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Real Humans of Texas McCombs’ MBA Class of 2023

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texas mba class of 2023Tara Sheena, Texas McCombs MBA Class of 2023

Age: 32
Hometown: Detroit, MI
Undergraduate Institution and Major: University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI), BFA Dance/BA English
Pre-MBA Work Experience (years, industry): 10 years as a professional dancer, nonprofit fundraiser, and independent manager for the Performing Arts

Why did you make the decision to attend business school? Why now?
I wish I could tell you an MBA was always in my plans. However, a viable chance at a top business school never entered my mind until well into the COVID-19 pandemic. Last Fall, after closing out my small business as an independent manager for performing artists, I was seeking to recalibrate. I began to take stock of the aspects of my work I loved – problem solving for my client’s success, growing my business from the ground up, and harnessing creative ideas to pull off major projects with limited time and financial resources. The same itch that told me to start my own business a few years ago – to innovate, to experiment, to take a calculated risk – was tugging at me again. To me, the MBA was an uncertain adventure, but it presented an even greater opportunity to address my own educational gaps, radically expand my career path, and significantly change the course of my life. It is a choice that came under dire, traumatic circumstances – and saw me say goodbye to my career as a dancer earlier than expected – but, ultimately, it felt like the decision I was always meant to make. Upon reflection, I like to think of this decision as throwing a Hail Mary pass in the final seconds of the game. I did everything I could to prepare, strategize and act in the moment; I had to have faith that triumph was waiting on the other side.

Why did you choose Texas McCombs? What factors figured most prominently into your decision of where to attend?
From the start, Texas McCombs students embraced me as an unconventional applicant. The more I got to know students and alumni in my application process, the more I realized McCombs’ strong precedent in being a welcoming, generous community for nontraditional MBAs like me. That was huge! In my process, I connected with a theater director, professional poker player, teachers, and veterans, who all found a meaningful place at McCombs. Additionally, it’s no secret Austin is a fast-growing and multifaceted city. I knew I’d feed off the energy of all Austin has to offer, particularly with so much activity across tech and entrepreneurship. Further, I wanted to live in a city that had an identity outside of the campus itself, and Austin fits that bill! There is so much more to the city than just the university – from breakfast tacos to bat cruises – and I knew that’d make it an ideal setting for my MBA.

What do you think is your most valuable or differentiating contribution to the Class of 2023?
My willingness to dive in and get my hands dirty. I hope I can be an example to others in being unafraid to pursue new opportunities. Coming in from a decade-long career in the performing arts, everything in school is new to me: the coursework, the dress codes, the jargon. However, my entire career followed the mantra, “the only way to do it is to do it.” I use that as motivation to embody a constant willingness to show up, do the work, and contribute positively to all aspects of the program. I think many people wait until they have the right credentials or expertise to participate, but if I waited that long to compete in a case competition or pursue a leadership role, my MBA would be over and done with. The time is now!

© Deneka Peniston 2011

Tell us a fun fact that didn’t get included on your application:
Amidst my period of career uncertainty last year, I was admitted to a tuition-free coding bootcamp meant to train people who had never worked in tech to become software engineers. It was an amazing opportunity to upskill in a new way and, potentially, launch a new professional path. However, this process of learning to code in JavaScript was a challenge to my usual ways of thinking. JavaScript is a single threaded language, so it must finish running one line of code before moving on to the next – a single input, to yield a single output. I was not used to thinking of solving problems this way. In my work, it was always up to me to see multiple outputs for that single input – multiple contingency plans for my client’s work, or multiple ideas for a single performance. However, in code, you need to hold creativity and legibility in equal measure, because any collaborator must be able to read and understand what you wrote in order to build off it. My favorite piece of code I wrote was a poetry generator, which took input song lyrics and produced randomly worded poems. I still consider this project one of my proudest creations from the pandemic (besides my business school applications, of course!).

Post-MBA career interests:
I have a lot of wide-ranging interests! Management consulting, design thinking, internal strategy, or tech marketing top the list. Ideally, I’ll find roles, and companies, that combine many of these functions into one.

