Not Your Typical Wednesday: Taking the Stage in Dublin in Front of 5,000 People

Erica Swallow Speaks at Web Summit
Representing the Sloan School of Management, I spoke on a panel alongside fellow MBAs during the 2014 Web Summit in Dublin.

On a typical Wednesday, I only have two standing appointments: a marketing class and a comparative literature class focused on leadership stories and ethics. The rest of the day is filled with group meetings, homework, a visiting speaker session every now and then, and of course, sleeping in, thanks to my afternoon classes.

This past Wednesday, though, was everything but typical. I had been invited to the Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland as an MBA Scholar to shed my experience and wisdom on a crowd of 5,000 soon-to-be university graduates.

My morning shower was the tip of the oddities iceberg that day. I had rented a room via Airbnb, a peer-to-peer apartment rental site, and my host, it turns out, was one of 250 Airbnb employees based in the Dublin office. I had grown accustomed to her being gone by the time I woke up, and that was true that morning when I pitter-pattered on the cold, hardwood floor to the bathroom. Seconds after I undressed and turned on the shower faucet, though, I heard the front door open and her voice on the other side of the door saying, “Erica? Hello?” Confused, I answered back, and she told me the plumber was in to fix the water heater — for the past two days I had taken cold showers, assuming it was normal.

That morning, I learned about my host’s mysterious water system. The plumber told me that the water heats up from 4–8 a.m., and in the case of a later shower, I could use the magical “boost” knob to heat a small batch of water. Since it was my big day to hit the stage, I decided to go all out and boost it up! It turns out a boost really is exactly what it sounds like — just a wee bit warmer. As the Irish might say, a little nudge up the hill; a bump, a push, nothing more. But I was ecstatic to have a lukewarm shower to start the day off in what felt like near luxury.

By this time back in Cambridge, I’d be running to my first event or meeting, struggling to get my coat on, all while texting someone that I was running late. My time in Ireland, though, was refreshingly on-schedule. I arrived at conference panels on time; I showed up to dinners early; and I always seemed to find a taxi quickly, as I was traveling off-peak. So, I did just that — called a cab using Hailo, an Uber and Lyft competitor that’s popular in Europe — and zipped off to the Web Summit.

A panel, a speech, a fireside chat. Lunch. Two more panels. I took it all in, typing out nuggets of inspiration that flowed from the stage. As my speech time got closer, I began observing how speakers entered the stage, where they placed their hands, when they paused, whether they crossed their legs or not. At one point, I caught myself planning out my “body language strategy” for later that evening. Crossed legs, I determined, looked more relaxed. Hands in lap seemed nervous. Arm over couch arm, calm and collected. And lastly, facial features. If my face was going to be blown up 10 times its size, I was going to take this big screen opportunity to play up my facial features and keep the audience entertained.

It wasn’t until I was standing backstage with a pop star-style microphone wrapping from ear to ear that I realized I hadn’t spent any time preparing for the panel content. Granted, it was about my MBA experience at MIT, so it wasn’t really a topic that demanded much preparation.

The stage manager signaled for the other panelists — also MBAs, from Harvard and HEC Montréal — and I to head up the backstage stairs towards the fancy sliding door that I had seen reveal speaker after speaker in the previous days.

The door slid open and lights flooded the opening; 10,000 eyes watched us move across the stage, and the first thing I thought to do was wave. And second? “Snap a picture, you fool!” I reminded myself. “There are 5,000 IRL people looking at you! How often does that happen?”

Souvenir shot taken, the panel began and the stage countdown clock started. We shared our backgrounds, why we decided to pursue an MBA, and how we were enjoying Ireland.

I took body language inventory as the others spoke: Legs crossed? Check. Arms relaxed? Check. Smile? Check. Looking at speaker? Check. Breathing? Check.

I was the last to speak on the panel, with 30 seconds left on the clock. Moderator and Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave had asked us to give our final bits of advice. “Don’t do your homework,” I said, getting a few chuckles from the audience. “Back in college, the most life-changing moments for me turned out to be studying abroad, learning a new language, going to art galleries and shows, traveling. Whatever you do, don’t spend too much time worrying about homework, because you’ll discover your true passions and make your best friends outside of class.”

With that, it was all over. Five thousand of Ireland’s future leaders had hopefully soaked in our words. It’s cheesy, but I hope I become one of those fabled inspirations for at least one person in the audience. A decade from now, one of them might be on a similar stage as the one I sat on, responding to a well-worded question on leading a passionate life, saying “I went to a panel when I was in college, and this MBA student from MIT said something that will always stick with me…”

After all, the only reason I find myself on stage after stage — though not typically as large as this one! — is because I was inspired by those who came before me.

This post was originally published on The Tech, MIT’s oldest and largest newspaper and the first newspaper published on the web.

Announcing My Udemy Course on Startup PR!

Quiet on the set! My Udemy course was filmed at Contently HQ. Notice that we hadn’t quite filled our bookshelves yet, so I had to do some maneuvering to make the shot work!
(Image courtesy of videographer Jay Irani)

I’m excited to announce the launch of my Udemy course, “Startup PR: Getting Press on a Shoestring Budget.”

