Have you ever thought about the story that you’re telling others when it comes to your career? On this episode, Aaron Wilson tells us about the career story he’s been crafting ever since he graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in business. As a Black-Asian child of working class parents, Aaron’s story has included: moving to the West Coast to change functions and industries, navigating the ad agency world, deciding to pursue elite management consulting, and eventually landing at McKinsey, post MBA, as an associate.
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Aaron: I remember I had a mentor at Capital One. He was Asian so he looked out for me. He knew I was half Asian. But he told me like some people at the company knew that I used to play football and I’m black. So if I walk around slow, people might think that you’re not super energetic or something like that. To a 21-year-old, coming fresh into a job, you’re just like, “What does that even mean?”
Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host Priscilla Esquivel Weninger, proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color, and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration. You’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey, everyone, how’s everyone doing? I am really good, actually. You know, yesterday, the CDC came out saying that you don’t have to wear a mask anymore if you’re vaccinated, which my brain still can’t really compute that. I feel like we’ve been through such a roller coaster ride in the last year in terms of guidelines. It’s been a trippy year where we don’t even know what to do or whatever. So But anyway, I think there is a light at the end of the tunnel and so that brings me a lot of joy because I do feel excited to start to incorporate some socializing and just seeing people in my life again, safely. And so, anyway, that’s just on my mind. But welcome to episode 24 of the first season of the early career moves podcast. Today, you’re going to hear from Aaron Wilson, who went to UVA Darden School of Business, he is an MBA, and he also went to UVA for his undergrad, his bachelor’s in business where he focused on brand management and actually worked at Capital One after he graduated in brand marketing. But later made a series of pivots that took him to work for Sony Pictures and for an ad agency, but the whole time you’re going to hear in his story that he was always sort of thinking about his next move in a very strategic way, even if he didn’t know exactly what that would look like.
So I think Aaron is a really great example of someone who stays ready, like he was doing the work, whether that was building a super marketable skill set that he could use later, or asking himself, you know, did he get what he needed to get out of a sort of experience? Where was he trying to go next? Not everyone is like this and that’s okay. But, you know, Aaron is someone who you can tell his story, is very much thinking long term, playing a game of strategy in his career, and it’s definitely paid off. Aaron is an associate McKinsey, one of the most elite management consulting firms in the world. And I won’t be surprised if one day we see his name as CEO. Okay, I’ll stop here. Enjoy the interview. Let me know what you think. So I’m excited to have you share your story of how you went from brand marketing to analytics to working at an ad agency all the way through Business School, and now working at McKinsey. But before we get into that, will you share a little bit about your own personal background?
Aaron: So, yeah, hello everyone. I’m originally from Washington, DC. My family are from the Northeast area of Washington, DC. But my father, he was originally from Chicago, the West side of Chicago, father’s black. My mother’s Korean, she’s actually from South Korea, so she was an immigrant. So most of my time, I was raised in Northeast DC, but also spend some time in Washington, Maryland, which is PG County, and then Alexandria, Virginia. So like a real full around DMV. So I went to high school in TC, played football, track, basketball as well and then played football at the University of Virginia in the ACC. When I first started, I studied Business Commerce at UVA, which was a pretty prestigious at that time. And then, once I graduated, I actually went to Capitol One for brand marketing.
Priscilla: Okay, so brand marketing was your first job. How did you ended up deciding to go down that path? And what was it like being in that program?
