Courtney Jacobson: Reimagining your path to the MBA

15 minute read


Courtney: [00:04:31] So I graduated from Cal Poly in 2016. I was a business major, concentrated in information systems and I also had a minor in sustainable agriculture. So I did that. I ended up doing five years at Cal Poly, which was great. And then I joined Deloitte Consulting in our technology consulting practice. So I was based in San Francisco, but traditional consulting, you travel quite a bit. So I had the opportunity to travel all over the country, worked with clients in many different industries, worked on lots of different types of projects. Absolutely love doing that. One of the reasons that I joined Deloitte is that it’s very common in consulting to go to do an MBA and there’s a lot of support within the firm, both formally and informally for that. So I took a lot of advantage of a lot of that stuff and went through the sponsorship program from Deloitte, which is how I ended up at Wharton. So I’m currently doing a JD MBA at Wharton and Penn Law. I’m in my first year of law school. So the way three year integrated JD MBAs work is that you do one full year of law school and then you start business school. So I’m going to be starting business school actually next year. [00:05:39][68.0]

Epsa: [00:05:40] Dude, you’re seriously so incredible, way to make Cal Poly proud. [00:05:43][2.5]

Anjana: [00:05:43] Seriously huge congratulations. And I know this is something you’ve been thinking about for a while, even before you graduated from Cal Poly. So can you walk us through your decision making process and when you knew it was the right time to pursue an MBA? [00:05:55][12.2]

Courtney: [00:05:57] Yeah, absolutely, so I always start when I talk about this and my process by saying that the decision to go back to grad school, the decision to do really anything in your professional career is an incredibly personal decision. And I really don’t think that there’s a right answer or wrong answer. I think it requires a lot of really deep self reflection. It requires a lot of research, both formal research like reading blogs and things like that, as well as finding people that you can talk to to understand more about, in this case, MBA programs and what the value of them are. And I really had to do that for JD MBA programs in particular, because there’s not a lot of information about integrated programs out there. So as a kind of shared, I started my career in consulting. Again, going back to kind of really maximizing the opportunities in front of you, I think you should always go into something like a job with goals and you should evaluate those goals. And I think you will get a sense by constantly kind of checking in on those goals and feeling like, OK, have I accomplished what I want to accomplish here? Have I had the experiences that I want to have? And so I think for three and a half years, I felt like I had plenty of room to grow and keep doing new things, but I definitely had gotten a lot of great experience and exposure. I think the other thing to consider is you really have to think about what makes for a competitive MBA application. So there is some kind of strategic aspect of it as well. MBA applications are all about talking about your story, talking about the impact that you have and the vision of impact that you want to have in the future. And so making sure that you’ve thought through that, that it all makes sense, that there isn’t more you need to do before you go to an MBA for all of that to kind of come together. And then I think I always like to talk about the economic aspects of it as well, because it’s a really important thing. And I think it’s something that people aren’t always as honest and transparent about. MBA programs are very expensive. You’re also giving up your salary to go. So on the one hand, the earlier you go, the less salary you’re giving up, when you’re gone, when you’re in school. Right. If you think about it, two or three years out of school, you’re making a lot less money than if you’re five to 10 years out of school. So there’s a financial benefit for going sooner. But also, you know, you need time to save money to pay off undergrad student loans to kind of get yourself in a good, stable financial situation where you feel like you can take on more debt or or something like that. So anyway, I think those are all aspects that kind of came into play for me. But I really always go back to just really doing that work of self reflection and being sure that that this is in line with your goal. [00:08:44][166.6]

Epsa: [00:08:44] Oh, my gosh. Wow. There’s definitely a lot that goes into this process. And, you know, as you mentioned earlier, you have to craft a story and be strategic about it. But what about a lot of us? I’m speaking for myself that never considered grad school while in undergrad. Do you think it’s too late for me to craft my narrative? Can I still be proactive about it? Does that make sense? [00:09:04][19.8]

Courtney: [00:09:05] Yeah, that makes sense. I think very few people think definitively in undergrad that this is something they want to do. They might take some actions like taking the GMAT or something like that to prepare. But I think you have plenty of time postgrad to to pursue things, to build your resume in a way that will make for a strong MBA application. And so I think specific things that very tactically they’re looking for is demonstrated leadership, that can look like leadership at work, that can look like leadership outside of work. They’re looking for a cohesive story about that impact and influence you want to have. Right. So that’s why I think always following your passions in a really true and authentic way is really important. And then there are some quantitative measures. Right. They want to see that you’re getting promoted at work. They want to see that you can do well on standardized tests. Your undergrad GPA matters, but you can compensate for that with your test scores. So it’s all of like, I would say, MBA programs, maybe more than other grad programs that I’m aware of, really review you as a holistic applicant. [00:10:16][71.5]

