Kellogg MBA candidate Jane Henningsen and her fiancé, Michael Perry, a 2018 Kellogg MBA grad. Courtesy photo
Love conquers all — even the rigors of a MBA program.
Just ask Jane Henningsen and Michael Perry. The duo met as freshmen at the University of Virginia, where Michael studied architecture and Jane studied comparative literature and Spanish. Through college and afterward, and even during long periods when they were separated by long distances, they supported each other in their endeavors — she as an admissions counselor at Virginia and then as a financial analyst, he as a designer, first in residential spaces and subsequently in brand spaces like restaurants and hotels.
And then came business school.
In 2016, Perry applied and was admitted to the “Triple M” program at Northwestern University, a dual-degree MBA from Kellogg School of Management and M.S. in Design Innovation from the Segal Design Institute at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. A year later, Henningsen joined him in the Kellogg MBA, and thus began an intense shared journey made easier, in many ways, by their mutual support. The journey continues through this spring, when they will be married a week after Henningsen graduates.
“I think for me, there were some advantages in that I knew what to expect,” Henningsen says of her MBA experience so far. “I knew about what’s difficult about the first year — about how blindsided you are by things sometimes, how fast it all starts and how quickly recruiting starts, and what recruiting is like. In all of that, he was sort of the brave one who went ahead, and by the time I got to Kellogg I sort of knew like which weeks would be difficult weeks and things like that.”
“I don’t know if I was the brave one or the foolish one!” Perry interjects, and they both laugh.
COUPLES TAKE ON THE MBA: ‘IT HAPPENS MORE OFTEN THAN YOU MIGHT THINK’
Alex Min, CEO of The MBA Exchange. Courtesy photo
There is no available data on how many couples attend top MBA programs together, but it’s a phenomenon that is both uncommon and not unheard of, says Alex Min, CEO of The MBA Exchange, an admissions consulting and test prep tutoring company. A few couples seek Min’s company’s services every admissions season, he says, and while all clients are different, with couples there are some basic realities that must be explored, acknowledged — and possibly used to the clients’ advantage.
“It happens more often than you might think!” Min tells Poets&Quants. “One of the first topics we discuss when we work with couples applying together is selection of target schools, respectively and together. Would the couple consider possibly attending different schools if not both admitted to the same school? If not, perhaps there can be a geographical ‘consideration,’ such as both applying to HBS and MIT Sloan together, or both applying to Stanford GSB and UC Berkeley Haas together, or both applying to Columbia and NYU Stern together. That way, if they each get accepted to one of the schools, but not both to the same school, they can at least be located in the same general area.
“We also have to be upfront when assessing each person’s candidacy. It can be a somewhat challenging and sometimes sensitive conversation when the two are not similar in terms of candidacy and competitiveness — which also ties back to their target schools list.”
What advantages might being a couple offer? “I think first and foremost, no top-tier school’s adcom is going to admit anyone that isn’t qualified, period. However, assuming both are qualified, admitting both can’t help but to increase the probability of both matriculating (increase yield), not to mention the “human interest story” angle it will add to that particular cohort. I think one of the challenges from an adcom’s perspective might be when one is highly qualified and attractive to the school, but the other is less so. We’ve had couples end up East Coast (MIT Sloan)/West Coast (Stanford GSB) for two years; both at the same school — HBS for one couple comes to mind, and Wharton for another also comes to mind) — and everything in between! We’ve had couples work with the same admissions consultant and couples work with two separate consultants. There is no one shoe that fits all sizes! That’s part of the fun and what keeps things interesting. I think what’s important is to listen to both people, help them ascertain what factors are most important to them, and then help them make some decisions that are the most ‘right’ for that particular couple and situation.”
