During the first few weeks of business school, I remember being surprised at how much of a magic word "MBA" seemed to be.
Having spent the few years before business school trying to transition from musical theater performance to financial-services marketing, I learned to value networking and certainly had success connecting with mentors and finding interesting jobs. But within the first few weeks of MBA classes, I suddenly had access to individuals, institutions, and projects that had been unavailable to me in my independent search. I remember doors being opened, and after a few months I discovered doors I never knew existed. This is not to say it is easy, or that doing a project for a company automatically results in a six-figure job offer. However, I can think of no other way to be exposed to so many opportunities in such a short period of time. It was refreshing to have an experience live up to the promise in the brochures so early in the process.
While exposure is great, one of the hardest things about business school is the difficult trade-off between being open to multiple experiences and, at the same time, being focused. It's difficult to land a great job offer while also trying to explore a new industry or function. In many ways, if you know exactly what you want to do coming into business school, you have an advantage, especially if your desired career falls into one of the standard career tracks: brand management, consulting at one of the big five firms, or corporate finance/investment banking.
I certainly don't envy career services departments. They face multiple competing priorities: students who sometimes expect great positions to fall into their laps, companies trying to get the most out of each campus visit, and program offices that want good statistics (high salaries, prestigious firms, 100 percent employment by graduation) for the rankings. In the middle of doing everything in their power to get students the best jobs, career advisers are also tasked with providing what can sometimes amount to psychological counseling for confused MBAs.
Building a Business
In this context, the idea of grouping students by function (for example, marketing, consulting, and finance) makes a lot of sense. However, some of the most compelling job opportunities don't fit neatly into boxes. In addition, the "career track" jobs are only offered by the largest firms. In a bad economy, instead of hiring 20 brand managers, consultants, or investment bankers, these firms may only hire five, or none at all. As the numbers decrease, MBAs with prior experience in the industry have an understandable edge. MBAs with nontraditional backgrounds or less experience have to work harder to get their foot in the door.
This observation led me to partner with three of my MBA colleagues to found MBAbenchmark. As a former actress, a former Army captain, a former NASA engineer, and a former pro soccer player, we felt we understood the problem and invested a lot of time, energy, and even some of our own money to develop a solution. Our current site allows MBAs to benchmark themselves against peers across the country and allows recruiters to filter candidates based on customized criteria. Building this business from scratch has been a fantastic ride, and we're very proud of the current offering.
As business school draws to a close, I have only one regret: I wish I had come in with more confidence. Through fantastic professors, talented colleagues, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences, I came to understand that confidence is really half the battle. Being aware of what you do well is invaluable, and spending time worrying about what you don't do well is a waste. First of all, if you have confidence in your ability to learn and adapt, things you don't do well can become things you're great at. If not, you will always be able to find a partner who compensates for your weaknesses and allows you to focus on the things you love to do. I wish I had truly believed that from the start, but I suppose insecurity is inevitable.
In speaking with my MBA colleagues, I have discovered that just about everyone came into business school with a warped personal balance sheet: Everyone underestimated the value of their innate abilities and overestimated the deficit of their deficiencies. One of the best parts of business school is leaving with a much more realistic, and positive, personal balance sheet.
"Future Transaction Partners"
By far, the most valuable thing about business school is the group of friends I have made, or, as I like to call them, my "future transaction partners." The social aspect of business school cannot be denied: It's great to float the Guadalupe River, football tailgates are a blast, and the multitude of costumes in my closet indicate that MBA is synonymous with theme parties. But as much fun as the parties have been, working together with really smart people whose company you genuinely enjoy is the truly fun part. Collaboration isn't always perfect, but at its best, it is satisfying when the whole you create together is far more than the sum of its parts. I know that I will work with my McCombs (McCombs Full-Time MBA Profile) colleagues in the future and will rely on them often for advice, insight, and expertise. The value of that network cannot be overstated.
In July, I will begin the Experienced Commercial Leadership Program at GE Capital (GE). I'm thrilled about this position and can't wait to get started. At the same time, graduation and the idea of moving forward is bittersweet. It is hard to say goodbye to a sunny, lively city where I met so many amazing individuals and learned so much.
In true nerdy MBA fashion, I have saved all of the course-pack articles and case studies, my notes from lectures, and the papers and presentations that have made me particularly proud. Yesterday, I went to Kinko's to have all of these items bound and cataloged. The woman at the register balked openly at the $121.50 expense.
"Trust me," I said to her, "it's a drop in the bucket. One hour in class costs way more than that and don't even get me started on the royalty charges for a classic like Michael Porter's 'The Five Competitive Forces That Shape Strategy'!"
This encounter reminded me of two very important things: 1) I need to recognize that I'm entering a world where jokes about five forces or gold, frankincense, and MIRR aren't going to elicit the laughter (or groans) I'm used to; and 2) Obtaining my MBA at McCombs was the best possible decision I could have made. It was worth every burnt orange penny.