After two years or writing and teaching about startup PR, it’s about time I get my act together and put together a full-on course, right?!

The 13-lecture course comes in at a little more than two hours of content and focuses on:

  • how to build relationships with journalists
  • the secrets to crafting an awesome email pitch
  • ideas for communicating more effectively

In celebration of the course’s launch, I’m offering up a limited time offer for the first 100 readers to enroll! Use the coupon code lovelyreader for a 50% discount on the original price. Not too shabby, right?!

I’m looking forward to seeing how this goes, so don’t hesitate to holla back! And thank you in advance for your support and feedback!

What are you waiting for? Take my course now!

Special thanks to my buddy Jay Irani for the awesome camera work! You’re the man, Jay!

Comparing Obama and Romney’s Schooling Years

Education plays a big role in my life. I grew up in Arkansas, my family bobbing above and below the poverty line throughout my childhood — from a very early age, I knew that education was going to be the determining factor of my success in life.

I studied hard, took Advanced Placement courses in high school, attended America’s “dream school,” and am now in the process of applying for graduate school.

Education has made all the difference in my life. I am the first person in my family to graduate from college, and at 26 years old, I’ve accomplished a lot more with the cards the world dealt me than would have seemed possible.

Though education has been a central pillar in my life, I had never thought to take a look at the educational backgrounds of the world’s top leaders and compare them to my own schooling. Until now, I found it presumable that most of America’s presidents probably attended elite colleges and graduate programs, but I hadn’t thought about the full picture, beyond secondary school.

That all changed this week, though, when I came across the below infographic that takes a look at the educational backgrounds of presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. While I shouldn’t have been surprised to see that both candidates attended elite elementary schools, I couldn’t help but to be taken back a bit.

Yes, education is important. But when does the choice of attending a particular school over others start to become pivotal in a person’s success trajectory? Pre-school? Kindergarten? Middle school? High school? College? Or is a person’s success determined by many other factors beyond their schooling, such as his or her will to succeed and break molds?

I’m sure this question and others that I’ve been pondering as a result of this infographic are ripe for debate, and there’s no doubt that America’s education system still has a long way to go before every student is served well from the day they enter school until the day they graduate.

I’m not really going to get into all of those discussions, though. I merely wanted to share this infographic with you, which looks at the entirety of Obama and Romney’s schooling. Very interesting read. If you have any thoughts to add, please do comment below!

Enjoy, and feel free to enlarge the infographic by clicking here or on the image.

Image courtesy of Cain and Todd Benson and infographic courtesy of Degree Jungle

How Should We Teach Tweens about Business & Finance?

For such a capitalist country, the United States does a horrible job of preparing its youth for the reality of life, where success is highly based on financial achievement.

My financial education was pretty much void until I hit college, and even then, it was my own decisions that made it possible, as I proactively chose to attend undergraduate business school at NYU Stern. I was raised in the deep South, where jobs were hard to come by and many struggled to provide the basics for their families.

The education systems in many of the Southern states — my home state of Arkansas included — are well below the national average, making matters worse. But even the best of the best in America can’t compete on a global scale. In a 2009 study, the U.S. ranked 25th out of 34 peer countries in math and science.

If we can’t even get the basics right, how are we going to teach our children how to properly manage their finances, create sustainable businesses and stay out of debt?

One of my former NYU professors, Orly Sade, recently teamed up with award-winning writer and former BusinessWeek editor Ellen Neuborne, to co-author a book for tweens (ages 9-12) about finance and entrepreneurship.

Entitled, “How Ella Grew an Electric Guitar: A Girl’s First Adventure in Business,” the book is written from the voice of Ella, a sixth grader on a mission to buy a new guitar, in hopes of upgrading her band’s status and becoming a rock star.

Along the way, Ella learns about key business concepts, such as market research, competitive analysis, word-of-mouth marketing, guerilla marketing, costs, revenue, profits, loss, leadership, partnerships… and the list goes on. She also learns about the many types of financial products, including stocks, bonds and loans.

The authors manage to explain difficult financial and business concepts in a way that makes them easy to understand. Many of the lessons originate from wisdom imparted by Ella’s parents, who work in business and law. Ella adds her own creativity to the lessons, and with the help of her friends and family, she’s on her way to owning a brand new electric guitar.

Reading the story, I couldn’t help but wonder how my life might have turned out differently if I had been aware of these business and financial concepts earlier on.

Yes, I was taught to budget and save, but that took the form of me putting money in a bank account and spending it when I had saved enough for the product I was saving for. I wasn’t aware of the other financial products I could have employed, and I certainly didn’t understand what a stock was, even in high school.

Our nation has racked up $15 trillion in debt — obviously our leadership isn’t doing much better than we are as individuals.

And so, community, it is up to us to arm the next generation with a financial education. Sharing books like “How Ella Grew an Electric Guitar” with tweens is a good start.

What ideas do you have for increasing our children’s financial proficiency level? Share your ideas in the comments below.