A 'Mistake' Leads to Business School

Having learned a lot from one wrong turn, I applied to only one B-schoolbut it was the perfect one for me

My story starts with a mistake. Fresh out of college, I had a cushy job working in HR for a well-funded startup. I had flexible hours, good pay, and loads of perks. My job was easy, my co-workers were fun and friendly, and the kitchen was always jam-packed with good food. All told, I had an excellent setup for a recent college grad.

Here's the mistake: I left my cushy job to work for a public-relations firm I knew I didn't want to work for. Why'd I do that? Because I "liked marketing." Because I thought—at the age of 22—I needed to get moving on my career. And because my parents and friends agreed it was the thing to do.

A Wrong Turn

So I packed my bags, said goodbye to my wonderful co-workers, and headed off to a small office in a Boston suburb. You might imagine one of those hip boutique agencies full of creative flair, but no. It was a high-tech PR firm, with small, ultraniche clients that made products almost no one, especially an English major like myself, cared about.

It wasn't the boring client work that got to me, though; it was the environment. Picture this: a single room with gray walls, gray carpet, and four gray desks. Now add four people, sitting in front of ancient Mac computers, working in a silence broken only by the clickety-clack of keyboards. No one speaks, except for an occasional phone call to an equally bored member of the media.

One day I called my mother, nearly in tears. What had I done? Why did I ever leave my cushy job? Why did I ever leave college for that matter? The corporate world was miserable and misguided, and I no longer felt I could take part in something so soul-sucking. (A whopping generalization, yes, but I was in great distress.)

Getting Back on Track

Over the course of my lunch break, my mother and I determined that I should become a freelance marketing writer. It made perfect sense—I could escape corporate imprisonment, I had a background in marketing, and I loved to write. So I got a loan and started a freelance marketing writing business from the little desk in my bedroom. I made a brochure, printed business cards, and began cold-calling and networking like my dinner depended on it.

Slowly and steadily, my client load picked up. I scored a few big contracts, including a job for a PR firm that required daily work. I did a lot of pro bono work to fatten my portfolio and get my name out there. Eventually, clients began asking for more services, so I contracted designers, photographers, and Web programmers. My company became a full-service marketing collateral company.

Finally in a comfortable place, I decided to pursue another passion of mine: yoga. I completed a teacher training and began working as a yoga instructor. As I became immersed in yoga and healthy living, I began to attract clients in this field—yoga studios, organic farms, wellness centers, etc. Naturally, this led me to Whole Foods Market (WFMI), perhaps the largest and most successful company capitalizing on the holistic health movement.

Discovering My Passion

Whole Foods offered me an in-house position managing the marketing functions for their new store in downtown Boston. Despite the fact that I had sworn off the corporate world a mere three years earlier, I took the job.

I found myself in my version of heaven, surrounded by piles of organic fruits and vegetables, rich imported cheese and chocolate, and people who shared my passion for kombucha tea. Wearing jeans to work was more than acceptable, and my co-workers were easygoing, interesting people with well-developed personal lives. A far cry from my days in the gray office.

During my first year with the company, I became enamored of two topics. The first was the food industry, its strong ties to the government, and consequently, the health of our people. The second was Chief Executive John Mackey, his philosophies, and his ability to turn a stunning profit while adhering to strong humanitarian values.

I felt inspired. Inspired to revolutionize the food industry so that it supports health instead of sickness. Inspired to lead a successful company from a value base that respects the earth and its inhabitants. A longtime flirtation with business school suddenly became more serious.

A Relaxed Approach

It was Labor Day weekend last year when I decided to apply to B-school. I had been telling my family that I would apply the following year, when my father suggested I apply right then, as a "practice round." He offered to foot the bill, so I agreed.

The idea that it was just practice made an important difference in how I approached school selection. I felt no pressure to perform, which freed me to look for a school that truly suited me. At the numerous MBA forums I attended, I wondered about the prospective students who busied themselves trying to impress admissions representatives. It seemed like a waste of time and energy to me. At that point in the process, admissions representatives were salespeople, and potential applicants were clients to be wooed.

I approached the admissions reps with a polite "what can you do for me?" stance. I simply told them what I was looking for and asked them to describe how their program stood out from the others in the ways that mattered to me.

One school impressed me over and over again: Cornell University. They offer a cutting-edge sustainability program, immersion learning, the opportunity to take classes in their world-renowned nutrition and agriculture schools, and a leadership development program so progressive, it knocks my socks off. In addition to all of this, the people were kind and well informed.

I decided to apply to the Johnson School at Cornell as my first choice. It was mid-September, I'd logged just a few hours of GMAT studying, and Round 1 applications were due on Oct. 9. So what did I do? I took the GMAT and scrambled to put together an application that accurately reflected me: who I was, what I'd done, and what I so passionately want to do. I submitted my application at 11:58 p.m. on the due date. And I was utterly delighted when the director of admissions called a month later to offer me a spot in the class of 2009.

That was it. Applications were easy for me. The fact that I only did one certainly lightened the load, but the real ease came because of the absolute certainty I felt. I knew that the Johnson School had exactly what I was looking for, and I had a feeling they would feel similarly about me.

Know What You Need

If I were to offer any advice to prospective applicants, it would be this: Don't waste your time applying to 10 schools simply because their name would look nice on your resume. Figure out why you want to go to B-school, and actively seek out the programs that speak directly to your passions and career ambitions. If the school is an excellent match for you, chances are good that the admissions team will think you are an excellent match for the school.

So what's my plan? I'm going to study sustainable business with a focus on the food industry. There is a lot that needs to be cleaned up—from the way mass agriculture destroys our land and waterways to the epidemic of nutrition-related diseases that are making people sick and depressed. I'd like to guide food companies to be more socially and environmentally conscious while helping them maintain an investor-pleasing bottom line. I have dreams of being a consultant, a writer, and an entrepreneur, but my true plan is to go wherever this next step—earning my MBA—leads me. Cheers!

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