Thinking MBA? 9 Successful Black Women Discuss the Impact of the Degree on Their Career

December 13, 2012  |  
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Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that minority enrollment numbers for some of the nation’s top MBA programs were misleading. While most schools boast about minority rates that are above 30 percent and rising, researchers have discovered that Asian-Americans make up the bulk of these numbers, revealing that true enrollment rates for underrepresented minorities (African American, Hispanic and Native American) is actually much lower.

When it comes to enrollment numbers for women, the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) estimates that women represent 31 percent of the population among top business schools. And if we were to examine these numbers under the same lens as in the above example, I’m sure we’d find that the rate of African-American women pursuing MBA degrees is relatively small, which to some is cause for alarm.

Given today’s economic realities and a dwindling number of job opportunities, it’s important for women of color to equip themselves with the proper tools for career advancement. And while pursuing an advanced degree may not be the right answer for everyone, having the degree can distinguish you from your peers and put you on the fast track to a more robust and visible role at work.

Speaking of visibility, Ursula Burns of the Xerox Corporation is the first African-American woman to run a Fortune 500 firm and she is currently only one of six African-Americans who hold the top job at any major company. While she is illuminating the path for many black women, her peers Sheryl Sandberg (COO, Facebook) and Marissa Mayer (CEO, Yahoo) are also making huge strides in the business world.

And one of the things all three of these women have in common is they all have an advanced degree.

To give you an idea of how post-graduate education can effect your career, I spoke with nine successful African-American women with very diverse backgrounds who have all obtained an MBA. What they have to say may surprise you.

Credit: Funlayo Alabi

Funlayo Alabi – CEO of Shea Radiance, MBA from Regent University in Virginia Beach, 1992

Madame Noire: What impact has your MBA had on your career?

Funlayo Alabi: My MBA has a great impact on what I do today. In addition to learning business principles, the school I attended provided something extra. It gave me a sense of purpose that I had a responsibility to make the world a better place.

MN: What made you want to pursue an advanced degree?
FA: I decided to pursue an advanced degree shortly after I received my [undergraduate] degree in International Business from Howard University. I always dreamed of running my own business and I knew I wanted it to be international in scope. I wanted to understand what it meant to have a biblical framework and mindset from which to operate a business. Regent University offered that unique perspective.

MA: Given today’s economic climate, would you recommend this path to other African-American women?
FA: I would recommend this path with a slight twist. Instead of going for an advanced degree right out of college like I did, I strongly recommend getting practical work experience in the field you desire before going for an advanced degree. I feel that having real world experience in you desired field makes the program more meaningful. I would recommend that you select a school with a strong program in your area of interest. Finally and most importantly, while in the program, network like crazy. The alumni network will be especially valuable during these hard economic times, because who you know definitely opens doors.

Credit: Tammy ‘T-Time’ Brawner

Tammy ‘T-Time’ Brawner – Harlem Globetrotter, MBA in Global Business Management, from Dominican University of California, May 2011

Madame Noire: What impact has your MBA degree had on your career?

Tammy ‘T-Time’ Brawner: My degree has served me very well. As an athlete, many people have the misperception that my degree has become useless. The truth of the matter is, my degree has taught me several things that are applicable to my life as a professional athlete… Not only did my degree teach me how to be resourceful, but it also taught me how to be disciplined, work hard, speak in front of crowds, manage my time, and finish what I start. All of the preceding qualities help to better serve me as Globetrotter and in my regular day-to-day affairs.

MN: What made you want to pursue an advanced degree?
TB: I decided to pursue an advanced degree to make myself more competitive and because I wanted to become adept in business, global business in particular. When you look around the world today, you see that nearly every business is global in some form – so understanding the phenomenon of global business while also giving me some leverage in the work field was an opportunity that I took.

MN: Given today’s economic climate, would you recommend this path to other African-American women?
TB: Our daily lives should be conducted like a business. [Getting an MBA] is a long-term investment in that business. We will not see the return on our investment today or tomorrow, but it will surely become evident in the future. With that being said, I would recommend African-American women pursue an advanced degree. As African-American women, we know that at times we have unfavorable variables working against us in the workforce. We have to best position ourselves in order to minimize the effects of these variables. The best way to do that is to become more qualified, knowledgeable, and educated. Not only will we as African-American women break down barriers in the work place, but we will also increase our pay scale. It’s a win-win situation.

Credit: Nicole Lindsay

Nicole Lindsay – Founder,, MBA/ JD, University of Virginia, 2000

Madame Noire: What impact has your MBA had on your career?

