Alex Ignatius, a first-year MBA student, shared her journey to Olin at the February 14 Forté MBA Launch 2020 Live Event in Washington, DC. She had spent years in the agency world, working in Shanghai, Chicago and Washington. She specialized in executive communications, global project management and issues/reputation recovery for clients including Nissan Motor Co., ALDI, Johnson & Johnson and others. Ignatius graduated cum laude from Columbia University and is a former professional ballet dancer. She spoke about what drew her to Olin and her MBA experience so far. Here are her excerpted and edited remarks:
I grew up in Washington, DC, and went to Columbia University for my undergrad, where I majored in psychology. Ballet had always been a big part of my life, and so after graduation, I took the unconventional path and joined a regional ballet company.
The qualities I learned from ballet —the constant pursuit of excellence, discipline and teamwork—have shaped who I am today and have helped make me a confident businesswoman. And that’s something to think about in your own story. You may feel some of your personal or professional history doesn’t fit the prototype of the typical student, but I would encourage you to think about how those experiences make you stand out from the crowd.
After my ballet career, I joined one of the top advertising and communications agencies, Ogilvy & Mather, in their DC office, eventually transferring to the company’s office in Shanghai, where I lived and worked for three years before returning to the states.
I loved my eight years working in corporate affairs and reputation management, but I knew that to achieve what I wanted in business and to make a meaningful difference for companies, I needed an MBA. While I had strong “soft” skills in client service, talent development and project management, there was a gap in my quantitative knowledge.
I knew that the analytical rigor of an MBA would be critical to being able to evaluate new markets and customer segments and to make more informed, strategic and data-driven decisions. The MBA would give me a more comprehensive business toolkit and allow me to really taste test different disciplines across finance, strategy, data analysis, operations and marketing.
As a native Washingtonian and having recently lived in Chicago, I kept my applications very focused on top-25 programs on the east coast and Midwest. I prioritized smaller MBA programs that would provide a more tailored and hands-on experience but that also had access to the offerings of a large university system.
There were essentially three key factors that shaped my decision-making process. First, I prioritized academic rigor and a program that was grounded in a solid core curriculum with a focus on quantitative skill-building and data analytics. Second, I evaluated the companies and firms where alumni worked to better understand networking and internship opportunities. And third, having attended a fairly large undergraduate school, I was looking for a smaller MBA program that provided a tight-knit community where every student is known not just by name, but also by story. In terms of evaluating culture, I arranged one-on-one phone calls with current students, alumni and the admissions team to understand the real student experience.
Olin ended up being the perfect blend of community, academic rigor and a global business mindset within a large university system, which as an MBA means you have an incredible extended alumni network. Olin’s philosophy and MBA core curriculum center on data-driven and values-based decision making, which is a powerful framework for evaluating today’s business problems. And according to Forté Foundation, Olin is the closest business school to achieving gender parity at 49% women.
A big decision
Deciding to pursue a full-time MBA is a big decision—leaving your job, foregoing a regular salary and often moving to a new city. And it’s a leap of faith. You’re saying “yes” to the unknown and hoping that the experience matches your expectation. My MBA experience has far surpassed that.
It started with a six-week global immersion program, which is brand new to Olin this year. After a week of orientation, we packed our bags and traveled from St. Louis to DC, Barcelona, Beijing and Shanghai with our entire first-year MBA class.
In each location, we attended lectures, met with business leaders and immersed ourselves in consulting projects with local companies tackling questions like this: How does a family-owned winery in Barcelona price and launch a new variety of rosé in the United States? This not only formed an intense bond throughout our class, but also it gave us a common and more nuanced view of the global nature of business.
My mantra in business school
From an academic perspective, my mantra in business school has been to be vulnerable in service of new skills, to take classes that do NOT come easily to me. The MBA provides you with incredible breadth and depth. This past semester I have taken two financial accounting courses and corporate finance to provide me with more fluency in the language through which corporations communicate their goals and successes.
And I’m beginning to develop expertise and specialization in strategy and operations. For everyone, the mix of courses is going to look a little different depending on where you want to grow and what kind of jobs you’re looking for.
From an internship perspective, I have built valuable connections with professors, the career center and alumni who have guided me through my internship search process. Your internship search really begins the first day you set foot on campus in the fall and extends until about February of the following year.
I am pleased to share I have just accepted an offer in merchandising operations at Walmart this summer. When I developed my summer internship strategy, I knew I wanted to work for a large, innovative and well-run company. Walmart is the largest public company in the world by revenue, America’s largest employer and the only brick-and-mortar going head-to-head with Amazon.
The MBA is an incredible period of exploration and self-discovery. It’s a unique time to press pause and redefine your next step professionally.