“Looking back on my high school experience, I thought I was going to do engineering because that’s what I thought the ‘smart kids’ did,” says Reece Koch. On track to complete a four-year degree at the University of British Columbia at the end of June 2021, Reece now has a very different view. Her advice to this year’s crop of high school grads? Don’t limit your future options to just Trades or STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), there’s so much more out there. “It is totally OK for kids to pave their own path, to not worry about what’s considered the ‘smart thing’ to do,” she says.
This is not to say that Reece took an easy path, or that she thinks working hard for good grades isn’t important. Far from it. Her last four years have been a rollercoaster of challenges, opportunities, pitfalls and a pandemic, plus a 90 degree pivot in her chosen field. Now, she steps into a career on the world stage with a Bachelor of Commerce degree from UBC’s Sauder School of Business having majored in Entrepreneurship and Business Analytics.
Reece’s UBC graduation ceremony, likely an in-person event, will be held in November 2021, but she will not be in Canada to enjoy the day with her classmates. Instead, Reece is scheduled to fly to Denmark in September to start a new job helping to organize an international conference for a program called UNLEASH. It’s a global innovation lab that brings together 1,000 of the world’s top talents each year to share ideas, build networks and create solutions to help reach the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.
Early years in QB provided fuel for future success
As she ponders her earlier years growing up in Qualicum Beach and attending Kwalikum Secondary School (a member of the 2017 graduating class), Reece says “Many people are too afraid to apply [for post-secondary programs] for fear of rejection and the stats about the low percentage of acceptance, but it’s always worth trying! My guidance counsellor, Mrs. Slaughter, went over my written profile so many times. Without that, I don’t think I would have gotten into university. High school students should always use their guidance counsellors!”
How did Reece get from there to where she is today? “I had a ton of jobs throughout high school. Most people would probably recognize me because I worked everywhere,” she laughs, including Naked Naturals, Pedego Electric Bikes, Coombs Market (Taco Shack), Covet Boutique, Qualicum Farmers Market/Qualicum Coffee, and The Shady Rest. “I’m so thankful for that experience, because if I hadn’t had those extra-curricular activities, I would never have known to do something else [other than engineering].”
Reece recalls, “I worked at Pedego throughout my high school years and I saw how a small business was run and became fascinated with the idea of business, connecting with customers, [learning] how to make your business better. That really peaked my interest.” Reece also volunteered for many QB organizations and community projects including establishing a program called Musical Mentors for younger children, run in collaboration with the QB Community Wellness & Education Society. Reece says that “music was one of her earliest forms of expression and, at any early age, I began playing classical piano.”
Reece is also grateful to Qualicum Beach for another reason. “I’ve gotten a lot of support from the community, financially, through scholarships through all four years. I don’t think many other small communities provide that sort of support to their students so long after.“
First year university ‘daze’ turns into dazzling success and some drama
The transition to university was a bit more difficult than Reece had expected.
On the one hand “there was a strong social environment.” She lived in residence at UBC, and says she had lots of fun and made many friends. Business school, though, was a completely alien concept to Reece. “I didn’t really understand what that meant. I thought it meant running your own small business or something. I learned that was not the case.”
Reece says, “Many of the other [Business] students came from private schools or schools that had International Baccalaureate programs. They were quite prepared for the academic rigour, but I never had exposure to a business course in my life. We just didn’t have that option [at KSS].” She reflects on her first year recalling “my peers [at UBC] had been taking economics or business courses throughout their high school experience, so I guess I started a little bit behind. It took some catching up, but it was very possible; it just took a lot of motivation, and work.”
True to form, Reece also dove into extra-curricular activities, many of which contributed to her growing knowledge of the once-alien world of Business School. “I worked as an executive in a lot of different [campus] clubs,” she says. The more she extended herself, the more she received back. “Through my connections in the entrepreneurship community in Vancouver, I was recommended to be a board member with the Share Reuse Repair Initiative to reduce waste in Vancouver.” Reece also parlayed her love of fashion (and her high school experience in retail clothing sales) into a major accomplishment. She launched her own fashion startup, one thing led to another, and “I ended up getting $50,000 from UBC to create, set up and run the Campus Closet,” a dress rental venture catering to the student clientele.
