That one time I went to Ghana…

So I just got home from an amazing week in Ghana… but before I give you the full play by play, I have to go back to a lazy day at the office this summer. On July 16th, this email came into my inbox:

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tldr: write a 300 word essay to be eligible to win a trip to Ghana.

Thankfully, I was pretty bored at work and therefore used that time to write that essay. Not sure I would have spent the time at home to do it if I were busy… here’s what I wrote:

I have always had a passion for improving the learning conditions of young girls. Prior to starting at MIT Sloan, I was the managing director of a non-profit organization, Girls in Tech Minneapolis. The goal was clear: increase the number of girls pursuing technology professions by increasing their access to education and strong female role models. Even though I am no longer involved in Girls in Tech, this topic continues to be something I feel strongly about and will continue with once I earn my MBA. Girls all over the world should have better, equal access to education. It is this passion that drives my desire to learn more about non-profit education abroad.

The increased popularity of cause marketing has also turned my attention to the 1-for-1 model of non-profits. I first heard of TOMS through Hanson’s Take the Walk tour, and have been interested in the model ever since. How can we encourage more affluent people to give to those who do not have the same? By participating in this once-in-a-lifetime learning experience in Ghana, I hope to learn ways to apply this model to future for-purpose driven initiatives.

Lastly, I know this opportunity will teach me so much. Beyond learning about education and non-profit work, I will see a first-hand account of how to start from scratch. Adam Braun created something that is truly changing lives. Through this inspiration, I know I can do the same.

I also love the impact CommonBond is making and would love the opportunity to connect further! I am also a lot of fun to travel with.

A week later I got a 7am phone call from CommonBond in NYC telling me I had been selected. Cue intense excitement.

[My essay was also published on their blog, which you can see here!]


Last Wednesday, I took a flight from BOS to Amsterdam solo. Once there, I met up with Natalie, a representative from Pencils of Promise (PoP); David, Michaela and Ali from CommonBond; and Jason and Eryn, the other winners. Looking back, it’s kind of funny because I wasn’t once concerned about traveling to Africa with 6 complete strangers.

Completely unrelated, here is a photo of an Amsterdam Airport Donut:

Good donut.
Good donut.

The next seven hours were filled with wine and movies… but nothing really worth mentioning here. We landed late on Thursday and went to bed soon after we checked in. Early thoughts? — Ghana is hot.

Friday morning we left Accra for Ho early. There, we were welcomed by a great group of students who had been in a PoP school since 2013. After a performance of a traditional dance and the recitation of a poem, we were each presented with beautiful pieces made personally for each of us. Within minutes, rain started pouring and the students went back to their classrooms. We then got to see the inside of a PoP classroom and to observe students learning. The great thing about PoP is that in addition to building sturdy structures for children to learn in, they continue to support each and every community through teaching training and onsite support.

IMG_1960In Ghana, the teachers are taught tools to support active classroom engagement. And by active, and I mean active. The kids sing, dance, and move around because that’s a part of their culture. Outside of recess, I don’t remember ever having that in elementary school.

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The junior high school was a different story. Currently, PoP only supports elementary education, due in part to their focus on literacy and obvious financial constraints. The junior high structure was over 20 years old and was in pretty bad shape. The mixture of rain and a “faulty roof” clearly impacted students’ learning experiences. Here, they are moving their desks so their books don’t get wet.

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I left this community with mixed emotions. On one hand, I was so inspired to meet such great children. At one point, a handwashing station tipped over and multiple boys jumped up to help put it back up. The students even show up early to sweep the classrooms – there is so much pride in learning. That isn’t something I’ve seen in the United States – children just ready to jump up and help. On the other hand, the conditions are pretty bad. I can understand not being able to learn when something as common as rain interferes.

Next, we went to a site that showed an example of the “before” environments. Can you imagine going to school here? Whether your answer is “yes” or “no”… it gets worse…

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On Saturday, we were honored to attend an inauguration ceremony. After a few speeches and being gifted a goat (literally), we got to see the before and after. Saying it is a stark contrast is an understatement.

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A “classroom” under a tree with just a black board and two benches
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The new PoP built school.

