Introduction: Born and raised in Lebanon, Stephanie Ponassian pursued a bachelor's degree in business administration from the American University of Beirut. In 2017, she moved to Dubai to join the Kraft Heinz Company as a management trainee. She moved up the career ladder fast at different companies as a marketing professional and currently works at Americana Kuwait Food Company as an assistant marketing manager.
Stephanie's short-term goal is to switch from marketing and become a Human Resources Manager in the Food and Beverage industry. Long term, she wants to establish her consulting firm and help businesses thrive. To fulfill her career aspirations, she applied to MBA programs at two Canadian universities- McGill and Concordia. However, the biggest hurdle in Stephanie's dreams was her non-competitive GMAT. She partnered with MER on her application for these two schools and received admission offers from both. Stephanie has decided to attend the Desautels Faculty of Management of McGill University.
Watch this video to learn how Stephanie overcame her low GMAT and made it to both her target schools.
Talking Points of the Conversation
- Her background 01:13
- Planning for MBA 05:20
- Career Goals 06:30
- Application strategy, planning, and preparation 10:08
- GMAT Prep/ Challenges faced 11:35
- Challenges during the application process 15:58
- Her preference for McGill over Concordia 17:04
- What she could have done better 18:04
- Impact of Covid-19 on F&B industry 19:48
- Her advice to prospective applicants 22:45
Here is Stephanie in conversation with Poonam.
Poonam: Hello Stephanie! How are you doing?
Stephanie: Hi, now I am good. How are you?
Poonam: I am doing well, too, thank you. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
Stephanie: Thank you for interviewing me and having me here.
Poonam: It is my pleasure. Congratulations on getting admit offers from two good schools, McGill and Concordia. How does it feel?
Stephanie: Thank you, thank you so much. Honestly, it feels fantastic. I am extremely excited about this new journey. I just feel like all the long hours of research, preparation, reading, writing, editing, and re-editing have finally paid off after a long time and a lot of effort.
Poonam: Of course, a lot of effort, but in the end, it has paid off. I am so happy for you.
Stephanie: Yes, extremely happy.
Poonam: Stephanie, can you tell our viewers about your academic and professional background? Where are you from? Where and what did you study as an undergrad? What do you do now?
Stephanie: Yes, of course. I am originally Lebanese. I was born and raised in Lebanon, so I went to college in Lebanon. Then, I joined the American University of Beirut, where I pursued a degree in business administration with a marketing concentration. After graduating in 2016, I was approached by the Kraft Heinz Company, based out of Dubai, for a management trainee position. Basically, as part of this training program, I would rotate through the different departments within the organization and prepare projects within each function. Eventually, I would decide which position I would like to stick to. After finishing my program in nine months, I found that I am passionate about marketing. It was the function that excited me the most, so I kicked off my full-time job in marketing itself within the food and beverages industry. I have worked with many companies and have managed many brands, from Cinnabon to Kentucky Fried Chicken and recently Peet's Coffee. It has been a fascinating journey, and I am proud of my achievements. Currently, I am working as an assistant marketing manager for a new coffee brand launched in the Middle East.
Poonam: Perfect. I know you have recently gotten a promotion. Congratulations on that, too. Having spent the first 21 years in your home country Lebanon, you moved to Dubai to embark on your professional career. I know it was a difficult decision. What challenges did you face living in a new country, all by yourself, and how did you overcome them?
Stephanie Initially, it was tough, but it was a great experience. With every hardship comes excellent experiences and learnings. My main challenge was that back in Lebanon; I used to live under the same roof as my parents. In Lebanon, we live with our parents till we are young adults. This is the kind of culture we live in. So, living alone in Dubai was a cultural shock, and adapting to it was tough. I had no social circle and no friends in Dubai. So I had to build my social circle from scratch, and that was also a bit tough given that people come from different parts of the world, and I was not used to this aspect. Further, it was the first time I was introduced to the professional world. I had never worked before on a professional level. As a 21-year-old, I also faced many cultural challenges, such as office politics.
Poonam: But you overcame all those challenges and emerged stronger.
Stephanie: Of course. I don’t regret anything. It has been amazing, and I would not have been who I am today if I had not been through all that.
Poonam: You evolved as a person and a professional and did amazingly well in your career.
Poonam: That's amazing. When did you start thinking about MBA? Why now?
Stephanie: I started thinking about MBA three to four years into my career. I have been working for six years now. Two years back, I felt that I had enough experience in marketing and corporate life and I should take the next step in my professional growth. Though I enjoy marketing, I was no longer passionate about this function. With time, I became more passionate about human resources, and the human aspect of things. Hence, I decided to pursue an MBA to shift from marketing to human resources.
Poonam: Great. You are changing functions in the same industry. What are your post-MBA career goals?
