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  • Julie Feng and Nia Pietrobruno

Becoming a Business Leader: Interview with Sara Cholmsky

You might have seen the name Sara Cholmsky while scrolling through the CASA-JMSB Facebook group; countless posts celebrate her case competition victories and highlight her place in student life. Perhaps you’ve joined her thriving LinkedIn network. You may have even met her at an event or been her peer in a course. If you haven’t heard of Sara, you’ll soon understand why she is a role-model leader in the Concordia community.

Sara Cholmsky is a fourth-year student at Concordia University, double majoring in Finance and International Business. She has taken on the position of President of the John Molson Competition Committee (JMCC) for the upcoming 2022-2023 academic year. JMCC runs the largest case competition program in the world and sends nearly 200 delegates to competitions in disciplines varying from academic cases to debate and sports. Sara herself has completed an astonishing total of fourteen case competitions to date, representing Concordia University across the world. Last year, Sara was part of the CASA-JMSB team as AVP External.

As the incoming president of JMCC, can you tell us how you have enhanced your leadership skills over the years?

I’ve always been somebody that loves team sports. My parents would throw me into a lot of them and just say, “Find one you like. Go for it.” That's really where I first developed sportsmanship and worked in a team. There, I would see these incredible individuals—like my water polo team captain or different individuals in ringette or rugby—that would really reflect who I wanted to be in the future: somebody who had empathy and somebody who was able to be there for other people.

I first learned how to develop these skills in team sports. Then, when I entered CEGEP and university, I got involved with different clubs. I saw individuals bring new, creative ideas that would benefit not only their association but also the communities around them. I began learning from them. Through this experience, I've been able to develop so many leadership skills and, most importantly, the ability to work in a team and to, as a team, bring forward new ideas.

Touching on your presidency of JMCC, what are your goals as President next year?

In my delegate experience with JMCC, I had the opportunity to take on internationals. Internationals, whether virtual or in-person, showed me a whole new side to business and education across the world. I found out very quickly that a student in Canada is not learning, presenting, or strategizing in the same way that a student in Europe or Southeast Asia is. I would love to bring in a more worldly or global view of education and how it can apply to different cases.

We're looking to do international workshops throughout the year. Hopefully, the workshops will be able to take our delegates to the next level with their future careers. Next, we’re looking to bring more volunteering opportunities. We're working on opening volunteering doors, not just to delegates but to students within JMSB, so that they can get to know JMCC a little more while still bettering the communities around them. I think, now more than ever, it's incredibly critical to have that kind of social support or charity goal.

Can you tell us about your experience in CASA-JMSB, and the greatest skill you acquired during your time on the team?

I was AVP external with CASA-JMSB, and I loved every moment of it. The greatest thing it taught me was the ability to adapt quickly. Of course, we've all experienced COVID university, and with that came the challenge of acquiring sponsors for events. I was constantly in game mode - contacting different sponsors, seeing if we could meet their needs, and vice versa. And learning how to deal with “no” was something that I had to do very fast in COVID times, because not every sponsor had the capacity to take on our event. I would get 20 people who said “no” and one miracle “yes,” and that was absolutely a huge satisfaction for me.

Resilience is a very current topic, especially in the post-pandemic business world. You touched on it a little bit, but how have you seen that quality surface throughout your achievements and overall journey at Concordia?

Resilience is a funny thing because it’s so easy to just cave in and just do the status quo, or to not put in the work because sometimes it doesn't feel worth it. But resilience is a great learning experience — and I learned a lot of it when I first joined Concordia in Fall 2018. It was still “normal” back then, and I wasn't really involved. I was just starting to learn about new events and new associations - then, when I got involved, COVID hit. It really sucks being virtual, even just in classes. Now, imagine that you have to be in an association or do case competitions in front of a laptop.

