Basketball to BCG: How Jordan Broke in from a Non-Traditional Background (Podcast)

Jordan Clarke played professional basketball for three years overseas before breaking into BCG via an MBA (University of Virginia, Darden School of Business).

Hear his inspiring story firsthand on this episode of Strategy Simplified. All the details are here, including:

  • How Jordan optimized his business school choice for breaking into consulting
  • His open approach to networking
  • The importance of putting people first in the recruiting process
  • Why being decisive about your office choices is critical
  • The reason he left BCG to pursue a role at Nike

If you enjoyed Jordan’s story and his approach to case interview coaching, find a link below to see his calendar and schedule a 1:1 session.

Listen on Spotify - Strategy Simplified


Noah Schmeisser  00:05

Jordan, welcome to Strategy Simplified. Thank you for being here today. Can you start by just telling us a little bit about yourself giving us a little introduction, your background pre-MBB, just tell our listeners a little bit about yourself.

Jordan Clarke  00:37

Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to talk to you today. So I’m from Washington, DC, born and raised. I went to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa for undergrad, majored in finance.  I played basketball while I was there. After that, I went and I played basketball overseas professionally for three years. I played in Copenhagen, Denmark, played in Plymouth, England. And then my third year I split between Santiago, Chile, in Korea, and Argentina. I really enjoyed my time doing that. But for various reasons, that time was coming to an end. And then I transitioned into business school. And I guess even before that business school was on my mind, because I started the CFA curriculum.

I was trying to see what transition could look like, and with the finance undergraduate, it made sense. When to go to transition in business school, I applied to a handful, ended up at the University of Virginia Darden, for many reasons that we can get into. But loved my time in Charlottesville, ended up summering at BCG, and then spent three years at BCG after that.

Noah Schmeisser  01:48

Yeah, that sounds sounds like a lot of fun. And can you tell us a little bit more about your time playing basketball overseas, our listeners would love to hear a little more about that. I’m very interested here.

Jordan Clarke  02:00

It was an incredible time. I’ll tell anybody that I learned the most about life, about business through playing basketball. Both growing up, but, especially overseas, different cultures, different types of people, different ages. You just learn contract negotiations, how businesses are run, you learn so so much,  which I’m very thankful for and it pays dividends today. But there’s also a piece around getting paid to do the thing that you love to do.

I’m extremely fortunate to have had that opportunity. I will also say though, it made it a little bit challenging, because then you think about, what are you going to do next? And do you find anything that’s as fulfilling as that? Unfortunately, in my role now at Nike, that I get to do something that I really enjoyed, but also realizing that transitioning from that it’s tough, but that experience was incredible. Especially if I think about Argentina, getting to play really high level basketball in a beautiful country, steak, wine, amazing culture. It was an awesome time.

Noah Schmeisser  03:23

Well, it sounds like it. So you did basketball and then you went to Virginia. I’m a UVA alum myself. I had an amazing time in Charlottesville. Tell us a little bit more about that. Tell us a little bit about Charlottesville, business school. How was that?

Jordan Clarke  03:43

First of all, how I got there is that growing up in Washington, DC. I was always familiar with the university of Virginia. I looked at it for undergrad, never got a scholarship offer to play at UVA so that’s probably part of reason why I never ended up there, but really, really enjoyed it at that time. And it’s obviously close to home so it’s nice to be back home. Then my brother went there for law school so I was visiting a lot and I just fell in love with Charlottesville. It’s just an absolutely beautiful place. And then when I was thinking about what I wanted to do, UVA is a great business school, it plays really, really well in consulting.

The alumni network in the mid atlantic where I ended up after UVA is super strong. I really enjoyed my time there.  I thought it was an incredible experience, both from a learning and development perspective, but also from the people that I’ve met. Some of the people that I met there are some of my best friends to this day. Keep in close contact with, go on trips with, so it was really incredible experience and quite frankly, I wouldn’t be where I am today without having that experience both from a academic perspective but more importantly from just an opportunistic perspective and what that afforded me in terms of different companies coming on campus, to interview, and get getting us prepared for those opportunities as well.

