Breaking into Business School with Shaifali Aggarwal (CEO and Founder of Ivy Groupe)
Shaifali Aggarwal is the Founder/CEO of Ivy Groupe, a boutique MBA admissions consulting company whose mission is to help clients tell their story to business schools so that they can achieve their dreams and impact the world; the company is passionate about authenticity, leadership, success, and impact. Shaifali strongly believes that each candidate's unique experiences are what set him/her apart. With her approach to authenticity and storytelling, Shaifali has helped hundreds of applicants gain admission to top-tier MBA programs. Because of her deep knowledge of the MBA application process, Shaifali has been quoted as an expert in U.S. News and Business Insider; additionally, she has been a contributor to Forbes, Entrepreneur, The Economist, and The Muse as well as a featured speaker on the QS World MBA Tour. She is a member of the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC).
Shaifali received her MBA from Harvard Business School (HBS) and undergraduate degree from Princeton University. At HBS, Shaifali served as VP Admissions of the Women’s Student Association; in this role, she collaborated directly with the HBS Admissions Office as a liaison between current and prospective/admitted students through which she gained unique insight into the qualities that top-tier MBA programs look for in candidates. Before making the transition to education management, Shaifali spent most of her career as a finance professional on Wall Street, where she worked in the investment banking and asset management industries at leading companies such as J.P. Morgan and Neuberger Berman. She also has experience working in the educational non-profit sector and as an entrepreneur, founding an online media company.
Background & Career
Business Today (Grace Hong): You’ve led a career across multiple industries in finance, online media, and more. How did you find your way into boutique consulting for business school candidates?
Shaifali Aggarwal: As an economics major at Princeton, I decided to go down a traditional finance path and work at J.P. Morgan doing investment banking in the financial institutions group. Investment banking provided a platform to build my quantitative and analytical skillset and understand business and companies.
I eventually went to Harvard Business School to further expand my skillset. I realized that I had exposure to finance, but wanted to gain a broader business skillset in areas like leadership, marketing and operations because I knew I eventually wanted to do something more entrepreneurial. While I was at HBS, I was also VP Admissions of the Women’s Students Association, which allowed me to collaborate directly with the admissions office as a bridge between current students on campus and prospective and admitted students. This gave me great exposure to what the top business schools are looking for.
I decided to go back to finance after business school, but this time, in asset management, specifically covering consumer staples at Neuberger Berman. As a consumer equity analyst, I realized there were some really interesting products out there that were focused on making people’s lives better. That’s when I decided to take the entrepreneurial plunge and launched an online media company called 24 Ours that was focused on making women’s lives easier in a fun and edgy way.
I had informally been helping friends and colleagues in the MBA admissions process after business school, but while building 24 Ours, I also decided to work with the bigger MBA consulting firms on a contractual basis. Through that process, I realized that I really enjoyed working with others one-on-one to help them achieve their educational goals. Education has always been really important to me, and I’ve always felt very fortunate to have had the opportunities that I did. I ultimately decided to focus full-time on the MBA consulting space - it’s really rewarding to hear about other people’s stories, and fundamentally, the admissions process is about being authentic to who you are. That’s my favorite part of the application process. In addition, I get to build a company and apply the business skills I learned towards that endeavor. It’s a complete win-win. It’s challenging, fun, and rewarding, and I absolutely love it.
BT: For a lot of students, a question we often ask is are we taking enough risk early in our career or when would be the best time to take risk during our career? How would you answer those questions?
SA: I have taken a lot of risk in my career, and what helped me was my initial foundation. Banking was tough, and I don’t think it matters what part of business you work in, but gaining that foundation was invaluable. As I thought about taking risk, I knew it would be important to build my skillset, and HBS was great for that. In addition to the skillset you’re gaining at business school, you’re also building relationships with interesting classmates from a range of industries, functions, and geographies, as well as with alums and professors. For me, taking risk was about building that solid foundation first and having some savings in the bank. It’s always a bit risky branching off on your own. The process of taking risk felt right after I had gone to business school and worked a bit more in the corporate world before taking the leap. Having that foundation gave me a lot of confidence as did having attended Princeton and HBS since I felt I had the credibility to start my own company. The reason that I didn’t wait any longer was because the opportunity cost would have been too high the more I progressed in finance. I knew that if I continued down that path, I would never take that leap. I took a calculated risk. I believe you should be taking some risk in your career because that’s how you learn. For example, 24 Ours was a great experience. Although it didn’t work out as I had hoped, there are so many things I learned from that experience that have helped me while building Ivy Groupe.
BT: What were the greatest challenges you faced in founding your own consultancy?
SA: MBA admissions consulting is a very fragmented space. There are some big companies out there that are very well known, but beyond that, there are a lot of smaller firms. The biggest challenge for me was branding, really getting my value proposition out there. When I worked with bigger firms, what I saw were operational bottlenecks or a cookie-cutter approach. I truly believe that everyone has a unique story, and so my philosophy at Ivy Groupe is about authenticity and bringing out who someone truly is. That’s going to help differentiate an applicant in a competitive pool of candidates and so I spend a lot of time with my clients focusing on their background and crafting their strategy. That has been a key differentiator for Ivy Groupe; at the end of the day, that personal touch is really important to me.
Business School Tips
BT: If you could reapply to business school, what would you have done differently? What lessons have you gleaned from your experience serving as a consultant?
