University of Southern California

Elena Kwei
Blending a Passion for Food and Business
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Saratoga, California  

Elena Kwei was looking for a career change after three years at a health care consulting company, where she traveled 80 percent of the time working with hospital clients throughout the country and analyzing their insurance contracts. Although she knew early on that she wanted to obtain her MBA, she says, “It wasn’t until a couple of years into consulting that I realized I wanted to marry my passion for food with my passion for business.”

She took a year off to attend a then-new boutique culinary school, the Professional Culinary Institute in Campbell, California, near where she grew up. “It was an accelerated eight-month program with a required internship,” she says. “I worked at a high-end European restaurant and went to school at the same time. Working in the back of a kitchen teaches you a lot, including skills that apply to business school as well, such as teamwork and performing under pressure.”

On her choice of USC Marshall’s MBA program, she says: “I knew I wanted a business school with a strong entrepreneurship program. And USC has one of the strongest in the country. The program really teaches you how to start your own business and that’s something I definitely want to do,” adds Ms. Kwei, who hopes to create her own line of organic, high-end baked goods in a few years.

In the meantime, she will be working for Del Monte in San Francisco as an associate brand manager, gaining invaluable additional experience in the food industry, this time from the corporate perspective. In summer 2008, she interned with Nestle, on its Juicy Juice line of products.

Among her favorite courses at Marshall were New Ventures and Feasibility Analysis, which brought entrepreneurs to class to share their experiences, and Cases and Feasibility, in which students conducted a feasibility analysis of their idea—in her case, that involved interviewing entrepreneurs of high-end restaurants throughout Los Angeles. “What I really enjoyed about these courses was meeting the real people who actually get to do what I want to do,” says Ms. Kwei, who served as president of the Graduate Marketing Association, the largest student organization at Marshall.

Another standout course was Fostering Creativity. “The class really taught you to think outside the box, to surrender and roll with the punches, to be flexible,” she explains of the experience, which took students trapezing in Santa Monica, for instance. “It’s not like any other class in the business program.”

Marshall’s Pacific Rim Education (PRIME) program took her off the beaten path as well. She traveled with classmates to Thailand and Vietnam, where her group presented recommendations to Ford Motor Company executives on what kind of vehicle it should be manufacturing and selling in Vietnam. “Marshall is one of the few schools that requires students to travel abroad, to do a project for a company and gain experience globally,” she says. “This is such a phenomenal experience, I don’t know why other business schools don’t require it.”