Nicole Lindsay: My MBA has given me credibility to pursue different industries, provided me with frameworks to run a successful business, and offered me a network that has global reach.

MN: What made you want to pursue an MBA?
NL: I have always wanted an MBA – since high school. I wanted to “do deals,” make things happen and see the world. And very early in my life, I understood that business was a pathway to those things. There was never much doubt that business was my long-term path. What I didn’t know when I was in high school or even in college was the versatility of the degree and its usefulness in almost any sector, particularly in nonprofit.

MN: Given today’s economic climate, would you recommend this path to other African-American women?
NL: The current economic climate has little to do with whether someone should pursue an MBA. The economy is cyclical. This is not our first, nor will it be our last, downturn. The MBA is a lifetime degree that can generate value throughout a woman’s professional career. [However,] the current economic climate has shown quite clearly that the three letters after your name or the MBA credential help relatively little. Basically, if a woman goes to business school now, she needs to be on her grind to get the real value of a graduate management degree — the relationships, skills and knowledge she can harness throughout her professional [career].

Credit: IHG

Verchele Wiggins – Vice President, Global Brand Portfolio, Holiday Inn Brand Family; IHG (InterContinental Hotels Group, Clark Atlanta University, 1994

Madame Noire: What impact has your MBA degree had on your career?

Verchele Wiggins: My MBA allowed me the opportunity to work for two of the best companies in the world, including securing a brand management focused internship. The MBA program gave me the extra edge that I needed to compete in a business with an already large talent pool to choose from. I received solid training that helped hone in on my strategic and analytic capabilities, thereby giving me the skills necessary to succeed in a corporate business environment.

MN: What made you want to pursue an advanced degree?
VW: For me, an advanced degree was always a “when” not an “if” situation. I knew I wanted to pursue a career in marketing, and therefore an MBA would be critical in order for me to get on the fast track to where I am today.

MN: Given today’s economic climate, would you recommend this path to other African American women?
VW: Anything that makes you more competitive in today’s marketplace is always recommended. Be discriminating and do the due diligence to research and find the right school and the right degree for your career path. Be focused on what you want to get out of it, because it is not about the degree itself, but how you leverage the degree to help you reach your goals. It is about making the right choices for your program, internships, etc. that makes the investment in your MBA one of the most worthwhile things you will do for your career.

Credit: Tyra Johnson

Tyra Johnson – President and Founder of Blue Sky Design Supply, State University of New York at Buffalo (University at Buffalo) in 2005

Madame Noire: What impact has your MBA had on your career?

Tyra Johnson: I went to an evening program while working in construction project management. The company I was working for recognized I was serious about advancing my career. While being employed, I was able to use many of the soft skills we learned about during my degree program (i.e. emotional intelligent and organizational advancement). The most important skill I discovered was how to review a person’s character traits and use it to communicate with them effectively.

When starting my own business the MBA helped with credibility during start up (like pursuing business loans and my initial clients). Furthermore having a familiarity with the different aspects of business that makes a company churn was tremendously helpful.

Although I do not think a degree necessarily means you are qualified, I do think it helps you jam your foot in the door. Your work ethic is what gets the door open.

MN: What made you want to pursue an MBA?
TJ: I believe in being a lifelong learner. As long as I remember I wanted to be an entrepreneur and getting MBA was part of that plan.

MN: Given today’s economic climate, would you recommend this path to other African-American women?
TJ: When I was planning to go to grad school, one of my biggest concerns was debt. Career advancement is not guaranteed with a degree. So one really needs to consider the risk factor. I relocated to Buffalo after considering schools in Michigan. But I realized my new job and the low tuition of a State program was my best bet.

I would suggest going to grad school to invest in yourself is a good idea, as long as you keep finances in perspective.

Credit: Len Spoden Photography

Kenya (Smith) Edwards – Director, Digital Activation & Sales Promotions at TBS/TNT/TCM at Turner Broadcasting, Strayer University, 2007

Madame Noire: What impact has your MBA degree had on your career?

Kenya (Smith) Edwards:  It has allowed me to obtain skills that transfer to my day-to-day responsibilities and has provided me the guidance to think more strategically and [with greater innovation] for business initiatives.

MN: What made you want to pursue an advanced degree?
KSE: I am a big supporter of higher education. I have always felt that you can never stop learning and that stuck with me so I moved forward and obtained my MBA.

MN: Given today’s economic climate, would you recommend this path to other African-American women?
KSE: Yes, I feel strongly that those who can should definitely try to obtain an MBA. Having an advanced degree is one more item that allows women to be competitive in this current job market.

