“Despite what school often teaches us, being successful, or in this case, winning Survivor, doesn’t come from being the best, most likable, or the most athletic.”

Kellee Kim, WG’19, competed on Survivor: Island Of The Idols while finishing her MBA at Wharton. How — and why — did she do it? We spoke with Kellee ahead of the Season 39 premiere to find out how Wharton prepared her for the show’s twists and challenges — as well as life and work beyond the show.

What led you to Wharton? Tell us about your undergrad studies, your initial work, and why you pivoted from medicine to the MBA program.

The Healthcare Management (HCM) program at Wharton led me to apply. The network and the alumni were really important in deciding on which MBA program to attend and I had a few friends who did the HCM program and they could not speak more highly of it. 

I went to undergrad at Harvard and concentrated in History of Science; I was also pre-med. After school, I worked for a biotech-focused hedge fund and one of our portfolio companies before applying to school. Wharton gave me the opportunity to try new things and explore different industries and so I figured out what I liked and I pivoted from life sciences to real estate. I’m actually going to be focused on healthcare/life sciences real estate.

What attracted you to Survivor and how did you decide, shortly before starting at Wharton, that you wanted to pursue the opportunity?

I was attracted to Survivor because of the gameplay; it’s a real-life game where real people are the players. I submitted my application to be on the show during the spring before I arrived at Wharton and ended up in LA for about a week for final auditions. As I went through that process and business school, being on Survivor became more than just a game. It became about positive, well-rounded representation – as a woman and as an Asian American. What type of broader impact could I have? How could I break down a few of the stereotypes that Asian Americans and women have been associated with?

Most people who play Survivor wish to win. That was my goal as well but right before I left someone wished me, “May you be impactful.” And, I thought, “Wow, what a blessing and what a different way to look at the game.” Of course, the further you get in the game, the more impact you’re likely to have!

What was the process like of actually getting on the show, and how did you balance that with the Wharton MBA Program?

I submitted a video through casting and like everyone, I ended up in LA for about a week to finals. Most of it was done remotely and the week in LA coincided perfectly with finals, which I didn’t have. For the show, I was able to film during Quarter 4. I had finished most of my credits so I only needed to take a couple more to graduate.

What favorite/pivotal moment or moments stand out from your time at Wharton?

One of my favorite clubs was Storytellers, which is a student-organized club that creates opportunities for people to share stories that might not be heard in a classroom or a party. These stories were heartbreaking, joyful, and inspiring. My favorite story was one classmate who described his lifelong dream of attending Penn as an undergraduate, and at 18, he got in! But that year, Hurricane Katrina hit and he couldn’t put the financial burden on his family so he didn’t go. He applied to Wharton to try again and he was waitlisted but six days before school started he was admitted. It was a dream come true. I think about that story a lot because it makes me incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be at a school like Wharton. There were so many stories like this one that humanized Wharton; when people decide to share, the things that seem to matter so much in school, like the grades, titles, and social scene are stripped away and we are reminded that we are all human and we all have a story. Survivor, hopefully, in the midst of a competitive, back-stabbing game, will share stories that inspire and humanize us. 

How did your experience at Wharton prepare you for the mental and physical challenges of Survivor? 

Because Survivor filming happened during Quarter 4 of school, my classes were fresh on my mind. Two Wharton classes helped me think about strategy on the show: Influence with Cade Massey and Power Labs, an experiential learning course. They gave me frameworks on how to think about the power dynamic between people and within groups to better understand what was happening. Despite what school often teaches us, being successful — or in this case winning Survivor — doesn’t come from being the best, most likable, or the most athletic. It often comes from one’s ability to exert influence through social skills. These classes gave me frameworks on how to think about the power dynamic between people and how I might maneuver.

What lessons did you learn from your time on the show that can be applied to your personal or professional future?

I can tell you in three months! 

Based on your experience at both Wharton and Survivor, what advice would you share with prospective and current Wharton students?

There is so much happening at Wharton and I think it’s very easy to get sucked into many different events and activities. I would write down goals — professional, social, and personal — and focus on those. One of my real estate mentors gave me the advice that my time at Wharton is the time to work on myself. It’s very hard to do when you’re working or once you’re out of school but Wharton gave me the resources and the time to reflect on what is important to me, who I am, and who I want to be. 

What’s next for you? Where do you want to go in your career that you hope your Wharton degree will allow you to pursue?

I’m in Los Angeles, with LPC West, a real estate company. Beyond pivoting my career from life sciences to real estate, Wharton taught me that professional and personal successes are equally important. I can only hope that my life is well-rounded in both.


Photos: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Posted: September 25, 2019

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