Noah Schmeisser  05:02

Yeah, it’s an incredible place. And I was in the undergraduate business school, McIntyre. I had a similar experience, a lot of opportunities, a lot of companies, a lot of opportunities that aren’t available outside of that sphere.

 So talking a little bit more about about those opportunities, you said part of the reason that you wanted to go to business school, and they’re kind of on your radar was you finance undergrad, and then were working on the CFA. But coming out of business school, you went more along the consulting route. Was finance something that you considered? Were you pretty much set on consulting once you got to business school? Walk us through that.

Jordan Clarke  05:45

Like I said, I majored in finance. And I started the CFA curriculum. I skipped over this part, but after I got done playing in Argentina, I wasn’t sure if I was going to play another year or not. And so I started to, but I also knew that business school was on the horizon for me, and I thought I only had one more year left. And so I started applying to different programs, jobs, in addition to talking to my agent and trying to find a contract, and I made a pact with my wife, that whatever comes first is what we’ll do and then figure out the next year later. 

I actually worked as a buy side fixed income analyst for a year at a Financial Group in Iowa. So I had the benefit of putting into real practice what I’ve learned academically. But to wrap back to your to your question, I did, I took advantage of that year. And that’s one of the things I’m super thankful for. I did a lot of research before I got to business school. I was one of those people that was cold emailing people, like, Hey, I’m going to business school, coming from basketball, just want to learn a little bit about what you do. And I was talking to people in investment banking, Private Equity, brand tech, consulting. You name and I was talking to them, search funds, I was talking to people about it. 

I was sold on consulting before I even got to start. In fact, a lot of the reason why I chose Darden was because it plays so well in consulting. Applications that I submitted were for schools that I thought would fit me best for consulting. I had three reasons for that. One was having not had a business background, I wanted exposure to as many different industries and functions as quickly as I could, because I just wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Going back to the point about being able to do something that you love, I just wasn’t sure what I would find. So that was point one.

Point two is coming from a basketball background, I knew that I grew significantly through coaching and Consulting has a great reputation for its feedback culture. Its apprenticeship model and helping people grow was something that I knew that I would benefit from. 

The third reason was, I’m a huge believer in iron sharpens iron. And the people that I met in those conversations that I thought were the sharpest, both a combination of IQ and EQ either had been consultants in the past, or were currently consultants. And so the way I thought about it was either I’ll go there, and I’ll get sharper but I won’t be sharp enough, and I won’t make it and that’s fine, but I’ll be better for it. Or I’ll get sharper and it’ll work out and I’ll progress.

Fortunately, the latter happened. So I knew that going into the process consulting is what I wanted to do. And then I was fortunate enough, I did a bunch of the pre MBA consulting programs, I was fortunate to get the McKinsey Emerging Scholars scholarship. All of those things helped me streamline and focus my process as I matriculated into business school.

Noah Schmeisser  10:36

Interesting to hear there. So you were very focused on consulting going in. Once you got to Darden, what would you say your recruiting process was? You interned the summer between your first and second year and went to BCG thereafter? What did that recruiting process look like when you were actually at school?

Jordan Clarke  11:00

Yeah, for sure. I’m a big fan of doing your work early. So one, I have to be honest, I give a lot of credit to McKinsey, because without that stamp of approval, I don’t know exactly how it goes. But getting that going into school helped me tremendously. Because once it was on your resume, then you had been vetted by a top firm. It paid dividends for me as I had conversations with folks.

But what I also did was talk to a bunch of people at these firms before I even got the campus and some people would be like, No, Jordan don’t do that. Or it seems thirsty, if you will, I didn’t really care. Because I was like, look, if I’m going to go out, I’m going out swinging, and I’m putting my best foot forward. And if that means annoying a couple of people, I’ll trust that I have a high enough EQ to know when I need to step back. So I did a lot of that early, which then allowed me to concentrate on casing a little bit before I think other folks did. Because I could count it right, because there are distinct parts of the process.

