Fear Not Failure (or this economy): MBA Lessons from the Emerging Entrepreneur

by Jill Foster on May 29, 2009

Guest post by Alexis Rodich, regular guest contributor to Women Grow Business and its series The Emerging Entrepreneur. Alexis graduated this year from American University with a Masters in Business Administration, specializing in finance. She served as AU’s chapter president of Net Impact and takes particular interest in venture capital, social technology, and how women entrepreneurs can use both to further business innovation. Taking the Level 1 CFA exam mid-2009, she is a summer associate for LaunchBox Digital and can be reached at www.twitter.com/alexismichelle.

My MBA and the last 3.5 years
Earlier this month I completed my MBA at the Kogod School of Business at American University. Over the brief period between my last exam and graduation, I left town for a few days to catch up on sleep, and take advantage of the opportunity to reflect on the previous three and a half years that I had been pursuing the degree.

As I considered all of the courses I had taken, from marketing 101 to IT vendor management, I realized that perhaps the most valuable lessons I learned came not from a single course, but from the experience of earning an MBA as a whole. While I know more about giving power point presentations and ‘creating synergies’…” than I could have ever dreamed possible, what business school really taught me was how to learn, how to fail, and how to deal with change.

And I’d say that’s precisely the preparation needed for success during such a unique moment in our economic history.

Lessons in how to learn
Although I had spent countless hours sitting in a classroom throughout my life, business school taught me that learning is anything but passive. Whether within an educational institution or in an enterprise environment, to effectively learn requires much more than just listening. I have discovered it often requires:

  • Preparing:
    A baseline level of knowledge is essential in order to gain value from the expertise of the person from whom you are learning — whether that be a business professor, mentor, or peer. It is a missed opportunity to spend time with an expert re-hashing material that is widely available elsewhere.
  • Engaging:
    Engaging my professors fundamentally changed the way I learn, and exponentially increased the value of the experience. It was invaluable to take advantage of extra opportunities and get to know the person from whom I was learning. My goal became to learn why they are passionate about the topics they teach. I suspect practicing this approach will completely change the way you approach absorbing new concepts (and make even the most stale of topics memorable).

Lessons in how to fail

Perhaps the most pivotal moment in my entire MBA came when I failed the first- level finance class.

Despite enthusiasm for the subject and adequate time and effort, I simply struggled with the material—A LOT. Let’s face it: failure is embarrassing, and a blow to the ego and the morale. Yet, when the world does not crumble around you, despite a big failure, the experience becomes an invaluable learning opportunity. And actually failing removes one of the most ardent obstacles to success: fear of failure itself.

In my case, failing my first finance class toughened my resolve on the subject.
But [failing this course] taught me also to fail with compassion. One year later, I was asked to become the teaching assistant in that same course, and am now preparing for the CFA exam. Perhaps no success is as meaningful and lasting as one that is built in the wake of failure.

Lessons in how to deal with change
A funny thing happened in the course of my MBA—the financial system nearly collapsed and business as we knew it fundamentally changed.

When I began my degree in 2006, the economy was booming and working at an investment bank was an objective of many of my classmates. Three years later, the term “investment bank” seems almost quaint.

If change is inevitable, however, then it is, I believe, those who embrace change that will recognize opportunity as it arises.

Seeking opportunity vs shelter
I am frequently asked whether I am nervous about graduating during a period of such economic uncertainty, or whether I wish I had one extra year of “shelter” from the working world. On the contrary, I am incredibly excited about being a brand new MBA right now. With challenges as daunting as the ones we face, our collective wisdom is more important than ever. Yet rarely does one have the right tools, at the right time, to contribute to the dialogue around solving problems that are truly systemic in nature.

So I strongly believe that the subjects and skills I learned in the classroom, and the lessons I learned throughout the course of my entire degree program, have fully prepared me not only to succeed, but to make an impact in this unprecedented moment in time.

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