MBAs on the Move

Frances Messano: Following Her Heart From Wall Street To NewSchools Venture Fund

Alumna: Harvard Business School (MBA, ‘08) and
Harvard College (BA, Economics, ‘02)

A native of Brooklyn, Frances Messano benefited from having parents determined to ensure her success in life and a non-profit that opened the door to an exceptional education. After graduating from Harvard College, Frances started her career in finance but soon realized her work needed to align more closely with her values. She obtained an MBA from Harvard Business School (HBS) and, after strategic roles in consulting and at Teach for America (TFA), she landed at NewSchools Venture Fund (NSVF), a mission-driven venture philanthropy that invests in social entrepreneurs who are reimagining K-12 education. It’s a role that seems tailor-made for Frances, who brings her entire self to work…what she calls being “Fully Frances.”

Wall Street wasn’t my final stop.

After graduating from Harvard, I spent four years in equity derivative sales and trading at Morgan Stanley. After three years, I wanted to shift careers because my values were not in line with those around me. The main motivator there was to make a lot of money, and I knew that wouldn’t be enough to get me out of bed every day. However, I’m glad I began my career in finance because I learned so much. If you can hold your own on the trading floor, especially as a woman and a person of color, you can pretty much do it anywhere.

I set out to find my passion, and an MBA was key.

I reached out to my network to set up informational interviews. I did 30-40 of those, maybe more. You have to put in hard work to figure out your career path. I noticed a common thread among women I met doing interesting things: They had an MBA. To effectively switch from finance, I needed the training, network and validation that business school offers.

I went to a Forté information session and joined a non-profit called Management Leadership for Tomorrow. It’s for high-potential black, Latino and Native American professionals and it demystifies the MBA process. Through that, I decided business school was right for me.

An MBA helps you to acquire skills that will power any career path you want. I’m much more confident going into any environment. With the case study model at HBS, you are constantly asked to state your opinions, support them with data and be ready to defend your point-of-view. You also learn what kind of leader you want to be.

I wanted to make an impact in the world.

I interned at General Mills, but after HBS, I decided to join a consulting firm rather than go to a Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) company. I went to Monitor – which was later acquired by Deloitte – where I was in the marketing strategy group. Again, I started to ask myself questions like: Is what I’m doing having an impact in the world? The answers led me to move to the Monitor Institute, the company’s social impact practice.

I’ve come full circle.

I have personal knowledge and experience of how non-profits can have an impact.  Prep for Prep found me at age 10, and it fundamentally changed my educational and professional trajectory. I always say, “I am one of the kids that we talk about.”

At HBS, I took a class called “Entrepreneurship in Education Reform,” and it really turned me on to the way in which a businessperson could add value in education.

After Monitor, I went to TFA to work on creating the organization’s long-term strategy.  It was an amazing opportunity, but it wasn’t the right fit. I started networking again and re-connected with one of my business school professors, Stacey Childress. She had just taken a job as CEO at NewSchools, and she reached out when she started building a team. My job has allowed me to align my personal values and professional interests – they don’t have to be separate.

I’m using everything I ever learned.

NSVF is a venture philanthropy. We are a non-profit that applies venture capital (VC) investing principles to the education sector. VCs identify early-stage entrepreneurs with new ideas and provide seed capital. Similarly, NSVF finds, funds and supports entrepreneurs and teams of educators who want to reimagine K-12 education in three strategic areas: launching innovative schools, creating the tools and services innovative schools need to succeed, and building pipelines of diverse senior leaders to create the next wave of innovation.

I support entrepreneurs who focus on advancing black and Latino senior leadership in education, and we recently invested more than $2.5 million in this area. There is a large racial/ethnic demographic gap between education leaders and the students they serve. Our efforts focus on diversifying the field because of the positive impact to students, organizations and the sector more broadly.

My job is a culmination of my experiences to date. With my background in finance and consulting, I can bring a rigorous approach to investing and strategy development.

We all need mentors who know us well and are willing to give advice.

When I considered leaving Deloitte for TFA, I went to mentors and friends who knew me well. They cautioned me because they didn’t think TFA was a good fit.  They had valid points, and I eventually moved to another opportunity.  It is so important to have mentors who are willing to give honest advice. But if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t make a different decision. I learned a lot from the experience, met amazing people, and believe in taking risks.

On being Fully Frances…

In addition to my mom, who showed so much strength and determination in providing my sister and me access to a better life, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is a role model. She persevered in facing challenges and knew that, as a Latina in law, she would have to work harder than other people. I admire her ability to succeed in a range of environments and situations, while always being true to herself.

Many people of color feel that they have to “code switch” to fit into professional environments. But we all need to work in places that are inclusive, where we can show up as our full selves. A key question in choosing where I want to work is, “can I be myself?” And if I can’t, it’s not a place I want to be.

Things that make me whole.

Traveling and experiences are important to me. I love art, theater, and trying new restaurants. Singing is a big part of my life. I sang in an a cappella group in business school and have sung in cover bands. Now I sing in a local gospel choir. Music is a stress reliever. Work will take up as much time as you give it. Setting boundaries and doing things that make you whole is really important.

I listen to “One Moment in Time” and BOOM!

When I need to focus or want to get pumped up for something work-related, I listen to “One Moment in Time” by Whitney Houston…and BOOM!, I’m there.

Sample lyrics:

I want one moment in time
When I’m more than I thought I could be
When all of my dreams are a heartbeat away
And the answers are all up to me

Words that define her: Authentic, passionate
Career WOW moment: When I was in consulting and led my first case team on my own, I had a moment when I realized, “They trust me to run a team of four by myself, and I am senior leader engaging with the client. I can do this!”
Words of wisdom that inspire her: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” – Oscar Wilde
Book that has impacted her: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Key takeaway: When you really want to do something, the universe will conspire with you in the beginning to make it happen. Challenges will come your way, but that’s when your determination has to kick in so you can realize your goal and your dream.

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