Name: June Odongo
College & Major: University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Computer Science
Graduate School & Program: Harvard University, Harvard Business School
Current Occupation: About to jump into entrepreneurship.
Did you always anticipate going to business school? What lead you to pursue this masters? I almost pursued a PhD in Bioinformatics; I changed my mind because it had taken me a long time to complete my undergraduate studies (I had to pay my own way through) and I was tired of having no money. All the other PhD students had husbands or wives who supported them, and I did not. I also wanted to pursue a Masters in Computer Science and had already taken the maximum allowed courses as an undergrad; once I got my first job, it became clear that it was not going to give much return. Nonetheless, I felt my education would not be complete without a masters degree, so I decided to pick something else. That’s how I decided to go to business school. I had been obsessed with reading Fortune’s top CEOs and business people lists for years.
Does it matter what you major in during college if you wish to pursue an MBA? What are the requirements for applying to a program? I don’t think it matters; what matters more is the enthusiasm, commitment and excellence you bring to the things you do after college, and of course, a display of leadership qualities.
Does it matter where you acquire an MBA? Is it always worth the investment? The education itself may not vary too much (management theories, etc.) but the exposure you get will matter. Top schools simply expose you to the best there is in the business world. Whether it is worth the investment depends upon the person. One person may look at the monetary return; another may look at the experience. I look at it as a sunk cost for an enriching experience that I wanted. If I had thought too much about lost income and the price tag of school, I would not have done it. I was already on a good trajectory at my workplace and, in fact, most of my advisors recommended that I not do it. For me, it was a very personal goal.
What is life as an MBA graduate student like? What kind of work ethic does the program involve, and what type of personality thrives in this program? MBA life is angst ridden, at least at the top schools. Insecurities abound. I think most students have unique experiences. Some focus on academics, some focus on networking, some focus on project work, some focus on building their own businesses, some focus on socializing. It’s whatever you want it to be; one has to pick their priorities and to let other things suffer. You simply cannot have it all in business school. It is important to pay attention to academics as some students do get asked to take leave if they do not perform well; however, being in the top may not be as important at the MBA level. I think those who thrive most are those who are most open to relishing the experience vs. those who are cynical or take things for granted. It’s a special time for most people.
What careers to those with an MBA typically pursue? That’s all over the place, and I think it’s shifting. In the 70s, 80s, 90s and even before that, many went into finance, and then consulting picked up. Now we see a lot of people going into technology. Roles are varied – anywhere from banking associates to marketers. We are also seeing more students jump into entrepreneurship, including those who were previously risk averse before business school. My favorite ones are those who go into areas such as agriculture, as they often are the ones going after their true passions.
What was the most valuable aspect of business school for you? What was the hardest aspect of the program? The friendships I created and the relationships with my professor were extremely valuable. The academics were also very enriching, particularly in my second year when I got to study what I cared about. The hardest part for me was transitioning into the rigor and high stimulus of the first year of business school after having worked for many years. I was also one of the older students. I hardly slept and I got really sick at the end of my first semester. The best advice I could give an MBA student would be to prioritize sleep over everything else.
Do you feel women are stigmatized or treated different in the field of business? Sadly, yes. This started to become clear to me in business school and post-business school. I was a little shielded before that, and I worked at a technology company with quite a number of women; not large, but there were quite a number of women in management. In business school, I saw that female professors were given a harder time by students. At the workplace, I had men ask me a number of times to speak to someone else when I gave an answer or decision they did not like, when I was the product and business lead (they would again hear the same answer and accept it.) I’ve also been spoken over, asked to mind my tone (usually by abrasive individuals who are nowhere near as polite), and so on. It gets exhausting.
Conversely, do you feel women contribute something unique to the profession? Certainly we bring a different point of view. I find that women take a more holistic (versus narrow) view to problems and are less abrupt. Some men contribute the same, too, and some women do not, but I see this characteristic demonstrated far more by women. I’d say the biggest thing, if I were to generalize, would be the contribution of empathy, which is important to the long-term viability of employees and businesses.
What advice would you give you young girls considering a career in business? I’d say go for your dreams, in business or otherwise. Life is short. Business is good because it employs people and can solve real problems. Ethics are important, too, so don’t forget that morality and business go hand in hand. Oh, I would also advise that money should not be the first priority – but rather a commitment to service and solving problems.
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