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2016 Best MBAs: Nadine Thornton, Cornell

Nadine Thornton Cornell

Nadine Thornton

Cornell University, Johnson Graduate School of Management     

“Long term I hope to help drive investment in underserved, underdeveloped, and particularly complex communities such as Indian Reservations. I want to contribute to economic development for the benefit of people and the broader societies in which they live.”      

Age: 24

Hometown: Mitchell, SD

Undergraduate School and Degree: Arizona State University; BA in Business; Summa Cum Laude

Where did you work before enrolling in business school? Founded and operate a business investing in distressed real estate.

Where did you intern during the summer of 2015? Simpson Thacher & Bartlett; Houston, TX

Where will you be working after graduation? Simpson Thacher & Bartlett; Associate

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: My first year, I was chosen from over 100 applicants to be an Associate on Johnson’s student-run venture capital fund the BR Venture Fund (BRV). I then applied with over 20 of my Associate peers to become a Fund Manager and was chosen as one of 7 to manage BRV over the last year. We do everything involved in running a venture fund including sourcing potential investments, recruiting, training and managing Associates for the diligence process, making investment decisions, fundraising, consulting portfolio companies and working with other VC funds. This leadership role has provided the chance to not only learn the nuts-and-bolts of venture capital and be exposed to a lot of innovative and inspiring startups and entrepreneurs, but other skills more broadly applicable to managing people, building relationships and partnerships, and selling ideas and impact.

This summer, I also had the incredible opportunity to work as one of three public interest fellows chosen by Simpson Thacher. I worked for four weeks serving Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services which provides affordable home ownership and rentals for low to moderate income people in central New York. The role allowed me to contribute to my community using my real estate experience and the business and legal knowledge I am acquiring. I currently observe INHS board meetings and track regulatory, legal, and business issues they face.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Growing up near Indian reservations in South Dakota with my father’s farm on the Cheyenne River reservation, I spent time working with Native American communities like Pine Ridge, where unemployment and poverty are widespread and deeply rooted. I always believed that creating opportunities for business investment in tribal communities would create sustainable change benefiting people on a fundamental level for years to come. I have seen examples of this from connections, including a Cornell alum who started a successful coffee company and community development corporation on Pine Ridge. The desire to drive investment in such a complex legal and economic environment drove my desire for a JD/MBA.

As a result, I decided to organize the Cornell Tribal Economic Development Summit last year. With the help of another Native American law student, Rose Nimkiins Petoskey (Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians), we hosted the first ever all day event at Cornell dedicated to discussing the issues and action items necessary to achieve economic progress for tribal communities. We brought together bankers, lawyers, tribal leaders, politicians, environmentalists, and academics to share a broad range of perspectives on the topic and had a lively debate. Students from the business school, law school, school of theology, public administration and other undergraduate and graduate programs were in attendance gaining understanding of the issues and contributing a diverse set of viewpoints. The summit provided opportunities for attendees to connect. At the conclusion, many planned to work together on actionable ideas generated from the discussions.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I’m most pleased with the fact I worked on my business throughout my undergraduate years, while paying for my schooling. I didn’t make millions, but am nonetheless proud of that experience. Securing funding, leveraging funding with risky debt, dedicating time to learning my trade, and spending long hours were areas of accomplishment. Finding a way to make a positive impact in an industry that is filled with loss and struggle was gratifying. The homes I purchased in the years following the crisis were short sales or foreclosures. Bringing a neglected house back to its former glory and helping a new family own a property was worthwhile.

Favorite MBA Courses?

Case studies in Private Equity and Venture Capital

Negotiation – Challenged my preconceived notions of myself as a negotiator and expanded my ability and confidence to find quality solutions in the face of conflict.

Management Practicum – Real work for a real company with a team of talented one-year MBAs

Financial Modeling – Critical skills, speed and quality with Excel.

Why did you choose this business school? I chose Cornell for many reasons. First, the 3-year accelerated JD/MBA program limited the opportunity cost of getting two degrees, which would normally take 4 or 5 years. I knew I wanted to get a quality experience from both schools in order to leverage the complementary knowledge for my ultimate goals.

Second, Johnson’s smaller class size and tight-knit community in Ithaca was a big draw. I wanted a collaborative culture where people were open and supportive. I am a community oriented person who appreciates being around others who value our interconnectedness as well.

Third, the broader Cornell University resources are vast. I enjoy learning from people in all parts of the school and engaging them for projects, particularly for BRV startup sourcing, potential deal analysis, and portfolio company consulting support. From the Engineering, Industrial Labor Relations and Hotel school to Agriculture, Veterinary Science, and Weill, this truly is a place where, as Ezra Cornell put it many years ago “any person can find instruction in any study.” Learning from passionate and knowledgeable people in these many fields has made me a more well-rounded person and has sparked my inherent intellectual curiosity.

