Happy holidays, everyone! This year’s been atypical of course, but hopefully you’re all able to take time to relax and recharge with loved ones (in person or virtually!) over the next couple of weeks. As the end of 2020 draws near, I wanted to take time and reflect on a few lessons I’ve personally learned through working on Helium, as well as focus areas for Helium in 2021.
2021 Focus Areas
In 2021, Helium intends to focus more on growth and developing partnerships. Here are three ways we'd like to do so:
Thank you to everyone who’s supported us in some way this year - whether it’s working with our coaches, watching our webinar, or checking out our website, we really appreciate it! We love feedback and hearing from you about how we can improve. Our inboxes are always open, so feel free to reach out if you ever have questions, comments, or suggestions. See y’all in 2021!
Written by Rebecca Liu
Checking the boxes:
My background up until this point has been pretty linear - I studied economics at a top ten school, worked in consulting for three years, and currently work in tech in Silicon Valley.
When I was in consulting, I lived big. I traveled to New York City, San Francisco, Atlanta, and other cities for projects, ate at several Michelins (my first and last), and effortlessly racked up hotel and airline points. In between memorable trips and fine dining, I learned how to transform a blank Excel into a robust model, present confidently to a room of people much more senior than me, and develop an intuition for growing and operating businesses.
There were long hours and I wasn’t always passionate about the work, but I enjoyed my time in consulting. I learned a lot and worked with incredibly intelligent people on a broad range of projects. I helped a healthcare payor forecast headcount, a special education school grow its enrollment, a foundation ensure more college students pass introductory courses, and more.
Back in college, I used to ask junior consultants how much ownership they had over their work. But once I started working, I quickly realized that I was definitely not the one calling the shots. Heck, even the partner usually didn’t have the final say. He (almost always a “he”) was still beholden to the client. I didn’t love this dynamic, but accustomed to East Asian values that codified hierarchy, I assumed obedience and following the leader were inherent parts of holding down any job.
Trying something new:
I’d always admired founders and the way they worked to execute their vision, even when there wasn’t a clear payoff. But because almost all of the founders I know personally are men, the path to being a founder seemed nebulous and unattainable. This isn’t unique to my personal network: in 2018, only 24% of all registered companies were founded by women. The narrative that guys are better suited for entrepreneurship unconsciously formed in my head.
However, the discomfort of COVID-19 dismantled a lot of my previous assumptions (including some of my faith in the government, but that’s another story). Like most people, I quickly grew restless from staying at home all the time. To pass the time, I bought a ukulele and set out to learn my favorite songs. But despite this new hobby, I still wanted to find new ways to be productive. I started listening to podcasts about businesses started by women and learned about Vicky Tsai’s persistence (Tatcha), Katrina Lake’s innovation (Stitch Fix), and Wendy Wen and Coral Chung’s dedication (Senreve). Becoming a founder started to feel less elusive.
I thought about my skills and potential services I’d be able to offer. When I worked in consulting, I frequently fielded calls about consulting and helped people prepare for interviews. I wondered if there was a way to scale this kind of hands-on, personalized help. Once I had the idea, it ricocheted around in my head, demanding to exist in the real world. The idea slowly took shape as I texted my brother (now co-founder).
Over the past few months, I’ve worked alongside my brother turning this idea into a business. I created a business plan and a project plan, the latter of which exemplifies the breadth of tasks we’ve worked on. From creating a website, deciding on our services, designing a logo, writing consulting cases, and more, it’s been a lot of work. But this time, I’m the one calling the shots. I’m the one creating the marketing strategy to reach customers and also the one finding and emailing hundreds of college listservs, career centers, newspapers, and other potential partners. Yes, the latter part is about as fun as it sounds sometimes, but having ownership over my work has shifted my mindset. Even the grunt work is an essential part to building my business.
I founded Helium Consulting Coaches to make strategy consulting jobs more accessible to people of different backgrounds. Consulting has accelerated my professional development, expanded my network, and springboarded me to subsequent roles. Consulting has brought me some of my closest friends and instilled a fierce work ethic in me. And I want more people to have these experiences.
Helium prepares people for consulting interviews through mock case and fit interviews, resume reviews, and candid accounts of working in consulting. We also offer free ten-minute consultations to help you develop a game plan for consulting recruitment.
My journey into entrepreneurship has just begun, and I’m definitely still learning as I go. However, here are a few of my learnings so far:
Rebecca Liu is the co-founder of Helium Consulting Coaches LLC.
Stranger in a Strange Land
When I walked into the BCG Los Angeles office for my first round interview, I couldn’t help but stare. Floor to ceiling windows flooded the open office with sunlight, wrapping around to meet an outdoor garden perched five hundred feet above the city. Through the windows I could see a field of helicopter landing pads, each marked with a giant letter H, scattered on the skyscrapers below. Modern glass fixtures dangled from the high ceilings above the sleek marble counters and plush couches that dotted the lobby. It was a world apart from the squat, bunker-like seismology lab that I worked in as a research fellow the summer before my senior year at Caltech.
In a lot of ways, I was lucky to have landed my job at BCG. I was lucky that my interviewer laughed when I told him what I had done that morning (gotten up at 4am to watch a space probe crash into Saturn). I was lucky that I applied at all, given that I had my mind set on pursuing a Ph.D in electrical engineering. I was also wildly lucky that my older sister was a consultant with gracious friends. For the week leading up to my interview, I did a practice case interview with one of her consulting friends every day until I had the rhythm and flow of cases down to a science.
