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Real Humans of Texas McCombs’ MBA Class of 2021

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James Alvarez, McCombs MBA Class of 2021

James Alvarez, Texas McCombs MBA Class of 2021

Age: 29
Hometown: Washington, DC
Undergraduate Institution and MajorUniversity of Virginia – Foreign Affairs
Pre-MBA Work Experience (years, industry): Strategy Consulting, Research, and Non-profit Management, 7 years

Why business school? Why now?
During orientation at McCombs, Janet Huang (the Managing Director for MBA Career Management) talked extensively about the concept of ikigai – or one one’s reason for being. That was one of those moments in life where I knew in my gut that I had made the right decision.

A few years ago, after I’d spent some time in strategy consulting and research roles, I began to feel a pull towards work in the field of impact and began looking for more of an opportunity to work directly on social and environmental issues. I took on additional volunteer roles, worked as a pro bono consultant, and served on the management team at an educational nonprofit, but it was still much more of a hobby than a career.

To make the professional transition where I could use the skills that I’d built to address complex societal problems that I was passionate about, I knew I needed to gain more hands-on experience and build deeper technical expertise – the MBA is an ideal platform for both.

Why McCombs? What factors figured most prominently into your decision of where to attend?
I primarily used four criteria to evaluate different business school programs. I wanted to attend a top-tier MBA program where:

  1. There were dedicated concentrations in Social Enterprise and Cleantech;
  2. I could surround myself with a diverse, global cohort in a collaborative learning and professional culture;
  3. I would have the opportunities to enhance my understanding of coursework through experiential learning; and
  4. There was a demonstrated commitment to significant investment in career and leadership development support.

When I looked across all of these factors, McCombs really jumped off the page as the best choice for me – not because McCombs simply ticked all of these boxes, but because these considerations shone through as central to the DNA of the program. The generous financial aid package and the opportunity to live in Austin certainly made the decision a lot easier as well!

What do you think is your most valuable or differentiating contribution to the Class of 2021?
Empathy. I don’t want to downplay the importance of hard skills here, but I’m incredibly grateful for the past opportunities I’ve had listening to, and learning from, clients as a strategy consultant and more acutely understanding constituents’ needs in mission-driven organizations because these experiences have forced me to see things from different perspectives.

In the past, offering a fresh set of eyes to consider challenges from my clients’ perspectives has often helped tease out some of the nuances in their visions for the future and build the necessary plans to execute. I’m looking forward to working with the rest of the Class of 2021 to do the same.

Fun fact that didn’t get included on your application?
At the company where I worked prior to McCombs, I volunteered in a Multicultural Employee Resource Group dedicated to building a more inclusive, welcoming community for employees from all backgrounds.

In my role on the Recruiting Strategy Committee, I led an initiative to shape a more diverse and inclusive workplace by expanding the organization’s official undergraduate-level recruiting partnerships. One of the top pools of diverse talent I identified in my analysis was actually the University of Texas.

Post-MBA career interests?
I initially began exploring MBA programs with hope of transitioning from a strategy consulting and research background into a position as an impact consultant working with nonprofits. However, after I took a step back to reflect on the challenges that faced many of the fledgling social enterprises and nonprofits I was working with, I realized that the majority of their barriers stemmed from a lack of access to capital.

This being the case, I’m hoping to pivot into the impact investing field, where I can not only provide consultative support to social enterprises but also help provide access to the capital they need in order to effectively scale their impact.

Advice to current prospective applicants:
–One thing you would absolutely do again as part of your application process?
Talk to as many current and former students as possible – I used to joke around that networking was a bad word, but over the course of the recruiting and application process I gained a much deeper appreciation for its value.

Those conversations have provided an exciting view into what folks are truly passionate about and I’ve found it to be really rewarding discovering those areas of overlap where there’s the potential to work together or learn from each other.

–One thing you would change or do differently?
While I actually really enjoyed connecting with a recent alumna for my admissions interview, I think that I would have gotten a much more complete picture of the McCombs experience had I come down to Austin to conduct my interview on campus.

While you can absolutely get a sense for the culture of an MBA program by talking with alumni off campus, I think that there’s a lot of value in putting yourself in a position where you can envision what your day-to-day is actually going to look like.

–Part you would have skipped if you could—and what helped you get through it?
Am I allowed to say the GMAT here? Jokes aside, it had been a long time since I’d taken a standardized test, so I wasn’t particularly excited to sign up for a 3+ hour exam for the first time in years.

I ended up psyching myself out a bit during the test prep process, but from the information sessions I got the impression that McCombs really did consider the GMAT to be just one part of a holistic admissions process. That really helped take the pressure off when the test date actually came around.

What is your initial impression of McCombs’ students/culture/community?
Where to begin? First of all…Wow. Before I had even set foot in a classroom, I had met classmates from all over the world who were serial entrepreneurs, teachers, college athletes, helicopter pilots, nonprofit leaders, doctors, and even an Olympian!

Everyone I’ve met has an incredible, unique story that’s brought them to this place, but there’s also this palpable common belief that we all chose to come here because we’re striving to be better than each of our respective pasts.

One thing you have learned about McCombs that has surprised you?
I’ve been really surprised by both how expansive and how intimate the experience has been so far. Walking into DKR Stadium for the first football game really illustrated the scale of The University of Texas – it hammered home the fact that I had just joined a community of nearly half a million Longhorns. But still, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know my MBA classmates on a much more personal level, whether through Preview Weekend, the orientation program for The Consortium, or a pre-MBA trip to Oaxaca. These experiences – combined with the smaller class sizes – make McCombs itself feel much more like a family within that broader community.

Thing you are most anxious about in your first year?
Figuring out how to fit all the different things I want to do into the hours in the day – we’ve already talked a lot about FOMO during the first few weeks here, and it’s real… There are so many different incredible ways to get involved – I’ve already signed up for a Venture Scholars program, joined the Net Impact and Cleantech Groups, submitted my application for MBA+ projects, and applied for a Cleantech Fellowship.

And there’s still the core set of classes to get through. I think that the MBA is a great opportunity to explore different areas of interest and try your hand at new things, but sometimes it can be really hard to whittle down that list!

Thing you are most excited about in your first year?
I’m really excited to be in an environment where I can explore and try to soak up as much knowledge as possible. But the fact that I can test those ideas out in real-world settings with other folks (who are equally willing to nerd out on this stuff) makes it that much better.

Jonathan Pfeffer
Jonathan Pfeffer joined the Clear Admit and MetroMBA teams in 2015 after spending several years as an arts/culture writer, editor, and radio producer. In addition to his role as Contributing Writer at MetroMBA and Contributing Editor at Clear Admit, he was also a co-founder of the Clear Admit MBA Admissions Podcast. He holds a BA in Film/Video, Ethnomusicology, and Media Studies from Oberlin College.