First is the networking piece, then you get into the application submission and resume and cover letter, then you get into interview prep, and then you have the actual interviews. I was able to move that process forward so that I wasn’t really in the networking as much because I kind of knew where I would have interviews. So I could then focus on my resume. And then once I focused on my resume, I could then go into casing a little bit early, which again, I thought was super helpful. 

For me coming from a non traditional background, I knew that math would be something that I felt comfortable with, having had a finance background. But I knew that it was something that somebody looking at my resume would question or wonder if I had the analytical horsepower to keep up. And so that was something that I wanted to put an emphasis on so that when the day came I left no doubt that I was just as if not more capable than some of the other folks that were interviewing.

Noah Schmeisser  13:16

It makes a lot of sense. You broke down the recruiting process into these different steps. You have the networking piece, you have the resume application, then you have the casing and within the casing, you have specifics, you have math. For listeners out there, do you have any specific tips at any point in that process that you really felt helped you set yourself apart. Anything that people listening here today who are potentially recruiting undergrad or going through the MBA recruiting pipeline, in the next few months could really take away from that?

Jordan Clarke  13:51

I think number one is, and this sounds simple, but I think oftentimes the human centric aspect of this process gets lost in the fact that you are talking to human beings, and you should treat them as such. Think about what they’re going through, like you feel awkward at an event, but they feel awkward with 15 people standing around them. So the more you can think about it from different perspectives and understand that it really comes down to just having a conversation with folks, active listening, asking good questions.

People ask, how you stand out. Your resume is your resume, right? Now it’s just, one, being a human being and being able to connect with folks, but to doing the introspection to understand if things went really well during your career, understand why. If things didn’t go so well, understand. What I think people understand that most most folks that are getting their MBA are there for some sort of transition, for whatever reason that may be and so as long as you have that done that introspection and a lot of people, you’d be shocked to see haven’t done it in that way. I think people really, really appreciate that. 

When you ask walk me through your resume, it’s not about the resume, because they could read the resume. It’s about the ‘why’ behind the transitions and the things that you do that really  unlocks and let people in and get back to that human centric process. The last thing I would say is, this is kind of like a bonus, and I get that I may be a little bit different, is that it helps to be decisive during the process. I think what’s not talked about a lot.

A lot of these decisions are made at the office level. And so when people are waffling on, like, oh, I may go to Chicago, or I may go to DC, or maybe like the Swiss office sounds nice. Companies don’t know what to do with that. And so that you end up in no man’s land, so to speak. The more that you can voice over that you are very targeted and what you’re after and you vocalize that consistently throughout the process to people, they are taking notes. And so like when like when things don’t tie people are like, what’s going on here. But when they flow through in a logical way, it builds a compelling story. So the earlier you can get to some comfort around where you want to be like what firms are interesting, all those things like I think, the more success you’ll be able to have. And obviously easier said than done. Because the NBA is an amazing process, because you have so many options, and so many things happening at once. And so you want to explore different avenues.

With that said, I think it’s one of those, going back to the earlier point of doing your work early. I encourage people to do that research before they get there. Because once they get there, it’s happening fast. So those would be the three pieces of advice I would give. That makes a lot of sense. At the undergraduate level as well, the importance of just doing everything as early as you can, because every year these deadlines move back and get early earlier. Definitely, it can be an intimidating process, especially if you leave more toward the last minute than you should.

Noah Schmeisser 

So you got into consulting after the NBA and you since left and are currently in strategy at Nike. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved with that? What that transition out of consulting looks like? Why you made that decision and a little bit more about your current role?

Jordan Clarke

Yeah, for sure. I was at BCG for about three years as a consultant, and then the project leader. And I did the random walk for about the first six months where I was doing different industries and functions. And then I really locked in on two things. One was the fashion luxury and apparel team, and then the Private Equity team. So that’s where I was spending my time.