Without their generous help, I would have stumbled and politely been told I wasn’t a good fit after the first interview. I was fortunate not to open an email that began with “we regret to inform you”, and I want your recruiting process to also have a happy ending. My experience with the recruitment process, both as a student and later when I was on the BCG recruiting team, taught me valuable strategies for nailing a case interview. I’d like to share some of these tips with you, along with other resources to help you reach your management consulting career goals.
I regularly saw Mount Rainier, located south of Seattle, while flying to my client site.
Recipe for Recruitment
The case interview is one of the main components of recruitment at strategy and management consulting firms. Case interviews are often based on real projects that the firm, or even the interviewer, has worked on. Interviewers look at how well candidates play in the sandbox cases they’re presented with to judge if candidates will make good co-workers.
1. Understand the case
Before you leap into the case, make sure you understand it. Your interviewer will present you with details about the client and the goals for the case. Say it back to them. Replay what they said in your own words and make sure you understand what the goal of the case is. Are you maximizing revenue at a tuna cannery? Looking for a new market to sell beach towels in? Before you send your mind racing, make sure you understand the case. This may seem like an obvious step, but I’ve seen nervous candidates announce a bold three phase approach that solves the wrong problem in a case interview.
2. Think out loud
Imagine for a moment that your dreams of owning a pastry shop came true and you were hiring a new pastry chef. Would you hire someone who vanished into the kitchen and reappeared with a cake they had mysteriously conjured up? Of course not — you’d want to judge the way your aspiring chef washed their hands, selected ingredients, and applied frosting. In the same way, case interviews are as much about the process as they are about the final solution. Interviewers can’t read minds. Walk your interviewer through your thought process and show them every step.
3. Walk the perimeter
When you’re inevitably handed a graph during your interview, walk the perimeter. Read out the title, the axes, the labels, and the units. Talking through the information around the edges of the graph will clarify what the figure is about. It’s also a great way to buy time for you to figure out what the data in the graph actually means. Interviewers want to see how candidates analyze graphs, and walking the perimeter is an easy first step. It shows the interviewer how you process graphs, analyze data, and begin drawing conclusions.
4. Present to the CEO
Towards the end of the case, your interviewer will ask you to wrap up and summarize your findings. Ask for a few moments to gather your thoughts and stop. Think silently. Remind yourself what the goal of the case is, jot down your recommendation, and identify any risks. Imagine you’re presenting to the CEO — they don’t need to know what numbers you multiplied to get your market size estimate. Instead, focus on what needs to be done, why, and lay out potential challenges and future areas to explore.
View of downtown Seattle and South Lake Union, taken from the BCG Seattle office where I worked.
Back to the Future
It’s been more than two years since I applied to BCG. I spent the last minutes before my final interview with my face pressed against the office window, staring out at the streets and buildings of downtown Seattle 54 stories below. I didn’t know if I’d ever see that view again, and wanted to make the most of it. That view became very familiar to me after I started full time and worked on cases up and down the West Coast, typically returning to my home office on Fridays. On the weekends that I didn’t fly back to Seattle, I took advantage of my firm’s alternative travel policy and journeyed to Portland, Miami, New York City, Atlanta, and other cities across the country. During my time at BCG, I also spent countless hours on recruiting efforts including conducting mock cases, casing seminars, and info sessions across the country.
More recently I’ve traded my jet setting lifestyle for a more sedentary, apartment based routine as I work on my masters in electrical engineering at Stanford. I’m not proud of how much Selling Sunset and Parks and Rec I’ve watched on Netflix the past few months. But I am proud of a venture that my sister and I recently launched: Helium Consulting Coaches LLC. Helium is a service that offers mock case and fit interviews with former consultants. Each of our cases is written in-house and tailored to mimic what you’ll face in a real interview.
Landing a job at a top management or strategy consulting firm is a rewarding goal that can kickstart a career. However, even the process of getting an interview — much less making it to the finish line — can seem opaque or downright daunting. It’s important to remember that casing isn’t a talent that some people have and some people don’t. It’s a learnable skill. Just as Ratatouille espoused that anyone can be a chef, Helium was founded on the belief that anyone can become a consultant.
There isn’t a secret to cracking a consulting case — it just takes practice. But finding the right person with the right background and the right experience to practice with can be challenging and prohibitively expensive. Roommates, siblings, and highly gifted pets can all be decent interviewer stand-ins. However, the quality of feedback you’ll get from former consultants who have been through the process is leaps and bounds better than what the most dedicated roommate can offer. Some companies charge the cost of a pre-pandemic round trip flight from Seattle to San Jose for a 45 minute practice interview with a management consultant. But you shouldn’t have to break the bank before you even walk in for your first interview — if I didn’t have my sister’s friends to case with, I would have been out of luck. Helium Consulting Coaches offers top quality practice case and fit interviews at half the price you’ll normally find. We also offer free consultations where we help you craft a plan to meet your consulting goals. Reflecting back, it took several twists of fate and strokes of luck for an engineer working in a seismology lab to become a consultant at BCG. With the right practice, anyone can be a consultant.
Timothy Liu is the co-founder of Helium Consulting Coaches LLC. He graduated from Caltech with a B.S. in electrical engineering and worked at BCG’s Seattle office from 2018–2019.