Advice for Current Prospective Applicants:
–What is one thing you would absolutely do again as part of your application process?
I would engage in the process of reflection that went into my resume and essay writing. I enjoyed it because it allowed me to take stock of my accomplishments and consider the hard work, intentionality, and intense commitment that got me to where I am today.

–What is one thing you would change or do differently?
I would never log on to Reddit or view the Clear Admit ticker (sorry, Clear Admit – I do love you otherwise!) to view when interview invitations and decisions were coming in. I think these platforms have great potential to be informative for prospective students, but, for me, it stirred up a lot of unnecessary anxiety and stress.

–What is one part you would have skipped if you could—and what helped you get through it?
Self-doubt! It was easy not to see myself in the MBA–and have every reason to believe I would never get in, especially in such a hyper-competitive year—because there is virtually no one who shares my background and experience in the program. It helped to connect with current students and alumni, from top MBAs across the country, who shared aspects of my professional and personal identity. I met so many amazing MBAs – artists, farmworkers, climate activists, and educators – who gave me the courage to take up space and be myself in the process. Over time, this eased my doubts and allowed me to recognize my differences as my greatest asset.

What is your initial impression of the Texas McCombs students/culture/community?
We are a rigorously curious and tremendously humble community. Truly – sometimes, I think my classmates should brag a little more on how accomplished they are! We remain curious about all the ways we can stretch the growing edges of our learning, but never allow the pursuit of our own goals to infringe on others. I am grateful to be in a program that feeds this symbiotic relationship constantly. We all contribute, just as much as we consume, and it’s a powerful balance to be a part of.

What is one thing you have learned about Texas McCombs that has surprised you?
The second-years are impossibly generous with their time, insights, and resources. I figured most of them would sign their full-time offers and want to spend the year traveling and having fun! And…I wouldn’t blame them. But some of the most energizing, and powerful, learning experiences I’ve had have been one-on-one conversations with the McCombs second-year students. They are the only people who can intimately relate to the turmoil and stress of the first-year experience, while having the benefit of hindsight. I rely on them greatly for a grounding conversation when I need it most.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your personal application or admissions process in any way? If so, how?
In most ways, COVID-19 is the reason I ended up in an MBA program at all. Even though it was such a monumentally heartbreaking time in the world, the pains of the pandemic allowed me a new lease on life. When COVID-19 struck, the world needed so much more than what I could offer it. I got curious on what it would look like to scale my impact and work outside the very niche, specialized career I had carved for myself. Does business school guarantee I’d find the cure for COVID-19? No, but it could mean I can build the tools to make decisions, and redirect resources, in a crisis. Eighteen months ago, I was bouncing between rehearsals, auditions, meetings, performances, physical therapy, training, and running my business in NYC. Now, I am pursuing my MBA in a top program. It’s quite surreal and it never would have happened this way if not for the pandemic.

What is one thing you are most anxious about in your first year?
I want to be sure I take advantage of all the program has to offer while minding my mental health. It can be extraordinarily difficult to make space for meditation, reflection, and decompressing when my calendar is full from 8a-10pm daily. I am trying to rely on friends, my partner, and the community here to hold me accountable to attending to shifts in my mental health due to stress, overwork, or fatigue. Fortunately, I have found many of my classmates are willing to speak frankly about mental health and the MBA, which is comforting and necessary. I know I can rely on them to support me as I navigate balance, attention, and care to the needs of my mind and body.

What is one thing you are most excited about in your first year?
I am most excited about impacting DEI efforts within the program. As a member of the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, I feel great responsibility to forefront conversations and efforts that raise up BIPOC leaders in everything I do on campus. I am planning to help organize our annual Elevate Diversity and Inclusion Conference and connect further with my Consortium classmates to host public student dialogues on the work of inclusion, justice, and racial equity at McCombs. In my previous workplaces, I have seen firsthand the willingness to dialogue on the realities of racial equity seed real shifts within organizations. I hope to bring critical, constructive conversations to the student body and, hopefully, contribute to changes that outlast my time in the program.

Lauren Wakal
Lauren Wakal has been covering the MBA admissions space for more than a decade, from in-depth business school profiles to weekly breaking news and more.