What does it take to thrive in two organizations as disparate as Wharton and the Peace Corps?
By Michael J. O’Brien
On a painfully sunny September morning, Jeremiah Marble, WG’11, G’11, emerged from the subway. His day was starting later than usual. He was teamed with other consultants as bright and young as that day itself, working on a project for Morgan Stanley—on the 62nd floor of the World Trade Center’s Tower Two.
The bright, sunny day would reveal itself to be the most horrific Tuesday in modern American history within moments of his foot hitting the sidewalk. “I saw the second plane hit Tower Two, and then a terrible array of things began falling all around me,” recalls Marble. “I couldn’t watch any longer. I started walking up Broadway, away from the buildings. The world had gone crazy. People were screaming and crying everywhere.”
As he joined the tortured throng escaping lower Manhattan on that fateful day, he struggled to “understand how someone could hate America enough” to do what the hijackers had so brazenly done.
“If I don’t understand this,” he remembers thinking, “what else don’t I understand?”
Marble’s long journey did not end when he finally made it uptown to a friend’s apartment that evening. A turbulent period followed for him before he fulfilled a promise made by his younger self and submitted to the Peace Corps’ notoriously long application process.
As the day broke on Sept. 11, 2004, Marble found himself on another island—this time in the arid desert of the Dominican Republic. He was elbow-deep in the chassis of an old, malfunctioning computer, sweating through a Peace Corps T-shirt and struggling to set up a computer lab at the high school of a fishing town named Villa Fundación de Baní.
Today, Marble is still elbow-deep, but in business intelligence, analyzing the smartphone market for Microsoft, after graduating from Wharton’s Lauder program.
He is one of a number of alumni who sought out, and thrived in, the two seemingly separate worlds of Wharton and the Peace Corps.
Every so often, they both enroll that rarest of breeds who not only seek out, but also thrive in, both worlds.
The school and community telecenter in Marble’s village began “as 20 broken-down computers donated by a previous presidential administration,” Marble explains. Armed with only a rudimentary understanding of how a computer actually works, the Peace Corps volunteer and a team of eager local teens dug in.
“We replaced memory cards and hard drives and assembled six working computers, installed Word and PowerPoint, networked them and then got them online,” Marble remembers.
After 27 straight months of eating cold, boiled plantains for dinner, Marble sought to make an impact elsewhere. He joined a social enterprise in Cambodia and Laos, earned a Fulbright scholarship to Costa Rica and worked for the United Nations in Paris.
“One of the primary drivers to go for my MBA,” he says, “was a desire to come home to the U.S. and re-enter the private sector for a while. I liked Wharton because of its excellence in finance and marketing analytics, and was especially drawn to the Lauder program.” The “tricks” to both Wharton and Peace Corps, Marble says, are similar: “Plan ahead. Follow through on your promises. Cultivate good friends and good colleagues. Make the time to get outside and get some exercise.”
“Yin and Yang”
For Hans Battle, WG’08, G’08, vice president at Citi Moscow, the Peace Corps offered an opportunity to work in a smalland medium-sized enterprise-development program in Kyrgyzstan while the U.S. economy stumbled. The Enron bankruptcy (he lived in Houston) was happening along with the dot-com bubble burst, and those forces combined to “greatly reduce the opportunity cost of heading to Central Asia,” he says.
His undergraduate studies also left Battle interested in economic development, and he was curious about the evolution of the former Soviet states.
When he returned to America, he realized he had gained big-picture and soft skills—but that he was lacking in “hardnumbers credibility.”
“I couldn’t make the transition into the career that I wanted and didn’t see how to move forward,” he says. “My goal was still to fill a management role in international business, but I needed a bridge to it, so I was drawn to Wharton for career advancement.”
While earning his MBA at Wharton’s Lauder Institute, he recalls, “It was inspiring to be surrounded by so many ambitious, positive and extremely clever people on a day-to-day basis for two years.”
He also appreciates where the two circles of Peace Corps and business school do not overlap and how they are like “yin and yang”—“because they balance each other without necessarily having any identifiable connection.”
Yet Battle also notes a number of similarities between his MBA and Peace Corps experiences.
“Both take two years. Both give opportunities to explore, take risks and develop. Both offer many new friendships. Both come with frustrations and have considerably high opportunity costs.” One of the frustrations of Peace Corps for Battle was its leaders’ aversion to risk, especially his country administrator’s distaste for volunteers venturing outside their pre-appointed territories. He recalls being in a popular café with some friends along the southern Uzbek-Kyrgyz border. The local Peace Corps administrator believed Battle would be in the north part of the country.
“And, what do you know, in the front door walks [the administrator]. So I’m making an exit, back through the kitchen/slaughter house, trying to remain undetected—a feat not made any easier by the remaining entourage of Peace Corps administration and drivers loitering out by the street as I exited the back of the building.”
