2011 Corvias Foundation Scholarship recipient Gary Zhu is a proud graduate of Northwestern University who chose to stay in the Chicago area after graduation. Gary shared has shared his experience entering the field of management consulting in the interview below.
Q: Can you start by telling us a little bit about what you’re doing right now, and how you got there?
A: I currently work as a management consultant for a global consulting firm and am based in Chicago. I completed my undergraduate studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, located 10 miles or so north of downtown Chicago, double-majoring in economics and applied mathematics in the social sciences and graduating in 2015. Before college, I attended high school in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and during this time, my mother worked at Corvias in Fort Polk. I was an employee scholar from my high school class of 2011 scholarship recipients, and I remain incredibly grateful and humbled to be a part of such a wonderful family.
Q: How did you first know you wanted to work in business?
A: In high school, I did not have the opportunity to explore much in the social sciences (e.g., economics, psychology, sociology) given my school’s curriculum and course offerings. These disciplines form much of the foundation of business as we know it. I had always been intrigued by how companies are run and how some enterprises are able to be profitable while others are not. I took the initiative and enrolled in economics courses at my local college and found the concepts intuitive and interesting. After declaring as an economics major in college, I was surrounded by classmates who had interests and career ambitions in the business world. I became friends with many of them, and in addition to the wonderful colleagues I have today, they play significant roles in keeping me passionate and motivated in what I do every day.
Q: What is management consulting? (For those of us without the business know-how)
A: The management consulting industry exists because companies face enormous challenges every day and need outside expertise to successfully navigate those challenges. Businesses will hire consulting firms to advise them on how to overcome difficulties in a number of areas – supply chain inefficiencies, lack of employee engagement, decline in customer volumes, and so on. When we begin projects for our clients, we quickly develop an understanding of how their businesses are run, investigate the drivers of their problems, and pinpoint ways of improvement. That’s what management consultants do in a nutshell – we solve problems for our clients.
Q: What drew you to management consulting specifically?
A: When anyone asks me this question, whether it’s my clients, non-consulting friends, or students interested in consulting, I always say it’s the people, and I mean that 100%. Consultants work hard – we put in well above the standard 40 hours in a given week because the challenges that our clients bring to us require that much time and effort to solve on our part. As daunting as that sounds, a consultant is never alone. We work in teams to solve problems, and these teams are all comprised of incredibly intelligent, creative, dedicated, and fun individuals. I am constantly amazed and motivated by my colleagues in what we are able to do collectively, and it is just rewarding to be part of that type of environment at work.
Q: What is the life of a consultant like?
A: If I could use three adjectives to describe my life as a consultant, I would use stimulating, rewarding, and fun. It is stimulating because while no project is easy, I am able to develop significant amounts of industry and company specific knowledge critical to my future growth and development. It is rewarding because I believe that I am impacting the way businesses are run with my work every day, and that has very tangible impacts on the world around me. And it is fun because I end up developing so many meaningful relationships with my colleagues and clients through our work together – and in between the long hours we put in, we do get to enjoy each other’s company outside the office, whether it’s team dinners at fancy restaurants, go-karting to blow off steam, or weekend trips to exotic destinations.
Q: What is your favorite part of your job?
A: The relationships I have been able to build. I genuinely believe that the people I have encountered in my career – colleagues, clients, students – are good people. While I have certainly not maintained connections with every individual I have met, I am very proud to have developed a network that believes in me and supports me. I feel like I can rely on them for advice, for comfort, and for simple companionship – and it is a wonderful feeling to know that I have a team behind me.
Q: Where do you ultimately hope your career will take you?
A: Having focused more recently on advising companies in the transportation and services space – and in aviation in particular – I can envision myself working for an airline directly in the future. The specific parameters are still relatively opaque at this point, but as I mature into a leader, I would be excited about taking on challenges associated with leading an airline in meeting its lofty goals.
Q: How have your military brat experiences prepared you to work in business?
A: I am different from most of my Corvias peers as I was an employee scholar. However, I have experienced relatable changes in my life compared to those growing up as a “military brat.” I, too, moved growing up – first, from China to the United States in Rhode Island; then from Rhode Island to Louisiana; and then from Louisiana to Chicagoland. It’s funny because I inherently do not like change, but my life experiences have forced me into situations in which change is necessary. That has broad applicability to my life as a consultant – I travel for work as I need to be wherever my clients are – so I have had to adapt to different company cultures, different cities, and different teams. I think the ability to comfortably handle change is important to being successful, and I am sure my fellow Corvias scholars have a huge advantage compared to most people in that area.
Q: What advice would you give to members of the Corvias family who are considering careers in business?
A: Two things – one, prepare yourself to the best of your ability and two, try not to stress. On the first point, if you have an interest in business, start thinking of ways you can set yourself up for success. That could mean taking relevant courses in school, researching industries and companies that appeal to you, working on polishing up your resumes, practicing interviews with your friends and mentors, and reaching out to people who can help you along the way. As long as you feel that you gave your best effort in trying to reach your goals, you have nothing to worry about. There are many roads to working in business so take comfort in the fact that there is no single path to success. On the second point – and this is something that I deal pretty terribly with – realize what you can control and what you cannot and force yourself to let go of the things that are beyond your reach. You’ll be much more relaxed and happier with such a mindset, and I think most people will benefit from that type of thinking in the long-run.
Q: Are there any other messages you’d like to share with the rest of the Corvias community?
A: I wish you success in all your respective pursuits. To anyone interested in exploring opportunities in business and would like to connect, please feel free to reach out on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/garyzhu92) or Corvias Connect.