Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurship, Philippines, Startups

Unsolicited Career Advice Ateneans Will Ignore

Unsolicited Career Advice Ateneans will Ignore

Photo credit: Marty Ilagan

By now, you might have seen the infamous post about an Atenean’s ranting about his/her less than favorable job prospects.

Actual quote: “We’re more worried about the fact that Ateneo is a top university, so why aren’t its graduates getting snapped up like lechon at a fiesta?”

Maybe because everyone knows lechon isn’t always good for you?

It’s an open secret among entrepreneur friends that the typical Atenean fresh grad – by temperament and skill set – is woefully ill-suited to startup jobs.

This leads us to concoct non-standard interview questions to tease out clues for entitlement and a poor attitude – questions such as: “How did you find your way to our office?” (Commute? Driver?), “What’s the best gift Daddy ever gave you?” (A Prada bag?), or “Run this pivot table to filter out subs in this segment and create a Facebook custom audience out of the results” (Less than 5% get it).

My sister graduated from college this year too, so I have a big incentive to distill no-BS advice to fresh graduates, seeing that I also wasn’t there for much of her teenage years.

So in the spirit of Prof. Scott Galloway’s unsolicited career advice, I boiled down my version to 5 lessons below. You probably didn’t hear this in the commencement speeches this year. And it’s not the speaker’s fault. Graduation speakers are wired to extract an applause, not give you hard truths.


One: Leave. And Don’t Come Back Until You Are in the Top 10% of What You Do

When I was in college in Ateneo, the debating team took up a lot of my time. I loved it not because of the constant practice and research work, but because of the travel. Over the course of 3 years, I must have visited more than 10 cities to compete in local and international tournaments (there was a lot of funding from MVP during those years).

As a Management Engineering student, my life was mostly calculus, statistics, operations research, and finance. The travel was a great counter balance. We were away for almost 30 days each academic year, not an insignificant amount of time. I missed exams and papers. My grades took a hit. But who cares. The Philippines is an island nation, naturally insular and closed off. Travel + debate was an education in the real world.

It was only when we were competing against the best teams from around the world that we got better. We were punching above our weight class. If you’re a boxer, you want to be sparring with Manny Pacquiao.

When we joined the Cambridge Intervarsity in the UK, the level of competition was insane. How can we – these prepubescent-looking brown Asian kids – debate about the European welfare state against British law students? I loved every minute of it. We made to the finals, but lost.

The following week, we flew from London to Kuala Lumpur to join the Asian Championships. I was teammates with two of the smartest people I know: Bobby Benedicto and Camille Ng (I was clearly the weakest link). Ateneo went on to win that year.

That experience made me realize that if I wanted to be the best at something, there was no way I could do so staying in the Philippines: the market was too small, the competition limited, the bosses & supervisors at local companies were mediocre at best (because of the tryouts & selection process in Ateneo, promising young debaters are incentivized to pair up with senior, more accomplished debaters to increase their chances of winning in tournaments – so my thinking was that I needed to find the right boss when I graduated – more on this later).

So that’s the first piece of unsolicited advice I’d share: leave and don’t come back until you’re in the top 10% of what you do.

When I graduated, I was optimizing for one thing: independence. I wanted to move out, get my own place, live my own life.

So I ran the numbers. No way I can afford to do that with a Manila salary. So after almost a year of trying, I worked my way to a job in Singapore.

Here’s the reality: if you’re optimizing for high compensation, you won’t get it in the Philippines. There are too many structural reasons keeping wages low (a topic for another post). Taxes are high. You can try to get that McKinsey job, the only role that pays in six digits. But good luck. The firm only takes in 1-2 analysts each year.

But here’s another reality: nobody outside the Philippines gives a damn who the Arneo is. I realized this early on. You should too. So I spent another 6 months after graduation studying, doing volunteer work and expanding my network in Singapore through a fellowship with the Singapore International Foundation. That was how I hacked my way to my first job.

Nobody from the career office will teach you that. The whole narrative is about staying and helping the country. But the best way to help the country is to be the best at what you do. And one way is to leave, compete, and collaborate with the world’s best.

I know that’s not a feasible option for everyone. You have family. You have friends. There are probably a few ways to replicate the experience of working for a top global company in Manila. Working for a Google or an Accenture is one.

Working with a local startup with an amazing founder is another. If I were a fresh graduate today, I would definitely want to work for guys like Paul Rivera, Gian Dela Rama, Dustin Cheng, Terence Lok, Jerome Uy, Mikko Perez, or Henry Munoz. You should be optimizing for a boss, not a company.

