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Stern Somebody: Nicole Ripka11 min read

The Oppy staff is proud to continue our feature “Stern Somebody,” telling the stories of remarkable classmates and how they became the exceptional people they are today.

Nicole graduated with a Bachelor in Applied Science, magna cum laude, from the prestigious University of Pennsylvania (U Penn). She spent the early years of her career exploring various creative pursuits – opening her own gallery, working as a product specialist, and taking on different roles at creative agencies, specializing in the video art form. When the pandemic hit, the agency she was working at shut down and she found herself moving back home, unemployed – looking for her next opportunity. Then she decided to do her MBA.

Today Nicole is in her second year of the full-time MBA program at NYU Stern and is an active part of the student community. Apart from her coursework (and all of the homework she always finishes), Nicole is a Managing Partner at the Dorm Room Fund, is on the board of OutClass,  runs GayJoy – a queer media company she founded, manages her gallery and plays the occasional game of Pickle-ball. Some might call her path to the MBA unconventional, but ever since she arrived – she has been making her mark.

I got the opportunity to catch up with her for a cozy chat over Zoom and here are the highlights of our conversation.

Thank you so much for speaking to me, Nicole! Would you like to kick us off by telling me a little about yourself?

Sure, thanks for having me! I grew up in Long Island, about an hour away from the city, and went to a public high school there. I didn’t love high school and was very determined to get into a top school. When I got to U Penn, I felt like I had arrived. I spent a lot of time in college building unbelievable relationships, not as much time thinking about what I wanted to do. I had always nurtured an artistic inkling and ended up majoring in Visual Communications, combining traditional communications with history and design theory.

During my senior year, I took time off to deal with some mental health issues. When I talk to people about it now, they are like, ‘Oh, that’s great. Good for you!’ but it wasn’t like that before. Back then, mental health was a touchy topic, and I was uncomfortable with the fact that I was taking time off. It was on the recommendation of a professional, and I honestly needed to do it. What I was ultimately struggling with was that I was closeted. I knew I needed to come out, and I was really struggling to do that.

My first instinct was to remark ‘Good for you!’ But thinking about it – back then I too had a very low awareness of things related to mental health. That was a really brave decision! What happened after that?

During that time, I happened to be Peleton’s first intern. Back in 2014, the company was only 20 people! I did everything for them – riding the bike in the store to demo it, photographing instructors in the studio, and running Facebook campaigns. They were very supportive of my decision to take time off from classes! 

I nurtured my passion for photography while I was there, and worked extensively with the design and studio team. John Foley, the CEO, was amazing to watch and was so welcoming and wonderful to me. 

That’s incredible! Is this around the time you started the Nicole Ripka Gallery?

When I took time off from college, I took four weeks off with a bunch of artists to go camping in the Southwest. It was something I found online – I didn’t know any of them before the trip! All of these artists were young and creating accessible art. I thought this was really interesting. Where I grew up, there wasn’t access to this kind of affordable art by emerging talent. So, I decided to open an art gallery. I got a space for free in a vacant shopping center in Long Island. This was my first job, running this gallery. And I loved it… I still love it. 

It’s wonderful that you started a business when you were so young! Was this foreshadowing your decision to come to business school?

Taken outside the Nicole Ripka Gallery

I started getting lonely being all the way in Long Island. The gallery wasn’t stable yet, I didn’t really know how to run a business – so I had to get a job. I became a product specialist at a startup – Predict Spring, which built mobile apps for retailers. During my time here, I got very into design and absolutely loved it. I went to a graphic design intensive boot camp at Shillington in New York.

I then did a little bit of freelancing and ended up working at a creative agency, Matte Projects. Creative agencies are like a crash course of sorts. I was exposed to different parts of the creative process. I went on to run their team of video creatives, which was really interesting. I worked on some really big projects there. Kanye was a client (not too proud of that right now). Google and Spotify were clients. My proudest accomplishment – I produced a film that got into Tribeca. It was an experimental documentary on Blondie, the artist.

Wow, that is so cool! What made you pivot into the world of business?

I lost my job on March 17 2020 because the agency I was at just combusted that day. I ended up moving back to my parent’s house during the pandemic. My mom suggested I apply to business school. My first reaction was to laugh. I was like, ‘I’m not studying for a fucking test!’. 

I ended up looking into it anyway. On LinkedIn, I found all these unbelievably interesting people who had creative careers. And I thought you know what, I really like this media/entertainment thing. Maybe I can get the MBA and use that to get in somewhere.