Aaron: So, yeah, I originally did brand marketing for Capital One straight out of undergrad. One of the reasons why I chose to do brand marketing was more of like, my mother was a cashier. Father, he was in the military. So I’d never saw what professional jobs looked like in the past. So for me, it was like, “Oh, marketing, would love it. Would love to do that type of job. It has a lot of outreach, a lot of influence.” And then if I ever got to the position high within the company, then I could be the one making decisions of how we’re utilizing that budget, and making differences in the world beyond just adding additional profits for the company. So that was my original thought trying to go to Capital One doing brand marketing. And on the other side of that Capital One was a heavily invested sponsor for the University of Virginia, so there was a big relationship there. A lot of alumni that came from the University of Virginia so it just made sense at the time. I oved it, great people, gained a lot of skill sets that I never had before, thinking strategically as well as working with advertising agencies. So I worked at Capital One for two years as an Associate Brand Marketing Manager. During that time, I was actually exposed to advertising agencies and seeing how they work. So it was very interesting in that time, because at Capital One, we were doing a lot of the strategy, providing a lot of the insights from data that we have within the company. But the cool things that usually think of as marketing goes is usually what the advertising agencies do, the advertising and the media agencies. They’re the ones who actually create the actual creative based upon the original strategy, and execute to expose it to the consumers. And in a way that makes sense. So there’s a lot of components to that I was intrigued, very interested, I wanted to see what that side of the world was like on the agency side, and additional opportunity popped up to move to Los Angeles. As I mentioned before, I’ve always been from the Washington DC area, went to UVA. So DC, in Virginia, Maryland, that whole scene is something that I knew majority of my life. So I thought, “Hey, why not? Let’s try something new and get exposure to a whole another area.” Who wouldn’t want to go to West Coast to do a little LA action, surfing and all?
Priscilla: Yeah. So before we get into you moving to LA and changing jobs, I would love to hear just your first job at Capital One. What were some of the stumbling blocks that you faced entering corporate America for the first time? What was challenging about it? How did you manage that?
Aaron: Sure. So one thing I want to start with is capital was an amazing place, very smart people, high caliber. But with that, I don’t think there will be one company that’s perfect. There’s always a lot of good things with it, but and then sometimes some setbacks. So one thing for Capital One, everyone was super high performing. But with that, it’s hard to get promoted, right? It’s hard to move up within the company if everyone’s high performing. The company treats everyone well. No one really wants to leave. You don’t really find that many opportunities that fast. And then beyond that, it’s like, how do you separate candidates who are all doing their job well? So the thing that I would say was, like separating people is more of like, how much do you like this person, right? Do they seem like they’re fully energetic? Do you feel like they’re super nice and willing to help each other? A lot of those things that aren’t pretty subjective. And honestly, like me, coming out of college, black Korean guy, there was maybe two other black people in the whole brand department of Capital One at the time. Right now, this is Sunday, so I’m feeling energetic. But when I was at Capital One coming out of college, like, I wouldn’t jump out everyone like, “Hey, how’s your day going?” And those are the things that can cost you at moving up in the company, or standing out as someone who’s 14 players, fully smart, etc. So those are some of the things that I struggle with, some of those things that it’s not on paper that you learn you should do to move up in the company or in the world, so I struggle with that. And this is probably even more personal level. I remember, I had a mentor at Capital One. He was Asian so he looked out for me. He knew I was half Asian. But he told me like some people at the company knew that I used to play football, and I’m black. So if I walk around slow, people might think that like, you’re not super energetic or something like that. A 21-year-old, coming fresh into a job, you’re just like, “What does that even mean?” So those are some things that I dealt with just trying to like navigate through like, the political system I will probably say within corporate world. I didn’t really fully understand that at the time. But I think that was just also just being young in my career.
Priscilla: Totally. I really liked that story because I remember when I was young, getting similar feedback like that I seemed disinterested, or that I didn’t seem enthusiastic. And later on, you realize that’s really highly valued. So totally understand that. But yeah, so let’s jump back into your story and what was the job that you moved for in California? Like what happened next?
