“Tell me, why Arizona?”

November 27, 2009

By hammersmith

When Ryan Johnson (’02) was living in Santiago, Chile, on one of his study-travel experiences as a Flinn Scholar from the University of Arizona, he witnessed a facet of Chilean public transportation that, undoubtedly, thousands of visiting students have observed: the buses drove fast. And consequently, they were involved in terrible and frequent accidents.

What Ryan did next provided a fairly good indication of the career path for which he was bound. He studied the problem, discovering that drivers were paid per passenger–meaning that, the faster they drove between stops, the more they would earn. He wrote about his findings in a paper that was featured in a World Bank publication; not long after, Santiago’s public-transportation regulations were revised to match the alternative, safer system that Ryan had proposed.

Here’s what Ryan has been doing lately.

Flinn Scholar Ryan Johnson ('02) is a consultant for McKinsey and Company in Africa

Now that I’ve transferred to the Johannesburg office of McKinsey & Company, my employer, I’m experiencing a range of challenges I never experienced working for U.S. institutions. 

On a recent study for a South African government agency (footnote: we keep the specific names of clients confidential), we were working for the minister to develop an action plan in the face of the recession. McKinsey advises top executives (or in this case, government officials) across the world on their most important strategic matters. On this study that meant figuring out what to do when a government revenue increase turns into a decrease, yet the government already promised to increase services.

The problem was challenging enough, and then one day from the team room we heard a series of horns. It sounded like a soccer match. I asked my teammates, “is that a vuvuzela?” Then we heard more noise. Finally, we went outside and realized the employees were on strike.

So instead of discussing the long-term impact of the recession, for that day’s meeting we starting preparing to discuss what to do about the strike.

On another study working for a parastatal infrastructure company, I learned that the pace of African business can be a bit… slow.  I had invited a dozen clients to a workshop I was giving on the future of one of the company’s main divisions. It was very important to have everyone there to agree on the vision. When the meeting started, nobody was there. Thirty minutes later we had a handful, and the last one came a full three hours after the meeting started. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident. 

Working in Africa can sometimes be stressful like that, but now I just laugh and say, it’s all part of the adventure.

McKinsey consultants typically rotate studies every three or four months, so I get exposed to a range of industries, business functions, and geographies. I love the chance to work at a railroad terminal one month, and the next month work for the head of marketing for a leading computer company, and then work for a government agency in Africa. Now that I’m based in Johannesburg, I’ll have the chance to work all over Sub-Saharan Africa on our wide range of clients here.

My international experience started with the Flinn Scholars’ Eastern European seminar and travel grants. In addition to an appreciation for the growth and opportunity that comes from international exposure, it helped me uncover my passion, transportation. Ever since Flinn travel to Santiago, Chile, where I studied how certain bus-driver contracts were causing dozens of incremental traffic deaths per year, I have had an interest in understanding public and private transportation issues.

I later interned at the United Nations and World Bank working on transportation projects, and then studied informal transportation on a Fulbright Grant in Brazil.

After Brazil, I started with McKinsey & Company, where I sought to understand how the world of global business and institutions works. McKinsey is the world’s leading management-consulting firm, and it is the second-most desired employer (after Google) for business-school graduates. It is also one of the most sought-after employers at Ivy League undergraduate institutions.

McKinsey and Flinn Scholars have a long history together. Besides me, Kaleen Love (’96), Brian Lutz (’97), and Brook Rosenbaum (’94) are currently at the firm. In addition, Kim (Starkey) Jonker (’89), Ben Driggs (’90), and Ian Larkin (’91) all spent time there.

Larkin, now a professor at Harvard Business School, was on my Flinn selection committee and instantly became a mentor. As our conversations progressed from what classes to take freshman year to what to do after school, he convinced me McKinsey was a great place to start a career for the exposure to senior executives and for the exit opportunities it creates.

My first interview question with McKinsey was, “Tell me, why Arizona?” And I knew that the story of the Flinn, the doors it opened, and the experiences it led to would make me stand out from the crowd. The Flinn Scholars program produces individuals and leaders who are very compelling, not just to grad schools, but to employers.

I plan to take next summer off to enjoy the World Cup and travel around Africa. Afterwards, I may stay at McKinsey, go to business school, or look for a position somewhere in Brazil, Africa, or the U.S.