It is a feeling that is familiar to many of us, the “career switchers”: beginning an MBA program with a keen interest in a different industry, yet not really sure where to start. I had worked in management consulting for three years before HBS, and while I loved my experiences in various sectors, I felt ready to narrow down and focus. I had always been interested in retail but never worked in the industry, and so I made exploring retail a goal of my time here.
First of all, it is worth recognizing that this whole “career switching” thing is daunting. You are probably coming to your MBA from a place where you feel good at your job and well-versed in your industry, and it is scary to go back to square one. Sure, I had been inside a coal mine, knew more than I particularly cared to about scrap metal recycling, and could make a mean slide deck, but I knew virtually nothing about what a merchandiser did or how to execute a strong digital marketing campaign. “Why would anyone already in retail even talk to me?” I wondered.
The good news is there are a multitude of ways to get familiar with your desired industry here at HBS. Here are a few things that worked for me:
Network, network, network
The HBS network is a powerful thing, and one of the easiest and least intimidating places to start was talking to my classmates with retail experience. The online student classcard system made it really easy to search for peers that had worked at companies I was interested in, and everyone I asked was willing to chat over a coffee. I also did some targeted outreach through the alumni network, and was pleasantly surprised at how willing (even very senior) retail-focused alumni were to jump on an informational phone call.
Attend on-campus speakers in your field of interest
I went to as many retail speakers as I could, typically 1-2 presentations a week, covering everything from large fashion brands to small e-commerce start ups. I found I always learned at least one useful thing per session that helped boost my knowledge of the industry and informed my job search.
Take a role in an industry-focused club
Consider taking an active role in a student-run club at HBS. I joined the Retail & Luxury Goods Club as a Director of Panels for the annual retail conference. This not only introduced me to countless new classmates interested in the same field, but also gave me a great excuse to reach out to senior professionals in the retail space as I sourced speakers for the conference. I am still in touch with many of these professionals today, and have plans to meet up with most of them during my summer internship in New York.
Join industry career treks
Most industry clubs on campus lead treks to visit the offices of a group of companies in that field. I attended the New York retail trek, during which we visited a fast-growing consumer goods company, an emerging brand of women’s workwear, a jewelry e-commerce start up, and a historic luxury watch brand all in the same day. It was invaluable to actually see and feel the atmosphere within each office, and the visit gave me a great reason to follow up later with the companies I liked.
Leverage industry-specific career coaching
I sought out the advice of a career coach through the Career and Professional Development Office. Because I was able to select the coach I wanted based on her background and areas of speciality, I was able to get valuable industry-specific advice on how to approach networking and and job hunting.
Looking forward, I plan to continue to explore retail: my summer internship is with a high growth, fashion jewelry e-commerce company (incidentally, sourced from the connections I made on the retail trek). Next year, I will be leading retail career treks to help incoming first years explore their interests, and also tailoring my second year courses towards subjects like Retailing and Strategic Marketing in Creative Industries.