This episode is part of a special mini-series of “Career Conversations” focused on MBA summer internships. We asked rising second-year MBA students to check in from their summer internships, where they are applying the lessons of their first year at Yale SOM.
Ezra Nelson ’21 is an intern at the Robin Hood Foundation this summer. He discusses the organization’s evolving mission promoting social mobility and his experience working on the learning and tech fund team focusing on school readiness. At SOM, Nelson is a member of the Design and Innovation Club and the Data Analytics Club, and served as the director of finance for the Education Leadership Conference. Before coming to Yale SOM, he joined Teach for America and taught high school math in Boston, where he also taught the robotics team and served as a school-based representative for a mentorship program for young men of color.
Transcript provided by rev.com.
Emily Kling (00:06):
Welcome to Career Conversations, a podcast from the Yale School of Management. Each episode of Career Conversations is a candid conversation between a student here at SOM, that's me, and a member of the Yale community who's doing something that I'm curious about. Kind of like an informational interview, except you get to listen to in. I'm Emily Kling , a full time MBA student in the class of 2021.
Amy Kundrat (00:27):
And I Amy Kundrat , an executive MBA student, also in the class of 2021. Today we continue our special Career Conversations mini series, focused on MBA summer internships. We are joined today by Ezra Nelson . Ezra is a full time MBA student in the class of 2021. Ezra, welcome.
Emily Kling (00:44):
Amy Kundrat (00:46):
Can you please introduce yourself to our listeners, where are you from?
Ezra Nelson (00:49):
Yeah, absolutely. My name is Ezra Nelson. I'm from Indianapolis, Indiana, where I am currently. Yeah, and I'm interning at the Robin Hood Foundation this summer.
Amy Kundrat (01:02):
Excellent. And obviously you're at Yale SOM as a full time MBA student. What were you doing before attending Yale?
Ezra Nelson (01:09):
Before I came to SOM, I was a high school math teacher. And so, I taught geometry and AP stats at this incredible little charter school in Boston.
Amy Kundrat (01:18):
What was one of your career highlights working as a high school math teacher?
Ezra Nelson (01:23):
So the school I worked at was called Boston Collegiate Charter School. And it's amazing place and it has a robotics team. And so, one of the incredible things that I got to do was work with a group of students to build and design a robot that, then, we got to bring to FIRST Tech Challenge robotics competitions. So it was a really incredible experience to be able to share with students. And yeah, it's a credit to the school for having a system that supports things like that.
Amy Kundrat (01:55):
So you were a teacher and now you're an MBA student. What was that transition like? Why did you decide to come to Yale SOM?
Ezra Nelson (02:02):
So I started to realize that what was really special about my school was the system. It was a charter school, and so it had the freedom to hire who it wanted, teach what it wanted, teach when it wanted. And so it was flexible and able to really meet the needs of the students as they became apparent. And I've realized that a powerful system could be a tool for social change, and I felt the need to be able to make one of those systems of my own, or get the tools to be able to potentially do that. I talked to the executive director of the charter school where I was working, and she had had a similar life trajectory as myself and recommended business school as a way to develop the tools that you would need to make an organization like BCCS.
Amy Kundrat (02:55):
And how have you found SOM, what are some highlights? Can you share some highlights from your first year?
Ezra Nelson (03:00):
Absolutely. SOM has been great. I definitely think that I've found my people in SOM, the community is just incredible. I've met other people who've, passionate about education but don't have experience there, other people who've come from TFA, other people who've taught at similar schools, and people whose, just, life ambitions and commitment to do good aligned with my own. And so, that's been incredible. I really felt like the core was a great way to kind of bring everyone onto the same footing, and my first year really felt like we were all coming to the same point. One of the things I was afraid of was that I would be left behind or that I wouldn't find my way. And the core really just kind of norms everything and makes a cohesive community that, I think, goes forward together. And so, that's been a really great thing to be a part of.
Amy Kundrat (04:05):
Great. And for those who don't go to SOM, the core is, sort of, these foundational courses that you take, together, in your first year. And yeah, I agree, it's a great leveler. So, outside of the classroom, how did you spend your time at SOM? What kinds of clubs and affinity groups did you participate in?
Ezra Nelson (04:25):
Yeah. So I spent a lot of my time working with the Education Leadership Conference. Unfortunately, the conference itself got canceled due to COVID, so that was really hard. But it was really interesting just getting to work with other people who were passionate about education, and understanding how to put together a large scale conference. Even though it didn't happen, we did do all the planning for it, so that was a really interesting experience. I also did data analytics club, and design and innovation club, two clubs that I was really excited about, because they really give you practical skills.