SA: If I had to reapply, I would have jumped into the introspective process sooner. Normally, people are not going to take time to reflect upon their career or their lives; usually that tends to happen just as someone is thinking about applying to business school. I wish I had done that as a more continuous process from college onwards because there’s so much you learn about yourself. As you think about the choices as you move from one place to another, it’s important to be able to connect the dots in your story. Taking the time to do that would have been more helpful when I went through this process.
The MBA admissions process is a marketing exercise at the end of the day, and you’re packaging yourself. You’re saying who you are as a person, in terms of your strengths and goals, and it is very reflective. I wish I had done that sooner because when you’re doing it under a time crunch, it can be harder.
BT: Less and less individuals are choosing to pursue an MBA. What are key qualities that suggest an MBA would or would not be a worthy investment?
SA: There are a few things to think about when deciding whether or not to pursue an MBA. The first thing to think about are your goals. What do you aspire to do? I always encourage people to project what does the ROI [on business school] look like. Think about the tuition, the opportunity cost of giving up a couple of years of income if you’re going to business school full-time, books, travels, etc. Think about what your career is in the future and what you project that to be in terms of income/salary, and how does an MBA play into that?
Also, are there different ways to get to where you want to be? For example, if someone is thinking about a public service career, it may make more sense to pursue a Masters in Public Administration or a Masters in Public Policy. You’ll still meet really diverse people, but that ROI may be higher because tuition may be lower. It’s about crunching the numbers.
Beyond that, it’s important to think about where you are in your career and what your personal situation is like. As an example, I worked with a candidate who had gone through the entire application process and got accepted to business school, but through that time period, he had found opportunities that were more in line with what he would have done post-MBA. So he decided that business school ultimately didn’t make sense for him at that point.
BT: A key component of a business school application includes recommendations. Could you share best practices on networking and identifying potential individuals as recommenders or as sources for growth?
SA: When it comes to recommendation letters, there are a couple things to think about. One is you definitely want someone who has worked directly with you in some capacity to write a letter. Some business schools will ask for one letter from a direct supervisor, and the second one can come from someone else who has supervised you in some capacity. When you’re starting to identify those people, look for mentors and supervisors who have encouraged your growth and development and have given you interesting projects where you have taken on more responsibility. Also, think about the impact you have had while working with the potential recommenders. It’s also important to have the holistic picture in mind: who are the two people who will provide a complete picture of who you are? The application process is more of an art than a science, and it is about digging deeply to see who the two best complementary people would be as you progress through your career.
BT: When is the best time to pursue business school? What steps can students take now to prepare?
SA: There are a couple of times in which people can apply. There are deferred applications to business schools. Harvard, Stanford, Yale, MIT, and Chicago Booth have programs for rising seniors to apply to business school and be guaranteed a spot after a couple years. They apply, then work for a couple of years, and then go straight into that program. For those who are thinking about that, it’s important to realize that you have to hit every single metric that the school is looking for, qualitatively and quantitatively. Schools are giving up a spot two years in advance without seeing what the full [candidate] pool is looking like.
The sweet spot tends to be four years of working experience. That’s usually when most people apply, but that’s not to say you can’t apply to business school with two, six, or ten years of work experience. The most important thing is to apply when you feel ready, when taking that MBA will take you to that next level. Depending on where you are in your career, a part-time MBA program or Executive MBA program may also make sense.
If you’re thinking about business school, start doing your research early on to learn about the programs, talk to alumni and current students, visit the schools and websites, and listen to webinars. If there are any conferences, go to those conferences. Once you do research, you’ll get a better sense of what schools are looking for and how that fits into your career.
Also keep in mind that business schools are looking for diverse classes. It doesn’t mean you have to be a banker or a consultant and apply to business school. You can be doing something else in business and still need that MBA degree. Business schools really want to develop leaders across all facets of business and society.
Advice for Student Readers
BT: For many undergraduate students, it’s still unclear as to what career they’d like to enter, not to mention, whether business school would be part of that picture. What’s the best piece of advice you would provide to current undergraduates who are looking towards their future career?
SA: At the early stages of your career, do something that you really enjoy because that will sustain you going forward. At the same time, think about the skillset that you’re going to gain and how that’s going to help you. I know it’s tough to know what you want to do ten or twenty years down the line. For me, my career path has gone to so many different places. I never would have thought that I would end up here, but that’s the interesting thing about life – it gets you to different places. It’s about enjoying the process, thinking about what your passions are, and what is the skillset you want to gain. Maybe start to think a little bit about where this could potentially take you and connect the dots in your story.
You may discover that there are completely different fields that you are interested in, [and in those situations], I have found that the best thing to do is to talk to people. If you want to get their thoughts or if they have skills you’re interested in, have coffee chats. Learn about that skill and see if that could be a good fit for you as you think about your own career going forward. There really is no formula, and no right or wrong answers. Ultimately, it’s about creating that story and connecting the dots. Take some time to introspect.
BT: Anything else you’d like to add?
SA: I wish I had known this then: enjoy the process and go with the flow. Things will work out. I love working with candidates, especially younger candidates as there’s a lot they can think about and do to prepare for business school, which I’m very passionate about. Beyond that, going back to my whole philosophy, be very true to who you are, and that will take you very far.