Anjana: [00:10:18] Also, to add to that, can you tell us how you specifically demonstrated leadership at work or outside of work? [00:10:23][5.3]

Courtney: [00:10:25] OK, so what is leadership like demonstrating leadership really look like for me? So I started Women in Business with all my peers at Cal Poly and as an undergrad, and it’s an organization that I’m really proud and passionate about. So I’ve always stayed involved. [00:10:42][17.4]

Anjana: [00:10:44] Sounds like a great organization. [00:10:45][0.8]

Courtney: [00:10:47] Great organization. So I dedicated a lot of my time outside of work immediately after graduating to working on Women in Business, supporting Women in Business, supporting Cal Poly more broadly, coming back, participating in a lot of different things for alumni, trying to help the Dean’s Office with various things that they’re doing. So I think one thing I always encourage people to do when they graduate is not to just completely sever ties with your undergrad institution and walk away. Those relationships are really important, right? Your professors or whoever you’re working with in school, they’ve been mentoring you for four years. Don’t let those relationships kind of just die out because there’s a lot of opportunity to work on things with them, support them, support student organizations, things like that that you’re really passionate about that show that you’re really willing to put the work in on issues and topics that you’re that you care about. Within Deloitte as well, so in consulting it’s kind of funny, because in addition to your full time job, both consulting firms expect you to do what they call initiatives or basically extracurriculars. And so it’s very similar to undergrad. There’s different organizations that you’re supposed to work on. There’s research opportunities. There’s a lot of different things that you can do. But I think if you really kind of go deep on those things and you really kind of tie it all together in a way that shows that you’re really pursuing something and driving towards something. For me, I was lucky enough to kind of come across some opportunities to work on issues for refugees with regards to employment opportunities and how the private sector can kind of work on addressing the refugee crisis through employment. And so I actually spent a lot of time in addition to doing stuff for Women in Business, doing things for our women’s group within Deloitte, actually working on on some of these different projects. So that looked like putting together proposals for some of our clients who are interested in how they could help refugees with their product. It looked like taking some time out of client work to actually do some pro bono work. You know how this would look at like at a different company, maybe you take some a week off here or there. In fact, I know friends who there’s always a conference that they always support for some various organizations. So they take a few days off and they support that conference for their undergrad or for a nonprofit or things like that. So there are a lot of different stuff that you can do. Again, keep it authentic, really, like make sure that you’re doing things that you’re passionate about. You’re not just trying to craft a strong MBA application, because I think that that will come through very easily. But that’s just some examples of ways that you can kind of show that you’re working on things and that you can demonstrate leadership even if you don’t have those opportunities within work. [00:13:38][170.9]

Anjana: [00:13:38] Wait before you go on, can I also just say, like, every time I talk to you, I’m, like blown away by how much you do. And Epsa and I are like complaining about one job. [00:13:47][9.1]

Epsa: [00:13:49] I know I’m like, oh, work was so hard I had to work till seven. But the fact that you were able to balance work and work on projects that you value and you knew had impact to you on the greater good, I think that’s so, that in itself is a holistic experience, that you’re giving yourself a good experience, which I’m sure reflected that way in your application. [00:14:07][17.9]

Courtney: [00:14:09] Yeah, I think it truly is really important to follow your own passions and be authentic because you’re not going to have the energy to do it. Otherwise, if you’re working, you know, 40, 50, 60 hours a week and then trying to do the stuff on top of it, you just won’t have the energy for it if you don’t really care about it. [00:14:29][20.1]

Anjana: [00:14:30] Yeah, we definitely feel that. I was wondering about the GPA aspect. Let’s say you had a 3.2 GPA. OK, well, I know you did really well in school, so let’s just pretend that you had a 3.2 GPA, but you check off every other box, so you have a GMAT score. You’re all grounded at work and outside of work and you got promoted. So the only thing you feel that’s holding you back is your GPA. Where does that leave that candidate? [00:14:56][26.2]

Courtney: [00:14:59] I’m happy, I definitely want to talk about the aspect, because it really kills me to hear people, I’ve heard it from a lot of different people, say like I can apply to these programs because I’m not going to get into a good program because I I looked on the website and my numbers just don’t look good in comparison to the GPA or the GMAT or whatever it is. Right. I think we can all acknowledge that there’s a lot of different factors that go into some of these like objective measures like GPA and know standardized test scores. I think the thing to focus on is less like, am I in the median? Am I above the median? It’s more like, am I demonstrating that I can accomplish things and that I can take opportunities and make the most of them right, and I guess the GMAT and the GRE is more about do you have just the academic aptitude for the programs? But I think that can also be demonstrated in other ways. Right. You can take courses through Coursera and you can get a grade on those courses and you can show like maybe you didn’t do well in Calc in undergrad because you were a freshman and you were busy with other things and you didn’t invest in it. Right. But if you take a class online and you do better, they’ll take that into consideration. You can submit all that type of stuff. So there’s ways to address those issues. You should never say I’m not going to apply just because I don’t have the test score or I don’t have the GPA, because I think there’s a lot of different creative ways that you can address those things. [00:16:37][97.5]

