Making Her Voice Heard and Empowering Others
By Coach Anita Kishore
Yulani Smith is no stranger to challenges. A Georgia native, she majored in mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, one of the toughest engineering schools in the country. After finishing her undergraduate degree, Yulani worked as an engineer at a large oil and gas company in Texas.
Q: How did you hear about MLT?
I was looking to make a career transition but wasn’t sure how. A mentor recommended that I think about going to business school, and that I apply to MLT. I realized that several of my peers from undergrad had done the program already so I reached out to them to find out more. The rest is history!
Q: What prompted you to apply to b-school and change your career path?
I decided to leave my prior career for two main reasons: One, I wasn’t passionate about working in oil and gas. I really enjoyed the business-focused roles I had held within the company, so I wanted to transition into an industry that would continue to let me hone those skills while doing work that I found to be more interesting. Two, I wanted to be closer to my family, who live in the South and on the East Coast. I felt that Wharton would be a great place to explore different industries and live much closer to my family.
Q: How do you feel participating in the MBA Professional Development program affected your b-school experience?
I applied to MLT’s MBA Professional Development program because I wanted access to recruiters from MLT corporate partners before I started business school. The idea of potentially landing an internship before walking onto campus was really enticing for me.
I was able to work closely with my coach, Anita Kishore, and with the broader MLT community to explore a wide variety of career options. Coach Anita was instrumental as I looked at consulting, marketing, strategy, product management, and even nonprofit education. I found product management to be the best fit, and that is the field I work in now.
Q: As an African American woman who successfully transitioned from engineering into product management, what are a few challenges you have faced?
My background is in mechanical engineering, and I don’t have much experience with software engineering. I was afraid that I would be seen as not having enough relevant experience for the product management roles that I was applying to at software companies. My first role out of business school was at a company that mainly produced hardware. It ended up being a great fit for my skills and allowed me to learn about software by taking on more responsibility after being there for a few months.
The fields of engineering and product management—and business more broadly—unfortunately, are not very diverse. I’ve had to work hard to make my voice heard in rooms where almost everyone looks and thinks differently than I do. I’ve worked hard to find allies and mentors who can help me navigate the workplace, and I’ve paid it forward by advocating for other people of color who I have encountered along the way.
One example is that when I have noticed that people (particularly people of color) have had their work undervalued or been completely excluded from conversations in the office, I have tried to speak up on their behalf when I am fortunate enough to be in the room.
Q: What are a few opportunities you have skillfully taken advantage of to be successful in business?
Participating in MLT MBA Prep and MBA Professional Development taught me how to network purposefully and effectively. Networking does not come naturally for me, so I have had to practice perfecting my pitch, connecting with new people, and maintaining existing contacts. People who I have met while networking have helped me to receive job offers, and some have become ongoing mentors even after I’ve finished my job search.
I have tried to leverage my natural curiosity to become more successful at networking and personal growth. I took classes in a variety of subjects that interested me, both inside and outside the business school. I have networked with people whose roles or industries I’ve found interesting to learn more about them and what they do. These meetings and classes helped me to develop a wide network of relationships with people in different industries, which I have continued to cultivate.
I am very intentional with my networking. I created a spreadsheet to help me keep track of my contacts. I track each networking conversation I have with that person and try to follow up on every topic that we have discussed. I also use the spreadsheet to keep track of people who have offered to stay in touch, and I regularly reach out to those people to keep them updated and ask for support when I need it. The best piece of advice that I have ever received was to always end every conversation by asking for a recommendation or a connection. Most people have been eager to help me, so being prepared with a specific ask has helped me grow my network.
I have tried to help others navigate their career journeys by sharing my story. My path hasn’t been linear or “traditional” for business school. I have had to make tough decisions about my future. I do this by talking to others about their experiences and taking a deep look at what is important to me. I know that career decisions are very personal, and I hope that by sharing a little about how I have made my decisions will help others as they make decisions in their own lives.
Q: What do you do for fun outside work?
Outside of work, I spend a lot of time eating. I love trying new restaurants or new recipes! I also practice yoga, and recently received my yoga teaching certification. And, of course, I enjoy spending quality time with my friends and family.
If you’re interested in understanding more about Yulani and her journey, you can contact her via LinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/yulanismith/
This blog has been condensed and edited for clarity.