Stephanie: My short-term goal after graduation from the MBA is to start working in human resources to gain the required experience to excel in that function. I aim to work as a human resource specialist, a people manager, or a human resource employee and to have any role within the HR function for around four to five years. And from there, in the long term, I aim to hopefully have my own company where I support other companies with matters related to restructuring and improving their employee culture.
Poonam: You have already answered this question that from marketing you are moving to human resources in the same industry-the food and beverage industry. Can you elaborate on this? How do human resources function interest you more?
Stephanie: Yes. In six years of my career, I have learned much about corporate culture and what employers look for within an organization. Being an employee myself I can see what employers do well, what they don't do well, and what they should be doing in a certain amount of time. As for me, I sometimes spend more than 10 hours of my day at the workplace and invest all my energy. You give your all, and at the end of the day, some companies don't appreciate that which really affects the employee's psychological state. I have seen many employees suffer and some others blossom because of the difference in how they are. Managers deal with them differently because of the cultural differences within the team. I want to make a difference from this perspective and add something positive to people's life since I am already in the workplace for 10 hours, so I would rather support someone and make their experience more fruitful.
Poonam: That is so thoughtful of you to think about treating them in a better way and making a difference in their lives when they are going through stress.
Stephanie: Yeah, it is very important because if you think about it, the more people are happy, the more productive they will be. If you are more productive, you will help the company make more money and gain higher profits. You have creative ideas when you are mentally healthy and have out-of-the-box thinking. It is all related. I really believe in the power of the mental state of the employee.
Poonam: Yeah, that is so true. You will be more productive if you are happy and satisfied with your job. If you are appreciated, you will invest more in your company and contribute to it in a better way. Stephanie, can you share your application strategy, planning, and preparation with our audience/ readers?
Stephanie: Yes. Before I reached out to MER, I had started my research two months earlier. I first figured out the parts of the world where I want to be when I start my MBA program. I pinpointed two programs that I would like to be a part of, and then from there, I shortlisted universities and researched the programs and requirements of each program. Finally, I put in the timelines for each application requirement and took it forward. That was how I looked at it holistically.
Poonam: Researching is the most important aspect of the process.
Stephanie: Yes, researching and planning because sometimes the timelines are tight, and sometimes, you just forget to look at it. So, having everything organized on an Excel sheet helps.
Poonam: Of course. I know GMAT is the most challenging aspect of the school admission process for you. How did you approach that challenge and overcome it?
Stephanie: Yes, for me, the GMAT was one of the main challenges I was having for the past couple of years. I have a history of test anxiety, and the importance of the GMAT exam in the admission process escalated it a bit more. GMAT was tough for me, and the myth that the admission committee only looked at GMAT made me doubt myself. It demotivated me repeatedly. So, breaking through that clutter was the most challenging part of my journey. That is why I reached out to MER since I felt helpless with the whole situation.
Poonam: How did you prepare for GMAT? How did you overcome that challenge?
Stephanie: First, I enrolled in a course with Princeton. It was a three-month course that made me feel more comfortable with the different tactics toward the questions and the ultimate solution. The second method was more personal. I sought professional help for testing. For a couple of months, I worked on overcoming the symptoms of anxiety that could arise during the test to enable me to sit through the 3 1/2 to 4 hours of test duration.
Poonam: The average GMAT score for Desautels students is 675, but you got accepted with a 610 score which, in your own words, is a miracle. Can you comment on how the other strong aspects of your profile offset your low GMAT and convinced the admission committee of your ability to perform well in the program?
Stephanie: I used to believe in the myth that GMAT is the only aspect of your application that the admission committee considers, and that demotivated me. As I started researching online, I came across many students saying that other parts of your application also matter. So, I thought why not give it a shot, and from there, I started looking at different consulting agencies, the essay review companies that would help me with this process. And that's when I saw your reviews and decided to go ahead and reach out to you. I think the way you looked at my achievements and different extracurricular activities and the things that I have done throughout my career, both on a professional and a personal level, made a big difference. Furthermore, you put that in such a way that these showcased and highlighted my strengths. So, I think that convinced the admission committee that I am worthy of joining this university and am up to that level.
Poonam: Yeah. I had confidence in your stories. The impact you made on your organization, your career growth, your leadership abilities, your teamwork skills, etc. And together, we showcased all that.
Stephanie: Yeah. And it worked.
Poonam: True. What other challenges did you face during the application process apart from the GMAT?
Stephanie: Apart from the GMAT, one of the challenges was the time at hand, because I believe I should have started the process a bit earlier. I would advise everyone to start their applications as early as possible. The second challenge, before I reached out to you, was the fact that I was not very confident in my stories, and I thought I did not have anything special on my plate. However, that challenge was solved after I met you, and you opened my eyes to how successful I am. So, these would be my two main challenges in the process.
