Josephine (Jo) Tan (MBA 2021) always starts with a pencil sketch, a light grey roadmap of where things are going. Then bold black ink makes it permanent and watercolor paint gives it life. Recently she has added a step—bringing the almost finished product into Photoshop for some magical final adjustments before possibly posting it to her Instagram account; @thisisjotan. It has been a learning process as her illustrations continue to evolve.

“I’m still trying to find my style and voice, as you probably can tell from my work posted on Instagram,” said Jo. “Its recently evolved into patterns.”

For Jo, illustration has always been a hobby. She started to illustrate more in her final year of undergrad at the University of Sydney to keep her food diary interesting. (If you follow her Instagram account she still frequently illustrates food.) “I wanted to keep track of what I was eating and keeping a food record in list form got boring, so I started sketching the food I ate,” she recalls. “After that, I started to illustrate to preserve emotions, experiences, and memories.”

She has continued to preserve her memories and emotions since coming to HBS. Though Jo doesn’t have an exact number of illustrations, she has filled three notebooks. When school is in session she tries to create one illustration per week, and in the summer tries to illustrate every other day while also taking on private commissions. COVID-19 has had an impact on the frequency of her work, too. “It has definitely freed up more time for me to illustrate, especially since the number of social activities have been reduced,” she stated. “It has also given me more time to reflect about my work.”

She usually works from her dorm room in Mellon Hall because she considers her creative process to be private and, despite her Instagram presence, putting her work out there wasn’t something she was always comfortable with. “It feels like I’m sharing a piece of myself to the public and that’s hard for me because I’m a relatively private person,” said Jo. “This changed when I started b-school and I attribute a lot of it to Section E.”

Jo is frequently inspired to create and to share by a quote from American radio personality Ira Glass, in which he observes that people start doing creative work because they have good taste, but get discouraged when their taste doesn’t match their skill. Jo feels that she is in the process of trying to bridge the taste gap. “That quote has taught me to be bolder with experimenting, and that ideas do not come from isolation--the best ideas are not hidden insights,” she said. “I’m able to increase my creative capability by learning, collaborating, and sharing with others.”

As her followers can see on Instagram, colorful illustrations of watermelon, bananas, puppies, baked goods, and HBS architecture liven up the grey-ish wall next to her bed—she says the little everyday things from her life often inspire her illustrations the most.

“In the last year, I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from experiences at HBS and the everyday interactions with my section,” said Jo. “In my first semester, I was illustrating to express the overwhelming emotions of being an RC; the anxiety that came from class participation, the internship search, the heavy load of case readings. In the second semester, I was illustrating to cope with being in quarantine; withdrawal from not being able to see my section mates on a daily basis, getting used to doing classes on Zoom, and just trying to keep sane.”

One of her favorite pieces to date is a black and white illustration of a raised hand in the classroom with text that states, “I love you like an overachiever loves participation grades.” She enjoys the satire of the piece, as she pokes fun at the Type A personalities of many MBA students. Her other favorite is a series of illustrations with fictional book titles, including 7 Effective Habits of People Who Look Really Engaged on Zoom but Really Aren’t and The Art of Being Pantless Every Day. She says it really reflects how she (and many other second-year MBAs) feel about being an MBA during the global pandemic.

Her fun, often quirky, illustrations aren’t something you would expect from a former analyst at Google Malaysia—or from a student at HBS—but she says there are pockets of creatives in the MBA program. “My section mate is building her own zero waste fashion design startup,” Jo explains. “She has been a great sounding board for me on how to commercialize artwork.” Jo doesn’t only appreciate the creativity of her artistically inclined classmates, and points out that business can be creative, too. “I love seeing how people integrate creativity into everyday solutions.”

There are some opportunities to be creative on campus, through such clubs as Art Society, Beyond Dance Club, Design Club, HBS Show, and Improv Club, but Jo thinks HBS could do more. “Making art accessible is important—by that I mean making it something that more of us can relate to and participate in. I’d love to see more things like the Portrait Project,” she said. “I think it’s such a brilliant project because it channels the HBS energy, it’s relatable, it’s vulnerable, it’s honest.”

The Portrait Project is an HBS series featuring student essays with artsy black and white portraits in response to Mary Oliver’s famous question, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" What can we expect from Jo’s “one wild and precious life” as she begins her final year at HBS? Like many MBAs in the middle of the pandemic, Jo is keeping her options open. “I don’t want to limit myself in this climate,” she said.

This story was originally posted to the HBS Newsroom website.