“There really isn’t a right or wrong answer – just lots of different shades of gray.”

While studying industrial engineering at Columbia University, Nelson Yuan “felt the gravitational pull of Wall Street.” For him, engineering wasn’t an end in itself, “but a framework for looking at problems. I like to apply an engineering perspective to operations challenges.” His budding interest in finance, combined with a desire to apply the Mandarin language skills he had learned at home, led to his first internship in Hong Kong. “Seeing the growth trajectory in China,” Nelson says, “made me want to study abroad.”

After graduation, Nelson continued to work in finance with three years of investment banking at Morgan Stanley and two at the Carlyle Group, where he worked in private equity and debt investment.

Efficient way to learn business

As Nelson’s career matured, he “didn’t find finance fulfilling.” But making the transition to operations meant addressing gaps in his education. “While finance is important, I needed an efficient way to acquire a larger understanding of business, including marketing, strategy and entrepreneurship. HBS’ general management focus fits my ambitions. Here, I can develop a foundation for thinking about business problems.”

But when it came to business problems, the case study method offered an approach that had been unfamiliar to Nelson. “As an engineer, I saw things in black and white,” he says. “There’s either a right answer or a wrong one. But the cases teach you that there really isn’t a right or wrong answer – just lots of different shades of gray. You come up with what you think is the best answer and defend it with evidence. Then as a class, we can reach consensus based on what different people bring to their case arguments.”

HBS has changed Nelson’s understanding of leadership as well. “Working in the trenches,” he says, “it can be hard to see how business leaders affect the ethos of a company. One of the things they stress at HBS is responsibility, the strong sense of ethics that must inform the decisions we make, the way we influence our colleagues. Here, I’m internalizing what it means to be a significant figure as a business leader, a person who shapes a company’s culture.”

Exploring high tech

During the winter break, Nelson joined the Tech Media Club’s West Trek for a tour of Silicon Valley. “We met leaders of established tech companies, small start-ups, and emerging clean tech firms,” says Nelson. “It was a great introduction to companies that might not otherwise recruit at HBS. And a convenient way to weigh the advantages of working at an established company versus working at a start-up. We got a sense of the various lifestyle choices from the people we met.”

Nelson has accepted a summer internship with Symantec in the Bay Area, where he will help manage a new enterprise product focused on storage software. “In the future,” he says, “I’m leaning more toward established companies right after graduation, though I may ultimately join a start-up as a founder or early employee with an eye on becoming a CEO.”