Poonam: You were accepted into McGill and Concordia. You decided in favor of McGill Desautel's Faculty of Management. How is Desautel the best school for you?
Stephanie: Between the two universities, I went with Desautel because this is more reputable than John Molson, the Business School of Concordia University. I felt that it would support me more in the future if I enroll in a more reputable university. Secondly, the McGill university’s student body is more diverse, and the number of students in the Business School is higher than that of Concordia. As a person who believes in the power of relationships and socializing and meeting people from different backgrounds, I decided to go with McGill.
Poonam: Great. Is there anything you think you could have done better (apart from the GMAT)?
Stephanie: Yes, I think one crucial thing which I did not do was to start the application a bit earlier, specifically the research, because even though I did not have enough time, I think it would have been mentally a bit less stressful for me had I started a bit earlier. I applied for Round 2. Personally, I would start my application early and submit it in Round 1 itself. I think it is important and significant learning.
Poonam: Many people make this mistake because they have no idea how time-consuming and daunting this process is. You are not alone and so don't worry.
Stephanie: Especially when you are also working, it becomes very tough to manage your time and keep postponing it. And you do not really know how much time it takes, so how can you judge from the beginning? That is why doing research and knowing the facts is important.
Poonam: Of course. COVID has turned our lives upside down in the past 2.5 years. You have worked in the food and beverage industry for the last six years. I want to know how COVID has impacted the food and beverage industry.
Stephanie: That's an interesting question. Actually, COVID has affected the restaurant and the food and beverages industry drastically. And the main thing is the way customers consume the goods. I will give you an example from one of the brands I worked with, which also applies to many other brands. Pre-COVID, people were more prone to going to restaurants, sitting there, eating, spending time, and socializing. They were more in favor of the dine-in channel, just sitting in the dining room. Post-COVID, people are not in favor of this channel even though things have started normalizing. We see that the numbers are not going up regarding dining in. Delivery has grown by more than 50% in sales contribution, and even channels like drive-through have increased by 20%. Though the COVID situation has started stabilizing in the last year, we have not seen a reduction in these numbers. It appears this trend will stay the same for the next few years. Experts in the industry believe this is a new norm, and this is how things will continue. COVID has changed the way we do things. It has changed the industry altogether, and for the restaurants that could not keep up with the technology and the workforce with delivery or drive-through, it would be very tough for them now to rebuild themselves and start from scratch.
Poonam: Yeah, it has become a new normal now.
Stephanie: We are doing meetings online now, and the idea of going to a meeting in an office has become farfetched. Things are normal in Dubai; the numbers are very low. Still, we do not want to go to in-person meetings anymore. It has changed a lot of things.
Poonam: Yes, COVID has changed the mindset of people, and we have gotten so used to working from home and connecting.
Poonam: It was nice talking to you. Stephanie. Is there anything else you think I should have asked?
Stephanie: I think we have covered everything, but I want to reiterate two things. First, my advice to prospective applicants is to start research early, and second, believe in yourself regarding the application and the critical essays. I remember our first meeting where you asked me what you have done on an extracurricular level. And I told you I had not done anything outside of work. And then, at some point in our conversation, I mentioned that I was a classical piano player and have joined a couple of extracurricular activities. I told you that I have been in programs that are all about transforming your mindset, and then our conversation evolved from there. I have also discovered so much about myself through your service, and my confidence in myself has also heightened. So, I would advise the people hearing us or anyone out there to believe in themselves and think hard about what they have done.
Poonam: Of course.
Stephanie: I would really thank you because you have influenced my application. I got admission because of you, and everything worked out very well for me. I am very happy. You also had an impact on my personal life and the confidence that I have in myself since now I know that I have done so many things that were not on my mind earlier. So, in that sense, after working with you, my mindset has also shifted. And yeah again, thank you so much for your support and dedication. You have been very dedicated and very, very supportive of everything.
Poonam: Thank you so much for your kind words. You have made my day. It was a pleasure assisting you with your application. And for me, it is not only about a business transaction but also about building relationships. And I feel that I have built a strong relationship with the people I have worked with, and this is why I love my work.
Stephanie: Yeah, yeah, definitely. It's exactly back to my point. In human resources, there is a lot more than just work in work, and that's the most important thing.
Poonam: Of course, working with like-minded people like you is a pleasure. I really enjoyed working with you, and thank you for your time for this interview. I strongly feel that people will benefit from your experience and your advice. I wish you good luck with your McGill experience and all your personal and professional endeavors.
Stephanie: Thank you, thank you so much likewise.
Poonam: Thank you, and stay in touch. Bye.
Stephanie: Good luck. Thank you. Bye
You can connect with Stephanie via LinkedIn.
You may email Poonam at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions about your application for the 2022-23 admission cycle.