BJ Wright '03 is working for McKinsey & Company in London.
After Willamette, Wright earned a PhD in chemistry at Columbia University.
Alumnus moves his problem-solving from the lab to the boardroom
BJ Wright '03 majored in chemistry and went on to earn a PhD at Columbia University with a renowned organic chemist. Today he works for McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm.
The two fields may sound unrelated, but Wright says that consulting and chemistry are more alike than they appear.
"I like the challenge of taking on a problem that nobody knows how to solve," he says. "As a chemist, I broke apart molecules on paper to figure out how to put them together in real life, and in consulting, we use a similar process to lend structure to complex business problems. It turns out that in all those years of studying chemistry, I was also training myself to be a management consultant."
Wright joined McKinsey's New York office a year ago, but through a global rotation program, he is now working for nine months in London and will likely head to Asia before returning to the U.S.
From Chemistry to Consulting
Wright fell in love with chemistry during his freshman year after former Willamette Professor Jeff Willemsen introduced him to the field. Willemsen also mentored Wright through several research projects.
"The exhilaration of my lab work is what drove me to graduate school," he says. "It's what helped me get into a good PhD program and a top-notch research group - I already had valuable experience in the lab."
While at Columbia, he earned a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which provided grant money to support his research in organic synthesis. At the end of the program, he was offered a solid post-doctoral position and seemed ready to launch his career as a chemist.
But even though he liked the idea of tackling problems in the lab, he felt restless about the amount of time it took to find solutions through research.
In the meantime, he had attended a McKinsey & Company retreat and was attracted to the opportunity to work on a broader variety of problems with companies around the world. He turned down the post-doc position and joined the consulting firm.
"I focus on health care, and I have worked with pharmaceutical, medical device and health care IT companies," he says. "The most exciting thing about my job is that I'm always working with new people on new issues."
Honing His People Skills
He also helped start the chemistry club and Willamette Men Against Violence, an organization dedicated to ending violence against women.
"At Willamette I learned to work with many different types of people. If you imagine trying to convince fraternity guys or male athletes to attend an event like Take Back the Night, a protest of sexual violence that is traditionally considered a ‘women's' event, it's not easy.
"These experiences serve me well in my job at McKinsey. As a consultant, I help executives think through a problem and come to a decision. A major part of my job is developing personal relationships with my clients and other people in the firm. My extracurriculars at Willamette were like job training."