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Q&A: From Hard Hats to Business Suits

Hear from four MBA students with undergraduate engineering degrees about everything from deciding on a business career; standing out in their b school applications; pre-MBA work experiences; and their advice for engineering students who are considering an MBA.

Liz Blankenhorn

MBA School: Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business

Graduation Year: 2018

Undergraduate school/degree: University of Maryland/B.S., Chemical Engineering

Stephanie Curry

MBA School: University of California, Los Angeles – Anderson School of Management

Graduation Year:  2018

Undergraduate school/degree: Southern Methodist University/B.S., Management Science and Mathematics

Catherine Hidlebaugh

MBA School: Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business

MBA Graduation: 2018

Undergraduate School/Degree:  Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology/B.S., Mechanical Engineering

Flozelle Roberts

MBA school: Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Business

Graduation Year:  2018

Undergraduate school/degree: Southern University and A & M College/B.S., Civil Engineering


How did you get interested in engineering?

Roberts: I was raised in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where my daddy was always very handy. He frequently repaired and improved upon our home, appliances, and vehicles. I found myself observing his actions, asking questions, and assisting him.

By middle school, I attended my first pre-engineering program at the local university where I was introduced to basic engineering principles through hands-on activities and high school-level courses. These programs fostered my curiosity, my love for learning, and my desire to solve complex problems.

When did you realize you wanted to get an MBA?

Blankenhorn: As an undergraduate, I was in an honors program called QUEST, which stands for Quality Enhancement Systems and Teams. We worked in multidisciplinary teams of engineering and business students, and it sparked my interest in business.

Hidlebaugh: I wanted to attend business school right after my undergraduate education, but I’m glad I waited. Going to business school would be harder, and I would not be able to contribute or take away as much, if I did not have full-time work experience.

How will you combine engineering and business in your career?

Blankenhorn: I have spent most of my career in the chemicals industry – my first job was in the Process Development Center in DuPont’s Performance Chemicals Division – and intend to return to it after I finish my MBA.

This summer I’m working at BASF in the Leadership Development Program as a Marketing intern in BASF’s Refining Catalyst business.

What was your career like before attending business school?

Curry: I worked in a couple of positions focused on corporate strategy: At Bain & Company, I worked on a variety of strategy projects in retail, entertainment, and technology.

I wanted to gain more in-depth exposure to the retail industry and then moved into the Corporate Strategy group at Nordstrom.

Hidlebaugh: I was in a rotational engineering program at a large manufacturing and construction company, SPX Corporation. My last position was an Operations Project Manager where I managed a new product line at a new manufacturing plant.

Roberts: I worked in the private sector where I designed wastewater treatment facilities for clients in California, Nevada, Texas, and Mississippi. I later returned to Louisiana where I worked in the public sector, managing the design of underground water facilities and wastewater treatment plants damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Why did you choose to go to business school?

Blankenhorn: Business school teaches you the tools you need to succeed in business, but it is also about learning who you are as a leader, what strengths you bring to the table, and how you can best motivate teams of people who might think differently from you towards a common goal.

Curry: My primary reason was to build a stronger business network, specifically on the West Coast, that would help me to advance my career. My secondary reason was to transition into a more marketing-centric career.

Roberts: As I progressed in my career, I realized that I did not have the skills required to propel me to the greater, executive-level positions that I desired.

Which of Forté’s resources helped you most before applying for business school?

Blankenhorn: I attended a Forté Forum in NYC before applying, which allowed me to hear in a face-to-face environment from admissions of different schools.

This is actually how Georgetown came onto my radar! Visiting the school is the most important step to make sure there is a “fit.”

Curry: Attending the Forté Conference was one of the best things I did to prepare for business school.

Forté is a great support network for women in business school and beyond and as a great female-specific resource to improve extremely useful skills like negotiating and communicating.

Roberts: Forté is a safe environment in which to learn about business school and career options and to network with like-minded, ambitious women. I used Forté resources during my business school application process and in preparation for the GMAT, business school, and my internship.

Forté’s annual conference prepared me for the pending internship recruiting season, and I first connected with my internship employer, USAA, there! Additionally, Forté has provided funding for my scholarship which has enabled me to focus on my studies and not my tuition.

Which engineering skills have been most relevant to business school and in your career so far? 

Blankenhorn: The ability to explain technical topics to someone with no technical background. You must be able to explain the value of your work, clearly and succinctly, in a way that someone who has no background in your industry can understand.

Curry: My ability to effectively analyze a problem and come up with a more scientific way to solve that problem.

Hidlebaugh: My critical thinking and problem-solving skills have been so vital in my career in operations and at business school so far.

How did your engineering experience help you stand out as an MBA applicant?

Hidlebaugh: I was organized, knew my deadlines for all my schools, and applied round 1 because I was prepared ahead of time.

Roberts: Having training and work experience in engineering illustrate to admissions officers a commitment and ability to review a problem or activity and methodically arrive at a resolution and path forward.

What has been most challenging and what has been most rewarding so far?

Curry: My biggest challenge was learning how to be effective when presenting information, which is a vital skill in the business world.

Hidlebaugh: The biggest challenge was reflecting on what I wanted in life and how each MBA program would help me gain the skills to position myself the best for my future. I didn’t want to go somewhere that didn’t focus on my interests (operations) or where most graduates and alumni lived in areas of the country that I was not interested in or worked at companies I didn’t want to work for.

I also wanted a smaller program where I would be able to get to know all of my classmates and form strong relationships with them as well as the faculty and staff at the school. All of this research took a long time, but it paid off!

Roberts: My biggest challenge was not limiting myself. I am my biggest critic, and I limited myself because of the length of time it had been since I was last in school. The biggest rewards are the great people I have had the opportunity to meet (other students, alums, recruiters).

Do you have advice for other engineers who are thinking about getting an MBA?

Blankenhorn: The MBA provides a great toolbox – it’s not the ultimate key to success, as it matters most what you do with the tools, but it has certainly given me the skills I need (fundamental business knowledge, improved communication skills and an incredibly supportive network) to be a more confident leader.

Curry: Start exploring early, even if you aren’t sure that you want to go to business school yet. It will help you see types of MBA careers and will make the application process easier.

Hidlebaugh: You’d be surprised, but you will probably have to study for the GMAT math section quite a bit! For me, it was math that I completed 10+ years ago and I had to get in the mindset that I couldn’t just use my TI89 and solve every equation.

Roberts: Do it! Employers are looking for candidates whose skills and abilities align with your already-attained skill set. An MBA will open doors to opportunities that you could not imagine.

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