Two: realize that the ‘job’ is dead.

There’s no such thing as a job anymore. What you’ll be doing is a collection of pursuits that compound over time, each teaching you new stuff.

When my sister graduated, she didn’t let the job hunt frustrate her. Instead, she got to work: via a small project renovating an office. Doing so made her realize quickly how much shit they don’t teach in architecture school, from budgeting how much paint to use to the difference between a purchase order and a sales invoice.

The Atenean ranter mentioned how s/he was on the 40th interview. Instead of spending too much time on the job-hunt, you can spend more time gaining experience that will make you more valuable to employers: starting a side business, getting Google certified, or building an NGO’s website.

Three: spend LESS time with your friends.

The distribution of your friends probably looks like this:

– 50-60% are in your high school or college batch

– 20-30% are from outside school,

– Then maybe 10-20% who are older than you.

After college, you need to flip those ratios: spend less time with your friends and more time getting to know older people.

Older people are more interesting. They know more things and more people than you. They’re your future partners, customers, investors, and generally open up more doors for you in the workplace.

I thought I knew a lot, then I met guys like Jerome Uy, Nix Nolledo, and Richard Eldridge. And then I realized I knew so little.

Spending too much time with your college friends is an exercise in diminishing marginal returns. Besides, if they’re really your friends, you’ll still be good friends even if you see each other once or twice a year.

And while you’re at it, re-assess your relationship with your boy/girlfriend. S/he is probably slowing you down and taking up too much of your time. The best way to attract the right partner is to be the best at something, and to be the best at something, you need to have the right partner.

Four: figure out what you’re willing to do that your peers won’t.

I found my first job chatting up the lead recruiter of Procter & Gamble during my graduation year’s Loyola Schools Student Awards at the Henry Lee Irwin Theater. I did this by sitting next to him at the front row of the theater, which was reserved for sponsors.

I knew: 1) that he was recruiting for Singapore jobs (because older people told me – see above), and that 2) he would be chatting with lots of students that night, and I had to get to him before the others did. It worked. By the end of the night, he handed me his card and asked for my resume. It took several more months, but that opening gave me an advantage.

Five: accept that you were disastrously miseducated, so you need to find the right boss.

By the time you graduate, you would’ve spent 4 years reading the same books, working on the same tests, and listening to basically the same teachers.

That produces 2 things:

1) You are more or less the same as your batch mates, and

2) Because the world is moving so fast, the material you’ve ingested is already outdated by the time you graduate.

Thus, only experience will differentiate you. The most optimal way to find the right experience is to find the right boss.

Your bosses in the first 5 years of your career will teach you skills and attitudes that you’ll take for the next 40 years.

My first two bosses were strategy and analytics guys in P&G. They’ve worked in India, Singapore, and the US. Another boss was a British General Manager who started stocking shelves in the UK, went on to Africa (where he was once held at gunpoint), and to Malaysia. Another boss started Airbnb in Southeast Asia. Imagine the wealth of their collective experience.

There was literally one skill that was useful in my first job: Excel. And that was only because an M.E. professor decided to teach an advanced elective class about it (it wasn’t in the required curriculum then). Everything else, I had to learn from scratch. Python, R, and SQL should be required skills in Operations Research and Marketing classes in the M.E. program today – if not, the curriculum is dangerously outdated.

So one of the things I’m proud of doing is advising an educational program to help Filipino students experience entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley. Call it the great reset. How do we slowly recalibrate the mis-education of a Filipino college degree and re-align a generation to the real world? The idea is simple: with what I know now, what would I have taught my 22-year old self?

Bonus advice, and the hardest: figure out what you’re willing to give up

When I graduated, all I really wanted was to be independent, to work abroad, get an MBA, and start a company. I got to do all 4 before I hit 30. It cost me a relationship, being far from my family, losing touch with friends, sleeping on a lot of couches, losing my savings, failing and embarrassing myself many times.

And it was worth it. What are you willing to give up?


Naked plug: If you or anyone you know feel like they can really benefit from a “great re-set” in their education, do check out Reach Labs. Reach Labs is an educational travel program for college students and recent graduates in the Philippines to experience entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley.





3 thoughts on “Unsolicited Career Advice Ateneans Will Ignore

  1. Maite says:

    Thanks, for this, Oliver.

    I don’t know why I had this idea that it was easy for you. Ateneo, M.E, Automatic P&G or Unilever, MBA, opens own start-up. I thought that was automatic path of Aboys and ME kids, not realizing there’s still a lot of hustling involved.

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