Ezra Nelson (05:05):
In data analytics, you're exposed to all different sorts of platforms. They did a whole session around SQL, just for exposure's sake, and that was really great, to get that experience. And then design and innovation had an entire day around design thinking, and it was just a really hands on workshop that I learned a lot from. So those clubs have been really nice because they gave me hard skills that I think that I'll be able to take into other experiences. And Education Leadership Conference was nice because I was passionate about it. There's all sorts of other clubs that, then, I stop into. Consulting club and tech club, both things that I'm interested in, and so I've been to those meetings as well.
Emily Kling (05:52):
Ezra, you mentioned earlier that you're interning at Robin Hood Foundation this summer.
Ezra Nelson (05:57):
I am. Yes. I'm really excited to be. It's a really cool organization that supports nonprofits fighting poverty in New York.
Emily Kling (06:07):
Awesome. Would you mind telling us some of your thoughts on the Robin Hood model, in particular, and then philanthropy in general?
Ezra Nelson (06:16):
Yeah. So I was drawn to Robin Hood because of their model. I've always been somebody who's passionate about quantitative reasoning and how that can really make life better and solve human problems, and Robin Hood really embodies that. It developed a cost-benefit analysis that really tries to evaluate different funding opportunities and maximizes what Robin Hood sees is the impact, or the benefit, that they're creating. And so, that's what drew me to the organization originally. And I was really excited to learn more about how they do this quantitative analysis. And I have gotten to learn a lot more about that and how the grantmaking process goes through. So that's been really, really exciting.
Ezra Nelson (07:06):
But what I didn't expect was that philanthropy is currently in the midst of an identity crisis, it's really trying to figure out what its place is within society. And it's coming to terms with these criticisms about how it can be symbiotic with the problems that it extensively attempts to solve, and how it might be perpetuating the systems that make poverty a reality for so many people. And so, Robin Hood, its transformation is from a poverty fighting organization into a organization that promotes social mobility. And so, they brought on a new CEO, Wes Moore , a few years ago, and it's been incredible getting the opportunity to work with him. I'm a black man and he's a black man. And just getting the experience of seeing yourself in your boss, even if it's just a little bit, is special and something I honestly didn't know that I was missing until I felt it. So that's been really incredible.
Ezra Nelson (08:22):
And he's been spearheading this transformation into a social mobility promoting organization. And it's just been really interesting to see how Robin Hood, they've reorganized into life stages so that they can better support people on their journey, from the beginning of life into what is, hopefully, the middle or working class. And they have started de-funding a lot of their basic needs programs, which has been controversial, in favor of promoting more things like early childhood education, maternal health, job training and things that, theoretically move people from one kind of socioeconomic status to another. And so, the transformation has just been incredible to get to see happen. And really seeing all of these very smart, very experienced people who care a lot about the communities that they're serving, really seeing them grapple with these problems and try to reform Robin Hood in a way that benefits everybody.
Emily Kling (09:31):
That sounds like an awesome, really thought provoking internship experience thus far. What are you focusing on in particular?
Ezra Nelson (09:39):
Yeah, my project is with the learning and tech fund, which is this awesome fund that is just, [inaudible 00:09:46], their prerogative is to figure out how to bring technology into education in a way that makes a meaningful impact. And it's a great team of three people who are really just incredible at what they do. And the project that I'm working on, specifically, is thinking about school readiness, and if a school were to undergo a technology intervention, making sure that it has the requisite characteristics in place so that that intervention would be effective. And so, I'm looking at the landscape of education partners and trying to figure out how it can move forward with that work.
Emily Kling (10:34):
That's so important, and also just so relevant right now, especially with everything that's happening. You mentioned that the philanthropy model at Robin Hood is really informed by quantitative thinking. And so, I'm wondering if you found any core courses, or rather which core courses you found to be the most helpful in your internship and that you draw on with the most frequency.
Ezra Nelson (11:00):
Yeah. So I think my favorite course, and also, I'm just realizing, the course that may be most closely aligned with what Robin Hood does, was modeling managerial decision-making. I love that course. I thought that it just really took two disparate perspectives and married them in a really interesting way. I wasn't deeply excited about the course when I started off, I was like, "Okay, models, that sounds like something I should know about." But what it ended up doing was, really taking these programmatic structures and adding color, and behavior, and bias to them, really understanding how these models can be effective tools and how they can be ineffective tools. And so, one of the things we did was, we created models and optimized for certain variables. And, essentially, you can think of Robin Hood's formula as just a very complex version of one of those models.
