The (re)creation of Phi Beta Lambda

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Seniors William Huang and Clare Shuey, president and vice president of Occidental’s chapter of Phi Beta Lambda (PBL), tell a story of success. Under their leadership, PBL has grown from a mere three members to 46 and counting, making them the seventh-largest chapter in the nation. Never did they expect when they set out to revamp PBL three years ago that their work would be so fruitful.

“We are one of the largest chapters in the nation right now, which is really cool, given that this is a tiny school,” Shuey said. “That’s really exciting for us.”

As a business-oriented academic organization, PBL focuses on providing students with the skills necessary to thrive in the professional world, Huang said. In particular, PBL aims to complement the benefits of a liberal arts education by developing students’ soft skills, such as public speaking, leadership and financial literacy. According to Huang, employers in certain sectors look for more traditional majors, such as finance, rather than Occidental’s economics major. The basic professional development that PBL provides helps give Occidental students, who may not have traditional business-like majors, the edge they will want in the job market.

In Huang’s sophomore year, he and Shuey decided to restart PBL, restructuring the club and its operations in a manner that was better-tailored to the Occidental community. In the previous year, PBL only raised about $400. In contrast, PBL now raises upwards of $10,000 in revenue every year both in the form of requisitions from the economics department and the Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) Senate, as well as from the numerous fundraisers they hold. Past fundraisers have included sales of ties, Scoops ice cream and See’s candy.

“I pay tribute to [Shuey] and [Huang]’s work in being able to maintain interest and to really grow the club into what it is today,” PBL Project Manager Malena Ernani (junior) said. “They’re really inspiring leaders and they really care about the club.”

According to Huang, it was initially difficult for PBL to find its niche alongside similar groups such as Oxypreneurship and the Blyth Fund. The challenge was to establish PBL in a manner that would allow it to provide unique offerings to the student body.

During Huang and Shuey’s first year as PBL’s leaders, their immediate goal was to keep the club afloat and establish its place within the Occidental community. Having accomplished that, they switched the focus in their second year to increasing membership — a goal that was met with great success.

PBL’s membership nearly tripled over the course of the 2014–15 academic year, increasing from 17 to 46 members. This year, they have already surpassed 46 in number; Huang estimates that PBL will have approximately 70 members by the end of this academic year, a conservative estimate compared to Director of Membership Scott Niman’s goal of 100. Currently, Occidental’s branch of PBL is the only chapter on the West Coast to be in the top 10 chapters by size.

Such explosive growth in membership was unexpected to PBL’s leaders, bringing on the challenge of scaling up without compromising the values of the club. Although Huang and Shuey had aimed to increase numbers, they never dreamed that it would occur to such a great extent.

“We had to explore the implications on culture and think critically about what we wanted the organization to be and how we could maintain that standard of quality,” Huang said.

According to Shuey, one of the disadvantages of having so many students involved in the organization is that members who are not a part of the executive board feel as though there is not much of a community within PBL.The decision to eliminate weekly meetings has contributed to this.

Huang said that while the executive board does meet weekly, there are not enough topics to discuss with general membership to justify meeting regularly. In part to combat the resulting lack of community, the current goal is to increase member engagement. Plans for this include increasing attendance at their various events and fundraisers.

“We’re working on ways to bring PBL members a valuable experience that they feel like they really [get] something out of,” Shuey said.

PBL retains around 60 percent of its members every year — a figure that is low compared to chapters at other schools. Huang attributes this to Occidental’s culture of widespread engagement.

“I think high club turnover at Occidental College is a byproduct of our unique campus culture,” Huang said via email. “Students’ interests change quickly and often, and a dozen extracurricular options compete for every spot of free time available.”

At Occidental, there is a lot of overlap in which particular students play multiple roles in multiple organizations. For example, Ernani is also the vice president of the Planned Parenthood club and the chair of ASOC’s Honor Board. Huang thinks such widespread extracurricular involvement occurs to a lesser extent at larger universities, where students identify more strongly with one organization.

This tendency toward widespread on-campus involvement reflects the varied interests of PBL members but also contributes to the overall success that PBL has had in bringing together a cross-sectional piece of the student body. According to Huang, half of the students on the PBL leadership team are non-economics majors despite the fact that it is a business-oriented organization.

Any student, regardless of their major, is eligible to join. Dues are only $25 per year, and there is no additional application process for general membership. Despite the relatively low cost of membership, Huang thinks that the benefits students receive are easily worth at least $200.