I was one of those people, quite frankly, I’d always set a goal of get the project leader and then seriously reevaluate because I knew that the jobs were tangibly different, and I wanted each set of skills. 

With that said, I also took calls throughout. So like all the LinkedIn messages that you get all the emails that you get, I was always on the phone trying to understand the lay of the land, because again, coming from like a non traditional background, I just didn’t know how things equate it. I didn’t know what to expect from a title perspective, from a compensation perspective, like from a trajectory perspective, I didn’t really have like a clear understanding, quite frankly, I mentioned the non traditional background piece.

But from talking to folks, most people don’t have a clear understanding of what that looks like. And so as I took those calls, I was able to better level set on what made sense for me at different spots and where I thought I could get the most bank for my buck from a transition perspective if indeed I figured out that I didn’t want to be at BCG for the long haul.  And so, I actually the woman who I talked to first is a BCG alum. So then going back to would I have this job if not for BCG, probably not. She led the Enterprise Strategy Group. She had actually worked in the DC office we had met in passing but never worked together. She left before I came back full time but she was there during my summer. We were having conversations about Nike and just how there was an opening on her team and enterprise strategy and just with my background, it made a ton of sense. You know, sports but also consumer retail apparel. 

I’ve done about seven months of work with one of their main competitors in digital markets. So I understood the business from a lot of different angles. But just as importantly, I was able to understand where that opportunity stacked up in relation to other opportunities. So when I was reached out to and I saw the title, I saw the compensation and all those things I knew that this was an opportunity that for me was going to be really hard to pass up. In full transparency, I actually I was going down the Private Equity route, that’s where I was headed. In terms of things that I wanted to do, because I was back to the point about can you find something else that you love, I hadn’t really at that time. And so I thought let me just try to maximize dollars if I can. And so when this when this came across, and we started this conversation, I almost didn’t have it because like I was ready to go do something in Private Equity. And then my wife was like, look Jordan, you should have more of these conversations.  

I actually had an interview scheduled for the day that my son was born, which I do not recommend. Interview actually ended up getting canceled. So, all good there. But in any event, I’m doing it during like a bunch of transitions in my life. But the people that I met were incredible. You start to realize that you have similar ethos with those folks. It became a no brainer decision. And it has exceeded my expectations.  I think you asked like, what do I do as well. And there’s a, I sit in our Enterprise Strategy Team, which is highly cross functional, working on strategic projects. And a lot of our work has to do with growth. It’s topics that are on our CEOs mind and Chief Strategy Officer’s mind. And looking deeper into those two, it’s a lot about how do we make money beyond selling shirts and shoes over the next five to 10 years so that we’re not 90 to 93% concentrated in those areas.

MC: Japheth Mast  22:01

A Strategy Simplified, it’s a fifth quickly popping in to let you know that you can work with our MBB team, be a one on one, interview coaching. That’s right, you can join our Black Belt case prep program for eight hours of structured one on one coaching. Also, you’ll get resume and cover letter edits, and an online prep curriculum. This curriculum includes over 600 Practice cases, includes nine video courses, unlimited math structure, and brainstorming drills. And a lot more, learn more and register for Black Belt via the link in this episode’s show notes. Okay, let’s get back to the show.

Noah Schmeisser  22:39

I’ve never been super familiar with what strategy looks like at an apparel firm like that. So that’s cool. And that very much highlights the idea and for all our listeners out there that one of the most attractive things about consulting aside from the training, aside from the skill set that you get, aside from the projects that you get to work on are the exit opportunities where you were looking at Private Equity, and now you’re at Nike. So, you know, definitely one of the one of the big pluses of getting into the industry. So you worked at Nike, and then you coach with us here and management consulted helping your clients prepare for interviews at places like BCG, McKinsey, Bain. So can you tell us a little bit about the process that you run your clients through when you’re looking to get the ready for these kinds of interviews?