TWO PATHS CONVERGE … AT NORTHWESTERN KELLOGG
Though each came to see Northwestern Kellogg as the best option to further their careers, Jane Henningsen and Michael Perry had their own reasons for choosing to pursue a MBA. After graduating from the University of Virginia, Perry took a job in residential design on Long Island, New York, while Henningsen worked in undergraduate admissions at the University of Virginia. They both eventually found work and moved to New York City together, but by then Henningsen already had been thinking about business school for a while. “My approach in undergrad had been to study something that was intellectually interesting to me. I considered the idea of going into academia, but ultimately I decided that I would rather be in the corporate world, which is a little bit faster-moving, a little more strategic,” she says. “Through a series of jobs, I ended up working in the healthcare industry, for a health insurance broker, and I was at a point where I had to do something very, very specialized for the rest of my career and be very good at that one thing or go back to school get the knowledge and skills and kind of expand and solve more complex and interesting problems.”
Perry’s work in residential architecture had evolved into a different kind of design work: branded space for restaurants, hotels, corporations, and the like. As the Irvine, California native put it, he was “Translating business strategy to design strategy. And when I was doing that I noticed that there’s a disconnect between the design team and the business team. It was almost like we were speaking different languages. And as somebody on the design side, I felt like I needed to go to school and learn the language of business in order to become a more effective bridge between the disciplines. I want to be able to help designers help great design get into the world — and also help the business world understand the value in great design.”
Henningsen says her research led her to Kellogg very quickly. “I think I became interested in the MBA path fairly early on. In fact, when I was still working in admissions years ago, probably 2012, 2013, I started to feel that the school was going to be the step that I needed and that I would just need to take some time to prepare myself and get there. Kellogg always seemed to me to be the best destination — if I could get in, which was the beginning of the process. You really don’t know where you stand, but from cultural research it seemed like it would be the best place.
“And you know, it’s proving to be a very social, very friendly, very supportive kind of place. Which I think Virginia is also known for, which is one of the reasons that both of us went to UVA. So I knew that when we visited Kellogg and when we thought about it, because the school was kind of on our level. It’s the one that felt the most familiar.”
THE BIG & LITTLE THINGS
Though they were attracted to Kellogg individually, for different reasons, They researched and visited Kellogg together, and decided it was where they wanted to go. Henningsen had her own pioneer to get advice and guidance from, but Perry has benefited, too — particularly since he graduated and joined IBM in Chicago.
“Having Jane as someone supporting me in my first year outside of Kellogg but someone who knew the MBA process and lifestyle was very, very helpful,” Perry says. “I just appreciated having somebody to call as a support, because it gets crazy, you know. You’ve had a very life-changing event, and you don’t know what you want to do. You’re changing your career and you’re trying to find your next passion, and having Jane as somebody who is helpful and guiding me and reminding me what I was actually there to do and all that was extremely helpful. So having that on the outside has guided my first year for sure.”
He tries his best at guiding her as well, particularly in easing her stress about exams or “the little things” like where the back stairs are if you’re in a rush. But Perry’s biggest help may have been in designing posters for Henningsen during student government elections this year. Henningsen won the 2018-2019 student body presidency. “I would be off strategizing with my team,” she says, “and I’d come home and he’d be like, ‘I made this poster for you and this logo and I printed it out’ and it was so sweet!”
Betsy Massar, founder and CEO of Master Admissions MBA Consulting, recalls a book written by a couple who each graduated with an MBA from Harvard Business School: “Marketing Yourself to the Top Business Schools” by 1994 HBS grads Phil and Carol Carpenter. “I always found it to be enlightening on a bunch of matters,” Massar tells Poets&Quants. “The thing that I took from them is that they applied to a lot of schools, and that seems to be a good strategy for couples.”
Massar has worked with couples but more commonly works with one candidate who has a partner. “That partner may be working on their own and getting advice from the candidate I am working with, or even working with another consultant, which actually works out just fine. To be honest, I prefer working only with one side of the couple because I don’t want to fall into a trap of finding one candidate stronger than another. That can happen!”
She recommends that candidates apply to schools in the same region: MIT/HBS, Kellogg/Chicago, Haas/Stanford, Wharton/CBS or CBS/NYU, for example. “The most successful candidates I know about are at Tuck,” Massar says. “In one case the couple made a big effort to meet with alums in their city, and made so many good friends, that I’m not surprised the alums all wrote in that the applicants were strong individually and together. I do know they were evaluated separately, however, because one got a merit scholarship and one did not.