Members have exclusive access to certain events and can participate in all of PBL’s activities at no additional cost. Such activities include the two social events that are hosted every month, at which members are able to get together and meet likeminded individuals who recognize the value of networking. These gatherings are often hosted at off-campus locations, such as Korean barbecue and Donut Friend.

Additional benefits that members receive include discounts of up to 50 percent off at various businesses like Men’s Wearhouse, Alamo, Geico and The Princeton Review.

Although PBL members are given many opportunities to get involved, they are not obligated to attend any given event; Huang explained that such an obligation would reduce the e-board’s motivation to make events engaging in their own right.

“We don’t make any events for members mandatory because we want to challenge ourselves to always present the best options for people,” Huang said.

The most recent event, titled Leveraging Your Leadership, featured Sarah Chun-Hoon, director of campus recruitment at Northwestern Mutual. Her Oct. 15 seminar focused on how to best utilize one’s leadership experiences in everyday situations, interviews and job searches.

This is the third time PBL has brought in a Northwestern Mutual representative.

“We’re very happy about the relationship we’ve established with them because they have a top 10 [sales] internship program,” Huang said. “The fact that they continue to source from Oxy is definitely a big plus.”

A recruiter from the University of Virginia’s Masters in Commerce program has also been brought to campus on multiple occasions, providing students with the opportunity to learn about the year-long McIntire School of Commerce program, which boasts international study and a 98 percent job placement rate post-graduation.

In addition to bringing in guest speakers and recruiters, PBL also puts on various workshops that have covered topics such as marketing oneself for an internship or career, women in leadership, financial literacy and leveraging leadership in life and during the interview process.

A day of speakers and workshops — somewhat of a pre-MBA program — is in the works for spring 2016. Ideally, it will be accessible to students of any major; anyone in the market for a job should be able to get something out of it, Huang said.

While events and workshops may be beneficial to students’ learning and experience, fundraisers are crucial to the operation of the club.

“Our main accomplishments are tied with how successful our fundraisers are,” Huang said. “We’re very good at making money, and we’re very good at spending money for our members.”

A significant portion of PBL’s revenue is put toward sending its student leadership board to the National Leadership Conference, which took place most recently in Chicago during spring 2015. Shuey cited increasing Occidental’s presence at such events as another goal to work toward in the years to come.

The student leaders that comprise PBL’s e-board, some of whom attended this conference, are primarily divided into three teams: marketing, finance and planning and operations. This team-based leadership model diverges from that of the past in which individuals would work on projects by themselves.

When Huang and Shuey graduate in spring 2016, after having served as president and vice president for the past three years, they will leave behind a structured system that, according to Huang, is not contingent on their presence.

“I feel like we have a very robust foundation,” Huang said. “Even if Clare and I left tomorrow, the club would still be able to function.”

The current plan is to vote in president-elect who will serve alongside Huang throughout the spring semester in order to learn how to assume his role. The elect will then take over as president the following academic year.

Huang and Shuey have kept their leadership roles for an extended period of time due to the rapid progress that PBL has made over the past three years. Huang thinks that more frequent turnover in leadership will occur once PBL’s growth begins to decelerate.

“It made sense for Clare and I to remain at the helm in order to provide consistency and experience to our student leadership team,” Huang said via email. “Every e-board we have had to date has unanimously agreed that Clare and I should continue leading the chapter to ensure stability.”

Shuey hopes that PBL will continue to expand membership and increase member engagement with the organization. She is confident that PBL will be left in good hands following her departure from Occidental.

“All of the people who are currently involved in PBL leadership, I trust them,” Shuey said. “I think that they’re great leaders, and I think that they’re going to do really exciting things with the club.”

Ernani, who served as PBL’s director of community engagement in her sophomore year, is one such leader. She feels as though her involvement with PBL has better prepared her for the real world and has given her a better sense of what the business sector is truly like. For example, Ernani, feels that her current position has allowed her to gain experience with event management.

Shuey feels that the work Huang has done in establishing PBL has been critical in turning it into an organization that has proven so beneficial for students such as Ernani. Although both have worked together in this endeavor since it first began in 2013, Shuey is adamant that Huang’s extensive efforts in the rebuilding and leadership of PBL be recognized.

“Will Huang is the most tireless hard-worker that I have ever met in my life,” Shuey said. “What Will has done in terms of the time, energy and effort required to make [PBL] what it is today has been the most incredible thing to see.”

While Huang’s work has undoubtedly played a large role in PBL’s success, he does not seek recognition for his endeavors. The goal that he and Shuey set out to accomplish three years ago — to revive PBL — has been far surpassed; the fact that the Occidental community is now aware of their presence and purpose is, for the time being, adequate.

“People know our name now,” Huang said.