A few weeks ago, I returned to campus to celebrate my 15-year Reunion with the MBA Class of 2004. While there, I participated in a highly popular event for my class that, in true Wharton fashion, highlighted the stories of alumni who have made bold, unusual choices since graduation. The event, “WG04 Classmate Stories and Perspectives,” also featured fellow WG04 alumni Rodolphe de Hemptinne, Eyrique Miller, and Anita Pramoda in a discussion moderated by Ethan Prater. Following is an edited and condensed transcript from the panel, with my answers to Ethan’s questions on everything from my “eureka” moment to the opportunities ahead of me with Careerly, my job search and career coaching startup.
Ethan Prater: Where’s home? What do you answer when people ask where you’re from?
Hiranya “Hira” Fernando: Sri Lanka, Switzerland, and the United States all have a claim. In our family, it’s somewhat an unwritten rule that home is wherever the parents are, which would be Sri Lanka right now—meaning long international trips every eight months or so! More importantly, though, I love that I have spent roughly a third of my life in Asia, Europe, and America, respectively. And each has deeply influenced my core values: Europe’s strong social contract, America’s spirit of entrepreneurship, and South Asian values of family and community.
EP: Since Wharton, you worked for three very different companies in as many industries—and I suspect a couple more prior to Wharton. Why did you pick these jobs and why the career changes?
HF: I didn’t pick them. My dad did. Or the neighbor, or my friends, or peers at Wharton…or society at large. I did whatever others thought was impressive. Honestly, before Careerly, I can’t say I picked anything. I didn’t have a strong internal compass. But I was very good at sensing what others valued. I would pursue one prestigious career after another, only to tire of it within two to three years. At Wharton, I, like many of my peers, felt the relentless pressures of the campus recruiting environment. I responded by being insecure and needlessly competitive. I landed a wildly improbable internship in sales and trading at Lehman Brothers in London—all for the sake of winning a game that I genuinely had no interest in playing. But winning was important. A role in energy and climate at the World Bank immediately after Wharton was a more sensible fit, but I can’t say the pattern changed that much. Fast forward to 2012, I was a senior analyst at the world’s largest technology research firm, covering two major areas: sustainability and talent. I was nearing that three-year point where I could sense my spirit—and my boss’s patience—nosediving.
EP: You left that company and role without having secured the next job. But that tough place led to a key “eureka” moment. Can you tell us what happened?
HF: Yes, I quit without an option lined up. I knew something had to change. I couldn’t chase another big impressive role just to prove a point. Why was I getting myself into careers where I couldn’t picture myself working toward a future? That’s kind of when it hit me. I realized I am very good at getting jobs, but not so good at doing them. A strange—perhaps even ugly—truth. But there is one good thing about the truth: It’s true. It’s real. And, most of all, it’s freeing. It puts you in a space where bigger truths can reveal themselves. It was never about the job. It was just about getting it. It wasn’t long before I realized that doing well at interviews was a valuable skill. I had done so many different careers that I had amassed valuable information to any would-be job seeker. And the golden nugget? It was industry-specific career intelligence.
EP: How did you decide to go out on your own, to share this unusual superpower to help other people secure jobs and recruit for highly competitive roles?
HF: I tried to figure out how I could use this depth and breadth of industry knowledge, as well as the crucial creative and persuasive skills involved in a successful job search, to help those who lacked these things. Most people don’t have the industry-specific recruiting knowledge that is so crucial. Nor do they have a natural sure-footed ease in do-or-die situations, which is how most people experience job interviews. And so Careerly was born. A year later, in 2014, another piece of the puzzle fell into place: my love for teaching and developing young people led to several university partnerships. We began working with hundreds—eventually thousands—of graduate and undergraduate students. And the rest is history.
EP: Who are Careerly’s clients?
HF: The end-user clients are “exactly us” 15 years ago. Careerly started with MBAs, expanded to other master’s programs, and then to undergraduates. We now cover students in business, finance, STEM, data science, international development, and public policy programs. Moreover, foreign students on F1-visa status also emerged as a big focus. Careerly works through university partnerships, as well as directly with students, graduates, and young professionals. Indian and Chinese nationals especially are a critical source of revenue for higher ed, but woefully underserved. So, Careerly Mandarin is a part of our vision to solve that problem.
EP: When we talked about this a few weeks ago, you mentioned some challenges you’ve faced as an entrepreneur. Would you share them with the larger group?
HF: I am incredibly thankful to the universities that bring us in, but if we are to help the hundreds of thousands of students who don’t have a resource-rich career-services office that can put us to use on their behalf, then we must scale to reach them. This is a challenge we cannot meet with our usual bootstrapping scrappy ways. But the alternative—investors and raising capital—makes me nervous. Fifteen years ago, at Wharton, we learned the most fundamental premise of business: that the goal of any firm is to maximize profits. In other words, not just be profitable, healthy, and happy, but maximize that one number, which then automatically means minimizing a lot of other numbers. Which is all fine and well, but I strongly feel that when you are in a business like education and your customers are students, it’s different. There’s a level of responsibility and integrity that cannot be compromised. So here we are. I understand that we need financing if I want to see Careerly succeed in its mission to serve students everywhere to get a decent job. I understand that I will have to be open to having these conversations, and I am grateful that my Wharton classmates are a fantastic place to start.
EP: What would you like to say on this panel at our 30-year Reunion?
HF: I’m still learning every day. Sometimes I feel the more I learn, the less I know. I am a work in progress. So is Careerly. But I do know this after a few decades on the planet: Life is difficult, it’s messy, and that is so for everyone. Life waits for no one and will not let you win, for in the long run, we all end up at the same place. So, take it easy. Be kind to yourself, to others, and to the planet.