Aaron: So I went over there for this media advertising agency called OMD. So that’s an agency under the umbrella, Omnicom. So similarly, like consulting firms and similar to some law firms, just like a big four of agencies. And Omnicom is one of those big agencies that’s worldwide, very prevalent in New York City and Los Angeles and Chicago. So I switched to that side and I was very purposeful with what position I picked. The position was for Marketing Analytics. So this is what like, end of 2014 beginning of 2015. I definitely wanted to get exposure to analytics because I knew that big data was going to be a big piece for all types of marketers out there, whether you wanted to be on the brand strategy side, or whether you wanted to be on the execution side, or whether you had aspirations to become an executive, big data was always going to be important. So I switched over to work for OMD in Los Angeles. There I worked on two accounts, I worked on the activation Call of Duty account, so think like Call of Duty Black Ops 3. I work on that campaign. So I did everything from what is the strategy like, what type of partner should we use in media? And what that means is like, yes beyond just like the Google search and featuring advertisements there and working with YouTube, via Google for YouTube videos. There’s a component outside of social media, which also includes like programmatic channels, where it’s a little site that people go to whether it’s blog sites, whether it’s a website site for video gamers, they may know like IGN, you’re featuring advertisements where people go to, and that’s kind of like what the media agency job is.
Priscilla: Okay, cool. Yeah, that’s sounds like such a huge change, right? Like, not only did you move from the East coast to the West coast, where you didn’t have any routes, but you also changed industries a little bit and also function. So what was that like making those switches and what was maybe hard about that?
Aaron: Yeah, I remember telling some friends that, “Hey, I’m going to move to Los Angeles in a month.” Some people thought I was joking. It was just something that I had to move with before I second guessed myself, because I knew I just wanted to change for myself, just because I’ve been in the DMV area for so long. So that’s what just prompted me and pushed me over the edge in order to do so no matter what the challenge is. As far as how I dealt with, like the switch, functionally in and from an industry standpoint, I think it was just pure curiosity. One thing that I think stands out to me no matter who I worked with and in any industry, any company is, if a person is intelligent, and they have the will to learn and work, I think you’ll be fine anywhere. When I started working at the media advertising agency, very different world than a financial bank, especially like a fortune 100 company. So the media advertising agency, I mean, was totally different from a culture standpoint, like we had a basketball Court, inside our building, you can have your dogs at work, we were working with entertainment companies left and right, Disney was another client of ours for the advertising agency, etc. So it was a shift, but hey, I’m not going to complain about those things like, I loved it. I think the biggest thing was more the fact that just showing that I was passionate and which was authentic like, I was excited to work at this advertising agency and try something new. I think that’s something that people have heard over time, who are very successful, when they make transitions, it’s usually because they felt like the position, they were previously in felt stale, or they weren’t learning anymore. I think whenever you’re in a position where you’re not learning anymore, like it will come across to other people that you really aren’t learning more, and then your passion and curiosity might falter. So I really leaned on that when I was starting a new function in a new company. I showed that I was curious, I was attentive, I learned and picked up fast. And then, I just let that kind of carry my weight all the way through. Put in the beginning, it’s obviously going to be more time and effort, but over time, started gaining more expertise, and then just kept trying to push the boundaries of what we could do at some of these media advertising agencies, and even leveraging my past experiences working at Capital One, knowing that I was on the client side of advertising agencies in the past. That kind of gave me like, a leg up of oh, this is probably what they may want to see or what they’re looking for what type of insights will be most helpful? So, again, I think two parts, really leaning on that curiosity point, learning fast. And the second point of utilizing past experience, whenever it fits, I think that’s always shows like a unique perspective, and showing how you’re a unique asset.
Priscilla: What are some things that you think people should know about the advertising agency world if they’re considering entering and breaking into this work? Sure.
Aaron: So I would probably say there’s probably like three different things. One, I would say location does matter, especially, if you’re thinking entry level. The cities with the most agency activity and opportunity would definitely always be Los Angeles and New York City. So I’m just going to be very straightforward on that front. That’s not to say that there aren’t advertising agencies and other big cities in the US like, Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, there are, but nine out of 10 there’s way more opportunities and job openings in New York City and Los Angeles. So that’s just a very direct piece of advice, at least from my perspective. The second piece, I would say is, there’s different types of positions they’re looking for in agencies. One, they’re looking for creative, so that’s what you think about as graphic designers, people with artist in skill sets, and craftsmanship, photographic or video recording skills, that creative sector. They’re also looking for analytics. That’s actually a growing space in advertising agencies. Utilizing data and measuring especially for digital media just, because everything is gravitating towards that. Budgets increasing, advertising spend in the digital space, so if you have any type of analytic skills, that’s working with Excel, working with SQL, working with Tableau, it’s huge. So we definitely highly recommend leveraging some of those skills and those platforms in order to get a leg up in the advertising world. And then, three, which some agencies are known for are more of the strategist. So those are the people who don’t have as much heavy analytic skills. But I would say and pre-warn like, that’s more based upon pure experience. Strategist can move up and become VPs, executives, etc. But the road from the beginning is going to be a little difficult because in the beginning, I don’t think that pays huge for strategist coming in to agencies. But as far as like, how to get in, it’s literally more of just like, making sure your resume matches up finding the right opportunity and the right timing, if you want to come in as a strategist.
