Laura Gao, W’18, tells how she and a team of Penn undergraduates worked with the administration and the City of Philadelphia to create a competition to make the case for bringing Amazon HQ2 to Philadelphia.

Every year, thousands of students arrive in Philadelphia from around the world to receive a world-class education. Still, not many are able to apply such learnings directly to the city they call home for four years. This past fall, I was delighted to have gotten the opportunity to work with the Philadelphia Department of Commerce on their proposal to bring Amazon to Philly.

I had just finished that summer interning at Amazon as a business data analyst. When the city contacted me within weeks of classes starting, I was eager to assist them in decoding the tech giant’s culture and quirks. I knew my peers could also deliver a larger impact collectively. In recent years, Wharton has been focusing on the intersection of business and tech, spearheading career treks to San Francisco and adding a new Business Analytics concentration. The city’s request was the perfect way to build on this by challenging students to analyze a real-world situation for one of the top tech companies and cities in the world.

In partnership with The — a club that aims to help students craft their own diverse career paths — and The Wharton School, we hosted the Amazon HQ2 to Philly Case Competition. 30+ teams vied for the chance to present proposals to a panel of Wharton faculty and a stellar audience including Mayor Jim Kenney, Vice Deans Lori Rosenkopf and Howard Kaufold, and several media outlets. Ultimately, the city was able to reference the presentations in its official written proposal to Amazon.

As always, each success comes with a long list of lessons learned. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Move fast and break things — but don’t leave your team behind.

“Move fast and break things” is popular mantra in the tech industry. It champions hacking rapid growth by bulldozing through barriers at any cost and never looking back. I adopted this strategy early on to race against a 30-day deadline to bring my idea to life. I was taking calls in the middle of class, assembling midnight emergency meetings, and pulling every favor I could to secure sponsorships. And it worked — up to a point. My reality check came when Vice Dean Rosenkopf FaceTimed me. Yup, FaceTimed. In an hour, we hashed out several crucial issues I had left behind in the dust. Slowing down to walk in sync with Prof. Rosenkopf allowed her to recruit some of Wharton’s best to handle event logistics and judging, which let me focus on getting quality submissions.

Illustration: Laura Gao

In addition, I took her cue to delegate work and began to further involve my team. It was easy to get caught up in sprinting towards a goal that I had unknowingly left others behind. I had a loyal team of incredibly smart and diversely talented people. I realized I couldn’t — and definitely shouldn’t — do everything alone. By capitalizing on everyone’s strengths, such as having our finance lead, Airika Yee, manage sponsorships and our webmaster, Bill He, handle site updates, we became significantly more efficient.

2. Dealing with multiple parties is like working with NPCs for a video game quest.

Each quest character needs some magical item from another to get you what you want, but none are able to meet at the same time. Since each party is responsible for a piece of the puzzle, the final picture can seem unrecognizable until the very end when everyone delivers all at once. Though our initial sprint was unsustainable, a marathon didn’t promise a constant stream of validation either as a motivation boost. Rather, the first 90% of our journey was a struggle to silence a barrage of internal doubts. The final 10% was a symphony of pieces finally fitting together.

For example, the existence of the entire competition depended on getting an adequate number of submissions. However, since college students are infamous for their procrastination, we could not collect sponsorships, schedule the Mayor, or book the venue until the deadline for submissions passed — which was regretfully late in our 30-day timeline. Thankfully, our team anticipated any fallouts with copious Plan C’s and D’s and each party delivered successfully.

Illustration: Laura Gao

3. Most importantly, grinding for work you hate is absurdity. Hustling for work you love is passion.

The rush we got from sculpting a simple idea into a spectacle was the fuel that propelled us to 100 MPH, replacing the stresses of work with the endorphins of passion.

Amidst the ups and downs, the various milestones that rekindled that rush included:

  • Launching the landing page and watching wide-eyed as the hit count climbed by the thousands
  • Having an emoji party in the team Slack channel when the number of submissions nearly doubled our goal
  • Reviewing all of the creative proposals together in the cozy living room of our Airbnb during Fall Break
  • Browsing the news before class and seeing this competition mentioned on CNN and GeekWire

Ultimately, regardless of what city wins Amazon over, this month-long journey that my team and I traversed together has been an unforgettable one. Not only am I thrilled to have inspired others to create authentic impact for Philadelphia, but also for the invaluable life lessons I’ll carry forward long after graduation.

Update: Philadelphia was chosen as a top 20 finalist city for Amazon’s HQ2 bid.

Posted: January 9, 2018

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