For me, the biggest factor in developing resilience was just thinking, firstly: “This isn't going to be forever. Eventually, we’ll be able to get back to how things were.” And secondly: “Yeah, it sucks having to do everything virtually. I would love to be out there at an actual case competition or at an actual event. But what an incredible learning experience it is to be able to adapt and keep pushing through.”

It was also the people around me with that same motivation that inspired me to keep on going. I've learned so much through virtual learning that I would never have learned in the actual physical classroom. But I’m very happy that we can be in person for the majority of things now.

Case competitions have been a very important part of your academic experience. What is the most memorable case competition you've ever participated in, and why?

You could say that again about case competitions being an important part of my undergrad! This is a very difficult question because every case competition has been a learning experience. Whether it was a positive experience or a negative one, every competition helped me grow. I have two in mind, but they are two extremely different circumstances.

My first ever case competition was called the Dalhousie Ethics in Action Case Competition, and I was a debate delegate at the time. Being selected for an international competition was mind-boggling, and I was very much a fish out of water. I got paired with three incredible delegates that already knew what they were doing and were very strong in their respective roles in the team. They were an absolutely incredible team; we're still best friends to this day. They helped me learn and constantly supported me. Ethics in a case is still quite niche — it's usually more strategy, financials, and operations. Understanding how ethics can play into business strategy was an incredible learning opportunity.

The second memorable case competition was the John Molson Undergraduate Case Competition that I did in 2021. This one was entirely virtual. I had seen the past editions of this competition and it was always super fun in-person. To have to do it at my house, behind a laptop, was brutal, to say the least. Nothing will ever compare to being with your team in person when they're announcing the finalists for the next round. Or when they're announcing the podium winners and your name gets called and you're able to hug each other. Or when you're in a prep room together. Doing three extremely complex cases in a week from my computer took a lot of mental effort. So, the competition was a huge learning opportunity, but my team was fantastic. Just like my Dalhousie team, we're still best friends to this day because we were able to motivate each other. I'm incredibly thankful to my Dalhousie team and my JMUCC team for being able to make me who I am today.

Can you tell us what initially sparked your interest in competing?

I have a bit of a funny background to how I started at JMCC. I was at JMSB once and saw tabling for JMUCC. JMCC and JMUCC are one letter different. When I first talked to JMUCC at their tabling session, they talked about the committee and how they were looking for a first-year rep. I thought this would be a great opportunity to make my undergrad a bit more fun.

But I had mistaken the JMCC delegate tryouts for JMUCC. To this day, I still don't know how I made that very critical mistake—but I had applied, thinking it was JMUCC. Later, when I got selected for the trials, I realized [it wasn’t]. I decided it was too late to back out and thought that I might as well continue to the trial to see what it's like. As much as it was a trial and I was extremely nervous the entire time, sweating bullets, I had a blast and found that I like presenting and debating. I continued with it, and that's how I fell in love with JMCC.

You're very involved in student life. How has this helped you build connections and enhance your networking skills – something very critical to business students?

In associations, I've always been very external facing; I was dealing with sponsors left, right, and center. Eventually, I discovered my own confidence to just say: “Hey, it was great working with you. Do you have any open positions? I love your company and what you stand for.”

At the same time, in case competitions, or in JMCC in general, companies are sponsoring cases or debates with the intention of getting strategies from up-and-coming business leaders. There are also plenty of networking events. I've been able to talk to hundreds of sponsors by now and attend plenty of networking events, and they all say the same thing: involved students are really the ones who were able to showcase that not only can they take on the classroom, but they can take on real-life as well.

Do you have any long-term career goals?

I think you may actually be surprised by my response because I think I'm one of the few people in my year that don't have a concrete plan for their future. My main goal is to be able to make an impact on the communities around me. Something that I value in my future career is learning. I want to put myself in more uncomfortable situations to be able to get a better sense of the world and help more. I don't know how exactly I'm going to realize that but at the moment, I'm guessing that something entrepreneurial is going to be the path for me.