The first stage in my career, my twenties, was all about learning a lot of skills and executing them. I learned how to build and launch a brand, how to distribute content, and hone in on a target audience. I think a lot of my thirties is going to be about figuring out how to put all of that to use to make money. My twenties were not lucrative for me at all (*laughs*) I want to continue to fuel my passion for working with creatives and somehow turn it into a lucrative career.

I think the GRE/GMAT is a big challenge when thinking about coming back to school. Glad you decided to give it a go! How has your time at Stern been? 

I am always trying to balance my yearning for the creative side with practicality. From a young age, I’ve always been someone who dreams big. Before Stern, I remember thinking – I don’t know what the dream is anymore. The best part about Stern is that it has brought that feeling back – any of the dreams are on the table.

I’ll literally love class this year. Last year was not great for me. I hated the core! This year I am taking Entrepreneurship with Okun. I love it. It’s helping me think through all this venture and business stuff. I am taking a class on Blockchain, which is interesting. I’m taking Dolly Chugh’s class on Developing Managerial Skills, which is helping me a lot at  Dorm Room Fund.

The people have been the highlight of the entire Stern experience. People are so generous and welcoming. I’ve loved getting to know the women (and the men, of course). Some of the women are such powerhouses and that gets me really excited. There is a really strong PE/VC community and I give a lot of credit to the club leaders, Rani and Chris, for building that. I’m really proud and enjoy being a part of the ecosystem. I love Stern!! 

What got you interested in PE/VC? Seems like a big leap from your past life as a creative!

Last year, I got involved in the Dorm Room Fund, which is a student venture fund. I didn’t really see myself getting into investing when I came to school but I worked really hard on that application and got this amazing opportunity. Initially, it was a steep learning curve, but over the last year, I have realized – ‘Oh, I actually can totally do this!’, and I really like doing it. 

I’m incredibly stimulated by VC in the same exact way that I’m incredibly stimulated by meeting a young artist or a really talented editor. I love working with founders. And it’s an unbelievable industry that I feel so drawn to.

That’s incredible! Can you tell us a little about GayJoy?

I accidentally started my own queer media company – GayJoy. It falls in the intersection of tech and media in this emerging creator economy space. I think this space is going to underline everything that I end up doing. I really love working with creators and am interested in creator platforms. I want to continue to build the media company, which has a really awesome weekly, queer, local, and pop culture newsletter. I am thinking about starting a queer venture fund at some point, or maybe working for one!

How do you juggle it all – Dorm Room Fund, GayJoy, the Gallery, classes, and so many hobbies? Any words of wisdom on getting it all done?

I think having your system down is really important. To-do lists. I’m always trying to be more organized.  I think finding the right tools that work for you is important. And on a more macro level, being OK to put things down. I have taken GayJoy to a place where it can run itself, or I’ve gotten good at it and can make things happen quickly. So just try to work smart, not hard. 

At an event by GayJoy

I remind myself of Jeff Bezos’ rule for decision-making – where you need to make your decision once you have 70 % of the information. Perfection doesn’t necessarily get you there, so wrapping something up when it’s no longer serving you, is really important.

I’m sober and in recovery. Not drinking helps to get a lot done. I feel really fortunate in my life. Though I don’t really socialize at a lot of late nights at school, I have made meaningful relationships with people built on shared interests.

When I was at my job prior to Stern, I didn’t understand that I could story-tell. If I had the right amount of confidence and understanding of how to package myself, I think I probably could have gotten a dream job. I like to think that literally anything is possible. There is always a chance that you could go and get the thing that you want. Actually, the chances are pretty high. You just have to try.  I’ll probably get rejected a thousand times this year. And every time it hurts a little less. You learn, you interview, and you get better at interviewing, and then you develop confidence. 

My other piece of advice is you will not get anything unless you ask for it. One of the special things about the MBA is that you can reach out to literally anybody and be like I want to intern for you. In-semester internships are a great thing to do. Shoot your shot, always.

That’s great advice! It’s been so lovely talking to you, Nicole. Before we wind up, I would love to know – What do you like to do in your free time?

I read a gazillion newsletters. I’m totally obsessed with 

Not Boring, The Rebooting and Litquidity. Highly recommend The Audacious Round Up by Roxanne Gay and After School for some Gen Z flavor. Really love Fabrice Houdart – a weekly newsletter on LGBTQ+ equality,

I love to go see shows and concerts. I’m a big music person. I also love TV. I’m watching The Patient – it’s fucking intense and amazing. I love spending time in queer spaces in the city, whether those be museums or bars. I like to play sports and am a very competitive game player – in specific, PickleBall!

You can connect with Nicole on LinkedIn and Instagram and follow GayJoy here.

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