“Cannot tell you what why a school would admit a couple because of their coupledom. I think it is more that they find two students who are compelling in their own right and, well, compelling people can be attracted to each other, right?”
NO MORE LONG DISTANCE, PLEASE
Alex and Gabe Gerson. Courtesy photo
Alex and Gabe Gerson met as undergrads at Carnegie Mellon University. Both were engineering students: Alex in chemical engineering and Gabe in materials science engineering. Both were heavily involved in Greek life on campus, “and that caused our paths to collide!” Alex says. Now they’ve been together eight and a half years, which included a few years of long-distance relationshipping before they moved in together in New Jersey. They were married two and a half years ago.
Initially, graduate school wasn’t part of Gabe’s plan. But after working for years in heavy manufacturing in the steel and aerospace industries, he became more excited about higher-level strategic problems and discovered a desire to pivot into management consulting. Business school suddenly made sense. Alex, who worked more than six years at Johnson & Johnson, was interested in the fundamentals of large corporations and had always wanted to go back to B-school — though she didn’t necessarily want to change careers.
“With both of us becoming more curious about business school, we knew that if we wanted to take a leap of faith on our careers, we would prefer it to be sooner rather than later — once family and kids come into the scene,” Alex tells Poets&Quants. “Having done our tour-of-duty with long distance, we wanted to stay together for business school.” And they needed to look no further than their alma mater.
“Tepper was the perfect fit for us in more ways than one: it offered an incredibly supportive community with a smaller class size but with outsized opportunities,” Gabe says. “The program also provided the powerful combination of leadership development and analytical rigor, two skills that are the backbone of leaders today and into the future.”
A WAY TO TAKE DOUBLE THE ELECTIVES
The business school experience always has highs and lows. With a partner, there are obvious benefits, Alex says. “A few weeks into business school, we realized we would be recruiting for consulting,” she says. “There were huge benefits to this, including having an in-house email editor and typo-checker, as well as a case interview buddy always nearby. The down-side of us both recruiting for consulting was we were in direct competition for the same jobs — but we were able to lean on each other during interview season and both landed consulting internships and are excited to be entering the industry full-time upon graduation.”
Alex was a summer associate with A.T Kearney, and Gabe interned with PwC. Now the couple is back at school for their second year, and right back in the flow of things. “We initially thought it may be difficult to spend so much time together being in the same small program, and both recruiting for the same career,” Gabe says. “Instead we’ve found that we perfectly understand what the other is going through and we are able to support each other through all of it.”
“Another big benefit of going to school together is that you always have a study buddy!” Alex says. “Now that we are in our 2nd year and taking different electives, we get to learn about additional subjects through our date-night chats. We also have different groups of friends, so we continue to build our own unique experiences.”
The couple, who have no kids, say overall, their experience has been made easier by doing it together. “It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience,” Alex says. “We actually believe it is easier for couples to both go through the business school experience at the same time, as you really understand the demands on your partner’s time in terms of academics, clubs, and recruiting. It is also great to share this experience with your partner, and one that we will always look back upon fondly.”
Sofia Hernandez and Mikel Noriega got married right before moving to Los Angeles. Both are in the MBA program at UCLA Anderson School of Management. Courtesy photo
Sofia Hernandez and Mikel Noriega met seven years ago in Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia. Both were studying abroad through separate programs, though they had friends in common, and that led to their meeting. A few years went by and Sofia’s career progressed at H&M, where she was most recently a merchandise planner; Mikel worked in investment banking for a boutique bank in Mexico City called Alfaro, Davila y Rios. They began talking about business school and getting an MBA, and Mikel took the plunge first.
“We had been discussing business school for two years before Mikel decided to apply. I applied the following year,” Sofia tells Poets&Quants. “We started to look into business school as an opportunity to accelerate our career growth while sharing a life-changing experience. We also both wanted to live in a different country, meet new people, and travel.”
Mikel applied to eight schools and was accepted at Melbourne University in Australia. He was waitlisted at UC-Berkeley Haas and UCLA Anderson. When he got word that he’d been accepted at Anderson, the choice was easy. The couple moved to Los Angeles.
‘I KNEW I ONLY WANTED TO GO TO ANDERSON’
But first they got married.
