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2020 Edie Hunt Winner Shares Top Career Tip: Find Your “Why”

Growing up near Boston, Liz O’Brien was a self-professed book nerd who steered clear of math. A French and History undergrad at the University of Chicago, Liz recalls seeing the MBA students in their crisp suits and thinking, “I will never be one of those corporate robots.” But after working at Chicago Scholars – a non-profit that helps talented, under-resourced high school and college students develop their leadership skills, navigate, and graduate college – she realized that business school would help her make an impact on a larger scale.

Chicago Scholars: Planting the MBA seed

Early on, Liz bought into the narrative that girls weren’t good at math, and her interests always leaned to the humanities. She fell in love with French, spent time as a student in Paris, and later taught English  in Normandy. Through education, Liz discovered that her calling was helping people become their best selves, and she didn’t give business a thought for five more years.

But while working at Chicago Scholars, where she was “exposed to deep inequities in the leadership landscape,” she says, the idea of business school unexpectedly appeared on her radar.

Liz is very open about her own upbringing, noting that she grew up more privileged than many. Of Chicago Scholars, she says, “Our students did not have the generations of family connections and knowledge that many of us – myself included – often take for granted.” She also recognized that most companies were not set up to help first generation college students, and it became a mission to close that gap.

Some of Liz’s female colleagues at Chicago Scholars encouraged her to apply to business school, suggesting that by increasing her quantitative skills she could scale her impact into the business world. It was at that point, Liz says, “I finally overcame my fear of numbers, started my business school journey, and … found my why.”

Forté and Carlson School: Broadening her understanding of inequity

Liz was accepted to Forté’s MBALaunch program, and her eyes were opened to the issue of gender equity for the first time.  “I started to see parallels with our Chicago Scholars’ challenges, but from a gender standpoint,” she says. “I had never seen my fear of math and numbers stemming from society’s gender narrative.”

Attending the Forté MBA Conference broadened her exposure to gender inequities within the business world, and she found her “why” – to do her part to transform the leadership landscape for all marginalized communities, and pay forward the investment that Forté and female leaders had made in her.

With this “why” as her North Star, Liz knew she wanted get involved with the Graduate Women in Business group. After settling on the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School, she approached that goal with gusto.

Throughout her time at Carlson, she served on the Graduate Women in Business Board; co-chaired the Carlson Women’s Leadership Conference, which serves the entire Minneapolis-St. Paul community; she was selected to become Carlson’s Forté Ambassador and Admissions Diversity Graduate Assistant for women’s recruitment; and in her last semester, she worked with Carlson’s Admissions Director to develop Carlson’s first-ever strategic plan dedicated to women’s recruitment.

As a Forté Fellow, Liz was particularly interested in integrating Fellows into admissions efforts, designing a pilot project to welcome new Fellows to Carlson to help them connect and support one another.

While at Carlson, Liz also served as a Forté Peer Advisor to a cohort of six Twin Cities Forté MBALaunch women, and she currently mentors a young woman she met at Chicago Scholars who is now pursuing a business career path. “She is my hero – as a first-generation Chicago student, she commuted over an hour to high school each day, then came home to help her immigrant parents run their restaurant in the evening,” Liz explains.

Post-MBA: Still living her “why”

Unsurprisingly, Liz continues her advocacy of women and other underserved populations in her new role as HR Business Partner for the Finance function at General Mills. While she calls herself a generalist who supports the Finance groups’ talent strategy in order to meet business goals, she also has found a way to help others in a mentorship capacity.

She is responsible for reimagining the early career development program for future Finance leaders at General Mills, in which she gets to use her voice and influence. She is also the primary liaison for the Finance function to General Mills’ Diversity & Inclusion council and the Women in Finance and People of Color in Finance networks.

Her current role combines everything Liz has advocated for over the last several years, and she is living her “why,” even though it was not what she envisioned for herself when she was younger.

She credits Chicago Scholars, Forté, and Carlson with helping to illuminate her career path, and those experiences have given her the confidence to continue to, as she says, “follow my nose and do things I am passionate about.”

We can’t wait to see what Liz O’Brien accomplishes next.

Learn more about the Edie Hunt Inspiration Award and meet past winners.

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