In early April 2006 I attended the preview weekend at the Robert H. Smith School of Business with my husband Dustin, still unsure of which business school to attend. Dustin had recently started a new job and was finishing his part-time master’s degree at Johns Hopkins, but he told me that he would move to another city if I chose a school outside the Washington, D.C. area.
We were the first to arrive at the Friday night registration and received free goody bags with Smith emblazoned across the outside. (Dustin said that his spouse bag looked suspiciously like a diaper bag.)
Other prospective students started to arrive, and I soon found myself talking to an economist, an engineer, an insurance agent, an IT consultant, a shoe buyer, and a variety of other professionals. People came from all different backgrounds, and I had to take my preconceived notions about gel haired, fast talking, hand pumping, Wall Street wannabes (think Barry Pepper in 25th Hour), and put them in the trash with my cocktail napkin.
I felt shy and a little worried that coming from a non-traditional business background, I would say something silly and give myself away as someone completely unfit for business school. People threw around a lot of unfamiliar lingo, but I mentally noted strange words (360 evaluation?, deliverables?, CPGs?) and looked them up when I got home.
My non-traditional business background is Immigration law. Immigration is an emotional and complicated subject that never fails to elicit polarized opinions. As a legal assistant at a five employee immigration law firm in Washington, D.C., I had educated views on the subject and lots of anecdotal evidence to support my opinions. I was a favorite at parties where people debated immigrant issues, and the office maintenance manager often asked me whether Congress would pass that “new Immigration law.”
The only way to advance at a law office is to go to law school, but by early 2004, I realized that I would never be a happy lawyer. Arguing in front of the International Court of Justice, writing decisions for the Supreme Court, or briefing the U.N. sounded exciting, but my career goals adjusted to reality after years in the workforce. My legal career would more likely be reading cases in a law library and writing formulaic documents.
My favorite moments on the job were spent working with clients, improving business strategies, or solving problems. I liked working with people, hearing their stories, and discovering what motivated them. Discovering how and why clients chose our small law firm over the hundreds of others in Washington led me to develop an office marketing plan. After running the plan by my boss, I took the first step of designing and building a website for the office. In 2005 board members at a small non-profit, Prayas, Inc., saw the law office web site and asked me to build them a site so they could solicit donations for development work in India.
While volunteering for Prayas, Inc., I learned how the organization supported small groups of women who had organized themselves into microcredit groups. Microcredit groups form when development organizations loan a group of people living in extreme poverty small amounts of money to build businesses. These poor borrowers have no capital or credit and are unable to borrow from commercial banks. Oftentimes microcredit loans are so small that preparing the loan paperwork at a commercial bank would cost more than the loan itself.
I started reading more about microfinance in books and on the Internet. The field is defined as an anti-poverty initiative best left in the hands of development banks, non-profits, and governments. Only recently have business people taken an interest in microfinance, as evidenced by the Chicago Microfinance Conferences hosted by the University of Chicago GSB in April 2005 and 2006. MBA student blogs are also buzzing about the subject.
I began to think about a career in finance; I observed from my work and reading that finance is the foundation of any business, large or small. Without any formal education or experience in finance, I decided to return to school for an MBA with a concentration in finance and entrepreneurship. I applied to three business schools; the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland was the only local school.
After the April preview weekend at Smith, I felt completely comfortable at the school. My husband Dustin and I talked about the options and decided that staying in Washington, D.C., would be best for both of our careers. He could finish his master’s degree without interruption and avoid the stress of finding a new job. Smith would give me a good grounding in quantitative business skills, and its proximity to Washington, D.C., offered many internship and job opportunities.
At this point I’m poised, muscles flexed, ready to sprint into the MBA program at Smith. I take inspiration from my immigrant clients, risk takers who were persistent and imaginative enough to seek opportunity in a new place, with a new language, and a new culture. There is so much to learn in business school, and as I once told the maintenance manager when he asked about Congress passing a new immigration law, “No one knows what will happen.”