My Story: From Wall Street To A Duke MBA
Sears’ Senior Leadership Program in August
Jessica Williams is an optimist. Though she hasn’t settled on her final destination, she’s navigating her career path with gusto. “You have to go after what it is you want to go after,” she says. “You have to be determined.”
After graduating from Spelman College with an undergraduate degree in economics, Jessica moved to The Big Apple and began working at Standard & Poor’s, a financial services company. She stayed for four years and held several different roles, but the world beyond Wall Street beckoned. “I knew I could leverage my experience into another industry, into another job,” she says.
Business school was the next logical step. To prepare for the application process, she entered an MBA preparation program with Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT). MLT provides career coaching to African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans with exceptional leadership potential. “It helped me round out exactly what I wanted to do, what my strengths were,” Jessica says. She zeroed in on marketing and began applying.
Her top choice? Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. It came from the heart: “Two years is a very short time if you’re having a great time, but it’s a very long time if you’re miserable,” she says. “Go to the school where you know you’re going to be very, very happy.” Having graduated on May 11, Jessica is now preparing for a new life—and a new career—in Chicago.
When people say that business school is a transformational experience, they’re being 100% truthful. I’m one of those people who tries to live without regretting things; I think everything molds you. Having a better parking spot would’ve been great, but aside from that, I don’t think there’s anything I would change about my time in business school. The good, the bad, the ugly, the tears, the laughter—I would take it all. I would do it all over again.
Prior to business school, I was working at Standard & Poor’s in New York City. I had a number of roles there. I went from ratings to the fixed-income management services group, and by the time I left the company to go to school, I was primarily in the sales division.
Business school was always on the horizon. I knew that I wanted to focus on marketing, but I had to figure out exactly what that meant for me. A lot of the time, you can get comfortable: “Hey, I know this job, I know what I’m doing, and I’m in New York.” I enjoyed the fact that my job allowed me to leverage my skills. I was an economics major at Spelman College, so while I wasn’t in a finance role, I could use a lot of what I had learned. But the financial services industry wasn’t really for me.
I joined a program called Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT) a year and a half before I went to school. My friend and I were at the gym in our apartment building, and we saw a girl with an MLT shirt on. Another good girlfriend of ours had also done MLT, but hearing my neighbor talk about it got me even more interested. I thought it could give me that extra push I needed to get my act together.
MLT has a very rigorous application process. They get a lot of applicants, so they want to make sure that they can work with you. Once you’re accepted, you have a cohort, a coach and monthly assignments. The assignments aren’t meant to be taken lightly. One day, I put off an assignment—like a crazy person—until the last minute. It took 18 hours in one day to complete it.
MLT wants you to set yourself apart from every other candidate. If I say, “I’m Jessica Williams, I did this before school, I want to do this after school, and you should let me into your school”—that’s pretty generic-sounding. MLT’s goal is to understand your story: “Why do I want to do marketing? Where is that passion coming from? What do I do with my current job that I can relate back to marketing?” You get a better understanding of what it is you want to do and why you want to do it.
There were certain things I was looking for in a business school. I wanted collaboration, a challenging environment and a strong and supportive alumni base. I applied to Duke, Indiana, NYU, Kellogg and Michigan. My friend, who was also applying to business schools, fell in love with Cornell. He told me, “When you go to visit a school, you’re just going to know when it’s the right place for you. You’re absolutely going to know.” I didn’t think it was possible—I was being jaded, like, “Oh, I’m a New Yorker, it’ll probably just be fine”—but I actually fell in love.
The hardest thing was making the commitment. Indiana gave me a full ride, and Duke gave me a portion. I knew I needed an environment where I felt supported, confident and happy, and I could not get rid of the feeling that Duke was where I wanted to be. It was probably hard for my parents to wrap their heads around my decision because I was doing everything on my own. I had to put aside the idea of debt.
Coming from New York and suddenly having green grass, trees and beautiful weather—I loved it. I was walking to my apartment on the first day, and I got so excited because it had carpeting and air conditioning. I thought, “This is amazing! I haven’t had this in years.”