James McPhail

Class Year: 2018
Target Language: Chinese
Study Abroad: Peking University (Beijing, China)
Wharton Concentrations: Finance

Tell me about yourself.

I grew up in Rye, New York, the suburbs of New York City.  I had always had an interest in China, and started studying Mandarin in sixth grade. After some summer Mandarin programs in high school, I then came to Huntsman as a Chinese target.  I did a few finance internships in college, but then ultimately decided that I wanted to recruit for consulting instead.

I got a job at Bain and Company during the fall of my senior year, but during the spring my two friends and I learned that we had won the President’s Engagement Prize for our nonprofit, Chicago Furniture Bank. That obviously changed my plans and I ended up deferring the Bain offer for over a year to help build the organization. As co-founders, we did everything from creating and executing the business plan, fundraising, hiring and supervising employees, and yes, lots of moving heavy furniture. After getting the organization off the ground and establishing some crucial partnerships with nonprofits and political entities in the city, I then honored my commitment to Bain and moved back to New York where I have been for about two years.

I’ve still been involved with the furniture bank as a board member, doing a lot of strategy, fundraising, and some special projects, but my two co-founders, Griffin Amdur and Andrew Witherspoon, have been the ones running it and growing it to new heights. They deserve all of the credit for it becoming the largest furniture bank in the country today, after just 3.5 years since our inception. 

Tell me more about your current professional role and what a normal day looks like for you.  

It’s hard to say what a normal day is because we work on many different business problems for a variety of clients.  I started out in the private equity group, where I was doing diligence for PE firms looking to buy certain assets. They’ll have an investment thesis about a company they’re interested in acquiring and hire us to pressure test that thesis and get an understanding of the market and competitive landscape.  It was a great introduction to both Bain as well as the core consultant skill set. 

Over the past year plus, I’ve been working on longer term engagements with larger technology companies. On one engagement, I was very involved with the sales and marketing departments and getting the two organizations to better work together through planning and aligning business outcomes. It was a mesh of change management work and quantitative modeling. The second project that I was on was pure strategy work about what markets the company should play in and how they should approach winning customers vs their competitors.  We ended up creating some product offerings for this company that they’re developing to take to market soon. 

How have you found balancing Bain and your advisory role at Chicago Furniture Bank, as well as the transition between the two roles?

The furniture bank and Bain are definitely very different work environments.  At the furniture bank, you have your boots on the ground, doing everything from website development, hosting our clients, fundraising, developing new partnerships, and so much more. I had my hands in so many different pockets at the furniture bank, and I really felt the day-to-day impact of what I was working on which was really amazing.

Being at Bain is much more scoped out and structured, and I’m using somewhat different skill sets (more focused on analytical, communication, and presentation skills). In terms of balancing the two, the majority of my time is spent with Bain because it is a demanding full-time commitment, but I’ve been able to carve out time on weeknights and weekends to still help out with the furniture bank.  Bain also has been great about allowing me to protect certain times for board meetings or other special events.

How did the idea for Chicago Furniture Bank initially come about, and how was the process of applying for the President’s Engagement Prize?

The summer before senior year, my co-founder Griffin Amdur was talking with his grandparents about all the furniture and household goods that they had in their home and what they were going to do with them.  We started to think about the market for used furniture and learned about existing furniture banks.  There was one in Philadelphia that we connected with, and they mentored us through our application process.  We by no means invented the idea of a furniture bank, but rather saw a really successful model and wanted to bring it to Chicago, one of the largest cities in the US with a large population living in affordable housing and no existing furniture bank able to serve the population in need. 

A lot of times people go into their affordable housing units with nothing, sleeping on the floor for months on end. With whatever limited income they have, they often buy a bed or a table to become comfortable in their new home, but then are unable to pay next month’s rent. So furniture poverty, as we call it, contributes to the cycle of homelessness.  Reducing that risk of receding into homelessness and providing every one of our clients with dignity to pick out their own furniture and make their house a home is the core value of the service that we provide.

In terms of the application process, we worked with a couple different partners to figure out the ins and outs of the business model. These partners wrote us letters of support, saying that they’d love it if a furniture bank was brought to Chicago.  Those letters of support were really crucial to helping us win the prize and funding.

When you look back on your time at Penn, how did being a part of Huntsman influence your career decisions and professional development?

I loved the Huntsman Program.  It gave me great exposure to the business world through Wharton – analytical, quantitative thinking – but also the opportunity to learn about other places and cultures from all over the world. Spending a lot of time in China was hugely influential in furthering my interest in the region, but having classmates from all over the world was an amazing way to broaden my perspective more globally.

Ultimately, for me, I wanted to go into consulting because I thought that it would give me a broader business exposure compared to the internships I had done in finance.  Then the opportunity to build the furniture bank through the Engagement Prize arose and it seemed like a no brainer.  Penn gave us the opportunity to actually try to change the world for the better, and their initial support is something I’ll be forever grateful for because without it, our organization likely may have never come to fruition. Even beyond the funding, Penn helped provide a lot of connections to people that were mentors and advisors.  As someone who wanted to get real entrepreneurial experience, Penn and Huntsman were instrumental in helping make that happen. 

How was your study abroad experience?

I studied abroad in Beijing at Peking University during my junior spring in 2017.  It was both amazing and very challenging. I was directly enrolled in the university, taking classes in Mandarin alongside native Chinese students. My Chinese was reasonably good, but it was by no means native-speaker-level good, so that was both a challenge but also a really eye-opening experience and opportunity.  I had lots of dialogues about interesting topics like economics, politics, and social issues with my professors and classmates, and just hearing their perspectives and seeing how they think about things in ways that are similar as well as different to what I was brought up with really left an impact on me.  Overall, it was a really immersive and challenging experience, and one that I look back on and am very appreciative of for all of the new perspectives and experiences that it gave me.

How have you found the Huntsman community, both as a student and now as an alum?

The Huntsman community is a cornerstone of the entire program experience – some of my closest friends are still from Huntsman today. One of the things I appreciate most is the diversity of backgrounds and the ability to learn so much from your peers. While there are a good number of people who work similar corporate jobs (finance, consulting, law, etc.), there are also many others doing very cool, different things, whether that be in academics, nonprofits, startups, think-tanks, you name it.  I think the Huntsman community will always provide a great platform to continue to learn and connect with alumni of all ages, and it’s so great to see all of the incredible things Huntsmanites do in college and after graduation.

What advice would you give to current Huntsman students? 

I would say to pursue things that you are passionate about and take risks.  At Penn, there’s a lot of pressure to fit into a particular mold, specifically with Wharton and recruiting, but if you take a step back from that bubble, you recognize there are so many ways to be successful in life. Ultimately, many of the most successful people tend to differentiate themselves and do things that aren’t of the typical mold.  So whether that’s starting a company, doing research into something that you really care about, or many other options, try to push back against that pressure and really go out and pursue things that you care about and where you see an untapped opportunity. Your time in the Huntsman Program is the perfect opportunity to explore those areas of interest and how you can pursue them within and after college.