What did you enjoy most about business school? I most enjoyed meeting, working with and building lasting connections with diverse peers, knowledgeable professors, dedicated alumni and committed advisors/supporters. The wide range of experiences, interests and career trajectories in the student body surprised me and shaped my experience academically and socially. While many will remain weak and strong ties, some of these people will always be close friends and confidants. The faculty holds a wealth of differing viewpoints and experiences, but agrees on one thing: constant openness with and support for their students.

Our alumni are geographically and functionally dispersed, but will all pick up the phone for a call or advocate for a talented Johnson student. One example of the committed alumni occurred in planning the 15th anniversary celebration for BRV. I was able to reach out and connect with alumni in a broad variety of industries who had previously been fund managers and see the massive success they have achieved. Many of them have mentoring calls with the BRV team and others host educational sessions for associates. Others support the fund monetarily or with connections to their network or professional opportunities.

What is the biggest lesson you gained from business school? I gained a better sense of how to learn from others effectively. Many of my colleagues were older, more experienced. Nonetheless they encouraged me to engage in the important discussions with them and challenge their ideas. Business school taught me a valuable skill applicable to the rest of my life: how to learn from people of any relationship to me, field of expertise, and personality.

What was the most surprising thing about business school? The environment was warm enough to invite me to push outside my comfort zone and gracious enough to let me down easy when I was wrong. I felt confident to add my perspective and to share my experiences. I began to understand that I had a unique contribution to make. Going into a high pressure career, this has been a welcome surprise that will surely help set me up for success.

What’s your best advice to an applicant to your school? You have to be a team player. It is hard in the middle of the zero-sum game of admissions to not be overly competitive. This is the culture of Johnson and what we are hoping for in future students and alumni. We are a network that supports not only one another, but also the broader community.

If you are deciding whether or not to attend Johnson, talk to people. Once you get here, first, explore all the opportunities in the business school and prioritize them – there are so many options. Second, look beyond just the business school to connect with the diverse sets of expertise and learning opportunities across campus.

I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I had built a small business, but wanted more. I wanted a broader impact, a sharper and deeper skill set, and a more connected network. The answer was clearly to get a Cornell MBA.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…I would be working at an investment bank, learning more about the financial side of deal-making and working towards going to business school later.”

What are your long-term professional goals? Long term I hope to help drive investment in underserved, underdeveloped, and particularly complex communities such as Indian Reservations. I want to contribute to economic development for the benefit of people and the broader societies in which they live.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? Without my husband, Eric Thornton, I would not be at Cornell nor would I be on track for my dream career. He believed in me so strongly and pushed me to apply for JD/MBA programs.

Ours is a startup marriage. His venture investment in me began in high school and continued as I moved him across the country twice. Like any good VC, Eric saw potential early, invested in it, nurtured it, and doubled down repeatedly with further “capital.” I am enormously grateful and only hope we can share in the returns together.

Fun fact about yourself: My first job, at 15, was the weekend disc jockey for my county’s country music and oldies radio stations.

Favorite book: Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman

Favorite movie: Bridge of Spies (2015)

Favorite musical performer: Zac Brown Band

Favorite television show: The Amazing Race

Favorite vacation spot: Anywhere new!

Hobbies? Hiking with my dog, kayaking, barre, yoga, food and wine

What made Nadine such an invaluable addition to the class of 2016?

“Nadine Thornton has been an outstanding manager for BR venture fund, both because of her “business head” and her legal training (she is getting both an MBA and a law school degree).  She has been the liaison for the venture fund with the law school professors and students on difficult legal issues. Upon graduation, she will unquestionably be a valued member of her law firm.

She has also served as a TA for NBA 5570, Case Studies in Venture Capital and Private Equity, and for NBA 5370, the Private Equity Practicum. Both are difficult courses to TA because they require detailed grading of cases for which the students usually spend more than 20 hours of preparation. The topics covered range over the entire gamut of business issues leading to recommendations for the structuring of deals and the purchase of companies. This means that the TA has to have understanding of marketing, organizational structuring, finance, strategic analysis and deal structuring. Nadine has been excellent in counseling students regarding their questions on all these topics in each deal. I would certainly rate Nadine as one of the best TAs that I have had. — Professor David BenDaniel, Cornell University, Johnson Graduate School of Management

DON’T MISS: CLASS OF 2016: THE BEST & BRIGHTEST GRADUATING MBAS