Priscilla: Okay, so you were saying that you were at the ad agency, what ended up happening next, how did you end up moving up and getting to the point of going to business school.
Aaron: So then, I got promoted, worked as a manager within the media agency where I shifted. And there, just working on different accounts really shine light on how you have to change your strategy and the tools that you utilize to reach out to the consumer. A video game, for instance, like they release once a year, annually. So what you’re doing is you’re trying to build hype and engagement throughout the year slowly but surely until the person like, unconscious things like, I have to get this game, versus Levi’s and Dockers, where you’re dealing with retail, people are usually thinking about buying clothes two times the year, at least, which is usually spring and fall. Preparation for the wintertime and spring when you’re preparing for summer, as well as getting close for that spring and fall season. So that’s how like campaign shifted, the type of sites and partners you will utilize, the way we were analyzing engagement was totally different, and that was one of my responsibilities was at the agency OMD. Before, I actually shifted again to work for another agency, a media agency called Universal McCann. And that’s where I was contracted out to Sony Pictures. So that’s where I spent my last year and a half two years before going back to my MBA program. I am working for Sony Pictures, doing audience targeting for all the different Sony Picture movies like, Spiderman Homecoming, Jumanji, Welcome to the Jungle. So this was back in 2017. That’s what I was doing before the NBA.
Priscilla: So when you were making all these career decisions in your 20s before you went to business school, what were the things that you were looking for in your next opportunities? Like how did you think through that?
Aaron: Yeah, for sure. I was thinking about if probably from a 3.1. I was like, “Where did I want to live?” As far as city position, what type of lifestyle that I want as far as what job I was going to choose? People I think automatically guys like compensation, what account, is this any work. So that’s like the short term. So that was like the bare top superficial things I was looking at for jobs and switching jobs. The second piece I’ll probably say is, I was thinking about what story like my resume was telling and how I wanted to grow. And it wasn’t just literally like jumping back and forth from like a zigzag standpoint, but more of like, it didn’t have to incrementally stack up on top of each other as far as how my experience was building. But how was I growing? How was I evolving as if I want to be as an executive. I think I have a very heavy marketing background, but also marketing and strategy. And I knew that something that I wanted to be a part of my core of what I would be known for whether it’s five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now. So from that standpoint, I always wanted to make sure I had a little bit of piece of what I did when I first started working way back when I worked for Capital One doing brand marketing. And I did Sony Pictures was a little bit different, because every movie is going be totally different, right? The way you’re marketing a movie for Spiderman is going to be very different than you do for Peter Rabbit kids movie. So that changed a little bit. But that job, for instance, was still connected to my previous job doing marketing analytics. I was building upon what our to learn about data. And then, I was targeting audiences, so I was building further from my previous job working with Sony Pictures connected to OMD working at that agency. So that’s that second point, I was talking about is how was my resume building over time, incrementally, from position to position. And then, the third piece, I wanted to mention was like more long term, the thing I was thinking about is, how could it put me in a position. For instance, I knew I wanted to eventually switch to management consulting will put me in that position. I was thinking about that probably since 2015. And I graduated from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business in 2020. So there were some thought into that, will put me in the best position, what would tell that story of why did I want to get there. So that was the third piece that I think played a role in how I was choosing positions and companies.