“We got married right before coming to L.A., so this has been our new home and we had the chance to basically start our lives with a clean sheet,” Sofia says. “We are building our lives together and making strategic decisions together, considering all the possibilities that our experience at UCLA Anderson is opening up.”
While Mikel was studying in the Anderson MBA program his first year, Sofia applied and was accepted. It was the only school she applied to. In a common theme for MBA couples, Sofia and Mikel were not interested in spending any more time apart if they could help it.
“Mikel had been there for a year already and I had been part of the community as a significant other,” she says. “I knew I only wanted to go to Anderson.
“The highs have been sharing this amazing experience together and being able to support one another because we understand what we are going through. Another high have been the friendships we have made, both individually and as a couple. Having the chance to meet so many new, exceptional people has been amazing. Traveling has also been a high — because neither of us is working we’ve had the opportunity to travel to many places around the world.”
NO REASON TO HIDE YOUR COUPLEDOM FROM ADMISSIONS OFFICERS
Scott Shrum. Courtesy photo
“Every year we hear from couples who want to attend business school,” says Scott Shrum, president and COO at Veritas Prep. “I’d say we hear about this at least several times each year.
“If it’s two people who want to attend the same school, then the question that will be in the back of admissions officers’ minds (when reviewing each application) will be, ‘Do you really want to attend our school, or is it more because you’re following your partner?’ That’s what could give an admissions officer pause.
“An applicant can answer this question in much the same way as any applicant can impress an admissions committee — by demonstrating academic smarts and a clear career progression that naturally leads to an elite MBA as a next step. If one half of a couple has an impressive management consulting background and the other has had a series of jobs with no demonstrated growth, then that won’t work. Often, the couples we hear from actually met on the job (maybe in their first job as analysts at Accenture, for example), so there usually isn’t a terrible imbalance in terms of impressiveness of backgrounds.”
Shrum says being a couple can be an asset, too. “Schools are always looking for signals that an applicant is seriously interested in the program (rather than just applying as a backup). If two partners apply together, that’s sort of ‘doubling down’ on interest in the program, and as long as the question above is answered, it can work to the applicants’ advantage. Also, for schools in cities where partners often don’t have a lot of career options — think of schools in more remote locations, such as Tuck, Darden, and Johnson — if both partners plan on enrolling, then that helps to answer the question of ‘What will your partner do while you’re enrolled?’
“If you’re applying as part of a couple, there’s zero reason to hide this from the admissions committee. This is perfect fodder for a short, to-the-point, persuasive supplemental essay. MBA admissions teams love a great human interest story, and if you can help them envision both of you thriving on campus, then that’s a double win. Definitely don’t try to hide it.”
‘WE HAVE SUPPORTED EACH OTHER WHENEVER WE CAN’
The lows, for Mikel Noriega and Sofia Hernandez, “have been considerably fewer than the highs,” she says. That’s not to say there haven’t been some lows. “The economic situation has at times been hard, moving to such an expensive city after quitting our jobs,” she says. “It is difficult because we want to take advantage of our MBA as much as possible, but at the same time balance a finite and rapidly shrinking budget. Another low was having to spend most of the summer apart, while Mikel was working in Seattle for Amazon and I was starting my summer quarter at Anderson. It did give us some time to miss each other and further appreciate how much we support each other when we are together.”
For now, though, there are no kids involved, and the couple doesn’t plan to have kids until both have graduated.
They have more advice for couples who might consider going to B-school together: Plan ahead economically and be on the same page in terms of lifestyle and budgeting — and to really work on communication. “Be clear and honest with both emotions and opinions,” Noriega says. “Something that has worked for us has been to be open to all the different experiences. We try to approach everything with a positive attitude and never compare our experience with anyone else’s or with each other’s. It is amazing how even for the both of us, the experience has been extremely different in almost every area: academics, social, and professional.
“We come from different professional backgrounds, retail and financial, so both recruiting and classes have been very different processes for us, but we have supported each other whenever we can.”
DON’T MISS TWO FOR ONE: COUPLES WHO NAVIGATE AN MBA TOGETHER
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