Even more touching was the way the children ran and cheered into the new school once the ribbon was cut. After both getting dance lessons from the kids and teaching them to nae nae, we went back to the hotel to drink some beer and tell some stories.

That night, we really got to know each other. Up until then I wasn’t sure if my style was gelling well, but after a few good stories I had at least a few of them on the dark side.

Sunday… just.. wow. We went to a community near Togo where there must have been over 100 community members on site helping build. With PoP, they provide supplies and skilled labor, but require the community to provide the unskilled labor. It both ensures that the community is committed to bringing in the new school and that it is something they truly want. To see 50 grown men giving up their Sunday to literally make 4000 cement blocks to construct a school… I was just in awe. I think football dominates Sundays in the United States.

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After that we got in a small taste of tourism when we went to a monkey sanctuary. We were told a beautiful story about the history of the land and how monkeys came to be as important as they are. Then we fed them and I nearly lost my shit.

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And all of a sudden, Monday was our last day. We visited a commnity where PoP is piloting e-readers. It was so cool to see a classroom full of students on e-readers in the middle of a village with minimal electricity. They were actually in the middle of a sexual education lesson when we began observing. It felt rather intrusive but also really neat that they are learning about that at a young age.

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I left Ghana with such great respect for both the people in the communities and the impact Pencils of Promise is making. The children and families I met have such a strong desire for education and bettering themselves. They are hardworking and kinder than I see most days. Because of this trip, I know I will be a life long supporter of PoP. Beyond that, I formed great relationships and learned about starting a company from a fantastic CEO. I believe I have an even better appreciation for education and am excited to discover how I can impact the next generation. I have a deep understanding of what some lives and cultures in Ghana look like, and I will continue to reflect on the ways life differs in the United States. I believe this experience has even influenced the way I will raise my own children some day. It was the trip of a lifetime and I am so thankful to have been given this opportunity. I’m pretty much pinching myself right now.


 

Update 10/23/2015: a version of this post was also published on the CommonBond blog.

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Hanhung Folk Art – Week 1

Our team has made a lot of progress this first week in China. On Monday, we went to the Folk Art factory and were finally able to meet the CEO. After seeing the bags in person, we were impressed with the great quality of the handbags and the wide assortment of styles and designs. After a tour, we had the opportunity to dig deeper into what the current problems are and started forming our strategies.

On Tuesday we went to both of the local specialty stores that sell Folk Art handbags. The first one was located in a huge mall targeted at tourists called Flower City. The visit began with a walk through the most beautiful flower garden ever.

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Once in the shop, we did some customer surveys to understand more about why they chose to buy (or in some cases, not buy) Ms. Camellia handbags. Thankfully our Yunnan University teammates were with us to translate because we got a lot of great information.

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Since then we have just been putting together our recommendations in the PowerPoint for Monday. Between now and Monday we hope to practice at least 5 or so times, and then we’ll present our current findings to Ms. Ren and the faculty for the projects.

This weekend our hosts are taking us to the Stone Forest and I could not be more excited! They have been so wonderful, showing us around and just generally taking care of us. It has been an amazing experience so far!

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Read this blog again at its original location here.

China Is Amazing

I’ve only been in China now for just over a day and I already know I love it. The flight here was extremely long and taxing, made worse by my cold, but now that I’m here I’m glad I’m staying awhile before having to go back.

The first thing that caught my attention was the cars. There was a pink Bentley at the airport and it was beautiful and amazing. All of the other cars are really nice too – the man that picked me up from the airport, Victor, was driving a pretty nice BMW. Within the first 10 miles I also spotted a Maserati and the rest are really modern too. Up until this point my experience in other countries, Egypt, Costa Rica, Mexico, even Italy, has been that their cars are pretty old and not as nice. I asked Victor about it and it turns out that they have to pay 100% import tax on cars too. So, they are hella expensive.

This doesn’t make it any less scary when they are whizzing at you on the highway though. The traffic laws seem to be lacking, or, potentially the only one they enforce is no running red lights. Otherwise people don’t stick to their lanes or use turn signals either. That part feels pretty standard for outside the US.

I’m also treated like a princess here. We went to the zoo and I got all dressed up in fancy Chinese dress, and they lightened up my face more because light is beautiful, they say.

