Interview with Paul Okundaye: Perspectives from an MBB Consultant
An inside look at the career path of a banker turned consultant, weighing the pros and cons of each.
This past week, we were lucky enough to speak with Paul Okundaye, a WCM, Western, and Ivey HBA alumnus who graduated in 2019. During his time at Western, Paul was Chair of the WCM Advisory Board, part of IBR, VP of the Black Students’ Association, and founder of a social enterprise, Dine Easy. He’s completed investment banking internships at Kirchner Group, and RBC Capital Markets, in Toronto, covering multiple groups. More recently, after over two years at Bain & Company, Paul is now a Senior Associate Consultant, currently on a temporary externship at Microsoft working under their Experience + Devices segment as a Growth Strategy and M&A Manager. Paul will be heading to Harvard Business School in Fall 2022 and has shared some great insights and wisdom while reflecting on his past. See the transcript below.
Daniel: Paul, could you walk us through your background — how did you go from studying at Western to working at Bain, and what were some of the large milestones in-between?
Paul: I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and I grew up there until I was 13 years old. I then moved to Canada with my family in December of 2010. I went to high school in Brampton and attended Western University after. When I came to Western I got involved with the Western Investment Club, Ivey Business Review, and Western Capital Markets where I was fortunate enough to get a first-year position as Director of Events. I got super involved in the finance space at Western, attended WCM meetings regularly, and just tried learning more and more about the space.
Honestly, I fell into the rat race a little bit because Ivey is a pretty finance-heavy school. Especially given how early the recruiting cycles are, you see people around you are getting internships, and I didn’t want to miss out. With that, my plans at the time were to do two years of banking then private equity — “the Holy Grail” — I thought I’d be set once I made it to PE, and that everything would change, the heaven’s gates would open, and the sun would shine. So, in my first year, I worked at Scotia Wealth Management, and it was my first real office job. Then in second year, I progress further in my clubs and worked at a boutique investment bank, called Kirchner Group where I was paired with an MD, and worked directly under him. It was a cool experience getting to dip my toes into banking and seeing what it was like — I spent most of my time working on live bio-tech deal. Going into HBA1, as the year progressed, I realized that I had taken all these different classes that I never explored properly before but now found interesting. I enjoyed other classes such as strategy and marketing — I started to realize that finance was only one part of the toolkit. I was not sure if I wanted to stay in finance for the rest of my life. Not to say that when going into banking, you’re going to be pigeonholed, but you will be restricted a little bit. A lot of your exits will primarily be finance-based. Long term, I started to realize that I didn’t know what I wanted to pursue. Third-year summer, I was fortunate enough to get an internship at RBC in a generalist role covering different parts of the bank: equity, debt, M&A, and coverage groups. Before going into that opportunity, I was already starting to contemplate if finance and banking were right for me. I heard about a recruiting event that Bain was hosting, so I went, and it was the first recruiting event I had ever been to where I really enjoyed the conversation and liked all the people that I met. After, I decided to try banking at RBC, but at the same time began nurturing a relationship with Bain. Halfway through the internship, I knew banking wasn’t for me and decided I’d pursue consulting or direct PE.
This then led to the craziest week I’ve ever had. After an accelerated recruiting event in July for Bain, they announced that they were doing interviews in two weeks, which was after my RBC internship ended. The problem was that at RBC, if I had gotten a return offer, it would have been an exploding offer, where you only have 48 hours, and I wouldn’t even get the chance to interview with Bain. I explained to Bain how I didn’t want my hand to be forced, so people vouched for me, and they decided to bypass my first round, and just give me a final round interview on the Friday. In the background, I applied to BCG, CPPIB, and McKinsey online. I end up getting interviews from BCG which I accelerated for Wednesday, with McKinsey and CPPIB for direct PE the next week. I passed the BCG first round and ended up getting a final round for Friday. On Friday, my Bain final was at 9 am, and my BCG final was at noon. On Thursday, I found out from RBC that I did not get the return offer. They had said that while my work was stellar in the first half of the summer, it seems like I had checked out a bit in the second half, which was partly true, as I was leaving early to go do mock interviews, prepping at work, and at that point I shifted all my energy towards getting another job. I needed to make one of these two interviews count, if not, I would be going back to school without any offer. So, as I finished my interview at Bain, was heading to my BCG interview, the Partner who walked me out had wished me “good luck with your interview but not too much luck” and I shook his hand and said that I wanted luck here instead because this was where I wanted to work. After I left, I ended up getting a call with a job offer 15 minutes later. I went back to the office, signed my offer letter, and called BCG to cancel my interview because I knew I wanted to work at Bain and thought it would be rude to waste anyone’s time.