Credit: Sophia Wilder

Sophia Wilder –
 Head of Investment Technology and Leadership Development for Mason Street Advisors, a division of Northwestern Mutual, Keller Graduate School of Management (also has a Master’s in Project Management from that school)

Madame Noire: What impact has your MBA degree had on your career?

Sophia Wilder: Having an MBA has had a positive impact on my career at Northwestern Mutual. I have been with the company for seven years and started at Northwestern with a Master’s degree in Management from Cardinal Stritch University. But I must say that having the MBA has me a more [well-rounded executive].

MN: What made you want to pursue an advanced degree?
SW: I enjoy learning and knew that in order to move forward in my career field that I would need to retain an advance level degree.

MN: Given today’s economic climate, would you recommend this path to other African-American women?
SW: Yes, I would hands down recommend this path to all African-American women who are interested in moving their careers forward. The game has changed since I obtained my MBA, as there are more people with advanced level degrees than there are job opportunities to use these degrees. Women need to ensure that they are doing their research and choosing a major that compliments the MBA that they would like to obtain in a field that they are passionate about. No matter what you do there is an old saying that [goes], “When you find and do what you are passionate about you never work a day in your life.”

Credit: Morgan State

Patricia Wheeler – Assistant Professor, Communication Studies at Morgan State University, Columbia University, 1981

Madame Noire: What impact has your MBA degree had on your career?

Patricia Wheeler: It opened up a lot of new doors for me. I originally came out of the journalism field and I really wanted to do more than just be another name or face on the air. I thought there were greater opportunities for African Americans in media management. And because of my MBA degree I was able to have a very versatile career at Time Inc, Gannett, the White House, and now as a professor. I think I was able to make a major contribution in my field because of this degree.

MN: What made you want to pursue an advanced degree?
PW: When I worked in television, most of the opportunities were on the air. But, what I discovered was that the decisions regarding content were controlled by the people behind the scenes that you never really hear about. It’s usually the lawyers and the business executives who got to call all of the shots and while I greatly respect on-air talent, they really didn’t have a say during those times. As a result, I knew that an advanced degree would provide me with additional skills such as accounting, management, marketing, etc, that I would need in order to position myself for these more senior roles.

MN: Given today’s economic climate, would you recommend this path to other African-American women?
PW: It really depends on what they want to do with their career. If they’re already working in their field, then I would really think long and hard before going back to school. However, if you’re looking to change fields then it makes more sense.

Other things to consider are whether or not you want to go full-time or part-time and if your company has a tuition reimbursement program. All in all, you should be realistic about your motives for getting an advanced degree and if money is your only driver you’ll be disappointed.

Credit: Colleen Eakins

Colleen Eakins, Chief Creative Officer of Colleen Eakins Design, American Intercontinental University (Dunwoody Campus) in Atlanta, 2006. 

Madame Noire: What impact has your MBA degree had on your career?
Colleen Eakins: The skills I developed from juggling a full-time job and going to school are now being applied to my business to juggle the many hats I have to wear as owner and operator. I have also been able to apply the business and marketing principles I learned in the classroom to help ensure my success.

MN: What made you want to pursue an advanced degree?
CE: I initially decided to go back to school for two reasons:  it seemed everyone I met my age had a MBA degree and I felt that I was not being taken seriously at work.  As a creative, I felt that I was dismissed a lot because my coworkers did not view a designer as being an intellectual.  Oftentimes in meetings, when introductions were being given, marketing and business expertise was always a qualification added to everyone, except for me.  When I was introduced, it was simply as “the designer.”  I realized, as a designer, that no matter where I worked, I would probably be a part of someone’s marketing department and I felt that an MBA with a concentration in marketing would be complimentary to my Bachelor’s degree in graphic design.

MN: Given today’s economic climate, would you recommend this path to other African American women? 
CE: I think it really depends on the individual and their current circumstances.  It is an added financial burden to pursue higher education, and one has to evaluate whether or not it will be an investment that will pay off.  You have to decide what it is that you really want to do from a career perspective and where your career goals are. If your dream is to be a high-ranking executive, an MBA might be a good career move.  If you are looking to start your own business but do not have any business management experience, a MBA may also be a good career move.  You have to research your industry and look to see if people with MBAs are moving further in that field than people without. You also have to take into consideration whether or not having a MBA as an African-American woman will help to give you an edge in a field that may not be very diverse.  In these cases, yes, I would recommend pursuing a MBA.

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Sakita Holley is a lifestyle writer and the founder of House of Success, a lifestyle PR firm based in New York. You can tweet your thoughts about this story directly to the writer, @MissSuccess.

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