Epsa: [00:16:38] Yeah, I think, you know, when you’re an undergrad, I mean, I was really told your GPA only matters if you’re going to grad school and maybe for your first job. So unless you are thinking about grad school super early, you’re not really putting that much effort into your GPA or like putting more effort. But it’s really reassuring to hear you say that there are other avenues to go around it because, you know, now I’m thinking about it a lot and I definitely want to use all those Coursera courses and stuff to really amplify my application. Yeah. Courtney, it seems like you’ve definitely known about this for a while. Is there a specific story you want to share where you really realized ‘I need to pursue this degree to push my career’? [00:17:16][38.5]

Courtney: [00:17:19] Quite serendipitously, I was going to my first training they take all the new analysts and they send us for training and I start talking to this girl because all of us were wearing professional business clothes and we’re all super stressed out. You could just see it on everybody’s faces. And my friend was wearing, or she’s now my friend was wearing, like workout clothes and bright orange sneakers. I’m like, OK, this girl knows something that I don’t write because that’s a [00:17:49][30.6]

Epsa: [00:17:50] That’s a bold move [00:17:50][0.0]

Courtney: [00:17:51] That’s a bold move. And I got up at the crack of dawn and put on business professional to fly from San Francisco to Dallas to go to try and like, fix my makeup in the airport and like, really cared about all this stuff. And I’m like, this girl, she is calm. She’s confident. She does not look stressed out in the slightest like she knows something and also seems cool because she’s wearing bright orange sneakers. So I talk to her and get to know her well. Turns out she did know something that I didn’t because she was on her way back to the firm after doing her MBA. Right. So she’d already gone and been an analyst for three or four years and wasn’t freaked out about her first day of work in the slightest. And so her name’s Tiffany. We’re now really great friends, is a great mentor and friend. Tiffany introduced me to a lot of her friends and mentors at the firm who had all gotten MBAs. And that kind of started my journey literally from day one to Deloitte, getting to know people who had MBAs who had gone and done it. And I was just kind of information gathering stage. But I think after a year or two, I started to realize that a lot of the people that I really liked to work for at the firm, they had MBAs and they attributed a lot of their leadership skills, their management skills to what they learned in their MBA programs. And so I think for me, that was just this aha moment of like I can definitely advance my career without this degree. I can learn these skills. I can learn how to manage people. I can be a great leader, but I just love the poise, the confidence, the composure that all these people have who who have gone to these MBA programs. And it also just sounds like a lot of fun and like a lot of a lot of interesting opportunities that will come from it. So I think that is really what kind of spurred my interest in it and reaffirmed me that it was it was the right path for me to pursue. [00:19:43][112.0]

Anjana: [00:19:44] I think an MBA is a great path for a lot of people. And MBA programs have become more accessible in recent years for sure. But it’s definitely not necessarily all rainbows and butterflies. Like let’s talk about the glass ceiling for women. When you and I were researching Courtney, we found that the pay gap actually widens with higher education. Studies have shown that no matter what their highest degree is, women need one additional degree higher than men to earn the same salary. And this really pisses me off, because if you’re telling me that I have to spend $160K more than Kyle from Pike to earn the same salary, that does not sit right with me. [00:20:21][36.5]

Epsa: [00:20:21] Oh my God. Cal from Pike is yelling right now. [00:20:24][2.7]

Anjana: [00:20:25] Kyle from Pike squirming. [00:20:26][1.0]

Epsa: [00:20:26] Kyle from Pike is going to get his dad to come yell at you right now. [00:20:29][3.0]

Anjana: [00:20:30] Lawyer up. Anyway, but women with MBAs actually face the widest uncontrolled pay gap among women of all education levels, which I actually didn’t know. It’s really surprising and it doesn’t even begin to touch on the disparities with women of color. So with all this in mind, I guess, you know, an MBA sounds great on paper, but we’re reading all these statistics that tell us that, you know, women still aren’t getting paid equally. Are there other ways to evaluate the worth of an MBA? [00:21:01][30.5]

Courtney: [00:21:02] So this is a big question, right, and I think there’s a lot of different parts we have to talk about. It pisses me off immensely. And so I think it’s really important to call out and think about this issue. I think it’s kind of a two part issue, like there’s a systemic problem here, right? There’s this data telling us that this degree that I think a lot of people think about as being a vehicle for socioeconomic mobility, that the kind of like a great equalizer degree where people, [00:21:33][31.1]

