With over 100,000 graduates globally, Wharton has one of the largest and most robust alumni networks across MBA programs. It is part of what attracted Shannon Irish, Class of 2019, to the program – and its impact has been apparent in her career since graduation.
In this inaugural article for my alumni column, I am highlighting Shannon’s career path in investment banking and private equity. I met Shannon in 2018, when I was exploring Wharton and an MBA degree as the next step in my professional journey. Shannon invited me into her home on numerous occasions when I was a prospective student, and she gave me a full view of life at Wharton.
Beyond her hospitality, she opened her network to me, and I was connected to amazing and influential women who are still impactful in my life today. A member of MLT and the Toigo Foundation’s fellowship program, both of which support diverse talent for career and business school preparation, Shannon values community and has always been intentional about mentoring rising talent and connecting with people from all walks of life. In my case, I vividly recall having sleepovers and wine down Wednesdays with her for both girl talk and sound advice to help my performance on the GMAT exam and MBA applications. Shannon carries amazing energy, and I will always remember her encouragement and supportive aura.
HITTING THE GROUND RUNNING IN INVESTMENT BANKING
Shannon cultivated her passion for finance and real-estate by pursuing a double major from The Wharton School. Post-MBA, she married those interests by beginning her career in real estate investment banking at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York City.
“Working in investment banking for two years provided a critical foundation for understanding finance fundamentals and deal flow cadence,” Shannon recounted to me. “The role was demanding and time intensive, to an extent that challenged my social life and work-life balance expectations”.
During the pandemic in particular, the company experienced an exceptionally high deal flow, and Shannon said the volume of transactions made her two years on the job feel more like five. This lack of work/life balance prompted Shannon to consider a career transition, and she was not alone. Other investment bankers felt a similar pressure. According to an informal Bloomberg News poll, anywhere between 13%-15% of investment banking analysts and associates left their roles – double the average in previous years. For Shannon, this wasn’t just a time to recharge, but also strategically position herself for the future.
“Given the increasing demands in the industry from 2020 through 2021, many MBA associates left the industry within 18 months or less rather than staying the industry average of two years. Companies were struggling with profitability, which translated into increased workflow expectations for me and other investment bankers. Still, I wanted to be thoughtful and strategic in my next move. I intentionally reconnected with my extended network to evaluate future roles and eventually landed a role in private equity. Working in investment banking served as a steppingstone and armed me with the technical skills that I needed to perform well in my subsequent role.”
BREAKING INTO PRIVATE EQUITY
Shannon recalls many classmates pursuing opportunities in private equity aggressively, but many did not get these coveted roles. “The job landscape is tough and unpredictable, so I advise interested talent to build a robust skillset and focus on shorter term adjacent positions as a viable steppingstone,” Shannon says. It’s not unusual to land in private equity later on, after a few years of experience. If I could retrace my steps, I would have leveraged more of the resources accessible to me as a business school student. If you know you want to move into PE or another industry as a long-term goal, make sure to take relevant classes, join student clubs or help plan conferences or events that could help grow your knowledge base. Connect with influential professors and other peers who have established themselves in this space to get advice on successful habits that are valued within the industry.”
Planning ahead is key to preparing your skillset for future endeavors, even if you may not see the opportunity manifest immediately. When recruiting for post-grad life, Shannon suggests people should follow the 75-25 rule.
“Allocate 75% of your time to immediate and achievable post-MBA roles and the other 25% on long-term or stretch professional goals. Take time to explore other opportunities, and do not rule anything out just because it may not seem feasible in this stage of your career – it may be the next stage or the one after that.”
For Shannon, transitioning into private equity at KKR would not have been possible without her robust network. She leveraged her Wharton and MLT alumni networks, setting up coffee chats and sending cold emails to hustle her way out of investment banking.
“I would dialogue with people in professions I aspired to, discussing their day-to-day activities and the pros and cons of their workplace and industry. These conversations helped me pin down the roles I might be interested in and, also, how to best present my career narrative and value proposition to the firm.”
Though not all conversations yielded immediate outcomes, Shannon quickly realized that keeping her connections warm, as well as building new meaningful relationships, was advantageous. She cast a wide net within her network. The advice, referrals, and encouragement eventually helped her manifest a private equity role. According to Shannon, networking isn’t optional. Instead, it is a priority and necessary for any professional in any industry.
“Effective networking can potentially lead to job number three, four, or other future career opportunities,” she adds.
BECOMING A PRINCIPAL AT KKR
When Shannon was hired in the Client and Partner Group at KKR, she celebrated her new position by relaxing.
“I traveled, visited family, reconnected with my classmates, and recharged my batteries. I recall being intentional about resting during the job transition. Moreover, I advocate for others to take a similar mental health break when switching companies or jobs. Particularly for women of color, recharging your batteries best equips you for tackling a new industry’s challenges. Prioritizing my wellness enabled me to show up as the best, most confident version of myself, capable of adding maximum value across the firm.”