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But on top of that, I feel very comfortable here. Everyone wears colorful outfits and has bright pink luggage too. I’m seriously in love with their style here, I feel like I fit in. AND! They wear fanny packs. It is beautiful. The only reason I didn’t bring mine was that I didn’t want to look weird… now I’ll know for next time :)

I’ve had trouble eating with the chop-sticks, maybe I should have practiced first. I’m not going hungry though, and even if I do a little that’s okay because I was still carrying around Christmas weight. Anyway, I now know to ask for a fork if I think I need one. Last night we went out to dinner and I tried pig skin, bamboo, tofu, and some really spicy soups. The pig skin was a little tough for my taste, and some of the soup really spicy, but I’m happy to be eating authentic food rather than just McDonalds (which I can get literally everywhere).

Another potential reason I’m not going hungry is that I’ve discovered Oreos. And not just any Oreos, Chinese Oreos, which surprisingly are different from American Oreos. There are just a lot more flavors. So last night Victor took me to a store and we bought every flavor they had. Strawberry, Green Tea, Blueberry/Raspberry, Mandarin Orange, Grape/Peach, and Vanilla Ice Cream. I also got these amazing chocolate covered Oreo wafers, which were better than they have any right to be.

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Re: Water. They have to boil water to drink it from the tap here, and so with dinner, they served hot lemon water. I then asked if I could get a bottle of water too because the food was so spicy, and they apologized that it was cold but I said that’s how I like it. Even the beer I had was room temperature, it is interesting that they don’t drink cold things much, especially when it is so hot here! In Kunming, it has been and will continue to be a consistent 80 degrees every day. Which could be another reason why I love it so much.

Editor’s note: Kate is in China and unable to post herself, so I’ll be uploading her submissions as they make their way to me.

Los Angeles? Yes please.

I flew out to LA yesterday for a week long career trek with my classmates. It will be an opportunity to learn about, and meet, some really great entertainment companies. I’m extremely excited.

I’m even more excited now though, after spending just one day in LA. I fricken love it here. First, the weather is beautiful and perfect and 75 and sunny and who could even hate that ever? Also, I get to drive! Granted, I’m shlepping around my crew in a minivan, but I don’t think I’ve driven since school started and I’ve missed it. I got cut off by a Bentley and while my first instinct was to curse at him, I was just kind of like “awww, that’s going to be me one day!!), you know, just in a Maserati.

Last night we went out to a cool brewery that had VEGAN mozzarella sticks. Vegan! So I could eat them and not die! They were amazing. So, yes, I pretty much want to live here next.

Portland has donuts, in case you didn’t know

The first day Kylie and I were in Portland was hot and cloudy so we decided to just wander around rather than stop in and actually shoot any donuts. I wanted good sunlight to properly light them in my light box. As soon as we left though, Kylie realized she kind of wanted a donut. We passed a sign for “Delicious Donuts” and decided to try it out. It wasn’t on my radar as a place to checkout beforehand, but it was a quaint little shop worthy of a visit.

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Inside, I didn’t really want one because we had just woken up and I hadn’t finished my coffee yet. Kylie said how awesome they looked and said she was going to get one, so I got one myself. But then after I got it she was all like “oh never mind, I don’t want one” and basically she tricked me into a donut. Just sayin’. It was good, but nothing epic so I decided not to take official pictures and rather just enjoyed the dough.

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Later in the afternoon I saw Blue star and had to go. It wasn’t even the one I had mapped out, I didn’t realize they had two locations. Plus, it was raining, so basically fate pushed us in. We got one to split because we were on our way to dinner, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try Blackberry Basil. It was fantastic.

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A few hours later we were on our way back to the hotel when we stumbled on the Voodoo truck. This was just pure magic because we had just been wandering our way back – I knew the cross streets and we kind of just turned based on the lights. Again, fate, I tell ya.

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Kylie got the Oreo donut and I got one called “Marshall Mathers” and it was spectacular.