An opportunity in her third year to study abroad as an exchange student was just too good to pass up. “I wouldn’t say it was a spur of the moment decision, but it was a ‘let’s just do this’ feeling. … I was at a pretty critical point in my university career, I had been challenged with a health ailment the semester before applying and was just getting back on my feet. Exchange for me was a way of showing myself that, no matter the circumstances, always keep taking steps in a positive direction.”
Why Scotland? It was a question she was often asked. “Nature was a very big factor in choosing my destination. Some of my favourite things include hiking and outdoor activities, so I was really looking for a location that offered both the city feeling and gorgeous landscapes. On holiday with her sister several years earlier, Reece met a girl who had been studying abroad at the University of Edinburgh. “She told me how she had the absolute best time, and even got a tattoo of the skyline! So, two years later I was filling out [an application for] Edinburgh as my top destination.”
Reece had a blast studying abroad, although she cautions it can be tough. “You’re challenging your beliefs by immersing yourself in new cultural experiences and feeling very alone in a foreign place. Deciding to go to another country without knowing anyone is not as easy as it appears… All the same mundane problems still exist, and you need to learn how to adapt to these problems in the new environment. There will be people you don’t like, you will catch the flu, and sometimes classes might be a bit dry, but it’s still life, and you learn how to move forward.”
Two and a half months into her five-month exchange program in Edinburgh, the UN announced COVID-19 had become a global pandemic. At the time, Reece was spending the weekend visiting Ireland. She raced back to Edinburgh to pack all her worldly possessions, while a family friend managed to secure a costly Heathrow direct to Vancouver airline ticket using her flight points. Reece took an overnight sleeper train from Edinburgh to London, but it broke down at 5 AM. She got on another train but it broke down too! Reece says, “I found myself standing alone, with all my luggage, at 6 AM at the train station in Preston, England, four hours away by car from the airport. I wasn’t going to miss that flight! So I began yelling, “Is anyone else going to the London Heathrow airport?” Reece says, “I cannot express the feeling of happiness I had when my feet landed on Canadian soil again!”
Rocket ride from student life into the business world during a pandemic
UBC, along with all other post-secondary institutions in British Columbia, had transformed almost overnight into virtual halls of learning, and students became tethered to their digital devices like never before (along with everyone else). Ironically, Reece completed her “exchange semester” from home, right back in Qualicum Beach. During the summer of 2020, Reece took a position as a marketing intern with a Toronto-based start-up, Inkblot Therapy. Working remotely from QB, Reece helped to build a digital platform for the company’s mental health counseling app.
Fourth year was relatively easy compared to her first year, at least academically, says Reece. The biggest challenge was engaging in interviews with prospective employers. “It’s quite difficult to get hired into consulting,” she says. “Some people don’t prepare at all, others do. I prepared for about five months leading up to the interviews.” The intensive interview preparation and process is over and above class time. “I dedicated about 20 hours of time each week for about five months leading up to the interviews,” she says. The series of interviews with different employers took place over two weeks in January 2021.
Now, as she completes the final course credits required for her degree, Reece is also working full-time for Deloitte, an international professional services firm. Working remotely again, she says, “I’m in the consulting practice, Monitor Deloitte, looking at companies’ problems and helping to solve them.” Reece is part of the firm’s global private equity practice, but plans to gain exposure in consumer goods and in TMT (technology, media, telecom).”
Currently, Reece is on a six-week assignment for Deloitte developing a private equity strategy for a client company, and then she’ll be off to another project before she leaves for Denmark in the fall. “It’s definitely a demanding lifestyle. You can be working on average 70 or 80 hours a week,” she says, but she loves the job. After her work on the international UNLEASH conference is completed, Reece plans to return to Deloitte in September 2022.
One of the constants in Reece’s life, and a significant reason for her success, has been the friends she made in QB, including international exchange students. “Building strong friendships and maintaining them is so, so important.” Referring to photos from KSS and UBC, Reece says, “without these people, university would have been so much harder,” says Reece. “They are in New York, France, Calgary and Vancouver now, and I still speak to them regularly!”