Finding My MBA Fitness

In November 2017, US-born Carolyn Schneller was taking a well-earned rest away from the hustle and bustle of Shanghai on the golden beaches of Koh Phi Phi in Thailand. Having previously submitted her application to join the MBA class of 2020, Carolyn eagerly awaited news of an interview opportunity and checked her emails whenever the seemingly elusive WiFi hotspots became available on the island. Elation and anxiety would soon follow, as Carolyn received an interview invitation scheduled on the day of her birthday, which unfortunately meant she would still be in Thailand. Undeterred, Carolyn arranged a video conference interview with the admissions office and set out to speak to the hotel receptionist in order to book out the business center for the call. “The receptionist looked at me blankly and apologetically informed me that they had no such business center,” Carolyn recalls. “As the WiFi signal was so unreliable in my room, I made the best of a bad situation and told the receptionist that I would be claiming a corner of the hotel lobby to take an urgent video call and would need silence. I even moved books and papers into the background to make the scene appear more professional. Having since been awarded a place on the MBA, I can now look back on the experience with a smile, but I do sometimes wonder what would have happened if a tourist had walked in behind me that day wearing nothing but board shorts and flip flops!”

One year on from her memorable admissions experience, Carolyn, the former college athlete now in pursuit of ikigai (a Japanese word meaning "a reason for being") in Shanghai, sat down with MBA Admissions to discuss standing out in the application process, finding focus in the classroom through sports, and why she came back to her temporary childhood home of Shanghai.

Due to her father’s work, Carolyn moved around a lot as a child, mainly in the US, but landed in Shanghai at the start of the 7th grade. She attended Concordia International School in Jinqiao, an American school just a stone’s throw away from the CEIBS Shanghai campus. Although her initial stay in China was short, Shanghai and its culture left a lasting impression on young Carolyn. Later, she majored in English Literature with a minor in Chinese language at Ohio State University, a school she attended on full scholarship thanks to her abilities on the rowing team. As Carolyn neared the end of her degree, she moved back to Shanghai as part of an exchange programme with Shanghai University of Finance and Economics (SUFE). “I’m a naturally curious person and remember being fascinated with Shanghai purely because of how exotic it felt at the time, not only in terms of Chinese culture, but also all the other nationalities that I was studying alongside at Concordia and then at SUFE,” Carolyn says. “After graduating, I stayed in Shanghai but didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I was teaching, but really missed being an athlete and started working in the CrossFit community as a coach.” Carolyn would later go on to manage a newly opened CrossFit Box in the Shanghai district of Songjiang and although the hands-on role gave her experience across operations, logistics, and marketing, she was still looking for her opportunity to make an impact on a bigger platform. “My parents instilled in me a set of core values from a young age,” she says. “When I face any big decision I approach it by asking myself three simple questions – Will the outcome improve me personally? Will it improve the community? And will it improve the world? An MBA ticked all the boxes, so I began the process of throwing myself into the research phase.”

When preparing her application, Carolyn reached out to MBA 2016 alumna Christina Mou who put her in touch with a student from a similar background. In this case, Chris Day, a Canadian national who had been living and working in China for ten years prior to joining the MBA. Through Chris, Carolyn was able to grasp both the practical impact of the MBA as well as the learning environment at CEIBS. “I was concerned about how my profile would compare to the corporate highflyers that I imagined dominating the corridors of business schools. Through Chris, I arranged to visit the campus and was fortunate enough to sit in on a career development session,” Carolyn says. “That feeling of being surrounded by ambitious young professionals was inspiring, but it also gave me a sense of how much the school valued the diversity of backgrounds. This gave me the confidence and enthusiasm to apply, but I still wanted more. Volunteering at a number of events on campus is a good way to get to know the community without feeling you’re only interested in your own personal development. Joining TEDxCEIBS, INNOVATEChina, and the China India forum, for example, allowed me to learn about the community I wanted to join, whilst also giving back.” 

Still considering possible career directions post MBA, Carolyn advises MBA applicants to come to the admissions interview ready to articulate and demonstrate analysis of the trends, challenges, and opportunities in one’s current or preferred industry. “Driven by an increase in disposable income in the tier one cities, the gym industry has exploded over the past five years in China. During my interview, we talked about the knock-on effect of this trend being two fold. Firstly, with many gyms opening and closing, the winners are differentiating themselves through their level of service. Secondly, the development of the industry is leading to a wider understanding of health and wellness,” Carolyn says. “China tends to leapfrog America in many industries, but I believe my second observation, the general awareness of healthy lifestyles, still lags behind here. I can see opportunities opening up in this area and am currently planning a panel discussion on campus to bring in some innovative companies in ‘functional fitness’, ‘organic food delivery’, and ‘sensory deprivation recovery’ to share their business models and plans with members of the MBA Sports Industry Club.

Like all successful MBA application stories, it is a brand new game with a new set of rules once you are in the MBA programme. For Carolyn, there is no challenge finding a balance between the demanding schedule of the MBA and a healthy routine. “It is different for everyone, sports and fitness is no longer my main focus, but for me, I need to work out and compete in order to maintain the MBA programme as my number one focus,” Carolyn says. On a day-to-day basis, this translates to being on campus and in the gym by 7am, either working out with her classmate Kyle Li in the gym or leading coaching sessions. “If I start my morning well, it gives me purpose, ensuring I’m switched on and engaged from the first minute of financial accounting to the last.”

Carolyn was, unsurprisingly, in the gym when she received her offer letter to join the MBA Class of 2020. “I opened the email and screamed so loud in the locker room that my business partner burst in with a broom raised above his head, assuming that I had seen a mouse,” she jokes. “As an athlete, I’m driven by success, but also fear of failure. I don’t mind admitting that, given my non-traditional background and the strength of my classmates, I did spend parts of term one with a creeping sense of imposter syndrome.  It was in the feedback session of the leadership journey that I found my sense of belonging. My group mates shared that although I don’t have the full technical skill set (yet), they really respect my positivity, planning, and ability to get things done. That meant a lot to me and I would encourage anyone else who has an unusual background to still grasp the MBA opportunity with both hands. After all, no one in the class is already a Master of Business Administration, we are all here to learn.”