A Mixed Method
Tara Grillos, W’05, C’05, currently a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard who did Peace Corps in Danlí, Honduras, thanks her Wharton undergraduate experience in the Huntsman Program for the opportunity to hone the practical skills she would need to navigate her professional responsibilities while on tour.
As a volunteer, she worked on micro-lending groups called cajas rurales, helping them to improve their accounting practices.
“Accounting was my least-favorite part of the Wharton core,” she recalls, “and the subject matter was not exactly designed for use in rural micro-lending groups.” But she acknowledges that the course helped her to quickly understand their bookkeeping practices.
“For better or worse, it is very different from a traditional liberal arts education in that way,” she says. “Wharton provides you with a business toolkit and access to a network of peers, but in the end, you are the one who needs to decide how to use those resources.
She also credits her Wharton education with an ability to think about international development in terms of economic models—“an extremely useful tool for gaining some clarity on a complex topic.” Grillos’ Peace Corps experience helped her to not lose sight of important details that can be “obscured by those models.” She has applied that approach to her doctoral work, where she combines qualitative and quantitative data to answer particular research questions.
“I think the combination gives me a well-rounded perspective on development puzzles,” she says.
And on life in general.
“I’ve gone out of my way to cultivate very disparate experiences—it’s what I love about traveling and immersing myself in different cultures—it’s what I love about interacting with people who think differently than I do,” Grillos says.
Sense of Perspective
What would the business world be like if more people understood how the rest of the world actually lives? This question followed Jared Susco, W’01, home after his Peace Corps assignment with a low-income cooperative in Paraguay.
Following idyllic undergraduate days on Penn’s “beautiful campus,” Susco went to work for PepsiCo in Chicago, where for three years he “learned a ton”—until he realized he wanted to do something more service oriented, preferably also outside the United States, that offered a chance to learn about a different culture.
Off he went to Concepción, Paraguay, with the Peace Corps, which placed him with a bankrupt savings and loan cooperative. His goal became helping its board and management to “rethink where they were going after it had gone into bankruptcy because the former director and others had decided to rob it of lots of its own members’ money.”
Susco drew upon his Wharton knowledge for governance issues, as well as with rebranding efforts and an overall assessment of the market situation.
For Susco, now assistant dean for finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Dental Medicine, the main lesson of the Peace Corps is one of perspective. It came, in part, from a woman whose shack he passed during his daily commute.
“She had no running water, no electricity and clearly no income. I kept wondering to myself how she and her young son survived on a day-to-day basis and what it would take for her to escape this grinding poverty,” he remembers.
“What is it like not to have food security? What is it like to have to spend a significant portion of your day working just to get water? When you spend the greater portion of your day simply surviving, you get a very different perspective on what moving forward means,” he says. “If part of the power from resilience training—which I started learning in my freshman MGMT 100 class—derives from applying an appropriate frame to failure and distress, I can state without doubt that my Peace Corps experience helped shape and broaden my internal frames so that I approach setbacks with far greater resilience than before.”
The “hippie” in Lisa Barlow Abelanet, WG’86, proudly states that she did her senior-year thesis for her international relations degree at Brown University on socialism in Tanzania. After graduation, she wanted to go to Africa, preferably Tanzania.
“But I wanted to work, not to be a tourist,” she adds. “The Peace Corps appealed to my ‘helping the world’ DNA and allowed me to stay long enough to really get a sense of what was happening there.”
A twist of fate landed her in Senegal, where she put socialism on hold; she even extended her commitment there for a third year.
“I always say that I learned everything I needed to know about consulting when I was sent to the bush to do ‘rural animation,’” she says, referring to the name of the Peace Corps program at the time for volunteers in developing countries, based on helping local people address their development issues more proactively and then trying to bring solutions for funding, project management, training or technical support.
When she returned stateside, she started up a company with a French sociologist/business professor in San Francisco, designed at first to help small and midsize French companies set up on the U.S. West Coast, thanks in part to 11 years of education in the French Lycée in New York City.
“After a few years, my clients were bigger and bigger companies,” she says, “Real companies with more complex needs, and I knew very little, really, about business at the time. I decided I better go learn more than the fundamentals before my clients figured that out, so I went to Wharton.”
She built a career in consulting, first in strategy and then in executive search. She now is a partner at a top global executive search firm. But a lifetime ago, the New York native was living in a village of 140 people, in the compound of the local chief and his five wives, struggling to gain credibility.
“Since they had never seen someone who didn’t speak their language,” she says, “they thought I didn’t know the object, rather than their word for the object. So, for example, when I pointed to a donkey and said in Wolof, ‘What is this called?’ many of them doubled over laughing, wondering how anyone could be so stupid that they didn’t know what a donkey was.”
But, she soon learned how to become a trusted partner of the locals and didn’t lose the larger lesson along the way.
“To succeed there, you had to look, learn the language, listen, adapt to your environment, understand the people, help them express their needs, propose solutions, design projects, negotiate to get funds and be resilient.
“That’s exactly what I have been doing in business consulting ever since.”