#6: Should I get an MBA if I already work in social impact?

Hannah Gay Blog #6

I get this question a lot.

Here’s my career trajectory so far briefly: liberal arts undergrad (Go Wes!) > Teach For America & teaching middle school literacy > MBA at Kellogg (recently named #1 In Economist whooh!) > working in leadership at social impact orgs > starting my own social impact business strategy consulting business.

I am not going to discuss why in general an MBA or Kellogg specifically are a good idea or not (cliff notes: for me, they absolutely were) but rather how my MBA helped someone like me, who came from the social impact universe and didn’t really have any traditional “business” chops prior to b-school:

Why getting an MBA for me was awesome:

1. I barely knew how data worked. Prior to business school, I was good at math, could do basic Excel functions, but never studied stats. And I had deep, on the ground undergrad education and experience in the social issues I cared about most deeply but found myself frustrated in trying to understand the numbers behind them; I read a lot of research and studies (this one in particular peaked my interest in better understanding how to use data), but I didn’t have the skills to really talk about them with any semblance of analytic literacy. I probably could have learned data science and Excel skills on my own, but a) I didn’t have the self discipline to do so and b) I gained a hell of a lot doing so alongside really smart peers in a variety of contexts. If you asked me to run a complex regression analysis right now five years out of business school I’d probably not be stellar, but I can talk about them and analyze their results with a lot more – ahem – confidence now (#statsjoke).

2. I barely knew how money worked. Aside from my personal finances and macroeconomic issues I studied as a government major in college, I just didn’t know a lot about either a) organizational cash flow and b) economics and markets. Again, these were great to slowly understand intuitively in a variety of contexts throughout my MBA experience.

3. My professional network was mostly in education. I can not describe the value of both learning alongside people from all sorts of professionals and now having the entire Kellogg alumni base in my network. This is where I think it’s really important to think about who you will have access to with your MBA; Kellogg was one of the best schools I got into but also one of the most expensive – however, this, to me, was worth paying for. Alumni and friends have been clients, referrals, strangers at the other end of phone calls when I need help with a particular business problem, cheerleaders, and more.

4. I now can approach business problems in the social impact sector with genuine authority. I get how to think about cash flow, have opinions about efficiency vs. effectiveness, can talk to literally anyone – from development staff to program leadership to CFOs – at an org about a particular business problem, and definitely carry a certain amount of street cred with my MBA in many conversations. I think some of this is just being more confident about what I probably already knew, but the majority of it is actually knowing more.

5. I know my worth and value. My former employers and clients are willing to pay for the knowledge and experience my MBA lent me.

6. I have a seat at the table (and I have that seat at the table as a woman; often the only one). I think it’s a little silly that I often get invited to conversations because a piece of paper (or social media) says I went to Kellogg or have my MBA, but I do get a lot more access now post b-school, which is a HUGE opportunity. Especially when the table is dominated by men . . . especially at this moment for women at work. I feel a hell of a lot more confident now speaking my mind and politely reminding others not to interrupt me or to let a variety of inputs to be considered.

Challenges I considered and hope you consider too:

1. It was expensive. Not just the actual cost of school, but the opportunity cost of not having salary for two years (I chose a full time MBA program). That, to me, was worth it, but it’s something to think about.

2. I was at times a token teacher. This didn’t bother me mostly, but I was (and still am) asked constantly to have coffee chats or conversations about education, which is the sector I came from, and many other social justice issues. There weren’t a ton of former teachers in my class when I went to business school, and by and large the majority of my peers came from more traditional business careers. That said, I viewed this as an opportunity to bridge the divide a bit between business/markets and social impact. I cherished this opportunity and still do. It did, however, eat up a lot of my time (time I charge for now ;) ).

Unless I dramatically shift careers, I will likely be paying off my loans for some time (self employment = even though I have high rates, my available billable time is not high. Learning…). However, it’s nice insurance to know that my earning potential with my Kellogg MBA has a pretty high ceiling, even if I may not love the job. And the alumni network I have is everything to me, both professionally and intellectually (my close Kellogg friends and other alum I talk to are freakin smart). However, I also believe that I would have found professional satisfaction in my career without an MBA from Kellogg, because that’s who I am.

Hope this helps!