Can I Do Anything Interesting With an MBA, Or Do I Have to Do Finance?|
If you think that an MBA is only for people interested in banking, consulting or entrepreneurship, take a look at the stories of three people who pursued nontraditional post-MBA careers.
As an MBA admissions consultant, I speak with people interested in applying to MBA programs all the time and I often hear things like, “What I really want to do is work towards education reform, but I think I should write about becoming an investment banker in my application.”
Uh, no… For years I’ve tried to convince MBA applicants that, in addition to the fact that inauthentic applicants are easy to spot, business schools really are interested in people who want to pursue a very wide variety of careers. Here are a few of my favorites:
Raji Kalra – CFO of the Museum for African Art
Although Raji Kalra began her career as a consultant, she knew she wanted to do something with a social mission after graduate school. That’s why she pursued a joint degree at Columbia Business School and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), earning an MBA and a Masters degree in International Affairs. Says Kalra, “My end goal was to go into the social sector, perhaps an international NGO or an environmental nonprofit. I knew I’d have three years to figure it out and hopefully enter the sector at a high enough level where, even though I’d take a pay cut, I would not have to worry about my ability to pay bills.”
Kalra kept an open mind about internships, first working at an environmental lobbying/consulting firm in Washington DC, researching the Clean Air Act. Her second internship was for SOBRO, the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, working with companies in their business incubator. After graduation in 2004, she faced a lot of push back during her job search. According to Kalra, “The people who offered me interviews would say, ‘Your resume is great, but you don’t have any international experience, specifically in developing countries.’ Even though I had an MBA, I also heard that I didn’t have finance experience. They said, ‘Go get that and come back to us.’”
Kalra shared that, while MBAs used to have to prove their value to nonprofits, things are different now.
Kalra took a bridge job for one or two years, working in finance at American Express for a year before joining KIPPNYC, the Knowledge Is Power Program in New York, as director of finance. “I got the job through Columbia Business School’s Social Enterprise Program, which emailed me that KIPPNYC was looking for a director of finance.”
Now, as Chief Financial Officer of the Museum for African Art, Kalra finds that the MBA was a sort of certification of her abilities, “I wouldn’t be a CFO without the MBA.” Of course, the coursework she took helps her in her job as well. For MBAs interested in working in the nonprofit sector, Kalra recommends negotiation and management courses. In particular she found Columbia’s Turnaround Management and Managing Growth classes very helpful.
Kalra advises MBA applicants to go to a school that has engaged alumni and professors in the field that you’re interested in. “I knew that I was going into a non-traditional industry when I entered [Columbia Business School], but I didn’t know that I would find so many like-minded people at business school. All these people look out for each other and you don’t get that without going to school with an active network.”
Aarti Dhupelia – Director of Chicago Public School’s Office of School Improvement
Aarti Dhupelia, a Harvard Business School (HBS) graduate, echoes Kalra’s sentiments. Recently tapped to lead the Chicago Public School’s Office of School Improvement, which supports radical transformation in the district’s most chronically under-performing schools, Dhupelia also advises MBA applicants interested in nontraditional careers to be thoughtful about the schools they apply to.
“I wanted a sizable student body with people interested in education. So I ruled out some schools because they had nothing in the education space. At HBS, I met more like-minded people than I did in college.”
Being exposed to the great disparity that exists in public education as an undergraduate at Northwestern made her “see it as the civil rights issue of our time, as Arne Duncan (the U.S. Secretary of Education) says.” After beginning her career as a management consultant with Marakon Associates, she felt like the MBA was a good fit for her and, in some regards, may have been more rigorous than other graduate programs.
In addition to working with Citizens Schools via the HBS Volunteer Consulting Club and joining the Social Enterprise Club’s education industry group, Dhupelia also took a Social Enterprise and Education class and a course at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
During her summer internship with Chicago Public Schools, she discovered the Broad Residency in Urban Education, a management development program to assist her transition into education. The Residency seeks to drive transformation in urban school districts by placing strong managers in the sector and providing them two years of intensive training – a crash course in education reform – to support their success.
Although Dhupelia returned to consulting after business school in order to pay off her loans and strengthen her management skills, she joined the Broad program in the Chicago Public Schools two years later.
Dhupelia advises MBAs interested in transitioning into the public or nonprofit sector to be prepared to explain yourself and your choices. “People appreciate hearing your personal story. I have been very intentional about that. And you have to be honest about what skills you have and those you don’t have.”
Sandra Persing – Founder and CEO, Persing Woods
Unlike Dhupelia or Kalra, Sandra Persing did not enter business school knowing that she wanted to work in a nontraditional field. In fact, she considered investment banking during her first year at Cornell’s Johnson School of Management. She certainly had no idea that she would find her true calling there – and that it would as CEO of a niche organic products farm that sells raw honey and organic goat milk.
Before business school Persing was an International Sales Manager at Harper Collins Publishing. When she entered the Johnson School, like most people, she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to with her MBA. “I knew I had skill gaps, and I considered an MBA to be an extension of the liberal arts degree I got at Wellesley. I thought that it would provide a broad set of skills that could be applicable to anything.
After she didn’t find anything that suited her for a summer internship, Persing created her own opportunity. “Instead of getting an internship and faking it, I looked at an opportunity that was right in front of me.” She and her husband owned 200 acres of land in nearby Elmira, New York, and when she learned of Cornell’s Goats in the Woods Program, she reached out to the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to take advantage of its resources.
“Some classmates thought that working on an Excel spreadsheet would be better than mucking out a stall and feeding an animal who will provide milk. But I wanted something tangible, and I have always had a liking for and a natural touch with animals.”
The summer after her first year, Persing worked with the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Elmira, creating their online resource guide for businesses in Upstate New York. She also used the summer to meet goat breeders and work on a business plan. During her second year, Persing took an entrepreneurship class in which she got support to fine-tune her business plan. “Of course I learned a lot through Cornell’s Ag program, but everything I learned in business school is also applicable to farming. I have to know how to calculate ROI on equipment, figure out production levels and pitch partnerships. My land and animals are assets, so I need to know how to depreciate them and what the implications are for my taxes.”
As you can see from these three women’s stories, whether you know that you want to pursue a nontraditional post-MBA career or you find an unexpected passion during business school, do not be afraid to talk about your goals from the beginning of the process. Pick a program that has a robust set of resources to help you navigate the sector and industry you want to work in, as well as a community of likeminded students who may eventually become your lifelong professional network!
Akiba Smith-Francis has an MBA from Harvard Business School and an MPA from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, serves as a Career Coach at Columbia Business School and advises MBA applicants. She is working on a book called Stepping Off the Path: From Doing What’s Expected to Doing What You Love.