Master of None

Prem Nagarathnam, Class of 2017

One of my goals coming into Booth was to become business fluent in Chinese. It seemed like a reasonable goal, even as I was on the flight to my IBEP quarter in Shanghai. After all, I could read every other character on the MingHin menu. What did it matter I couldn’t even have a basic conversation about weather? Immersion would fix everything.

It was a reasonable hypothesis, considering that all the other things I’d valued most about my time at Booth had come from diving in deep. The class grade that had felt like the biggest victory? Big Data, after weeks of 20 hour R sessions with my study group. The activity that’d taught me the most? Not coursework, but case prep, going from session to grueling session until frameworks stop feeling like straightjackets. The trips that I’ll remember? Well, all of them, but certainly the first one, showing up at O’Hare with 17 near-strangers crazy enough to sign up for a Mystery Random Walk where we could end up anywhere on Earth. At the outset, all these experiences had felt immense and unclear, but at some point the pieces clicked and the intuitions they imparted sank somewhere deep within.

My immersion in Chinese mostly related to the various cocktails other exchange students and I discovered at speakeasies that even our Shanghainese classmates had never heard of. Still, just being abroad and committing to the program let knowledge seep in. I learned to work with students who came from a different business environment, understand the unique pieces forming the world’s largest economy, and tailor strategic concepts for companies with 100s of millions of users ranging from the rich to 3rd world rural. As for speaking Chinese, my conversations often ended the same way: 听不懂 or TingBuDong. It’s used in conversation to say you don’t understand, but its literal translation is ‘hear but don’t understand.’ There’s a lot I’ve heard in the past two years that went in one ear and out the other, but there’s hardly any situation at Booth where I pushed myself and failed to learn something profound. There’s a ways to go before I’m anywhere near fluent in Chinese, strategy or any other portions of business. But in so many areas, Booth gave me a start – and for that I am very grateful.

Prem will be working in strategy for Samsung in Seoul and sincerely hopes that his role is limited to business strategy and does not turn into a military strategy situation.