Harbus interviewer John Hintze (MBA ’18) talks with Alison Lu (MBA ’17) about her summer internship with the Orlando Magic NBA basketball team, energy, and her plans for the future.
At Harvard Business School, we are encouraged to reflect. If we look back on our childhood dreams, professional sports and their glories will often be found together, with firemen in the heat of rescue and astronauts in the stars. Adolescence follows, turning our passions into hobbies, until the crush of adulthood compels a specialization which may, or may not, be our zeal. At some point, we have to grow up.
But an MBA enables us to explore new career paths, and Alison Lu (MBA ’17) did just that with a summer internship at the Orlando Magic. “Working for a sports team or sports league has been in the back of my mind since undergrad, and before I even started HBS, I started having conversations with people who worked at the NBA.” Alison, an environmental engineering major from Yale, previously worked for three years at PA Consulting. Before that, she took a Fulbright Scholarship to Tsinghua University, China, where she researched energy efficiency technologies.
Alison’s Orlando Magic summer was spent improving acquisition and retention of season ticket holders. Season ticket revenues, as well as sponsorships and TV rights, are crucial to the viability of an NBA team. She was tasked to “look at the characteristics of a good season ticket holder, the ones who spent the most money or who were most likely to renew, and push consumers in the direction of behaving more like that season ticket holder.” One of the ways Alison did this was through careful big data analysis, as well as encouraging people to get more out of the Orlando Magic app. “With the app comes more customer data. Through the app, people can order concessions, experiences, and seat upgrades. It’s valuable to be able to tie those consumer patterns to the actual season ticket holder to see, okay, this person is likely to buy a lot of hot dogs or something like that.”
I asked Alison what she learned her first year at HBS that directly related to her job over the summer. She cited the entire Marketing unit as useful, teaching her the way people interact with brands. Also, The Entrepreneurial Manager’s case on “Rent the Runway” included subscription model analysis. The approach to life cycle and acquisition costs was something she directly applied.
But HBS isn’t going to teach you everything. “When I was at the Magic, I had a very steep learning curve, both in terms of the industry, and also in terms of the skills required. I had taken basic query languages for analyzing big data, but it was nothing to the point of dealing with the datasets that I had to deal with on a day-to-day basis at the Orlando Magic, so I found that really difficult. Also, learning about a whole new industry felt like starting anew.”
I asked Alison why she would work for an NBA team when she had already developed an impressive energy expertise. “As you mentioned, I had such an expertise built up already with environmental engineering, doing energy efficiency research, and then energy utilities consulting, that I really wanted to spend the one ‘risk free summer’ at HBS doing something completely different.” At Yale, she played on the women’s club basketball team and was president of the team during sophomore and junior year. “I’m 5’2” so I was never really going to make it in the big leagues, so basketball has always been an extracurricular passion.”
That basketball passion is something Alison brought with her to Tsinghua University, China, while researching comparative US/China commercial buildings for energy efficiency. In her spare time, she would play with both the varsity and junior varsity teams. I was curious to know how basketball was treated in China. “It was super interesting just to see how basketball is approached, especially on the women’s side, because it’s not really something a lot of Chinese girls grow up with in terms of doing something for fun. You’re either one of the, ‘farmed athletes’ and going to training camps to attend a school like Tsinghua with a basketball recruiting scholarship, or you’ve never touched a ball at all.”
And what about the influence of Yao Ming? “At the time I was there, Yao Ming was a little past his prime. But people in China were like, ‘Yao Ming is okay, but our favorite is Kobe Bryant.’ Everybody loves Kobe Bryant, Lebron, and others like that. Yao Ming was definitely instrumental in bringing the Chinese into the basketball scene, but in the end I think they are all fans of Kobe, and Derek Rose, and all the other legends.” For the record, Alison’s loyalties lie with the Golden State Warriors because she’s from San Francisco, so her favorite player right now is probably Steph Curry. But on the Magic, her favorite player was Aaron Gordon, not least because he did an amazing dunk in a dunk contest last year.
In Alison’s RC year, she was one of the VPs of Careers for the Business of Sports Club, using that position to talk to a lot of NBA teams, sports leagues, and media-types to find her internship program. But her EC year thus far has seen her returning to her energy roots. She studied Innovating in Energy, and took an Immersive Field Course developing public/private partnerships in East African renewable power. HBS has allowed her to get beyond utilities, with their own rules and constraints, to learn more about energy finance and the wider commercial world.
For now, as Alison figures out what to do post-HBS, she can be found coordinating, along with Ezra Josephson (MBA ’17), HBS intramural sports. And maybe we can all learn something from one of the rising competitive pressures the Magic face, which Alison saw during her summer. “The Orlando City soccer team has done a really good job of creating a huge cheering section, people that play drums the entire time; it’s actually a really fun experience. When I was in Orlando meeting up with my friends, they all said, ‘Oh, the Magic games are okay, but have you been to an Orlando City game? You need to go to an Orlando City game.’” So, Harvard. Are you cheering loud enough?
John Hintze (HBS ’18) is an RC from Section G. Prior to HBS, John was a visiting student at Harvard GSAS, and worked in political campaigning and finance.