As much as this is a very cookie-cutter answer, I don't want to be sitting behind a desk, typing away at a screen for 8 or more hours a day, just for a well-paid, comfortable lifestyle. I want to be able to be engaged and create an impact so that in ten to fifteen years from now, I can look back on the beginning of my career and be proud of it.

With everything that you're taking on and everything that you've accomplished as an undergraduate student, how do you ensure that you maintain balance in your everyday life?

In the beginning, I didn't know how to maintain balance because I just wanted to do more, more, more. And I realized, very quickly, that if I was going to continue on that path, I would burn out. In all honesty—and it is a bit sad for me to say this—it was someone externally who said “Sara, you're always doing JMCC, you're always doing CASA. Give yourself a break.” So, I forced myself to incorporate balance.

I found that through my involvement, especially with JMSB, a lot of the friendships that I developed were with other involved students. So, for me, having that balance means taking myself out of it for a little while, pushing myself away from involvement and that “cycle of the fourth floor,” as we call it, because that's where all the involved students are—on the fourth-floor of JMSB.

You need to find hobbies that you like. I love reading. At the end of the night, after 6:00 PM, I just put my phone and laptop away when I read. I also go biking almost every day in the summer. Going to see my friends—not just from JMCC or JMSB—has really helped me maintain the “work-life balance” that I need.

Being able to develop healthy habits—sleep schedule, good eating, the things that everybody knows—is also incredibly critical. And being strict with myself is crucial because it's so easy to say, “I just have to do this one other thing tonight.” Now, I carry an agenda everywhere. I never ever used to have an agenda. I thought it was dorky. And now—actually, I have my agenda right here—I'm always running around with it. I always write things in, whether it's “ice cream with best friend” or something like that, to remind myself, "Hey, it's not always JMCC. You can build a life outside of it.”

Do you have a colleague or mentor that you have felt made an impact on your school experience?

I always have one name that comes to mind, and that name is Fatima Malik. She was a previous case competitor. She’s graduated now, but she was on the John Molson Sports Marketing Committee and JMCC during her undergraduate years. She is the definition of a powerhouse in everything she does. She was actually one of the competitors that I first competed with in the Dalhousie Ethics in Action competition. She showed me that you can always do better, and not in a negative way—there were plenty of learning opportunities for me then, as a competitor.

She’s always telling me not only to push myself but to take care of myself. She's always been a strong advocate for my mental health and my health in general that she's pushed me to create the balance that I need so much now with my involvement opportunities.

It's because of her that I'm the case competitor, the student, and the person that I am today. Without her leadership, without our friendship—because we are best friends as well— I absolutely would not be here as President of JMCC. A lot of it is because of her.

We have one final question: if you could go back and give one piece of advice to first-year Sara entering JMSB what would it be?

Well, the first thing I would do is take a piece of paper, write “JMUCC” and “JMCC” and say: “These are not the same!” Then, we'll see where it goes from there.

But other than that little lesson, I would tell her: “You are a very confident person; you love to learn, so don't hesitate, and don't get down on yourself.” I wasn't involved in my first year. It was only in my second year that I decided to go for it. I was so nervous in the first year; I thought to myself, “I'm not that smart. I'm not the next Forbes 30 Under 30. I don't know anything about finance and investing. I'm not going to be a ‘somebody.’” And then, only through taking that leap, did I realize that I don't have to be that “somebody” right now, but that my undergrad is the place where I'm going to grow. I just wish I had known that sooner. Go attend events, whether it's Frosh, or events hosted by different associations. Don't hesitate to go out there and learn. Take that step, whether it’s messaging an association on Facebook to ask questions, or joining an association. All it takes is one step to find your future passion or future career.

I just wish I could go back and tell myself: “Listen, you will be that somebody— you just gotta take the leap. Be confident. You have what it takes. Go for it!”

This interview was conducted by Ceana Cotignola.


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