MBA Alumni Around the Country: V's Up from San Francisco

Olivia Kao
Olivia Kao '15 MBA

By Anne Krepacki '87 MBA

We appreciate your taking the time to share a bit of your career journey with us.

OK, I know that you went to University of Michigan for your undergrad and graduate degrees in Biomedical Engineering. What drew you into that field? Was there a particular person who inspired you?

Olivia: My Dad is a Mechanical Engineer with General Motors, so he certainly influenced my interests as I was growing up. He’d often come home with a new car and my brother and I loved to clamber all over the car. He often said that we knew more about the cars than he did! So yes, my Dad was certainly a big inspiration.

And though I love engineering, I didn’t love physics. I felt more drawn to biology and chemistry. So doing biomedical engineering was a great fit!

AK: What drew you to Villanova for your MBA? And could you please tell me a few of the highlights of the international immersion courses you took as part of the VU MBA program? I understand that you had the opportunity to travel to such exotic places as Dubai and Hong Kong.

Olivia: Though I started my career closer to home in Michigan, my background and interests eventually led me to accept a position at Merck. The work that they were doing in vaccine research was supercool and a subject I was interested in getting more deeply involved in. I should mention that at one point, I had considered Med School as one way of pursuing my interests in the healthcare field. But I decided that pursuing healthcare through a career in Big Pharma would be more fulfilling.

But getting back to your question, I became involved in the Supply Chain group at Merck, a much more business-oriented area of manufacturing. As you know, when one area of the world is impacted by certain events, this can impact the whole supply chain. So it was at that point that I knew I wanted to enroll in an MBA program and focus on international business. And since the position at Merck was in the Philadelphia region, I began researching MBA programs in the area. Of all the local programs I researched, Villanova stood out for two main reasons: Most importantly, the Fast-Track program would enable me to work full-time and go to classes at night, yet I could still graduate in 2 years. In addition, I loved all that the International Business curriculum had to offer.

And I did love the immersion courses! I actually had the opportunity to go to Dubai, Milan, Vietnam and Hong Kong. Each international course was structured similarly: They were a mix of both cultural and business learnings for each area. We would study jointly with a local university in the area, and special lecturers would be brought in, usually from a local firm. And a local government liaison would sometimes be available to us as well. The lecturer in Dubai, who was from an architectural firm, offered a particularly fascinating background on the city and explained how it went from “Nothing in the desert” to the world class city it is today. And of course, we had the chance to tour the amazing architecture of Dubai as well, such as the Dubai Mall – one of the largest in the world – and of course the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Dubai even has a 7-star hotel with rooms for $24,000 a night! We didn’t stay there, of course, but we did enjoy a high tea.

AK: I know you now work at Tesla – what brought you to the West Coast? And what’s it like working there? I picture it being the type of company that truly values innovation in every department.

Olivia: Tesla truly is a super amazing place to work!

Before I went to Tesla, I was actually working in New York City, and though I enjoyed it there, the focus seemed to be more on fashion and celebrity gossip. So when a friend of mine who worked at Tesla encouraged me to apply, I did, though I actually didn’t expect to be hired. When they offered me a position, I had to take it! I had a boyfriend in New York, and when I told him, he also said I had to take it! I should mention that he’s now my husband and we both love it out here!

I would say that everyone at Tesla is very smart, and they always make time to help each other out, even as busy as we all are.  There’s no feeling of internal politics. No matter your level in the company, there’s an open-door policy. Yes, even with Elon Musk. We definitely all feel part of the same team with a goal to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. It’s so cool to be on the inside – we’re so much more than cars. I would say we’re one of the leading companies in many different technologies, trying to make the world less dependent on fossil fuels, especially coal. The group I’m in gets to see many of the newest innovations before even other parts of the company. I can’t share any of that information here, of course, but definitely it’s a great place to work.

AK: And to close our conversation, as a woman working in one of the STEM fields, what would you say to a girl today who’s interested in pursuing a career in a technical field, but may be on the fence about it? A girl who perhaps wonders if she can be successful in an area that’s still lacking enough women?

Olivia: Even if they’re on the fence about whether to pursue business or engineering, I would say to pursue engineering. It truly provides such a great foundation, no matter what career you choose to pursue. It teaches you how to work through problems in a more logical manner. It opens up your brain. It doesn’t mean you have to stay within a technical field, but it provides such a great background. I would say to them that “The sky’s the limit!”