Crystal Zhao poses for a photo with Jeopardy! host Ken Jennings

Part-Time MBA Student Competes on Jeopardy!

Monday, April 3, 2023

The answer: This Carlson School Part-Time MBA student was a contestant on Jeopardy!

The question: Who is Crystal Zhao?

A “dream come true” for Zhao, ’23 MBA, happened in January when she flew to Los Angeles to compete on one of the longest-running game shows of all time. Zhao won her first game on April 3, winning $4,199 before finishing in second place on her second episode. A lifelong fan of the show, Zhao was thrilled to have been selected.

“I was so nervous but it was so much fun,” she says. “Everybody from the production crew to the other contestants to Ken Jennings were all so nice. Even after filming, it still doesn’t feel real.”

Zhao has loved trivia all of her life, including participating in quiz bowl in high school and various trivia contests across the Twin Cities. But facing off against fellow contestants on Jeopardy! was the highest form of trivia competition.

To get on the show, Zhao took the Jeopardy! Anytime Test, which can be completed by anyone once every year. From there, she was contacted by the show and put into a pool of potential contestants where she could be selected at any point in an 18-month span.

After about six months of being in the pool, Zhao got the call.

“I thought, ‘This can’t be real. There has to be more to go through,’” she says. “It was such a surreal experience.”

Before flying out west, Zhao brushed up on various categories of knowledge. To do this, Zhao created a data model based on clues and categories from past Jeopardy! shows. From there, she studied up on some of her weaker subjects, which included old Academy Award-winning movies and the British monarchy.

“Being in the Carlson School’s Part-Time MBA program really helped me because I was already in study mode,” she says. “I was already used to doing all of that so studying for Jeopardy! was a lot easier for me.”

Running a data model is now second nature to Zhao after she used her MBA experience to make a career pivot. She previously worked in the culinary industry where she worked in a variety of roles, ranging from chef to general manager.

It was in one of those roles that Zhao was asked to run some data models and prompted her to consider a career change. 

“Data was always something I had been interested in,” she says. “I remember as a kid playing video games and using spreadsheets to help track how I could level up my characters. So when I thought about where I could take my career, this was definitely something I wanted to pursue.”

Zhao enrolled in the Carlson School’s Part-Time MBA program and immediately started working with the career coaches in the Carlson Business Career Center (CBCC). Within a few months, she was interviewing with companies and landed a new career she loves.

“My experience at the Carlson School has been unbelievable,” she says. “Transitioning out of the food industry, I was really nervous that there would be a lot of closed doors. But that hasn’t been the case at all. The CBCC has been incredible to work with and I can’t thank them enough for opening up so many doors for me.”

Zhao will take a break from her studies on Monday to attend a watch party and see herself play against two other competitors.

“You don’t have to be a genius or be Ken Jennings or Amy Schneider to try out for Jeopardy!,” she says. “Similarly, you don’t need to have a traditional business background to get an MBA. Follow your dreams and anything is possible.”