“I had no secret formula. I just took every assignment as a learning opportunity” – Ashima Setia – 1st year MBA topper at IIM Ahmedabad
This is a continuation of our series “The Special Ones” where we are profiling Batch Toppers at First year MBA across all Top B-Schools in the country. We have already interviewed Toppers from FMS Delhi, IIM Calcutta, IIM Bangalore, IIM Kozhikhode, XLRI Jamshedpur, IIFT and JBIMS. You can read their stories here.
This is the seventh story in the series and we enter the hallowed grounds of IIM Ahmedabad. It is extremely difficult to get in, no doubt. But topping after the first year is even more difficult. The competition is just insane, given that the stakes are so high. That makes Ashima Setia’s achievement all the more commendable.
About Ashima Setia (in her own words)
I am originally from Haryana, and finished my schooling at an all-girls’ boarding school. I graduated as a Civil Engineer from IIT Delhi in 2010, and worked at Deutsche CIB Centre in Mumbai for the next three years. I joined IIMA in 2013. I interned with Bain & Co. during summers and am a member of the Consult Club at IIMA. Currently, I am attending University of Cologne in Germany as an exchange student for one term. I like reading fiction, staying up-to-date with music and exploring different cities.
Tell us a bit about your educational background – were you a topper all through your undergraduate and school days? What brought you to an MBA?
I finished my undergraduate studies in Civil Engineering at IIT Delhi and then worked for around three years at Deutsche CIB Centre (Mumbai) as a trading analyst. Though I have performed well in academics throughout, I was not always the topper.
Walk us through your academic journey in the first year – How did you pace yourself academically in the first, second and third term?
I adjusted myself to the pace and rigour of the curriculum in all three terms – and even in the second year. To me, every phase posed unique challenges and presented opportunities to develop different skills. For instance, slot 3 required balancing academics with internship interview preparation. Slots 5 & 6, on the other hand, were the most rigorous, academically, with loads of assignments / projects and long lecture hours. In addition, these were the slots wherein flawless group coordination and task allocation were needed. But not all slots were hectic. Slot 4 particularly had less course work, and I enjoyed the free time as well.
Did you encounter situations where you were in a group in which others were not as committed as you were? How did you handle this?
I was lucky to have extremely cooperative course groups. Moreover, in a place like IIMA, everyone is motivated to perform to their best. In the rare cases when others are not as motivated, I tend to identify what a person would like to work on or is good at and try to share the workload accordingly. I also try to discuss with them how much they are comfortable finishing and keep following up with them on the deadlines.
What were your thoughts and goals when you entered IIM Ahmedabad? Did you expect to be a topper in the program after the first year?
Before joining, I had a sense of the rigour of the curriculum from my friends and seniors. Though I had not set quantitative goals for myself, I had decided to make the most of these two years in terms of learning. After all, this might be my last time as a student! In the first slot, I really enjoyed the courses and the class discussions. My scores were encouraging, so I decided to maintain the level of my performance.
B school life is always buzzing with all kinds of activities and distractions. What did you do to keep focus?
For me, time management and efficiency were the keys. At the very start, I had understood that the curriculum is designed such that one is compelled to deliver his/her best output within the given time constraints. To do so, I attended all classes, took part in all class discussions and brainstormed on cases which were to be discusses in class. I made sure that I had to do minimum work outside of class hours. It left me with enough time to take part in club activities throughout the first year. In addition, I have managed to attend most events on the campus.
Tell us about your summer internship.
I interned with Bain & Co. during summers. I was working in the retail sector, and the case objective was to drive sales growth for a multi-brand apparel retailing firm. My deliverables were to collect and analyse primary data at two under-performing stores, and develop recommendations for both the front-end and back-end teams based on the observations. The next step was to equip the client teams to be able to conduct these analyses on their own. I completed the root cause analyses & implementation for the two stores and documented my approach for clients’ reference.
What was your reaction upon knowing that you were one of the toppers of the first year? How did you celebrate it?
By the end of my first year, I knew that I would end up in the top 5% bracket. So, it wasn’t a surprise. However, being a maximizer, I did think as to how I could have done even better.
What is your advice to a student entering a B school, in the first term? How can they achieve their academic goals? Apart from academics, what should they focus on?
Keep things simple. Regularly attend classes and get involved in the campus activities. Just enjoy the process!
Competition for acads at IIM Ahmedabad must have been insane. What was your secret formula?
I had no secret formula per se. I just took every piece of assignment as a learning opportunity and didn’t worry about my rank or the result.
If you could go back in time and you had to live the first year differently, what would you do?
Well, I wouldn’t make any significant changes to the way I approached it, except one – while working in groups, members chose to work on the courses they were the most comfortable with. In a real working situation, however, the same work piece is broken down among the group members, requiring much greater alignment and coordination. I would simulate a similar situation in my course groups of the first year.
What are your future career plans.
I plan to work in a consulting / general management role for the next few years. I want to build upon the systematic business research approach I have learnt during my stay at IIMA and during my internship. In addition, I would like to develop on my skill of managing teams and aligning with individuals having disparate interests. Such a role would also give me clarity as to whether I should pursue an academic career or specialise as an industry practitioner, in the long run.
Apart from imbibing academic knowledge, how else has the first year of MBA enriched you? What is the greatest non-academic learning you had at IIM Ahmedabad?
Well, it has enriched me in so many ways! It is not at all the cut-throat-competition place that is usually projected in the media. In fact, I made the best of my friends at IIMA and the PGP-1 year was one of my best years.
Usually toppers are regarded as nerdy types, and in the high-stakes environment of a B school, they are subjected to a lot of peer pressure in ways that range from good-natured banter to mockery and bullying. Did you face this? If yes, how did you deal with it?
No, I didn’t really face any mockery or bullying. Rather, I found my peer group to be quite mature and supportive.
How was your performance in the CAT? Which institutes did you interview with, which ones did you convert, and approximately where did you lie in the final list of candidates selected for IIM Ahmedabad?
It was my third attempt at CAT! I was more focused on foreign B-schools / ISB admissions that year, and had relied on my last two years of preparation for writing CAT. I didn’t have a super-awesome percentile (99.08), but had a good overall score because of my boards and undergrad GPA. I got calls from all IIMs except C, interviewed with A, B, L and converted all three. In addition, I had full-time MBA admission offers from Dartmouth (Tuck), UVA (Darden) and ISB. I didn’t figure in the top 20 list at the time of admission. Rest of the list is not disclosed to the students.
Did your IIT background help you in any way in academics? Did it help with shortlists for summers?
I don’t think that an IIT background per se helped me to a great extent. What helped me greatly, though, was how I had utilised the opportunities I was presented with – this translated to my performance at IIT and at work.
Tell us a bit about your work experience with Deutsche Bank prior to MBA. What type of a role was it and what perspective did you get?
I worked as a trading analyst at Deutsche CIB Centre, Mumbai and was working with the London desk. I frequently travelled to the on-shore location (London) and that gave me the opportunity to work in a fast-paced, competitive environment. Moreover, in the three years’ duration, I worked in multiple sub-teams, sometimes in supervisory roles. It did give me a perspective in terms of interpersonal dynamics and team alignment. I also had a strong perspective on the European economy and financial concepts when I joined, and it helped me academically.