Wharton Reunion 2017: Two Alumni On What Made This Year’s Event So Special

Michael Kao WG97 and Elaine Boxer WG02

The Secret to Maximizing Your Reunion Experience

By Michael Kao WG97

 

Since graduating from the Wharton MBA program in 1997, I have attended every reunion, but the 20th Reunion this year takes the cake for the most fun and most meaningful to me. What made this one special in particular? One word: engagement.

In this reunion, unlike in the previous reunions, I decided to get involved in both the Outreach and Class Gift committees rather than just attend. On the Outreach side, starting about eight months ago, a core group of us started attending monthly phone calls and reaching out to fellow classmates via email/phone/social media to join the committees. What better excuse is there to contact long lost friends than to get them excited about the reunion and to catch up on their lives? As the months passed and we grew the committees to critical mass, classmates from multiple cities stepped up and hosted regional pre-reunion get-togethers, further building up the “rolling snowball” of momentum.

While this outreach was going on, the Class Gift committee pursued essentially a parallel path of building up the committees and reaching out to people. These discussions were a bit more selective and went a little deeper than the outreach discussions, as can be expected whenever money is involved, but it brought a new level of dialogue into the mix as we each focused on our personal relationships first. Setting the Big Hairy Audacious Goal of beating the all-time record for the 20th Reunion Class Gift added a fun, competitive element as well.

As Reunion Weekend approached, we all stepped up our game, increasing the frequency of update calls from monthly to biweekly to weekly as the crescendo of anticipation and excitement built up for these four days in May. By the time I arrived in Philly on the Thursday, May 11, I already felt “at home” after interacting with many of my classmates over the last eight months.

 

Class of ’97 (from left): Michael Kim (Fundraising Co-Chair), Michael Kao (Fundraising Co-Chair), Catherine Nelson (Engagement Co-Chair) and Steven Shapiro (Engagement Co-Chair)

 

What engagement did for me personally was to shrink our class of almost 800. Wharton tried to do this right off the bat by segmenting our class into 12 cohorts, but I’m still amazed by how many great people in our class I haven’t met or gotten to know well yet. By engaging actively in the months prior to the weekend, I felt that I truly gained some great new friends in the process, and the level of dialogue and conversation I enjoyed during the actual Reunion was that much more intimate and authentic. Remember that old adage, “you get out of something what you put into it”? Well, it’s absolutely true.

As I write this after getting my first night of rest and healthy food after a frenetic, fun-filled weekend ending in three consecutive cheesesteak binge sessions at 3 a.m., I find that I am looking forward to the last six weeks of the Class Gift campaign. The afterglow of an amazing Reunion Weekend, coupled with the excitement of approaching our Class Gift goal of $1.5 million, is exhilarating. Yet perhaps the most exciting take away from it all is realizing that our Wharton experience only began in 1997 and that we have many more reunions to look forward to and many new and old friends to engage with!

 

Michael Kao WG97 is the founder and CEO of Akanthos Capital Management, a distressed/event-driven hedge fund based in Los Angeles.  Prior to starting Akanthos in 2002, he worked at Canyon Partners and Goldman Sachs.  He lives with his wife Holi and two children in Hidden Hills, California. 


 

Life Lessons Learned by a Reunion Committee Member

By Elaine Boxer WG02

 

In May 2016, I impulsively posted to the Wharton MBA Class of 2002 Facebook page, “I’m at the WG01 reunion tonight, and they broke the Wharton record for most attendees at a 15th. Next year: let’s bring it!” Within 12 hours, our class president, Khadir Richie, had assigned me to the Reunion Communications Committee.  It turned out to be the best semi-intoxicated thing I’ve ever posted.

Not only was I delighted to have accidentally initiated some hype and anticipation, but the planning process itself felt like a virtual, mini-reunion all year. Hearing classmates’ familiar voices on the planning calls was like old times. It fostered reconnection and reminded us how much we enjoyed each other’s friendship and unique personalities. (PSA: If you’re considering volunteering for an upcoming Wharton reunion, I enthusiastically recommend it!)

The point of gunning for the attendance record at a 15th reunion was not mere competition. (Although I admit I’m still enjoying the bragging rights from this “win” in my dual Wharton-affiliation home.) The goal was just communion. When a lot of us get back together in one place, it’s better. It feels more like home. And at this reunion weekend, I was struck by how it felt nothing like colleagues from a professional program simply gathering to network or even reminisce. It felt like family coming back together.

 

Class of ’02 (from left): Ram Rajagopal (Communications Committee Chair), Dilawar Syed (Fundraising Chair), Elaine Boxer (Facebook Chair) Raj Venkataraman Iyer (Reunion Co-Chair and board member) and Khadir Richie (Reunion Co-Chair and past board member)

 

A few of us were discussing this phenomenon over cocktails on Friday night over Reunion weekend. Perhaps at our 5th reunion, we were almost the same people we had been while at Wharton. Perhaps not much time had elapsed for reflection on the Wharton experience and the impact it had on our lives, personally. We mostly came back to Philly and partied like it was 2002. By our 10th reunion, many of us were in the throes of the toughest stretch of our careers. Perhaps we felt a little bit like we had things to prove or appearances to keep up.

But this time, by our 15th, we’ve been through personal and professional triumphs and trials. We’ve gotten over the toughest hills in our professional climb, or, we’ve fallen off the mountain and had to start over. We’ve gotten married and were part of each other’s wedding parties. Or we’ve gotten divorced. We’re parenting adorable people who didn’t exist when we first met. We know we’re not the CEO of Google or president of a Federal Reserve bank and we’re ok with that. (Aside: We have both of them in our class and we bring it up often.) We know better who we are. And throughout all of this, many of us turned to, celebrated with, or relied on our Wharton classmates.

And so, being back at this 15th reunion, a deeper truth felt clearer and much more important than before. We chose Wharton. We chose our friendships with each other. And, as the saying goes, friends are just the family you choose. We came back to the 15th as family—a point Khadir also made in his toast on Saturday night.

Every reunion seems to end with the same lament—“Why don’t we do this more often?” But this time it really felt as if folks were determined to fix that. The lead-up to our 15th included local get-togethers organized by volunteers in a dozen cities, and it seems like a no-brainer just to keep doing it. As a communications committee member, I do want to make a plug that the one place where the most WG02 members are gathered together at any moment is online, with 420 LinkedIn group members and 365 Facebook group members as of this writing, and rising. Please join the conversations!

But I hope we don’t “just” stay connected online between now and our 20th reunion. I hope we make good on our promises to meet for coffee, to give a heads-up the next time we visit someone’s city, to participate in Lifelong Learning programming, to plan a social gathering, to grab a drink. Families should spend time together more often than just once every half-decade. All year and every year: Let’s bring it!

 

Elaine Boxer WG02 is a Managing Director at consulting firm SC Ventures, where she advises clients on marketing, new product development, market research, and innovation. She has served as CMO of marketing technology company QualityHealth, an engagement leader at digital marketing agency Razorfish, and co-founder of an experiential retail chocolate startup with Bojan Stoyanov WG99. She lives with her partner David Sturek WG01 and their dog Penny in New York City.

 

 

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