This interview is the latest in an Accepted blog series featuring interviews with MBA students, offering readers a behind-the-scenes look at top MBA programs. And now for a chat with Gabe Nelson…
Accepted: We’d like to get to know you! Where are you from? Where and what did you study as an undergrad?
Gabe: I grew up in Washington, D.C., just a few miles up the road from Georgetown University. Then I went away to college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where I double-majored in Political Science and English and learned how a real winter feels. After graduating in 2009, I worked as a journalist for seven years before going back to school.
Accepted: If you could describe yourself in 3 words, what would they be?
Gabe: I’d say I’m intellectual, focused and honest. (For better and for worse!)
Accepted: If you could meet any famous person – past or present – who would it be and why?
Gabe: It’s kind of strange, but as a business school student I’ve thought a lot about the empire-builders of ancient history. People like Cyrus the Great and Augustus Caesar. It’s not much of a stretch to describe them as the corporate titans of their day. They used skills and resources and strategy to group people into a multinational empire. For an empire to last, it needs a socioeconomic and political system that is stable enough not to collapse. These leaders did that without modern science or technology or a modern understanding of political science, economics and psychology. I wish I could talk to them and understand how they did what they did. What motivated them? How did they lead the people around them? How did they organize their empires and why? How did they justify or come to terms with the negative consequences of their actions?
Accepted: Where are you currently attending b-school? What year are you?
Gabe: I started the full-time MBA program at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business this August. I’m a first year and a proud member of the Saxa cohort. (We have four cohorts in our full-time program: Hoya, Saxa, Blue and Gray.)
Accepted: What made you ultimately decide on Georgetown McDonough? How did you know it was the right “fit”?
Gabe: Having grown up in Washington and studied political science, I’m passionate about the intersection of business and society. I personally believe that a healthy free market relies on society to set and enforce the rules of free and fair exchange. And it was clear to me that Georgetown was the absolute best place to learn about this interplay. Just last month, I got to walk out of class and watch Treasury Secretary Jack Lew give a speech in our main lecture hall. In our own building, we had one of the most powerful financial regulators in the world talking about the high-stakes decisions we learn about in finance and accounting, everything from corporate tax rates to incentives to repatriate foreign earnings. These are opportunities that you cannot get anywhere else. I was also drawn to the new Certificate in Non-Market Strategy, which focuses on elements of strategy that do not follow traditional economic logic, like interactions with regulators and the legal system. You apply during your first year, so I’m about to put in my application.
There were some other personal factors in my decision. I got married over the summer and I needed to consider where my wife and I would both be happy to live. Finances were also important to me. But I really knew McDonough was the right place when I visited for an admitted students weekend last winter. I went to two of them back to back. One was for McDonough and the other for a Top 5 brand-name program. It’s easy to be drawn to the allure of the brand-name school, but I felt so at home with McDonough. It was smaller, more intimate. The people were kind and supportive. Lots of students seemed to care about using business to do good, not just to do well for themselves. It all felt right.
In my first few months at school, this has been absolutely borne out. It’s a rigorous program. We work very hard; academics aren’t an afterthought here. But it isn’t a competitive environment at all. People care about each other and they do anything they can to help their peers. This is a place where if someone is strong in a certain subject, they don’t just try to beat the curve. They run review sessions and help lift up their peers. It’s a community.
Accepted: Looking back at the application process, what would you say was your greatest challenge? How would you advise other applicants who may be experiencing similar challenges?
Gabe: Reflecting on the applications I submitted, my biggest challenge was probably my background as a journalist. Business schools are looking for team players, and working as a reporter is kind of a “lone wolf” job. It’s also a squishy, creative profession, so it was difficult for me to quantify how my work actually created value for my company. For anyone who is in a similar position, I think it’s so important to find ways to address your perceived shortcomings. Schools want to see that you’re aware of your weaknesses, that you understand what it will take to succeed and that you are committed to making yourself a more well-rounded professional. When I think about my most effective essays, this is where they succeeded.
Accepted: What are some of your most rewarding extracurricular activities (both before entering Georgetown and current activities)? How have those activities helped shape your career?
Gabe: While I was in college at the University of Michigan, I started working as a news reporter at The Michigan Daily, the student newspaper. After a few years I rose up the ranks to become managing editor, staying up late every night editing the pages of the newspaper and sending them to the printer. It was what inspired me to go into journalism after I graduated in 2009. After college I worked as a reporter, first covering environmental and energy policy on Capitol Hill. Then I joined Automotive News, the business journal of the auto industry, with assignments in Washington and San Francisco. Although I knew fairly quickly that I didn’t want to work as a journalist forever, I don’t regret my choice for a second. It was a blast.
While working in Washington, DC, I volunteered as an IRS-certified volunteer tax preparer. I can’t say that it shaped my career, but I think it helped me develop empathy. By doing someone’s taxes, you learn so much about their family and their work and their life. You understand how many people in the United States are struggling to make ends meet, and you hear horror stories about the ways that businesses (landlords, employers, utilities) have treated them. It doesn’t map directly onto my career, but I think this kind of empathy is hugely important for business leaders. Businesses can have a positive impact on people’s lives or a negative impact. We as leaders all need to bear responsibility for the type of impact we will have.
Here at Georgetown, I’ve been an active member of Net Impact, which is dedicated to using the power of business for social and environmental good. It has been a great opportunity to connect with like-minded students and learn about careers at the intersection of business and society. Five or ten years ago, the trend for big corporations was to dedicate specific executives to sustainability or corporate social responsibility. Through events like the national Net Impact conference and our Net Impact career day, I’m seeing that start to change. Companies are starting to expect all of their executives to think about social responsibility. And that has shaped my goals, so I’m thinking of working within a traditional role like corporate strategy while aligning the business to make the world a better place.
Accepted: Lastly, some people are unsure of how they’ll manage all aspects of life, work, and an MBA program. Can you share your top three tips for staying on top of everything?
Gabe: There’s a common theme to my advice: pick your priorities. Time is at a premium and you simply can’t do everything.
1. Pick your extracurricular priorities before classes start. There are so many things to do, from student organizations to case competitions to career treks. You need to decide what’s important to you. If you want to solve real-world business challenges, choose your case competitions and form strong teams. If you want a leadership role on campus, choose the role and make a plan to get it. There are so many opportunities that if you come into school and dabble without a clear focus, the first semester will be over before you know it and you won’t be on track to meet your goals.
2. Make time for self-care activities that matter to you. The first few months of an MBA are insanely busy. We at McDonough arrived on campus and immediately dove into an intensive preterm course called Structure of Global Industries that stuffs 3 credits into three weeks. Some of my classmates who used to go to the gym everyday stopped going to the gym. People deprived themselves of sleep. They stopped spending time with their spouses and kids and friends. My advice: you need to resist this urge. Decide what you need to be happy and make time for it. There’s always one more reading for class, one more recruiter presentation, one more club meeting. If you’re actually happy, you’ll do so much better at the activities you choose to do.
3. Put learning above grades. To be sure, a few companies care about your grades. (If you’re targeting those companies, you already know who they are.) But the vast majority of companies care much less about your grades than they care about your skills, your experience, your intelligence and your personality. Be sure to use your time in school to truly develop skills and experience and grow as a person. If you want to learn financial modeling but you have no background, go for it. If you want to become a better leader or teammate, focus your efforts on team projects. If you want to open your network to new people, do it. If that means you get a B- in a class, then so be it. Odds are, nobody cares about that B- besides you.
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