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The Art of Going to Business School

I’m not entirely sure when it first occurred to me to go to business school. My family certainly hadn’t suggested it; my mother was a secretary and my grandfather spent his 40+ year career on the assembly line, building cars for General Motors. My grandmother was a homemaker. I didn’t even know anyone with an MBA.

After a childhood spent in piano lessons and orchestra rehearsals, and a double major in theater and math at Emory University, the only career paths I had investigated with any sincerity by the time I graduated were in the arts: concert pianist, theater director, arts administrator.

It was arts management that drew me to New York after a post-bacc fellowship. I landed my first job working in the Metropolitan Opera’s artistic department. I was 22 and full of energy, with an eye for innovation, efficiency, and anything involving numbers. When I started, the Met had just hired a new General Manager (their term for the CEO) who promised to bring the organization into the 21st century.

But my team clung to the Met’s old culture, insistent on keeping things the way they always were. In fact, in my final interview with the hiring manager, they explicitly asked me to promise not to change a thing in my first year on the job.

That should have been a big warning I wouldn’t be a fit, but instead what I heard was “after one year, we’ll absolutely be open to your ideas!” Plus I was broke and needed the job. So I readily agreed.

Turns out I was way off the mark.

When I hit my one year anniversary and my boss (and her boss) weren’t inclined to listen to anything I had to say, I knew there wasn’t much of a career path for me at the Met. So despite my boat-load of student debt, I looked at going back to school.

After considering masters’ in arts management and PhDs in mathematics (I had always been torn between math and the arts; perhaps this was the universe telling me to go into number theory instead?) I stumbled onto the curriculum for MBAs: finance, marketing, operations, organizational theory, and more.

I was intrigued. I had learned the very basics of marketing and accounting while running the student musical theater company at Emory my senior year. Certainly the marathon from the first rehearsal to closing night of a play had taught me lessons in leadership and people management. Plus I’d seen enough about nonprofit board cultivation to know it wouldn’t hurt to learn fundraising skills and develop a broader network. And as I looked at the resumes of everyone who held jobs I thought I wanted someday, they all had business experience and many had MBAs.

That sealed the deal.

That night I signed up to take the GMAT three weeks later (a crazy timeframe, by the way, and one I wouldn’t recommend) and started my applications.

To say I was a non-traditional candidate would be an understatement. I didn’t know the difference between a stock and a bond, and I admitted as much in my essays. I had never heard of Porter’s five forces or Christensen’s theory of disruption or the word “incentive” used as a verb.

What I did know was that I was smart, I was good with numbers, and I was curious to learn how the business world worked. I was certain I could keep up with my classmates who came from finance, consulting, and families with foundations, even if I felt like an outsider.

And I was right.

My MBA experience at Harvard Business School was nothing short of life-changing. Not only did I learn the fundamentals of business coursework and build a diverse network of brilliant and ambitious classmates, I was exposed to industries and career paths I never knew existed (like the entire world of entrepreneurship and tech startups).

Through the case study method I learned a way of approaching problems that allowed for complexity and shades of gray; unlike in mathematics, most situations in business (and the world) don’t have a single correct answer. And I grew more confident that I could figure out where I fit in the world.

After graduating I spent one year in management consulting at the Boston Consulting Group. I consider that year as a bit of a finishing school–it gave me me the opportunity to practice the things I learned in my MBA across several industries and functions.

Then I dove into the world of tech and entrepreneurship. Startups seemed similar to producing theater, though the scale was much larger, both from an investment and revenue point of view. I was eager to give it a try.

Seven years later I am thrilled I took the leap. My first startup raised $1M in angel and venture capital and built a passionate customer base, though we ended up shuttering in the end. That failure prepared me for my second startup, where I helped my early-stage team expand to their first new city.  From there I headed back into the nonprofit world and founded an edtech startup inside the American Museum of Natural History. And now I find myself using all of these experiences as I run business development and marketing for Bionic as their Vice President of Growth. We’re a startup that installs startup ecosystems inside Fortune 500 enterprises, teaching them to validate like entrepreneurs and invest like venture capitalists to discover and build new growth.

In the midst of all of this I’ve found ways to keep the arts in my life – as a board member, a patron, a funder, and a freelance consultant. I’ve also invested in my own creative outlets by hosting a podcast about the intersection of STEM and the arts and speaking at conferences all over the world. And I know my career is more zig-zag than linear (I like to compare it to vector addition if you can tolerate the nerdiness), which means the chances that I’ll find an opportunity to lead a national arts organization someday are quite high.

An MBA isn’t required for a career in business, nor it is it the right answer for everyone. But for me, a curious, ambitious twenty-something who had deep training in the arts and wanted to pivot into something a bit broader, investing in an MBA proved the perfect fit.

Christina Wallace is a serial entrepreneur, writer, and classical musician. Most recently she founded BridgeUp: STEM at the American Museum of Natural History, an educational program designed to captivate, inspire, and propel girls into computer science, funded by a $7.5M grant from the Helen Gurley Brown Trust. She’s currently a Vice President at Bionic, which helps enterprises grow like startups by installing entrepreneurship and venture capital as a form of management. Her writing has been published in ELLE, Quartz, Time, the Detroit Free Press, and Forbes, and she is a regular contributor to Forbes.com. Christina sings with chamber choir Ensemble Companio and occasionally finds herself on the producing end of a good play.

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