and also I organized the Japan-Korea trip during the springtime.

Transitioning to Your New Career

Why did you decide to become a member of the admissions team at Cornell?

There has been only 1 -2 Japanese students every year for the last 5 or 6 years while the number of students from Korea, China, and India has been rapidly increasing. And I felt one of the main reasons why we could not secure a certain number of Japanese students was that we could not successfully convey in Japan the differentiated values of Johnson. It’s true that Cornell itself is a very well-known name, but when it comes to the content of the MBA program, it’s not well enough known at all. Since I used to work as a marketing and branding strategist before going to MBA program, I felt that I could contribute to this great community of which I truly enjoyed being a member as a MBA student.
In addition, as I learned from the SGE immersion class, I was interested in creating new value. In this case, what I mean is that I wanted to create a unique professional career that others could not develop. This motivation drove me to make a proposal to the school to establish a new executive education and consulting program named the SGE Asia Program. This program aims to help Asian companies (Japanese and Korean companies in the short term) develop new markets by utilizing the expertise and network of the Johnson school as well as other Cornell schools. That’s why I get to work both as a representative program manager at the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise and an admission officer for the Japan market.

How would you describe Cornell's strengths as a business school?

After spending two years here in Ithaca, I have learned that the 3Ps are truly Johnson’s strengths and are relevant to other students who choose Johnson.  So, let me repeat that Program, People, and Place combined make Johnson unique.

Another strength is the wide network of Cornell alumni all over the world. Since Johnson is the business school of Cornell, this means you can reach out to the greater network of faculties and professionals of Cornell as a whole. The solid Cornell network can help students in building a network for their job search, new business planning, and so on. And this will be available as a great resource in both professional and personal contexts even after the graduation.

In addition, if you want to maximize your learning curve during the limited time of MBA program, I recommend you to put yourself in an environment where you are the minority and therefore have to learn how to manage. I found this particularly important to me as a Japanese applicant to the program. Different from the schools where you have a large number of Japanese peers and tend to behave in a group, you can’t depend on other Japanese at Johnson because of the limited number of Japanese there. In classes, for example, you have to expect to get cold calls when the topic is related to Japanese companies and their recent struggles regardless of their great success in the past. This should be challenging. But looking back, I’m sure that this environment gave me the great opportunity to get the survival skills such as being bold in communicating with other students and building strong relationships actively with professors. In this sense, the fact that we don’t have a large Japanese student body is another strength of Johnson, I believe.

What advice would you give to applicants to the program?

Whether it’s a 1-year or 2-year program, you have to sacrifice lots of time and money if you decide to come to a business school. These days we can easily access information. If you want to get just the technical skill and knowledge of MBA, there are lots of books and Japanese-based schools and online classes that are available to you. So, you first need to ask yourself why you’ll dare to go to business schools overseas. What is the ultimate reason why you need to go to business school?  What kind of professional and personal career you want to pursue and how can each program fit to your goals?
Also, I want you to think about how you want to contribute to the global community as a leader in your professional and personal community. I know it’s important to get a well-paying job practically, but at the same time, as a person who will create new values to future generations, I want you to think about what is your raison d'être and how you want to utilize knowledge, experience, and network through your MBA in order to realize it.

Last but not least, I want you to be bold and creative for your own life. It’s true that many MBA students think going to world famous strategic consulting firms or investment banks is a golden path as a professional career of MBA students. That is fine if it’s aligned with your raison d'être. But don’t take the majority voice as yours since the true value of the MBA is to get the mindset, knowledge, and network to realize your own ideas.  This applies to your MBA selection process. Take your time to know about the differentiated values of each MBA program and find the one that truly fits you. I’m sure that you may feel attracted to applying for some programs without knowing so much about them just because you know they’re famous MBA programs many students strive to join. But what’s really important is whether you can envision a clear image that you play a role as an irreplaceable member of that community and create your own meaningful and unique story during and after that MBA program.  How you spend your time during and after that MBA program matters much more than how you get into the program.

With those things in mind, I hope that all of you can enjoy the challenging but rewarding journey to apply for and gain admission to the MBA program that is best for you and also that Johnson can be meaningful to some of you. Feel free to contact me here with your questions. Thank you.

Yasuhiro Karakawa
MBA 12’, Johnson School of Management, Cornell University
Representative Program Manager of Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise / Admissions Officer

Please note:  We will be holding the information session on Sept 24 (2012) in Tokyo and providing the opportunity for you to mingle with alumni in a casual manner. If you want to know more about our program, personality and culture, please register from the URL below. Hope to see you there!

John Couke