Dear Work Space,
Should I get an MBA? I’ve been working in middle management and want to eventually be a boss or run my own company.
I’ve been sitting on this question—which I’ve gotten from a few people—for a while. I waited to respond until I finished getting my MBA so I could fully weigh in. I graduated last week, and in the wake of all the excitement and emotion of finishing the program, I wanted to write about my experience in hopes that it might inspire other people.
Getting an MBA was hands down the best thing that I have done for my career. It might not be the right thing for everyone, and there are plenty of reasons not to do it (the expense is a big one), but I want to tell you why it was great for me.
For the past two years, I’ve been in an intense dual-degree program. I’ve received two master’s degrees from two different schools that partner to offer a unique program focused on innovation. I graduated with an MBA with a focus on entrepreneurship from Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and a master’s in design leadership and a teaching certificate from Maryland Institute College of Art.
Many MBA programs have shifted in the past decade, I believe for the better. It’s not just a program for people who are looking to be in finance or level up their management careers. Programs are becoming more nuanced, and I was able to find one that was more representative of my values. I deeply value the quantitative skills I can apply to business strategy and the new tactics I learned to help lead more effectively, but I found the most significant aspect of being in an MBA program was that it changed how I relate to myself and other people.
To do this program, I left a fulltime job. For the past 10 years, I worked at the intersection of journalism and technology, where I operated behind-the-scenes to invest in journalism projects and coach senior leaders. I decided to get an MBA knowing these industries needed fresh thinking, especially on the journalism side, where diversified revenue streams and new business models are critical to meeting community information needs.
As a woman—like many other marginalized people—I have been asked to go above and beyond to be considered an authority in my field. Even after establishing myself, time and again I wasn’t taken seriously, given responsibility, or paid fairly. My decade-plus of experience, the industry changes I’ve made, the people I’ve helped, and the programs I’ve built never seemed to be enough. For years, I internalized the idea that if I just worked hard enough, I could convince the people who dismissed me to finally recognize that I had good ideas and was steering the business in the right direction. But ultimately it wasn’t enough. In the end, my decision to go to business school was strategic: I felt like the credential would be helpful to be taken more seriously.
In some ways, my reasons for getting an MBA are most clear when I think back to an experience last year. A man, a frequent collaborator who I’d thought was a champion of my work, dismissed me, belittled my professional experience, and told me that I wasn’t an expert in my field. When pressed, he couldn’t give an example of what I was lacking or what he was looking for in an expert. While I knew he was wrong, I now have a better understanding of why.
Being immersed in an MBA program finally validated something I couldn’t name at the time. Far too often, people adopt an extremely limited view of leadership and expertise that is based on their own personal approach. If someone has a different experience or looks differently than them, they can be quick to dismiss them. To these people, so often others are defined by what they’re not, but that limited perspective often doesn’t understand the expansiveness of what people can be or how diverse experiences can lead to more innovative organizations. Taking classes with colleagues from different sectors, from those navigating tough circumstances in health care to pioneering fintech, has given me a robust network of diverse perspectives. And getting feedback from people from different industries has personally given me so much more perspective on how I present myself in the world and what I have to offer.
In the summer of 2020, I met my MA/MBA cohort on Zoom. What seemed like a temporary solution—meeting virtually to avoid spreading a disease—became our new normal. Our school experience overlapped with an extended period of uncertainty. Our entire school experience was disrupted, all the way through graduation, which was the first in-person graduation in two years, where the grads lined up in cap, gown, and N-95 masks.
My cohort learned together during these unprecedented times, and those lessons will serve us well going forward. We learned how to collaborate with remote teams across vastly different time zones, from California to China to Italy. School clubs, often a way to forge connections, pivoted to virtual events, teaching students how to network online and connecting us with community partners. We learned to extend each other grace when someone forgot to go off mute, when the WiFi was bad, when somebody got sick, or when they just needed a break because Zoom fatigue is real.
In my first year, I sometimes wished things were different. But now I’ve come to realize that this was one of the most transformative learning experiences that I’ve ever had. Our graduating class is uniquely placed to navigate the new world of work and to lead organizations in new ways of thinking and doing.
Our graduating class is uniquely placed to navigate the new world of work
One of the most unexpected and powerful parts of my experience here has been hearing from students how they’re leading every day. I came expecting to learn from experts—and I have—but I’ve also learned so much from my peers in our many breakout rooms on Zoom. One of the key lessons that was reflected back to me from my MBA colleagues was how impressed they were with some of my past projects, which was important for me to hear, especially after working in one specific niche for years and dealing with industry peers who didn’t take me as seriously as I would have liked.
Throughout my career, my mantra has been to “build with, not for” people, a term I first heard from Laurellen Mcann. McCann attributes the idea to numerous sources, including social activists and educators Saul Alinsky and Paulo Friere and the principles of “co-designing” that are integral to design thinking. For me, its power is at the very core of the phase: If you’re creating something new, the people that will use it should be included in the process. Instead of building for people based on your own assumptions, you should be collaborating with others who will also be using it. They likely know a lot better than you do.
So many of my classes emphasized the importance of building with people—and I was able to further develop my collaborative leadership style. While the terms changed depending on the class sometimes, as different professors encouraged us to think about communities, customers, or users, the message was the same: good businesses respond to what people need. We know what people need by working with them, not by working in a bubble where we reinforce our own assumptions.
As you think about what you want to do next, I encourage you to think about who you will build with. Your work will be stronger if you consider who else needs to be at the table and how you can amplify the voices who aren’t always heard. And having a group of peers, whether a cohort or individuals who you connect with in your courses, will help you get more perspective on who you are and how you can tackle the challenges you’re facing.
I have long been a fan of programs that bring together people who are passionate about learning new skills and investing in their own personal development. It’s one reason that I founded and ran an accelerator. I have seen over and over how powerful it can be for someone to have their experience reflected back to them by someone who they hold in high regard. An MBA program can give you that experience. If you find a program that has a community you’d like to be a part of, I highly recommend you pursue the degree. You don’t have to do a full-time program; I know lots of people who have done executive MBAs on the weekend or spread their degree out through a flexible program designed for working students.
While the classes are important, the key is tapping into a new community that will help you get a better sense of what you’ve already accomplished, where your expertise lies, and what you’d like to be doing in the future. With a better sense of perspective, you can be more self-assured as you move forward in your career and you’ll be better positioned to go after jobs that can make a real impact.
Sending you lots of good vibes,
Work Space is a monthly Q&A column tackling the work challenges that keep you up at night. You can read all the columns here. If you want advice on something you’re navigating at work, send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.