Shannon now works at the intersection of the private equity ecosystem within growth tech, infrastructure, and fundraising.
“I was not previously acquainted with these project scopes, but I excelled quickly and was promoted to Principal on the Real Estate team within just 6 months. I currently support a mega fund by raising capital for its Real Estate platform – a role that I did not foresee while I was pursuing my MBA. Additionally, I was not exposed to this caliber of finance roles prior to business school. I credit the Wharton and Toigo community for helping me connect the dots between my interests and supporting my career transition into KKR’s Client and Partner Group.”
Shannon stretched herself by entering a new type of work in fundraising on the buy side – both areas were completely new to her. This is where the fabric of her work ethic pushed through to overcome these barriers. Similar to her approach in investment banking, Shannon hit the ground running. She initially spent time launching KKR’s third vintage of its growth technology strategy and helped to raise capital for the firm’s open-ended infrastructure fund.
SPONSORSHIP AT KKR
Alumni networks are a powerful tool for activating top talent. Similar to how Shannon was supported by her own connections, she is committed to paying it forward by mentoring junior analysts and helping retain people of color. KKR has created Employee Resource Groups that drive engagement and create a sense of community and belonging for individuals at the firm.
“The Head of DEI has made great strides in building out and strengthening these communities, which serve as avenues for attracting, coaching, developing, and retaining a diverse talent pipeline,” Shannon says. “I am passionate about diversity within financial services and at KKR. I actively support the recruiting practices at the junior and MBA levels, onboarding talented employees and upscaling their business acumen. I am enhancing KKR’s DEI efforts by cultivating authentic relationships within these communities to foster a more inclusive ecosystem.”
Shannon is a servant leader. She supports others by helping them get into business school, mentors rising talent, and builds inclusive spaces. These actions are a testament to her value system, and I will always remember the way Shannon encouraged me. Her leadership style reminds others to work hard, trust the process and always lift others as you rise.
In combination with all her professional endeavors, Shannon is building a life that centers around family.
“My biggest goal in life is to be a great mother and wife. I am engaged to Tunde Oguntimein (CBS ‘18), and we met during the MBA application journey. This was truly a full circle moment for us. We recently became homeowners, taking a huge step toward building our legacy.”
Shannon and Tunde are planning a wedding in 2023, and they are looking forward to starting a family shortly afterwards. In the future, Shannon believes it is important to strike a balance between having a career in private equity and seeing her children consistently.
“This did not feel possible when I worked in investment banking, given the time-intensive nature of the career,” Shannon reflects. “But I am committed to spending time with my husband, family, and friends regularly and navigating life in a way that allows me to manifest both professional and personal goals.”
Shannon is proud to serve as a Principal in the Client and Partner Group at KKR. Although very demanding and challenging, her career does allow for work and family vitality.
FAVORITE MOMENTS AT WHARTON
Shannon has quite a few fond memories at her life on Locust Walk, She served as a leadership venture participant and fellow, affording her the unique opportunity to camp out in Antarctica and climb one of the highest peaks in Chile’s Andes mountain range. Shannon shared,
“I remember completing the Quantico intensive course, learning how to fight through the Wharton boxing club and I had the opportunity to showcase my Mandarin language fluency by performing at the Chinese New Year Festivals. I am most proud of helping to establish Penn Student Women in Real Estate as a Wharton club and serving as the president of the Caribbean Business Initiative.”
SHANNON’S PARTING WORDS OF ADVICE
What advice does Shannon offer to future MBAs? For one, she urges them to engage with prospective champions early “Don’t let alumni and professional networks go to waste by not being intentional about showing up to events and contributing as a young alumni. This is leaving relationship currency on the table and engaging actively can help you exponentially in your future.”
Shannon also encourages women of color to consider pursuing private equity.
“I encourage women of color to be more confident in this space, reminding them that they belong here as much as anyone else. Regardless of background and walk of life, be confident. Work hard and always remember your merits and credentials – you are likely more qualified than you think.”
As you can see, the best is yet to come for Shannon. She has so much to look forward to and it all seems like yesterday when she was building snowmen in Antarctica with her Wharton classmates! Shannon’s hard work, family-oriented values, and commitment to lift others as she climbs are elements within her approach to make an impact. We wish Shannon all the best in her new life as a future wife, Principal at KKR and anything else she aspires to be.
Azline is a Waterloo, IA native and a National Gates Millennium Scholar. She earned a B.A. in International Studies and French at Spelman College. She has visited 47 countries, having lived in Geneva, Switzerland, and interned in Dakar, Senegal and Accra, Ghana. Azline worked for Delta Air Lines for seven years before earning her MBA in Finance from The Wharton School and her M.A in French African Studies from the Lauder Institute. She currently works at Vanguard within product strategy.