Ezra Nelson (12:10):
And so, I really feel like being in that class and understanding the ways in which a model can be really effective at doing the sort of computation that human beings can't do in their own brains. But also be detrimental, in terms of the variables that it doesn't consider, or the variables that it overweights or underweights. And yeah, Robin Hood's model is definitely not set in stone. And so, they're seeking to make it better, and having been in that course really allowed me to think about that problem with a lot of nuance.
Emily Kling (12:45):
Totally. This just sounds like a really great place to be this summer. It sounds like it's just really perfect for the moment, that you're getting so much out of it.
Ezra Nelson (12:55):
It is. I mean, COVID-19 has been really just earth shattering for everyone. And one of the things I'm really grateful for is that at Robin Hood, in addition to the work I'm getting to do with the learning and tech fund, I'm also getting to work on COVID relief grants. And so, getting money out to nonprofits in New York that are really on the ground, trying to help people make it through this crisis. And so, having the opportunity to do that work, as well, has just given me the feeling of some agency, that I can do something in the face of this crisis. It's also really cool to see Robin Hood do this and jump into action with the COVID relief fund. In the past, during Hurricane Sandy and during 9/11, Robin Hood was also able to react pretty quickly and to ultimately produce a lot of good for the city of New York. I mean, it's hard to see it when you're in the moment, but I believe that Robin Hood's trying to do the same thing in the wake of COVID. And yeah, it's really exciting to be a part of that network.
Emily Kling (14:21):
Rewinding a little bit. So you mentioned that you were a teacher before coming to SOM. And I'm always curious what advice teachers have, in general. And then also, what you feel being a teacher has taught you or prepared you. I know some teachers say it helped them with their confidence, because if you can stand in front of high school or middle schoolers, you can do anything. So I'd love to hear more about your experience teaching, and how that's informed your SOM education, and also your internship this summer.
Ezra Nelson (14:52):
Absolutely. Yeah. I think that, for me, I learned so much being a teacher, maybe there's not one thing. One of the things that I really felt like I carried forward from my teaching experience was the ability to handle things in the moment. Teaching really requires you to make detailed plans, think about kids, the misunderstandings that will arise, just what student pairings are bound for success and which ones are less so. And just being able to deeply plan is super important, but then also, teenagers, students, people in general are very unpredictable. So then, learning how to reorient when something inevitably does not go as planned or goes wrong. So in meetings and projects, I really feel prepared, not only if things go as I expect them, but if things shake up, I feel like I have the requisite skills to be able to roll with the punches.
Ezra Nelson (16:01):
I also think that you just end up effectively teaching in so many jobs all the time, like when you are explaining something to somebody else, when you're walking someone through a slide show, you're really just trying to communicate some ideas in a way that sticks. And that's something that I've been able to take with me at my internship, at SOM, pretty much everywhere. I've been able to just use the skills I developed as a communicator, really, to communicate the information that matters. So being a teacher has been a huge learning experience for me and I'm so glad that I had that experience in education at Boston Collegiate specifically.
Emily Kling (16:41):
[inaudible 00:16:41] That all makes a ton of sense. That makes perfect sense.
Ezra Nelson (16:45):
Oh and then, sorry, you also asked, advice as a teacher. And just, this is going to sound cheesy, but it just is so true, but you just, always, have to keep on learning. The learning doesn't stop when you leave the classroom, the learning doesn't stop when you leave school, the learning doesn't stop when you leave childhood. Really, just, learning is something you want to engage with on a daily, hourly basis. And just, always welcome learning experiences, would definitely be my advice.
Emily Kling (17:14):
I love that. What's one thing you've been, air quote, learning, but really like doing this summer, that has nothing to do with your internship or career or anything that goes on the resume?
Ezra Nelson (17:25):
Yeah. So I have been cooking this summer, which has been really big for me. I am not the biggest cook. I had a rotation of places that I would get takeout out from, previously. But since quarantine, I go grocery shopping, buy all my food. I went an entire week without ordering out once, which was a big accomplishment for me. But yeah, I've baked some things. I got shallots, turns out they're a great alternative to onions, so delicious, had no idea how good shallots were.
Emily Kling (18:05):
They're so good.
Ezra Nelson (18:06):
Yeah. Been able to discover some foods I was asleep on.
Emily Kling (18:12):
I definitely agree. The shallots comment really speaks to me, because they're more mild than onions, but just as flavorful.
Ezra Nelson (18:19):
Just as flavorful. And their size just makes them-
Emily Kling (18:24):
A hundred percent.
Ezra Nelson (18:25):
They're more serving sized. You have more control over the shallotiness of your food.
