Orchestrating her Career: Wharton Alumna Talks about Value of EMBA Degree in the Arts

When Yu-Ling Cheng told her parents that she wanted to change her college major from pre-med to music, they weren’t thrilled with the idea.  After all, how many people really make it in the music world playing the violin? So they made a deal and Cheng changed her major to music as well as the more “stable degree” of economics, which would provide something to fall back on if music didn’t work out.

Fortunately, it was a good choice and she found economics “fascinating.” After college, Cheng earned her Master’s Degree in violin performance, but continued to pursue her interest in business by interning in development with the Boston Symphony. That internship led to a League of American Orchestras Fellowship, which places people who excel in arts management at major music organizations. “That’s where I really fell in love with business,” recalls Cheng.

After her fellowship ended, she became the director of marketing for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, but felt she still needed a better overall understanding of business. “A long-term goal is to be the president of a major orchestra and to do that you need strong business skills, preferably an MBA, and the ability to raise money. I knew I would need to invest in my future and get an MBA so I started applying to several programs,” she says.

Cheng considered schools closer to her home in Pittsburgh, but found they didn’t measure up to her personal standards. And since she wasn’t sponsored, she wanted to get the best education possible for her money. “It’s a huge investment, especially not being in a field like finance where every other year your salary doubles. It’s a long-term picture for me, but I felt like every penny – and the commute — would be worth it,” she says.

The commute to Philadelphia turned out to be the easiest part of the program. The hardest part, she says, was all of the studying. However, her learning team was a huge help in that area. “Our team of seven people was great because we all had strengths in different areas and were there to support each other. Being part of that team allowed me to know that I would be fine at Wharton,” she says, noting that although they all graduated last May, the group is already planning a reunion dinner in Philadelphia.

Cheng says that the diversity of her fellow students turned out to be one of her favorite things about the program. She explains, “When you work in the arts, you tend to work with passionate people who are also from an arts background so to be exposed to a whole different group of people was great! And my classmates were curious about the arts too. It was interesting to hear their opinions about our world.”

During her last two semesters at Wharton, she did an independent study with another student to create a dynamic pricing model for the performing arts industry. The project gained so much momentum that they’ve continued with their efforts, inviting their faculty advisor Prof. Senthil Veeraraghavan to visit the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and involving a Wharton PhD student in ongoing work. “That is what really gets me excited about Wharton – the relationship didn’t just end at graduation but continues,” says Cheng.

She adds that she “absolutely recommends” Wharton’s EMBA program to others in the arts. “It made me more business savvy and helped me develop a framework for thinking through problems that I couldn’t necessarily have gotten on the job because we all see problems similarly. The more diversity at the workplace, the better the company will do.”

She continues, “A lot of people in the arts may not consider an MBA because there might not be the payoff in the end with the salary, but that is short-sighted. I know I will be moving into a VP role at some point and this degree has helped expedite that natural progression. I also started teaching arts marketing as an adjunct at a university in Pittsburgh and recently invested with my fiancé in a winery where I was voted onto one of the five board seats. The ROI may not be the traditional ROI, but it has already started for me in a lot of different ways!” she says.