For Kira Epler, attending HBS meant a dramatic shift in scale. "My graduating class of chemistry majors was smaller than a HBS section," she says. The fourth generation in her family to graduate from Kansas State University, Kira grew up in Yates Center, a rural town in southeast Kansas with a population of about 1,500 people.
After completing her engineering degree, she worked in Dow Chemical's Capital Projects Group. "I noticed that engineering was important," Kira says, "but that all the interesting and fun decisions—about things like plant locations and merger options—were made by the business people. They got to make the strategic decisions." Eager to increase her business acumen, she decided to get an MBA.
Pushing herself into new territory
Why HBS? "I wanted to push myself," Kira says. "I loved Kansas State, but there, it's primarily people from Kansas. I wanted to be surrounded by people from different backgrounds." The transition can be challenging. "I had to become comfortable speaking in front of ninety people every day. The case method is so different from what I learned in engineering. I'm data driven; initially, I had trouble speaking about topics in which I didn't have direct experience."
"But I love it now. In business," Kira says, "it's important to be able to communicate clearly in a concise matter. Here, we do that every day, all the time. You get a feedback loop that tells you how effective you were in your communications."
The diversity of backgrounds also leads to new insights. "You come to HBS with big paradigm ideas about what leadership is and assume that others see it that way, too," says Kira. "Then you hear people speak from entirely different perspectives based on completely different family and cultural experiences." As an example, Kira cites a case about Shell's operations in Nigeria. Based on her years with Dow, "my view was slanted one way," Kira explains. "Then a student who had spent a summer in Ecuador spoke about the community he had lived in and how it was affected by a copper mine nearby. After hearing his story, I could see the broader impact of a company's decisions, the larger consequences for communities."
Kira has taken an active role in the Women's Student Association, serving as its admissions representative. "Prior to coming here," she says, "I had met only one person from HBS. I know what it's like to approach this school without any connections to Harvard. I want to be able to help prospective female applicants feel more comfortable here."
For her summer internship, Kira's accepted a management consulting position with McKinsey in Dallas. She plans on sticking with consulting for a few years after graduation. "Then I'd like to go back to the chemical industry," she says. "I'm particularly interested in strategy, especially in mergers and acquisitions."