Priscilla: That’s really cool. It seems like you were really intentional about your strategy throughout the years, which is I would say pretty rare and unique, but obviously it really served you well once you were in business school and you knew you wanting to do consulting. At what point did management consulting get on your radar? How did you know that that was something you wanted to pursue?
Aaron: From the undergrad business school from UVA, there’s actually quite a few people who go into consulting. I wasn’t exposed to it just during that time. I didn’t even know what to look for. So my mind was always brand marketing. But soon after, when I was at a Capital One, and I started talking to some more friends, meeting more people and find out, “Oh, that’s pretty cool.” Like consulting, you get exposure to multiple different companies, you get to travel, something that piqued my interest, not something that I was sure that I wanted to do, but it was something that was like, potentially in the future. And on top of that, before I move on to the second time, I want to say like, at all times, when I was building my career, I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to be. But it was more of thinking about, I wanted to leave room where it made sense if I went that way. So like if, say, if I wanted to go into music with Spotify, I will want to have works that could connect me to be able to go that direction. So I never exactly knew like, hey, I always wanted to be at Sony Pictures when I was at Capital One but it was more of a thing like, I was always incrementally building upon my past experience, so that I could be able to go that direction. So just wanted to make that clear. So after the first point of when I was exposed to consulting the second point, I was actually exposed to one of the MBB firms when I was working with Sony Pictures. And that’s when, you know, I was fascinated. The team was very smart, very intelligent, structured, high performing, move fast, and I learn more about them. The fact that the type of work they were touching, even at a young age, I just knew like beyond just the opportunities that were open for management consultants at high prestigious firms was the soft skills that they developed. How exact and professional they spoke with their client. Every meeting wasn’t just a meeting just to have or cover track, it was always with intention in mind to move the problem solving and trying to find the solution faster and forward. People know. Sometimes I imagined who’s listening to this podcast. Sometimes you have meetings where it’s just kind of cyclical. And then, there’s just another thing you have that meeting but then no one steps back and as like why like how are we pushing, you know, the solution in these 20 minutes to make sure that we are further along than we were 20 minutes ago. This is what this firm did. And that really spoke to me. So I would say that was time I was like, hey, like whether something I will want to do for the rest of my life afterward. I know that I will want a career in consulting because I want to develop those skills almost at an unconscious level. So that’s probably the second time I got exposed and I was like, Oh, I could see myself in the consulting industry.
Priscilla: Okay, so now let’s talk about your MBA journey. You decided to go to UVA Darden, you had other options, you got a McKinsey internship offer, you accepted a full-time offer to join McKinsey. And that’s where you are now, McKinsey is one of the top three management consulting firms, one of the most elite, right? A lot of people would say, it’s the best one. MBB, for those who don’t know, stands for McKinsey, BCG and Bain. And so, yeah, like what did it feel like for you to get that internship and to now be in this full-time like, that must have been like such a huge accomplishment.
Aaron: I was ecstatic. It was a hard road. I’m not going to lie. The networking and the case prep, I was extremely excited. One, just the amount of work I put in but two when I was working at Sony Pictures and even applying for the MBA programs, my thought process as far as like applying. What I will want to do post MBA was always like consulting firm like McKinsey, right? Like, I wasn’t sure if I would ever get the opportunity to work for McKinsey so it was always a consulting firm like McKinsey. So at the back of my mind, like it wasn’t only the hard work that I’ve done, but it was also the fact that I felt like it was a dream come true. The people I met at McKinsey were amazing folks that well, they weren’t just smart, they knew how to engage how to influence and I was very happy about that Atlanta office, in particular, there are already three women black partners, so they mean to just say they were about diversity, they actually had them in leadership. So a show like this company actually stood behind what they said. So I was Yeah, I was very happy about getting that offer.
Priscilla: That’s amazing. So switching gears here a little bit, I want to talk about imposter syndrome. We talk about it a lot on the podcast and I just want to hear like, did you experience imposter syndrome throughout your 20s? How did you manage that?