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Two days later the sun was finally shining bright. We set out for a day of pictures, complete with my fancy camera and other equipment. First stop: Blue Star. But the other Blue Star, not the one we went to on the first day. Everyone was super nice to us and they even gave me a little discount on the donuts because we were using them for the book. Here are the ones we shot (including the one in the back, with a shot):

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Voodoo Donuts was pretty close. Before we even saw it though, we saw the huge ass line of people waiting to get donuts. Seriously. I asked someone who was about half-way through and he had been standing for 45 minutes already. No thanks.

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Luckily, I knew of a place called “Voodoo 2” and we went there instead. It took about 30 minutes to walk from one to the other (not counting the wait on the bridge for the lifts to raise…..) and the other one had only 4 people in line. We waited for 10 minutes (also, why does it take 10 minutes to get through only 4 parties?!) and got the goods. It was a neat looking shop and a fun experience, but I’m sad to say they didn’t completely live up to the expectations.

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All in all, we had a good time in donut land.

Summer Travel

I’ve been wracking my brain the last few months about what I should do with my summer. While speaking with my interviewer at MIT, he strongly suggested I take time in between work and starting school to decompress. It makes a lot of sense to take time between – I can only imagine what a shock it would be to go straight from working my corporate job to flying out to Boston to begin classes right away.

So, I’ve been exploring tons of ideas of what to actually do. Here are some things that have made my list:

  • Road trip across the USA
  • Go to Canada to hang out with Kylie from Booth
  • Go to a “boot camp” of sorts so I can be ripped like Kara Thrace
  • Spend time at a writers retreat finishing my book
  • Volunteer with a nonprofit in Nepal with a future classmate of mine
  • Do the whole Eat-Pray-Love thing in Bali with this retreat
  • Learn to program at a hacker school type thing
  • Work with a girls coding program in NYC
  • Go on an adventure tour through Thailand/Cambodia
  • An Internship

Road trip across the USA
This would only be fun with Joe. Road tripping alone would not only be semi-boring, but it would also need to be done without a car as the only car is Joe’s. This could, however, be combined with some other idea. If I go to Thailand for a few days and then come back, Joe and I could spend a few extra days eating donuts on the road out to Boston. Just sayin’

Go to Canada to hang out with Kylie from Booth
I emailed my bff from my time in Chicago, asking if there was anything we could do together…

I was thinking, what would it look like if I visited you? Is there anything cool we could collaborate on or create during my time there? Is there anywhere you’d like to go that you might want a partner for? All these ideas are running through my head, and surprisingly (only surprising in that I’ve only known you three weeks in person) you’re on the short list of who I’d like to spend my time with.

Basically she is this amazing woman who also runs a women in technology group up in Canada and is on the very short list of anyone I would ever co-found a company with. Her and I getting together would make things happen.

Go to a “boot camp” of sorts so I can be ripped like Kara Thrace
This is a good idea on the outside. I want to test myself physically… if I could join the Marines just to go through boot camp, I would. However, I couldn’t find many places that were more “get ripped” vs. “fat camp”. This Luxury Boot Camp could be good, but is only a week long. Bikini Boot Camp is similar, minus the mansion. The Camp lets kids join, which scares me off right away. At the end of the day, something like this might be fun to do with another lady, but wouldn’t leave me looking like Kara Thrace.

Spend time at a writers retreat finishing my book
This month long writing retreat in Greece would be beautiful. I could fully devote myself to a goal (finishing my book) while enjoying a new culture and city. There will even be a resident instructor that focuses on memoir writing. It’s a long time to spend away though… and I might get bored staying in the same place the whole time.

Volunteer with a nonprofit in Nepal with a future classmate of mine
On the MIT Admit site, a fellow admit mentioned that she will be spending two months in Nepal prior to orientation.

If you join me, we can also go hiking in the Himalayas, learn some Nepali, eat loads of dhal bhat, see all the stars in the sky ever, go asian safari-ing…

While this would seriously be one of the coolest, most amazing opportunities full of adventure and learning and on my own-ness slash some scary parts, it’s too open ended for me. Plus, if we didn’t get along it would be a very awkward start to business school.

