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Fridays from the Frontline: Forté MBALauncher Shares Her Round 1 Application Experience

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Natalie Neilson learned about the Forté Foundation’s MBALaunch program—a 10-week, hands-on workshop for promising female applicants to business school—in a somewhat backwards fashion. It all began with an interest in looking into business schools abroad, with the MBA program at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School sparking her curiosity. After researching, she realized that Oxford did not come to many events in DC, but she saw that the school would be participating in an upcoming Forté Forum, and so she went. At the forum, she saw people wearing name tags with a special ribbon that said “MBALauncher,” so she asked to learn more. Before long she would be wearing an MBALauncher ribbon herself.

Neilson is something of a non-traditional applicant to business school—in part because she’s looking to use the degree to transition out of consulting, the opposite of many would-be MBAs. The daughter of Jamaican immigrants and someone who has also spent years working in restaurants, her dream is to eventually put her MBA and prior consulting experience to work: specifically helping ethnic restaurants enhance their business operations by owning her own hospitality consultancy.

We caught up with her recently, just after she submitted the last of her applications as part of Round 1. In the interview that follows, you’ll learn more about her application process, including what she found most enjoyable and what proved most challenging. You’ll also get her uncensored views on the MBALaunch program, insight into other MBA admissions preparation programs (she is also active in Management Leadership for Tomorrow), and her take on the value of business school rankings. Our thanks to Neilson for taking time out of a busy schedule to share her story!

Clear Admit: What industry are you targeting post-MBA?

Natalie Neilson: My desire is to go into hospitality, and it’s very non-traditional compared to some of the more popular post-MBA routes like investment banking and consulting. So, with that in mind, I applied across the board for programs that had characteristics important to me, like academic rigor and cultural fit. I knew that from a professional standpoint, it was going to be largely up to me to network within the industry and get a job, no matter where I went to school.

I am interested in the hospitality industry because I have been working in restaurants since I was a teenager. I went to college in DC and am now working in government consulting. Before deciding to go get your MBA, a lot of reflection should go into it. I decided to think about whether I wanted to come back to my company, or do something different, or even if there is something in between. There are always going to be aspects of every job that you’ll like, and some that you don’t, so I decided to see if there was an option out there that combined what I loved about consulting with the industry that I love. For example, I like working on a team and having that client-consultant relationship: tackling issues, working on complex problems and turning them into solutions. Variability of clients is a reason some people are drawn to consulting, but at this point in my career, I would like to be in a place where I can see the end result in house—I am looking to make an impact where I am.

With that in mind, short term I want to pivot from consulting and work in internal strategy at a hospitality corporation. From my research with current students at different programs, Marriott, Starwood and Hilton are great MBA recruiting options in terms of getting that corporate hospitality experience. Long term, I want to combine my restaurant experience, consulting skills and corporate hospitality work into launching my own consultancy specifically for restaurant owners of color.

Restaurant success rates are pretty bad across the board, but if you have lived in any major city lately, you’ll notice that ethnic restaurants tend to close first when anything changes. I’m a believer in neighborhood culture. Unfortunately, though, the restaurant consulting business isn’t very diverse. I’ve worked in all kinds of restaurants, and I want to help move the needle, ensuring that restaurants of all types are equipped to stay open and serve their communities.

CA: What schools did you apply to and what factored into your decision of where to apply?

NN: Since some decisions have yet to be released, I don’t want to answer that question fully. I can say that I applied to all top programs—remembering I’m going for a non-traditional MBA industry. Thus, my initial decision was to cast a wide net while researching; I talked to current students everywhere, learning all I could and asking a lot of questions to anyone who would be willing to offer their perspective. In my opinion, current students are the best source of knowledge!

In terms of choosing between schools to apply to—I knew that it was going to be an uphill battle to obtain a job no matter what, given my target industry. I spoke to the Hospitality Club president at a few top schools, only to learn that two of them interned at the same company in the same department. They were literally co-interns. In the field I am pursuing, no one is going to be like, “You can’t have this internship because you went to X top school vs Y top school”—just like working at a restaurant, it’s about who you are, your work ethic and attitude and what you bring to the table. (I didn’t realize that was a pun until this moment.)

I did not choose schools because of rankings—in fact, I am really anti-ranking. I don’t care which school is number one because the schools that were numbers one, two, three when I first started my research a couple years ago have changed a little bit. Some people are gung ho about going to the #1 school, but it doesn’t make sense to me to make a decision based on a number that can change. It’s not lasting.

Instead, I chose to think of something more solid, in my opinion: brand. Now before you roll your eyes, credibility is big when you want to work with customers of all socioeconomic and educational levels. Some people who own restaurants never went to college or even finished high school. Sometimes we forget, in our pre-MBA bubbles, that people you bump into on the street don’t know ranking, but they know brand. When I approach someone who didn’t go to college to hire me in their restaurant, I want them to think I am credible when they hear where I got an MBA. They are not going to be like, “OK wait, let me check US News. You went to #5 and I only hire Top 4.” My dreams are very global and I want to know that no matter where I go or who I speak to, that person can understand my credentials.

CA: What did you enjoy most about the application process?

NN: It sounds weird, but I have enjoyed interviewing the most, as nerve-wracking as it can be. I think I do better in person than I do on paper—whether it’s interviewing, talking to an admissions officer at the Forté Forums or speaking to current students on the phone. It’s not just in terms of me being able to show my value but also in terms of learning what the value of the school is. Sometimes the websites don’t tell the whole story about the school, just as sometimes your application doesn’t tell the whole story about you (no matter how much you try). Plus, it’s a great opportunity to gush about what you want to do—sometimes people can pick that up in your eyes easier than they can in 500 words.