Aaron: Sure. So yeah, I’ve had it a few times across my career. I think the first time ever was when I first started working for Capital One doing brand marketing. At the time, I was working on the Quicksilver credit card so I was pulling it then. I was working with all this senior leadership that’s had excellent past experiences and expertise in the field and I’m the one trying to add my piece to make this national campaign happen. I started second questioning myself. Oh, is this work? Absolutely. 100% unequivocally correct. I don’t want to be that black guy who got something wrong, but over time, it was just trusting myself. I had mentors and sponsors who spoke up for me And when you keep Hearing it again and again, you start thinking like, hey, you’re right, I did do good work. And I did it again. And then again, like maybe I am fit for this. So that was probably the first time. The second time was probably when I first got promoted to manager at OMB, the advertising agency, and I was actually managing someone who’s about the same age as me maybe even like a year older. So one, there’s different dynamics going on there from how comfortable they feel talking with someone who’s their age, and then trying to walk that line between should I be doing this? I am the manager. How do I do this? Am I even cut out for this? Maybe I got promoted too soon. These are the things that were running through my mind. and managing is not easy. Like I think that should be highlighted a lot more in a lot. A lot of corporations like management is not just about being able to do your job. Well. It’s also about being able to build relationships and adapting to the working styles of the people that you’re managing. So it was definitely a learning curve. And I would like to say that I got it correct. The first time I don’t think I necessarily did. But I think maybe like the second year, when I started managing a new person, I started learning how people’s personalities were different and how it could adapt. That’s when I started thinking like, okay, at least I think I’m somewhat competent at it and something that I can definitely do in the future. And then the third time was definitely here at McKinsey. There’s like Olympians walking around everyone’s valedictorians, etc, definitely felt some of that. But I was very happy because even at McKinsey, we have affinity group called the McKinsey black network. And I cannot state how many times people have reached out to me to for support, or even on a higher level for the entire new NBN class of like we do good work like we’re very special people before we got to the firm. So not to ever lose sight of that because the firm did make a special, we were like that before we even got there, getting those reassurances were definitely helpful. And then again, sometimes just given a time, like, I definitely feel in a much better place than I did when I first started working again full time, even after the entire internship. So I think that feeling is always there. But it’s more of just like having patience, giving it time. And then building that support network around you to get that gain reassurance.
Priscilla: I totally agree with everything that you just said. It’s almost like learning how to live with it and creating systems of support to slowly build our confidence over time. But yeah, so my last question for you, Aaron, what kind of advice would you give to someone who was in your shoes maybe a few years back and is trying to move forward in a similar path to yours?
Aaron: Yeah, I think my one piece of advice would be what do you want to stand for? And what I mean by like, what do you want to stand for? This could be at a personal and professional level? Like, do you want to stand for hard work, then come to consulting? Because you’re going to be seeing a lot of hard work? Do you want to be known for impact? Like what type of impact do you know. I’m saying like what really resonates and matters most to you, because I think whatever you choose to do, as far as what you want to stand for, your curiosity is going to run wild. So you’re going to do good work, you’re going to learn you’re going to progress, you’re going to get better, you’re going to evolve. And then, if you’re finding out like what you stand for, I think that’s going to be good for you. When you’re even building your resume. You’re trying to pitch in interview with the different companies because if you know what you want to stand for, you can build, you know your brand of like what you’ve done in the past and what you will do in the future, it will start becoming a lot more clear when you start from there, like knowing like what you want to stand for, that will help you dictate what jobs what industries you want to work in, that will help you even focus on like what you’ve done in the past. Because no matter what, there is a path behind you and ahead of you that is connected. So I think knowing what you want to stand for is that connector to making sure that whole thing tells a story.
Priscilla: Yes, and storytelling and branding, like truly your own career path is so key to a lot of this is like, how do you sell yourself? How do you tell your story? So I love that you ended on that note. Aaron, thank you so much for being with us today. You’re such a great example of what’s possible when you work hard and have a plan. And so yeah, thanks for being with us.
Aaron: Absolutely. Thank you for having me much appreciate.
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning into the Early Career Moves Podcast. Be sure to visit ecmpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes and become a part of our newsletter community. And if you love this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.