Alumnus Celena Yew talks about juggling work and studies for a part-time MBA, skill-sets she honed in the programme, and her Singapore experience.
“If I ever started my own company, Celena Yew is someone I would hire in a heartbeat. Incredible work ethics, single-minded focus and a very sharp, analytical mind combined with a humility that is so hard to see in today’s world. She is one of the best gifts that the NUS MBA experience has given me. I have been lucky to have Celena as a group member in almost every one of the classes we took together during our MBA and we’ve cemented a friendship that comes along once in a lifetime. During her recent visit to Singapore, I spent some time talking to her about her MBA experience and her life beyond the classroom. Celena now lives near Los Angeles, with her husband Henry (who she met at the NUS MBA) and their lovely daughter, Erika” – Anuprita Bhomick
AB: What made you pick NUS MBA?
CY: Reputation of the school, location (in Asia), reasonable tuition fees and availability of a part-time program that enabled me to work and study at the same time.
AB: Reflections on who you were prior to MBA?
CY: With only 3.5 years of working experience before starting my MBA course, I considered myself still relatively inexperienced but the burning desire to conquer the corporate world was very strong. I felt that I could go further and wanted to learn more about the business world. I was not satisfied with just working, I wanted a more fulfilling life. Since high school, I had set my mind to obtain a masters, so in 2001, I was ready to realize my ambition. Then, MBA was becoming the pre-requisite for most jobs and I knew that I would need to obtain one if I were to remain in the rat race. True enough, if we look at most job advertisements now, having a degree is no longer sufficient, they want someone with an MBA plus relevant working experience.
AB: How the MBA has changed you, opened doors for your career?
CY: During the 2.5 years working and studying part-time for MBA, I became a tougher person and I believed even my productivity level took a quantum leap! Juggling work and studies were by no means easy, moreover when I was working in McKinsey then, as a Senior Information Analyst. Many studied for an MBA to join blue chip consulting firms like McKinsey, BCG, Bain, etc.. but as I was already working in one, I wanted an MBA so that I could venture into a more hands-on role in the business world. The pace in McKinsey was very fast and top that up with aiming to get the perfect score every semester, I did push myself to the limit and evidently it was no walk in the park. Between going back to the office to work on weekends so that I could still keep a good performance and completing my school work, the stress did get to me sometimes. I remembered that during the first year of my MBA course, I didn’t get the chance to even watch TV! Yes, TV was out of my life for one year and leisure was totally thrown out of the window. But I was lucky enough to have a few colleagues in McKinsey who were very supportive of what I was doing. They provided me morale support and cheered me on all the time. Top that up with a dream team of MBA course mates who were always ready to give their best and never say die attitude when it came to presenting the best projects and cracking the toughest case studies, I was rolling!
With the MBA, it did help to make up for the shortfall in my work experience. Before joining McKinsey, I worked with the biggest commercial bank in Malaysia for 2 years before I joined McKinsey Kuala Lumpur office and then moved to McKinsey Singapore office. When I completed my MBA, I had 2 years experience in the financial industry and 4 years experience in the consulting industry. Still prospective employers are always looking for more. The MBA was like the icing on the cake! The MBA gets you a foot in the door especially if you have fewer years of experience. When you have the whole package (academic credentials and working experience), most prospective employers will at least call you for an interview.
Towards the end of my MBA course, I landed a job with the Scottish government investment promotion agency based in Singapore. Together with the Country Manager of Singapore, we setup the office and established Scotland’s official presence here, to promote investment flows and business alliances between Scotland and Singapore, slowly expanding to South East Asia. I was also given an additional Asia Pacific role supporting the Director of the Asia Pacific. During my work with the Scottish government, I got to experience Michael Porter’s Competitive Advantage of Nations theory at work ( something which we all spent considerable time learning during the MBA). After spending 3 years with the Scottish government, I yearned to go back to the corporate world, and decided to join a Singapore firm which was a distributor in luxury goods. It was a regional role covering 10 countries in Asia Pacific. It was during that stint that I truly put my MBA knowledge into work, as I was involved in costing, pricing, vendor negotiation, joint ventures, performance monitoring and also planning. After a short tenure with the company, I relocated to the States to join my husband. I got my present job with an American company, partially because I have an MBA. That was one of the nice-to-have criteria listed on the job advertisement. My current boss, the President of the company is an MBA alumni from UCLA and I remembered we did spend some time talking about my MBA experience during the interview!
AB: Do you think there are certain skill sets which the MBA helped to hone and make a part of you forever?
CY: It solidified my business knowledge and gave me a clearer picture of how to approach and solve business issues. All the case studies sharpened my analytical skills further. I have been commended by a few of my bosses that I was good at dissecting problems and coming up with solutions. This is thanks to the numerous assignments and problem-solving case studies which were part of the MBA.
AB: Were you involved in a lot of student activities?
CY: As I was doing the MBA on a part-time basis, there was really no time to join many student activities but I was fortunate to get to know a bunch of MBA course mates who have become more than just my project mates. We have continued to keep in touch and become such good friends that I believe we have cemented lifelong friendships. When we were doing the MBA, we were in the same “boat”, steering and rowing hard to reach the same destination. During those trying times, we managed to bring out the best in each other and many of them gave good support and advice to me. I still remember during the first year of my MBA, I was working so hard, going into the office on weekends, even Sundays that my course mates who were already “seasoned” in the corporate world, said, “Celena, there’s more to life than work. Work is never going to end, but the company won’t close down if you stop and enjoy life a bit”. Well, today, I truly agree with that golden piece of advice!:-)
AB: Tell me of a funny incident during your MBA
CY: One of the heels of my stilettos broke and came off totally when I was getting off the NUS shuttle bus. To make matters worse, it was the day we needed to present a Marketing group project. I placed an emergency call to a classmate who was on her way to school to get me a new pair of shoes so that I didn’t have to “limp” to the podium to deliver my presentation! Luckily, the shoes arrived in time and our team did an excellent presentation. It made me think about how resourceful, dependable and important team members really are.
AB: How was your experience living in Singapore? What do you miss most about it?
CY: I fell in love with the efficiency of getting things done in Singapore. Everything just seems to be so organized, well planned and gets done without much hassle most of the time. People have a much better sense of urgency! I always tell people how I fully adapted to living and working in Singapore, after only my first 3 weeks in Singapore compared to 3 months when I worked in Kuala Lumpur and 1 year in the States!
I miss my friends, the type of jobs (regional roles), the food and pace of life very much. Everybody is on the “Go” mood and “kiasu” which is good when you want to strive for continuous improvement in your career. Without competition, sooner or later you will get complacent, and before you realize it, you are left behind by the rest of the world.
AB: What’s your advice for people just starting on their MBA?
CY: Be mentally and physically prepared if you want to do really well. Of course, there are those who go into the MBA for the knowledge and don’t care much about their scores, but still you need to put in effort to complete the projects. Nobody likes a “free rider” in their project group!
The NUS MBA Buzz team expresses sincere thanks to our Alumnus Anuprita Bhomick for taking the initiative of conducting the Alumni Speak series