Do the whole Eat-Pray-Love thing in Bali with this retreat
I was nearly 100% sold on this trip. It includes physical activity (yoga), adventure (traveling to 3 different areas) and writing. It would be a small, intimate group of mostly other women, most of whom would be older. It would be awesome. It also over laps though with a really good friend’s wedding, so, basically it won’t work. I could get in late or something, but then I might just prefer one of the other trips. Also, I wonder if the long classes would be good or bad – would it be better for me to just go on a trip where I can write rather than where I would have actual assignments?

Learn to program at a hacker school type thing
Part of me feels like I should learn more coding or development type skills if I’m going to go to MIT and start a company with someone. On the other hand, I’m actually pretty good at following lines of code from my computer science and math classes. I’m just not sure if I would meet the requirements of Hacker School… or is that impostor syndrome talking? Also, living in NYC for three months would require more travel for Joe and I – we’d go through withdrawal otherwise… aww

Work with a girls coding program in NYC
Girls Who Code is a great organization out of New York City. They put on a intensive summer program for girls to learn programming and discover their passion for technology. I don’t think they have any open positions nor are they looking for temporary summer folks. Yet, I would love nothing more than to help put together this program or something like it.

Go on an adventure tour through Thailand/Cambodia
I’ve never been to Asia. During college, I had signed up for a j-term trip to China, but without enough interest from other students, the trip was canceled. Still, it feels like the next place for me to visit. I randomly searched “Thailand adventure tour” and was brought to the g adventures website. They have a healthy supply of exactly the “world adventures” I am looking for. As of right now, I’ve narrowed it down to two:

  1. http://www.gadventures.com/trips/essential-vietnam-and-cambodia/AVEV/2014/
  2. http://www.gadventures.com/trips/indochina-explorer/ATIC/2014/

Fun? Absolutely. Spendy? Very much so… Worth it? Haven’t decided…

An Internship
I applied to a Management Leadership for Tomorrow program, which among many other things, offers support to students pursuing their MBA in a select number of programs. One perk of this program is having access to a few internships during the summer before the MBA program begins. Because MIT is one of the few partner schools, I applied and would be very excited to get this opportunity. However, I’ve received mixed messages. On the website, it looks like applications are only being accepted through January, but in an email I received from a partner school, they said they are reviewing apps through April (on a rolling basis).

This would be a great opportunity if it were to work out, but I’m nervous about waiting so long before making a final decision.

So who knows what I’ll end up doing – it may be any one of these items or something entirely different. Have a good idea? Let me know…

Back on track

I’m out of my funk from last week. Other people on the internets (so it must be true) have called similar reactions to application season PTSD… maybe that’s what it was. Either way, with two schools inviting me to interview last week, I’m feeling better. It shows me that I’m at least a competitive candidate and gives me an opportunity to woo them. I’m a good wooer.

This upcoming week I have a Skype interview with Georgetown. I would have preferred to do it in person, but they only have one day available for on-site interviews and it was a Saturday. Spending time in class and seeing the campus during the week is important, so if I can’t do that, I might as well just Skype it. Plus, I’ll go über-broke flying everywhere if all 8 schools come calling…

After the first interview request, I did something terrible and discovered Beat The GMAT, which is a website where people post if they’ve been invited to interview yet. It kind of allows me to go crazy as if I didn’t have that ability already. I learned though, that MIT was beginning to send out their interview requests the following day (Friday). I hate knowing stuff like this because then I can get my hopes up and down and all around within the normal response period. In reality though, I shouldn’t be worried until I don’t hear back at all.

Anyway, I got an email Friday morning from MIT and nearly had a heart-attack. Except it was just a newsletter mentioning things going on around campus and was in no way an invite to interview. Then they emailed me later in the morning and I was like “god dammit MIT quit emailing me heart-attacks” except this time it actually was an invite to interview so the excitement was warranted.

I signed up for a good time and will be able to do a class visit and information session. It will be an awesome little trip. I also reached out to all the current MIT MBA students who are also Macalester grads – I’ll be meeting up with them when I am out there to gain insight into their experiences.

Now it’s time to practice like crazy for my interviews and remember that I don’t suck. I also need to stop analyzing the admissions process because now I think every school sends invitations out alphabetically so when Stanford starts on Monday I’ll get my invite then too… but I could totally be jumping to conclusions and getting me hopes up for naught.

