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As the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the globe, the close-knit Booth community shifted to virtual venues to stay connected professionally and personally. Booth students and alumni transformed a suddenly fractured, isolated collective and forged clever ways to bond, mentor, and just plain hang out in the friendlier confines of modern cyberspace. We asked five Booth community members to reflect on how they’ve continued to find connection and collaboration in a new “normal” that’s been anything but.

Alejandra Garza, ’92: A Mentor Makes Positive Pivoting Visible

This founder and president of Chicago-based AGG Consulting marked April 17 on her calendar three months in advance. That was the date for this year’s Booth 20/20, a student-alumni informational event. Garza looked forward to initiating insightful, engaging conversations with current Booth students. With COVID-19 making the planned in-person event impossible, the school and distinguished alumni who participate each year pivoted to a virtual format.

Garza explained that the purpose and passion behind Booth 20/20 remained so clear, there was no way it couldn’t happen. “My response was, ‘Hey let’s do it,’” Garza recalled. “Business and life in general are about how you shift, how you guide an organization toward change.”

The two-part virtual Booth 20/20 included a prerecorded session, which aired on April 17, featuring two panels of alumni who addressed prepared questions, and a subsequent set of 10 smaller group live breakout sessions the following week. Alumni participated from Los Angeles, Boston, and New York, as well as Garza’s home base of Chicago. Students came with prepared questions in part based on input from organizers, faculty, and administrators. Of course, COVID-19 and the future of business were on everyone’s mind. Garza used the current crisis to reinforce a message she wanted to share all along.

“I told them you have to be flexible,” she said. “You have to truly understand that this is another pivot in your life. So you learn. Be open to learning new things, new skills—and how you connect to the outside world.”

Jena Stenger, Current Full-Time MBA Student: Olympian Efforts

As Booth’s new president of the Graduate Business Council, Stenger confronted a challenge to vex any elected official: uniting a community in unprecedented crisis.

With no sports on the tube, Stenger and the council introduced two new virtual community events. They spearheaded a virtual version of the annual Booth Olympics, which ran May 15–30, complete with a modified logo of uncoupled Olympic-style rings, appropriately separate to practice social distancing. The competition took place via Zoom, with students signing up on a Google sheet for events in four categories: Online, Mind, Body, and Food & Beverage. The hotly contested virtual events included a push-up challenge and a TikTok contest to post the best dance video.

Then, on a national level, Stenger and her classmates joined the “MBA Battle Royale,” which pitted Booth against 10 other business schools. Stenger credits current Full-Time MBA student Nick Weiss as an early force behind the event, which raised $56,000 for Doctors Without Borders. Booth finished second behind UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, thanks to strong showings in improv comedy, business presentation, and a Family Feud game-show reboot. “I’m learning when to lean on others and find creative ways we can get together,” Stenger said. The brainstorming has worked, uniting Booth students with each other and their nationwide counterparts, and students have jumped at the chance to lead and attend yoga classes, cooking classes, and more. “I’m amazed by the innovative things they have come up with in this tough time.”

Malia Xie, Current Weekend MBA Student: Slipping into Slack

A Weekend MBA student who commutes from Detroit, Xie cherishes her time to connect with classmates and professors on Booth’s Chicago campus. Zoom meetings work to a point today, but for instantaneous interaction, the business communication platform Slack is where it’s at.

“Our cohort launched in Autumn Quarter 2019, and I loved how we built strong relationships in person,” Xie said. “So it’s great how the school has stepped up with the Slack platform that Evening and Weekend students use.”

Xie enjoys the Slack action so much that she follows one channel as a spectator rather than a participant. “I don’t know why I’m on the Running Channel, but it’s great to see the students encouraging one other,” she said, laughing.

Xie has also benefited greatly from online access that mixes business and pleasure. At one extreme, she attended this year’s Booth 20/20, and afterward, Xie sought out Garza for mentoring; on the other, she frequents the shelter-in-place student happy hours for mingling.

“There’s no shortage of ways to connect,” she said. In fact, the one big trick now “is trying not to take on too many conferences.”

Ilya Velder, ’13 (EXP-18), and Pavel Rodionov, ’13 (EXP-18): Russian Alumni Leadership

With 400-plus members, the Chicago Booth Alumni Club of Russia already claims a robust presence among the school’s 90-plus graduate groups. The COVID-19 pandemic has put even more Russian alums back in touch.

“It’s interesting how many people who haven’t seen each other for ages communicate via Zoom and Zoom-related channels,” Velder said. “So it was an obvious solution to get onto Zoom, and we’re doing it regularly.”

Given the professional status and station of Russian members—Velder, for example, holds a partner position at London-based Basinghall Partners—members and guests often discuss heady topics such as the current trajectory of world economies.

“Since COVID-19, there’s been a lot of sharing of research and views, including from macroeconomic specialists in terms of the possible consequences,” said Rodionov, managing director of AddPro in Moscow.

Zoom, WhatsApp, and the cloud-based instant-messaging service Telegram have also helped Russian alums propagate many forms of good—from humor threads to a concerted effort to help a pulmonologist.

“She’d survived COVID-19 and needed a computer to do telemedicine for people after her laptop broke,” Velder said. Through his virtually connected alumni network, “we tracked down a computer in three hours.”

An illustration of a person clinking glasses with someone through the computer screen

Seven Tips for Making Virtual Community Work

Sheltering in place doesn’t need to be stifling. Boothies have reorganized study groups, launched fitness classes, and conducted cooking klatches with actual chefs. Here are seven tips to help you thrive in the virtual milieu.

Leave your doubts at the digital door. Zoom, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime can be intimidating to many people who’ve avoided those formats in the past, but with practice comes comfort. In business as in life, said Garza, “You’ve got to roll with the punches; you’ve got to adjust in any circumstance.” There are positives to the change too—with 12 hours of round-trip commuting from Detroit cut out, Xie said that she’s actually taking a third class to take advantage of her extra time.

Use Zoom for more than meetings. Zoom video meetings can run rife with awkward pauses and easy distraction. But with informal events, the pressure’s off—and so the party’s on. In an impromptu Zoom dinner, for example, people don’t feel compelled to fill up silences—especially if they’re filling their mouths.

Structure your academic meeting time. When Booth 20/20 went virtual, organizers of the event knew that it was more important than ever to keep pacing lively. Thanks to an extra layer of planning, this crucial mentoring event conceded nothing contentwise. Questions were coordinated beforehand and alumni participants had prep time to outline stories and messages to share.

Combine digital platforms. As many student groups have discovered, the Slack messaging system allows for creating multiple hashtagged channels based on affinity groups, while shared Google calendars make it easier to get study groups on a coordinated schedule—and win the game Xie called “calendar Tetris.”

Give people great reasons to gather. Booth’s Russian alumni club knew that people wouldn’t turn away from discussions of career opportunities or energized networking events. Such gatherings “are quite intense right now because of all the economic activity, especially with people changing jobs, losing jobs, and looking to open up new career perspectives,” Rodionov said.

Multiply your screens. As Stenger discovered during a recent dinner event, you can be in multiple video chats at the same time. Some invited attendees sat with roommates who alternated between their group and others they’d joined via their laptops. Get a few people seated next to each other on different laptops in different Zoom Rooms and you’re a digital hop, step, and jump from walking the halls at a house party.

Do something new. Remember that novelty breeds interest and curiosity. Stenger pointed to one puckish student huddle that went geological. “We did a ‘Rocks 101’ and invited people to share their thoughts about rocks and what distinguishes one kind from another.”

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