Amy Kundrat (18:33):
I feel Like we need to do, maybe, a spin-off of Career Conversations, like, Quarantine Cooking Edition, because I think I'm getting some great tips. And also, I know, Emily you've been doing some ambitious cooking too, so I feel like we could have a whole spin-off series.
Emily Kling (18:46):
If you're talking about the post I had, which was of paella, I made maybe 5% of that. That was a totally misleading Instagram post, I just wanted the credit for it. But I completely agree, and the shallots are surreal, that's been a discovery of mine as well during quarantine.
Amy Kundrat (19:05):
Emily Kling (19:06):
Shallot life. Sorry Amy, were you about to jump in?
Amy Kundrat (19:11):
Well, I was just going to ask, as the countdown begins to coming back to campus, in whatever form that's taking, what are you looking forward to, Ezra, for year two?
Ezra Nelson (19:23):
That's a great question. I'm really looking forward to being able to choose some really interesting classes. The core is great, I think that it levels the playing field and brings the community of SOM together. But I think it's also really important to kind of be the architect of your own education and figure out the things that are going to be really valuable for you down the road, and I'm excited to get into the weeds of that. I'm excited to figure out what are the hard skills that I want to learn, and what are the discussions that I want to have before I leave SOM. So, very excited to pick the courses, and we'll see where I end up.
Amy Kundrat (20:09):
And what's the one dish that you're excited to cook, before you go back to school, with this free time you have?
Ezra Nelson (20:17):
Another great question. So something I've been trying to do is, perfect home fries. Just, they're a great breakfast food, I judge breakfast places based on their quality of home fries. And so, on the off chance I ever open up a breakfast place, which I don't love cooking, so that seems like a not great idea. But on the off chance I do, I want to make sure that I have great home fries. And so I look forward to making the perfect home fries.
Amy Kundrat (20:46):
And will you add shallots to the home fries?
Ezra Nelson (20:50):
I think you just discovered the missing ingredient. Wow, I'm probably going to go do that later today. Thank you, I appreciate that.
Amy Kundrat (20:56):
That's what I'm here for, always.
Emily Kling (21:00):
Well, is there anything else, that we haven't asked you, that you want to talk about while we have you here? You can say no.
Ezra Nelson (21:10):
I mean, I like talking. I'm sure there's other things that I would [crosstalk 00:21:15] now.
Emily Kling (21:15):
Keep going, go forever.
Ezra Nelson (21:19):
Oh. So, something really awesome that came up during my internship experience at Robin Hood is, they just started the Power Fund, which is a fund aimed at supporting black and minority owned nonprofits that are trying to do good work in New York city. And so it's really exciting, Robin Hood is trying to be an anti-racist organization, and really work against the structural racism that exists. And so, this Power Fund is really exciting, it's just in the very early stages. But one piece of work that I've been getting to do is, just a little research on how that fund will look, and how it should be set up, and they have the larger idea in place. But hopefully I'm going to get to inform some of the smaller elements and make an impact on something that I think is going to change the landscape of nonprofits in New York. So it's exciting.
Emily Kling (22:37):
Amazing. Well, thank you so much, Ezra, for-
Amy Kundrat (22:37):
Thank you so much.
Ezra Nelson (22:37):
Emily Kling (22:44):
You've been listening to Career Conversations, a podcast from the Yale School of Management. If you liked what you heard today, please subscribe to this podcast. You can find Career Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or however you take your podcasts.
Amy Kundrat (22:56):
You can also find the show on our website at som.yale.edu/careerconversations. Career Conversations is produced by SOM. Our producers are Amy Kundrat and Emily Kling . For Career Conversations, I'm Amy Kundrat .
Emily Kling (23:10):
And I'm Emily Kling .
Amy Kundrat (23:12):
Thanks for listening. And we hope you'll tune in again soon.
Ezra Nelson ’21
Internship: Robin Hood Foundation
Hometown: Indianapolis, Indiana
Clubs and affiliations: Education Leadership Conference, Data Analytics Club, Design + Innovation Club, Consulting Club, Admissions Guide Day Lead
Favorite Yale SOM class: Modeling Managerial Decision Making
Favorite New Haven eatery: Basil
Favorite Professor: Joyee Deb
Favorite Yale SOM community event: I love that there’s a Closing Bell each week. It prioritizes community building in a way that feels natural and fun. I loved the Closing Bell at the Peabody museum this year; I’m a sucker for dinosaurs.
Bonus facts: My favorite color is yellow, my favorite animal is the octopus, and my favorite movie is Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. (It was made in 1989, but feels remarkably of the moment. I highly recommend!)