That’s how I switched from banking to consulting. It all happened in this very condensed period. I went into fourth year and ran my business for a little more before closing it down. I then started at Bain. I’ve been working at Bain for over two and a half years. I spent the first year in the Private Equity group. In Bain’s Private Equity group, we do commercial due diligence. When a private equity firm wants to buy a company, they have an investment thesis, and they’ll hire Bain to do a three-week project looking at the thesis. I did due diligence for firms across the US, Canada, and Europe, where I got to build a strong analytical toolkit. Then, I spent the second year working in just regular strategy consulting for corporations. Bain also has an externship program where you can go work somewhere else for six months to gain experience and then come back to Bain. So, I’m currently working at Microsoft, where I’m doing Growth Strategy, and M&A. I’ve spent majority of my externship working on a live acquisition and helping define the go-forward consumer product growth strategy. I’ll be done my externship next week, and then back to Bain, up till July. Finally, in August, I’ll be moving to Boston for the next two years to get my MBA at Harvard Business School.
Daniel: During your time at Western, you were part of the Enactus program and founded, Dine Easy. Have you always had entrepreneurial ambitions?
Paul: I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship. I come from a family of entrepreneurs, my parents back in Nigeria ran every side business under the sun, so working for yourself and the value that comes with that has always been important to me. Given that my second-year internship was part-time and remote, I stayed in London that summer, and in the background of that, I started a social enterprise called Dine Easy. Essentially, we cooked and delivered meals to people across London, and worked with government-funded non-profits to create a training program for marginalized individuals. People who never had a job before would be given on-the-job training and partnered with non-profits to get job skills and help them find a full-time role elsewhere.
Daniel: Congratulations on everything! Focusing on consulting, did it live up to what you were expecting? You already had prior experience in banking and knew what to expect in full time, which wasn’t true for consulting. Was there anything that surprised you?
Paul: On the consulting, versus banking piece, it helped that I had done the IB internship, because I was able to find out for myself if it was the right fit. To be honest, the sooner you can try it, and decide if it’s for you or not for you, the better. Going into it, I was expecting fewer hours than in banking, which has been true, and more interesting work because your projects are changing much more frequently. For the most part, in banking, there are only four or five ways you’re going to value a company, so you’re just repurposing models and decks that already exist. You don’t have time to build anything from scratch. Whereas in consulting, you’re coming into new projects, working with new teams, with new clients, in new geographies, in new industries, on new problems. Consulting offers great professional development from client work but especially from internal training and mentorship. Subsequently, I think there’s more opportunity for development than in IB. The learning curve in banking largely plateaus after the first year or two. You learn all the different ways to build a model, and you learn all the different ways to structure a transaction, and after that, it’s kind of rinse and repeat.
Daniel: Consulting and finance are known to be demanding careers, so how have you been able to counter burnout? Also, the job may not always be sunshine and roses, what are some negatives you’ve seen in consulting?
Paul: Firstly, in this world, I believe you you’re going to have problems and you just need to pick which problems you want to have. So, some of the problems that you see in consulting for example are the long hours. It’s going to sound better compared to banking, but it’s still quite a lot. We work probably 55 to 65 hours a week, but we don’t work weekends. All of that is packed Monday to Friday. In practice, it’s three days of usually working 9 am to 10 or 11 pm, then one day from 9 am to 8 pm, then finally Friday 9 am to 5 pm. Yeah, your life is not fully your own from Monday to Friday, but you do have your weekends to yourself.
Secondly, on how I have been able to counter burnout — I decide what’s important to me and protect time around that. I meticulously live by my calendar. It’s harder, honestly, to do this, within your first year, protecting boundaries, because you feel you just started this job and aren’t trying to ruffle any feathers. But as you progress, you also feel confident in your skills and realize they need you as well and you don’t need to burn out over the job. The key is making the job work for you and not just working for the job. You need to ask yourself if your role is really what you want to do and how long do you want to do that for? For me, coming up on these three years, it’s been great. I’ve learned so much, the connections I’ve made have been great, I feel confident in myself as a professional, but I also am not 100% sure if consulting is what I want to do long term and I plan to use my time at business school to figure this out. I have zero regrets and I think you’d be very hard-pressed to find many better places to start your career than Bain.
Daniel: Now at Microsoft, you’re able to leverage all these past experiences to focus on Growth Strategy and M&A. Can you walk us through your day-to-day and your main responsibilities?