Jordan Clarke  23:37

Sure. I think for me, going back to human centric, it is a very individual process. And I think the first thing that I like to do is just assess what the goals are of the person, what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are. And we can usually do that through an initial case diagnostic, but also where they are in this process, right.

Some people have never seen a case before, other people are 20 cases in when I meet with them. So the first thing is doing that diagnostic post itself, and then also what their casing ability is, and from there, we can kind of pick apart what are the areas that we need to work on. Maybe it’s the upfront framing, maybe it’s the map, maybe it’s the brainstorming, maybe it’s communicating better, and there’s drills that you can do for each so that’s on the casing side.

Then I’m also a big believer that this is a holistic process people don’t talk about it enough but casing matters a lot, but your behavioral interview and your fit questions matter a ton too. Making sure that people understand that and have a plan for how they bring their stories together. Some some clients want to practice their stories and some don’t and that’s perfectly fine. But just having the understanding that that’s something that is super important, in addition to the case interview, I think is huge.

Case interviews is the thing that’s most foreign to folks. From there, you actually may be starting at Ground Zero. Whereas, telling your story, you’re probably far more advanced and have done it far more times. But it is a holistic process.  For me, it’s really individualistic, it starts with a diagnostic. From there, we take the case apart into different pieces, and build it back and put it back together. And then we’ll run through more full cases, see where you’re at. Rinse, repeat and work back to your timeline. And once we do that we work in behavioral and fit as well.

Noah Schmeisser  25:34

Good to know. Thank you for explaining that, I know most will find that helpful. From a purely logistical standpoint, how can people work with you?

Jordan Clarke  25:46

Yeah, for sure. So if you if you might be interested, obviously going to the Management Consulted website, find me as a coach and we can book a session, we can talk. You can also find me on LinkedInif you want to message me to better understand my approach before we before we get into it, that works as well. And then obviously, my email address [email protected]. Reach out and we can talk about whatever is on your mind.

Noah Schmeisser  26:17

Good to know. And folks, this is a plug for Jordan, but definitely something super helpful. So transitioning away we’d like to wrap these things up with some more fun, some more personal questions away from consulting. One thing that you’re listening to reading, watching, that’s inspiring these days. What are you consuming that you’re interested in?

Jordan Clarke  26:49

Man, I know we didn’t get into this. I have a wife and three kids and a two month old so there’s not a lot of spare time that’s happening in the Clarke household right now. With that said I highly rec the Johnny Manziel untold documentary on Netflix, I thought was incredible. And if you’re a sports fan, it’s incredible. If you are interested in introspection, the roller coaster that is life. I thought it was just like a great watch. I think it’s like a little over an hour. You’re locked in while you’re watching it.

Noah Schmeisser  27:26

Yeah, I’ve been meaning to watch the big sports for myself and haven’t gotten around to it yet. But good to know, we’ll definitely put that on the on the watch list. So last question here. One person from history that you’d love to get dinner with, if you have the chance, anybody?

Jordan Clarke  27:43

Man, you know, it’s funny, I saw this question on the prep sheet. And I should have an answer for this question but it’s such a difficult question. I would love to my grandfather, on my mom’s side, I never had a chance to meet. And he was a pioneer in a lot of ways in the things that he did. I would love to talk to him and pick his brain. In black communities, lineage and trying to tie things together is often really difficult. I would love to have like a clearer picture of the familial tree and where he came from, and all those things. I think that would be like a super, super interesting conversation.

Noah Schmeisser  28:35

I think that’s a great answer, makes a lot of sense. Well, so Jordan, thank you. Thank you so much for for joining us today. And that’s all. We appreciate you coming on. I think it’s certainly my hope that your story will be will be inspirational to folks. And guys, if you want to work with Jordan, we discussed that briefly but our website, LinkedIn, and please, please reach out. Awesome.

Jordan Clarke  29:12

Thank you so much for having me. Really appreciate it.

Filed Under: BCG, Consulting exit opportunities, consulting jobs, Consulting MBA, Strategy Simplified