Anjana: [00:21:34] The golden ticket [00:21:34][0.4]

Courtney: [00:21:36] The golden ticket right, different backgrounds no matter where you started your career, no matter where you went to undergrad, if you can get into these programs like this is going to even the scale and it’s going to give you that opportunity that you need to compete. Right. And so it’s really disappointing to see that that isn’t necessarily the case at a systemic kind of high level picture. Right. And you see that I think some of the data that Anjana and I were looking at is saying that, you know, women’s salaries increased by sixty three percent pre MBA to post MBA but for men it’s 70 percent. And those numbers are also different. Those are for white women and white men. So that all that being said, right, that is an issue that we as a society, we as corporate America, we as students in these MBA programs, we as administrators or faculty need to tackle. Right. But I think what we’re also talking about here is the individual experience. And I think it’s still really important to go back to why you’re looking into these programs and what you’re trying to get out of them, because I think there’s a couple of big things. First, yes, that pay gap still exists, but I can almost guarantee that between two years of work, there’s very few instances where you’re going to increase your salary sixty-three percent. Right. I think the degree will ultimately give you the skill set to, if you’re going for it for the right reasons, it’s going to enable you to tackle those things that you want to tackle. But I think that it’s really, really important, again, to keep talking about these things because we need to not just take it upon ourselves to address this on an individual level. And I think it’s incumbent on the employers as well to make sure they’re paying attention to this kind of stuff and that we’re pushing for them to be paying attention to this. But then it’s also important to remember that these things take time to change and we’re only going to change them by getting greater representation in MBA programs and having more qualified applicants coming out of MBA programs. [00:23:45][129.2]

Epsa: [00:23:46] You really hit the nail on the head there. I think it’s really important to acknowledge it’s not just for the women being underpaid to address this issue. It’s really mainly up to the employers to address and be transparent about it. [00:23:58][11.9]

Anjana: [00:23:58] Exactly. So going off that when pursuing higher education, how can we ensure that our degrees are helping us radically change the workforce in terms of leveling the playing field and creating equal opportunities for advancement? [00:24:11][12.9]

Courtney: [00:24:12] I think that’s an incredibly important question, one that I think we should all ask ourselves on a regular basis in school and in work. And it’s definitely something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about going into this program and something that I want to keep top of mind over the next few years. I think with especially in school, how do I use my experience and how do I kind of help extend that more broadly to use this experience as a platform to uplift others? I I want to go back to kind of what we were talking about earlier, which is that approaching things from kind of a network and systems perspective. Right. School is a lot about networking. Networks really drive a lot of different parts of our society for better, for worse. And the people who are included in those networks and those people who are excluded from those networks, I think it has a big impact. Right. So I think that the biggest the best thing, the most important thing that each of us can do when pursuing higher education is to make sure that we are not just seeking out people and experiences that just reinforce the ideas, the exposure, the relationships that we already have and that we’re challenging ourselves to to build relationships with people who are vastly different than ourselves, that come from different backgrounds and making sure that we’re building very, very diverse and sustainable networks of people, because that is what is going to make our workplaces, our institutions more inclusive. And that is going to make each of us better people in the process. Right. So I think there’s a there’s a definitely win win opportunity there. [00:25:56][104.3]

Anjana: [00:25:58] I feel like we’ve been talking about pursuing an MBA theoretically, because, I mean, you’re you’re currently doing it. You’re on track to get your JD MBA. So where do you see yourself a year after getting your degree or like five to ten years out? [00:26:11][12.8]

Courtney: [00:26:11] Yeah, absolutely. So one to two years, I’m not exactly sure what that looks like. I have the opportunity to return back to Deloitte and that’s a very likely option. But I also want to explore working more directly in the technology industry, whether that’s a startup or in a larger tech company. But I think I have some more opportunity to grow and learn the technology industry itself and get more exposure. And I think that will really kind of tie into what my longer term goal is, which is one of the driving influences behind doing a JD MBA degree, which is to move into the government, move into government or move into the intersection of the government and private sectors and really have that expertize to bring the two together in a meaningful way and drive change around some of the issues that I’m really interested in, passionate about, which is how do we ensure that we continue to to grow our technology industry and to innovate, but make sure that we are providing equal access and effectively distributing the benefits of technology and innovation to our society. Because I think we can see very clearly with COVID that that’s not happening. There’s a lot of people who have faced absolutely no disruption to work into their lives because we could so easily transition to zoom. I mean, it’s uncomfortable, right? But we’re still able to work, still able to live our lives. And that’s not the same for everybody. And I think. We need to figure out really soon how to how to do that better. That’s kind of how I see the two degrees coming together. And I think, most importantly, I’m just really excited to be here and to be back in school and getting to just invest in myself, meet all these super smart, interesting people. [00:28:06][114.7]