The application begins…

So I’ve started working more diligently on my business school applications. You can tell by the fact that I’m blogging. While I’m usually procrastinating blogging itself, it can also be a procrastination tool for other things. It depends on which I sense is more of a priority.

Anyway, I think I’ve narrowed down the list, mostly. My number one priority is applying to Stanford. I’ve visited, know I love it, and would be extremely excited to attend. The next tier that I’m applying to though are schools that I have yet to visit. This makes it a little more difficult because as I’m writing thoughtful essays, I like to envision myself being there. That’s hard when I’ve never been!

In that list is MIT, Berkeley, Tepper, and a couple others. I’m applying through the Consortium which not only makes the application process easier (basically like a common app for b-school) but includes the opportunity to be selected for a large fellowship. I don’t want to apply to too many schools though, I’d rather put more effort into a smaller number. That’s why I’m trying to see just the top four in person, and then maybe apply to a safety school or two.

Joe’s graduation reception for his master’s program was last night. Since we’ve transitioned from him being the student to me being the almost-student, he’s been super supportive. I explained that my most productive time is in the morning, so this whole week we’ve been getting up at 5 for me to get at least an hour in of application work before going off to work. And here I am… blogging.

The Cliché Experience: BlogHer13

I had a good time at BlogHer. I wouldn’t consider it life changing, but I wouldn’t call it a worthless experience. First and foremost, BlogHer is very different from any tech conference I’ve been to. Essentially the male to female ratio flipped and it was like: bam – all these people I don’t typically interact with. I knew this going in though, prepared for it, and was truly excited about it.

But then I remembered why I tend to get along with men better than women. No, why I get along with techies better than fashion and mommy bloggers (and I mean no disrespect here!). I’m self conscious more than anyone would probably expect. I have this lovely veneer of confidence that usually sustains me, but I need to have something to keep it up. It’s like the “fake it till you make it” saying, where, when everyone is talking about certain topics I literally have nothing to add more than a nod. So then I’m like “dang, I wish I could just sit here and look cute” but in reality I know everyone is looking at me like “omg, why are you even here.”

Another insecurity that surfaced at BlogHer? My loneliness, my strong desire to have a best friend with none to call my own. I truly enjoy the company of other women and am jealous of those that have just an über strong connection with someone nearby.

Then came in Google Glass. Anyone and everyone asked me about them. Remember in my last post when I said I liked the attention? Yeah, it turns out I only like that in small doses. It wasn’t bad when people were excited about it and wanted to try it on or something, I definitely welcomed that. What I hated was the “what is that on your face?” inquires. One, because that isn’t very nice to say and two because I don’t know how to talk to people that have lived in a cave for the last 6 months. And I’m an introvert and kind of just wanted to wander in peace.

It wasn’t all “woe-is-me” though. The sessions that I went to were really engaging and informative; the keynote speakers were inspiring and made me laugh. It was a really well organized event that ran smoothly from start to finish. I connected with a lot of passionate women who I will remain in touch with. And, because they are the ones that really made my BlogHer experience, they shall get special mention below (there were others too, but I lost their cards or didn’t get them maybe). Right now though, I’m just truly looking forward to a hug from Joe and quality time with my friends from college.

Still alive, I promise.

I didn’t get selected for the Emerging Writer Grant I applied for earlier this year. I’m disappointed for sure, but seeing as it is the only thing that got me to blog in the last two months, maybe it is a blessing in disguise.

I’m in Chicago right now for work. I got in last night. Timing wise it worked out, there was a women MBA panel hosted last night that I was able to attend.

The event was nice. I ran into someone I knew from last years’ Booth program, and I learned a little bit more about NYU Stern, Berkeley Haas, and a handful of others. I was surprised though, by how few people showed up. There was also a lot less mingling than I was expecting and hoping. I like chatting to people and learning more about their interests, where they are at in the process and where they are applying to. I think it also hurt that there was no wine or anything – everyone knows a little open bar loosens people up a bit.

The biggest take away I got? Take risks. Go for it. Don’t settle and it’s okay change. I’m not sure what I’ll do with this advice yet, but trust me, I’m thinking about it.