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How to Rock Your First Year of Business School

Starting business school is a life-changing experience. How can an incoming MBA be sure she’s ready? We asked five Forté Fellows who are also Graduate Women in Business leaders to participate in a panel discussion at the 2020 Forté MBA Women’s Leadership Virtual Conference. Liz O’Brien, MBA ’20, University of Minnesota Carlson, winner of the 2020 Edie Hunt Inspiration Award, moderated the panel of rising second years, which included

  • Becca Jordan, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School
  • Katy Obr, Columbia Business School
  • Fredeurika Toussaint, Gies College of Business
  • Jaanhvi Vaidya, UCLA Anderson School of Management

The panelists shared honest insights about their own first-year experiences and offered tips and suggestions.

What to know before you go

Katy Obr

Katy Obr

Before b-school, Katy worked in the film and television industry in London. She had never studied business, and recalls, “I didn’t know what a balance sheet was.” She was so focused on coordinating her move from the UK that she didn’t do any prep work before arriving at Columbia. She says, “That was something I really wish I had done, in hindsight. You hear that academically an MBA might not be as rigorous as what you’re used to at an undergraduate level. In my experience, that has not been the case at all.” For MBA students who didn’t major in business or accounting as an undergrad, the workload may come as a bit of a shock.

She says, “I recommend finding time this summer to get up to speed on some accounting, some corporate finance.”

Fredeurika took a summer course in data analytics finance before starting business school, because she came from a public health background and wanted to be more familiar with the material. Her advice: “If you can find some time to either do LinkedIn Learning, Coursera if your university offers it, or even YouTube videos just on fundamentals, it will help in the long run.”

Network, network, network

Fredeurika Toussaint

Fredeurika Toussaint

At Gies, Fredeurika noticed that the Women in Business president was a second year and would soon be leaving. She says, “I took it upon myself to reach out to her and try to find out how I could get involved with that role — and then over time, it kind of fell into place.”

Jaanhvi, an introvert, forced herself out of her comfort zone in order to make the kind of connections she wanted from business school. She advises other women to do the same. She says, “Business school is two years. You’re in a safe space, so push yourself and take challenges, and just keep trying to do things that are new and maybe a little bit uncomfortable.”

Liz made the most of her extracurricular activities by sticking around for a happy hour afterward — or even making the meeting a happy hour. She says, “School is that very weird mix of work and play, and sometimes it’s great to be able to bring those together.”

Turn your FOMO into JOMO

Becca Jordan

Becca Jordan

Worried about how you’ll find time for all your b-school activities?  Becca says, “FOMO is real even in the MBA program — fear of missing out, for those that haven’t heard that — but I would say try to find the JOMO, which is the joy of missing out.”  Instead of trying to do it all, accept that some things aren’t right for you.

Becca told the incoming MBAs to keep two things in mind as they manage their schedules. First, she says, “You need to focus on what makes you happy and brings you energy mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally, because everything that you do and you spend your time in, at the end of the day is either giving you energy or taking energy away from you. You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

Becca’s second tip: Craft a mission statement around what brings you energy. Her mission is “Building tools and teams that cultivate healthy, confident communities.”  She says, “I wrote that mission statement down. I wrote it on my planner, I put it on a post-it by my bed, I put it on my mirror. And I did not recruit at companies or join clubs or organizations on campus that didn’t align to that mission.”

Start your internship search early

Jaanhvi Vaidya

Jaanhvi Vaidya

Interested in exploring different post-MBA career paths? Katy says, “That’s great, and you definitely should, but I recommend having a pretty clear sense of recruiting timeframes for each path by the time you get started.” Timelines vary by industry. For example, management consulting and investment banking start recruiting early in the year. Katy recalls that at Columbia, “October 1 was the day the banks started coming to campus. We’d been in classes for a couple of weeks, and we didn’t have a clue what was going on yet. They throw you in headfirst with these on-campus presentations and coffee chats and all that.”

Anderson holds a series of summer career events to help MBA students prepare for the recruiting process before they arrive on campus. It includes resume and cover letter round tables, opportunities to practice your 30-second pitches and ‘Tell me about yourself’ responses, and mock interviews. If your school doesn’t have something similar, Jaanhvi suggests doing that prep work on your own.

Because she was interested specifically in product management and health tech, Jaanhvi didn’t do much on-campus recruiting. Instead, she says, “I was on LinkedIn every day trying to find ways to connect with the different companies that I was interested in.”

Stay focused on your goals

It’s important to have clarity about your personal goals in order to recognize which opportunities will help you achieve them. Becca mentioned that recruiters may seek you out based on your previous work experience and the positions they’re trying to fill.  She says, “It’s nice and flattering when companies come knocking. You’ve worked so hard to be where you are, so it’s awesome to get that invite. I’m not saying don’t explore it, but make sure you don’t sacrifice your time looking at the shiny things, because not everything that glitters is gold.”

She suggests asking yourself, “Am I going to be happy at this job in three years in this role, or I’m going to be frustrated with myself that I didn’t actually follow what I was passionate about?”

Fredeurika added that a good support system is especially valuable at times like this. She says, “When you have people around you that you feel like you can trust, whether they be mentors or classmates or even advisors, lean on them, especially in the time of recruiting, because there are so many opportunities. You’re going to feel like you want to jump on all of them, but it’s quite impossible.”

The second-year students at your school are also a great resource. Katy says, “They’ve just gone through the recruiting process, they’ve just done the internships, and they’ll be a lot more candid with you than a lot of these recruiters or people from companies who come to campus.” She recommends meeting second years for coffee and asking about their personal experiences.

Be true to yourself

What is business school like for women of color?  Fredeurika says, “I’m a proud black woman. I walk around every day, and I make sure people know that.” When she encountered microaggressions during her b-school experience, she turned to her support network. She also aligned herself with professional organizations like the National Black MBA Association and the National Association of African Americans in Human Resources.

She says, “To be able to be a woman of color in these spaces is not something I take for granted, because I’m trying to be the person that’s going to open doors for others to come.”

Fredeurika went through recruiting with blonde braids in her hair, and says, “I did that intentionally so that the companies would know this is who I am. This is an expression of myself that does not take away from my intelligence, who I am, what I have to bring, etc. So just continue to be yourself.”

Jaanhvi agreed with Fredeurika’s advice, adding, “I am only the second woman of color president for the Women’s Business Connection, and Anderson’s been around forever. I take that very seriously because I don’t want other women to feel like they can’t be in these positions of power because they haven’t seen that.” She encouraged other women of color who take on leadership roles, “If you have it in you, and if it gives you energy, try to uplift other women similarly.”

Find ways to stay connected

Each person’s MBA experience is unique, but this year there’s an additional variable — the global pandemic. The panelists hadn’t anticipated finishing their first year at home, but they’ve found ways to adapt. Jaanhvi says, “I think it’s an opportunity to become really innovative and creative about how we do connect. Initially, it definitely sucked. Zoom classes are not the most engaging, but I think you just have to look at it and say, ‘I’m taking these two years for myself. It’s already happening. So let me see what I can do to make the best out of the situation.’” She says Anderson has been hosting happy hours and themed trivia nights to help students stay in touch.

Katy added that at Columbia, “What people have been trying to do since COVID is do a lot more chats one on one, on Zoom or on the phone, checking in with each other.”

In business school and beyond, Forté can help you build your network and grow as a leader. This summer, get to know other MBA women and alumnae in your area at the Forté MBA Summer Meet-Ups.

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