Kari Strickland, MBA alumna from SMU Cox School of Business, tells about her MBA experience.
Name: Kari Strickland
School: MBA, Cox School of Business, Southern Methodist University
Profession: Global Cunsumer Insights Associate, General Mills, Dallas TX
What are some activities you were involved with outside of class? How did you balance your time?
I was involved in a number of school clubs and extracurriculars while in the MBA program. I served as Vice President of both the Operations and Analytics Club as well as the Marketing Club and was treasurer of the school’s Net Impact Club. I was also very involved in the school’s Business Leadership Center where I became a Dean’s Circle member by attending over thirty extracurricular seminars and was involved in both the center’s Non-Profit Consulting Project and an annual visit to the Disney Institute. I also helped the International Students club in putting together their yearly international festival. Outside of school, I was involved in my local Toastmasters Club as well as volunteering for the non-profit I had previously worked at before beginning the MBA. What I found helpful in balancing my time was understanding what was truly important to me. When I got to the school, I wanted to be a part of every organization, but most MBA programs will offer more activities than students have time for. It’s important to think through what activities will round you out as a person and which clubs and activities will connect you with the subjects you’re interested in or will provide insight into a career that you might want. Once you have this idea in your head, making tradeoffs in your time becomes a lot easier.
What has been your favorite classroom experience?
My favorite classes during the MBA program were the ones lead by our Associate Dean, Marci Armstrong. She taught one class on Customer Loyalty where we undertook a seven-week long consulting project for American Airlines regarding their elite status benefit program, and another class on Market Research where we worked on consulting projects for a number of Dallas businesses including the Dallas Cowboys and Mission Foods. What I enjoyed about these classes was the ability to gain real-life experience working with a major company on a meaningful project. In all of these scenarios, the companies had contacted the school seeking assistance, meaning the projects represented real, timely concerns. In the case of American Airlines, a suggestion coming out of my team’s final presentation were implemented by the company within a few months. For our project for Mission Foods, we helped identify purchase behavior and psychographics for new customer segments that the company had just recently identified. Our final presentation for that project was attended by the CEO of the company, who gave very positive feedback and reiterated the importance of the project for his company. Both of these classes were very demanding but represented an accurate experience of working on a project in these companies.
Why an MBA?
Why did you choose your MBA program? Do you have advice for students on how to make a decision?
There were a number of factors which originally attracted me to SMU’s program. The first was the wide variety of extracurricular programs the school offered. For instance, the school’s Business Leadership Center offered free lunchtime and night seminars on a variety of topics all taught by business professionals in the area. They also offered a 5 week long Non-Profit consulting project once a year where teams of students would consult for a local NGO, as well as a chance to attend the Disney Institute in Orlando Florida where we would spend 5 days learning from Disney senior leadership about topics such as leadership, and creating service culture within an organization. SMU also offers all its students a free two-week long study abroad program at the end of the first year in either Asia, Latin America or Europe where we meet with senior leaders to learn about doing business in that part of the world. Finally, they have an excellent Executive Mentor program where students are paired one on one with senior leaders at local businesses dependent on the students’ interests. These were all very important to me since I was coming into the for-profit world with no experience in my field. I wanted to take advantage of every program available to gain as much exposure and experience as possible within the two-year window. However, while extracurriculars, placement rate, and strength of the academic program were all factors which attracted me to SMU, the best advice I can give to other students is to choose the program in which they feel they would excel, based on their experience interacting with current students, faculty and administration. At the end of the day, it was my experience speaking with the admissions staff and current students which finally made my decision, since they highlighted how supportive the school’s culture was. The other factors listed above will help in creating a list of schools to apply to, but when it comes to making a decision, choose the school in which you feel most comfortable since that will allow you to excel inside and outside of class.
Did you come from a non-business background? If so, how did you highlight your achievements and tell your story when applying?
Before the MBA, I had spent the last four years working in Non-profits, both in the US and abroad. I knew that I was looking into a career switch, both from non-profit to for-profit and from administration to marketing. At first, it was a bit daunting thinking of how I would highlight my experiences in a way that would be relevant to people working in my new field. My two biggest pieces of advice would be to identify transferable skills, whether soft skills such as public speaking and leadership or hard skills like budgeting, or project management. Most schools don't expect you to come in as an expert in your chosen field, that’s what the next two years of classes are designed to do. Instead, they’re looking for people who have shown intelligence and motivation in their past work, and who are self-reflective enough about their current skills and abilities to sell themselves to employers. The second piece of advice would be to practice your story every chance you get. Your story will come across in your resume, B-school interview, networking, informational interviews, and job interviews. When you speak to people who work in your field, watch what they react positively to, or what peaks their interest, then continue to practice those stories. Those anecdotes and the skills they reflect will help you decide what achievements to highlight.
When it came time to look for jobs, did you find yourself interested in a new career that you hadn’t considered before doing your MBA?
I came into the MBA not really sure of what career I was looking for. From speaking with people over the summer and from my own career research I knew that I was interested in marketing, so I started the program with the idea of going into Brand Management. However, over the course of the first semester of the program, I had numerous opportunities to talk with the career coaches, second-year students, and marketing professionals and I began to realize that my interests were more oriented towards research. Our marketing career coach was really helpful during this period. She was very supportive of me and my decisions and was always available to talk. She guided me towards resources and people who she thought would help inform me, and used her extensive knowledge from working in the field to help me discover my passion. Our second-year students were also a great resource. I was able to talk with many of the students who had interned in marketing roles to see what their day-to-day responsibilities were like. Just like our career coach, they were always willing to make time for me and gave me a lot of great advice. Without all this support, I might never have realized the passion I have for Consumer Insights.
Advice for future applicants
What are some of the dos and don'ts in the MBA preparation process?
Some Do’s of the Program: Be prepared when classes start. If there was a section of the GMAT you struggled with, spend some time doing practice problems until you’re comfortable with the material, even after you’ve taken the test. The first mod of the MBA is the toughest in regards to time management, the better prepared you are going into it, the more you can focus on other activities. This applies to Excel as well. If you’re not comfortable with Excel, spend some time honing your skills, since it will be used in a number of classes. Also important is spending some time on self-reflection, especially if you’re a career switcher. Research companies and industries, read employee bios, day in the life stories or job descriptions within the field you are interested in. Reach out to your network or the school’s career services to see about setting up information interviews before school starts. Try to get a sense of what career you’re aiming for after the MBA. The more goal focused you can be on day one of the program, the better you’ll be at prioritizing classwork, club involvement, and job search.
Don't: Spend your time stressing out about the classwork before you start. Your classmates will be coming from multiple fields with varied experience. Most programs are very good at getting everyone up to speed quickly so you can have an even playing field moving into the rest of the program. Just because you’ve never worked in your chosen field doesn't place you at a disadvantage when it comes to coursework.
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