Peer to Peer: How Candidates from Nontraditional Backgrounds Can Break Through

Madhu Yalamarthi, MBA ’19, offers advice to other first-generation grads with audacious goals.

October 05, 2021

| by Dave Gilson
Alt text: A woman in a hijab sitting across a desk from a man in a suit, shaking his hand and smiling. | Credit: Sol Cotti

“Who wouldn’t want a humble, hungry, and hustling colleague?” | Illustration by Sol Cotti

First-generation and low-income (FLI) students come from a range of backgrounds, but share a common experience as they break barriers at elite institutions like Stanford GSB. Yet what happens after graduation?

That’s the question posed by members of the FLI Club, which connects first-generation and low-income Stanford GSB students. Club cofounder Madhu Yalamarthi, MBA ’19, has thought a lot about this question. A first-generation college graduate from Andhra Pradesh, India, he is now a vice president at GGV Capital, a global venture capital firm with $9.2 billion in assets under management. When he was recently hiring an analyst, he helped design a process that would actively encourage nontraditional candidates. Here’s his advice to first-generation students getting ready for their next step:

Know Yourself

Every FLI journey is different. Pursuing an audacious goal can take a huge toll since you need to put in extra effort, particularly if you have more family responsibilities than your peers. However, your personal rather than professional background might make you a better candidate than others. So it’s important to start with taking stock of your positional and capability advantages and disadvantages.

Know the Industry Dynamics

Most GSBers are familiar with the phrase, “garbage in, garbage out” — getting good intel is crucial. Early in my career, I learned about different paths by reading online or following people a few years ahead of me.

As a nontraditional candidate, understanding how the process works is key to beating it.
Madhu Yalamarthi

But these sources become obsolete as we move upward. Information is privileged and shared in trusted circles only, especially info on key people, organizations, and their culture; success factors and pitfalls; and exit opportunities.

If we don’t do this right, we may end up stuck in the wrong organizations and roles, with high switching costs. The Stanford GSB alumni network comes in very handy here. Tap into it generously and pay it forward.

Know the Process to Beat It

Most industries and companies have arrived at certain heuristics to make speedy but effective hiring decisions. For example, VC roles are hired through recruiters and networks. There are firms, such as ours, where we consciously built our process to be fair and inclusive — which is how I got in! But the wider industry is still evolving.

As a nontraditional candidate, understanding how the process works is key to beating it. For example, an authentic cold email can do wonders: “I don’t fit the typical mold of what you look for, but I’ve got what it takes to do this job, here are the reasons why, and I’d love to have a chance.” Those are the “underdog” candidates people first respond to — who wouldn’t want a humble, hungry, and hustling colleague?

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