Paul: Microsoft has four customer solution areas, which are basically divisions. They have gaming, LinkedIn, cloud and AI, and then experiences and devices, which is the biggest bucket that captures all of the legacy business, and the division I’m in. Each of these products has a strategy team that focuses on the next 12-month plan. Yet, no one was thinking about this from a portfolio level. Thinking about what the next two-to-five-year plan looks like, what are the new products and verticals that we need to be getting into, and what is the cohesive portfolio strategy? As a result, they created the team I’m on. There are about 11 of us on the team, all with strategy experience. Microsoft splits products into three horizons. Horizon one would be like Microsoft PowerPoint, as it is right now, an already existing cash cow business. Horizon two would be something like Microsoft Viva, the employee experience platform that they’re building. It’s all about culture and innovation for companies, and there’s a two-to-five-year growth opportunity that can eventually grow into Horizon one. Then horizon three is more far out bets, like Metaverse, those of which can slowly become horizon two. On my team, what we do is focus on horizon two growth opportunities, under experiences and devices. Whenever they have a strong bet on something worth investing heavily in, they add a 1 to 2 people from my team to define the right strategy and make sure it is executed properly. Microsoft uses cross-functional teams, so for any project, we’ll have a couple of people from finance, engineering, product marketing, corporate development, business development, sales, strategy, etc. One to two people from my team would be put on each project but my team is only 11 people, where there are 1000’s of people in engineering, 1000’s of people in sales, etc. So, they only put us on the most important projects with the highest value work. As I mentioned, I’ve been working on an acquisition on what we believe is a big growth opportunity that’s been accelerated by the pandemic. They wanted to make sure that we got this right, so we started from the bare bones of strategy questions. We did a market scan to understand if this is a market that we want to play in. Initially, my day-to-day was mostly early diligence. I wrote an interview guide, I worked with our expert networks where I did about 25 interviews with enterprise business leaders who were using the platforms that we were interested in. This led to us realizing that the best solution is to buy something with the capabilities, but also build first party tech in parallel and merge the two down the line. Then my job changed to understanding what target should we acquire? We did more diligence and shortlisted three targets, then hired a consulting firm to help us understand which was best. They came back to us with a recommendation that confirmed our original hypothesis. Now, we’ve reached out to the company last week and are engaging in formal acquisition talks. It’s been an amazing experience and the hours have been especially great compared to consulting, at about 35 to 45 hours a week.
Daniel: For all the first, second, and third years that are going to be reading this article. Do you have any advice about recruiting or for just going through university that you wish someone would have told you to back when you were a student?
Paul: The way I’ll structure this is by explaining what I believe are the things that matter most. If you’re a business undergrad, for most jobs that you’ll be getting, there are four main things that matter. Number one is academics, you need to do well in school, how good depends on the career you’re trying to enter. If you’re going into consulting, your undergrad grades are going to matter more than if you’re going into banking. Second is extracurricular experience, specifically, the leadership experience is key. Don’t just be part of a club, but have some sort of leadership position, and show real impact, don’t just write fluff on a resume. One way I liked balancing EC’s was to always do one business-related club, and one passion-related club. For example, by the time I left Western, I was Chair of the WCM board, and I was also VP of the Black Students’ Association. Those were important to me, and I found having a good balance just makes your story and experience better. Work experience is also important. The early bird gets the worm, the earlier you start, the more compounded interest you get. If you’re able to get a decent internship in first year, that becomes a better internship in second year which becomes a great internship in third year and finally becomes a fantastic job. If you’re in first year, or second year reading this, don’t drag your feet, it’s better to start sooner — the best day to start anything is always yesterday. The fourth bucket would be networking. It’s important to get out there, talk to people, and network. Hearing about different people’s career paths is great, but it also helps you. When people send in resumes, the firm will sit in a room and go through all the resumes, seeing if any of the people have spoken with you in the past and want to give you points, which ultimately can help your case in securing an interview. It’s also important to remember that your career does not define you and it is not healthy to constantly compare yourself to other people around you. Everyone is running their own race on their own time so do not let comparison be the thief of your joy. Finally, remember to take it easy on yourself, slow down, have fun, and enjoy everything that university has to offer because you will miss it when it’s all over!
Daniel: Thank you for your insights, and that wraps up all our questions. On behalf of Western Capital Markets, we appreciate your time and your continued involvement with the club.
Paul: Thanks for having me for this conversation. I always appreciate any opportunity to give back to this club which was such an important part of my time at university. Any current or past WCM members can feel free to reach out to me with any questions directly or just schedule a chat. Goodluck!