2016 Best MBAs: Alison Mehlsak, Virginia Darden

Alison Mehlsak Virginia

Alison Mehlsak

 
University of Virginia, Darden Graduate School of Business

‘I have taught for 30 years.  Ali Mehlsak is the cream of the crop.  Intellectually, she is among a handful of the best students I have ever had.’

Age: 28

Hometown: Portland, ME

Education: Tufts University, BA, Political Science

Where did you work before enrolling in business school? Cone Communications, Boston, MA

Where did you intern during the summer of 2015? The Coca-Cola Company, Office of the Chief Sustainability Officer, Atlanta, GA

Where will you be working after graduation? General Mills, Inc., Associate Marketing Manager

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: Vice President of Honor for the Darden Student Association; UVA Honor Committee Representative for Darden; VP of Conference for Net Impact at Darden; VP of Careers and Alumni Relations for Media, Entertainment, and Sports Club

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? As I write this, I am in full-time planning mode for our 2016 Business in Society Week at Darden. Annually, the Net Impact chapter at Darden brings speakers to present their ideas and insights from careers at the intersection of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.

This year, we are focusing on work in innovation and design as a means for collaboration and creating sustainable change. I’m leading a cross-club team of leaders to bring a week’s worth of events to life – from FinTech and impact investing to health care and CPG innovation – and I’m excited about the program we have planned. This has been a labor of love for me since last April. To see things coming together is incredibly rewarding. There have been many highlights of my time at Darden, but this is my capstone – the thing that makes me most proud – because it brings so many people together to highlight trends and issues that can make a real difference in our careers and in our world.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Before starting at Darden I worked in social impact consulting – strategy, marketing, communications, thought leadership, and employee engagement – for companies looking to generate more social good than just profits. I had the chance to work with some amazing companies, one of them being a global hospitality company. This organization came to our agency to help build their corporate responsibility strategy from the ground up. I was an early member of the team, and ended up being one of the longest-tenured as well. My roles and responsibilities on that team grew with me as I grew in my career – working more closely with stakeholders and clients, managing work streams, and creating executive communications for the C-suite.

Today, I look at the work I produced and led on that team and I see much of it in the marketplace, taking a firm hold within the company’s culture. Not only did that client and experience shape me into the student and leader I am today, but I can see real, global impact coming from my work. It is the benchmark against which I’ll compare my future professional opportunities.

Who is your favorite professor? I don’t intend to take an easy way out of this question, but anyone who knows Darden knows that our faculty is pretty outstanding. Identifying one among them as a favorite leaves too many exceptional people out of the conversation – and too many exceptional people have left an imprint on my time at Darden to call out just one. But I can tell you what they all have in common.

My favorite kind of professor is someone who commands the case method and the classroom. She pushes students to the edge of what they think they understand, and helps them go further. He knows when humor is the antidote to tension or confusion. Most of all, my favorite kind of professor is a teacher, through and through. She loves to help us learn just as much as she loves her research, because he knows that keeping that balance is what makes the entire Darden ecosystem successful.

Favorite MBA Courses? The entire first-year core at Darden is amazing. There’s something invigorating about spending so much time with just your section and your learning team, struggling and succeeding together through seven months of three cases per day.

Second year is where the classes themselves become really exciting. My favorites so far have been: Data Science (learning to code and forecast through machine learning); Seminar in Havana, Cuba: An Economy in Transition (traveling to Havana to work with the emerging cuentapropistas, the self-employed, and learn about how Cuba’s economy is changing with warming relations with the United States); and Impact Investing (a course that challenged me in everything I thought I knew about finance and social impact, yet helped me understand how I can play a role in helping make these new kinds of financial products become common practice).

Why did you choose this business school? I applied to Darden because of alumni I had met and the school’s reputation as a place to find a unique classroom experience led by some of the world’s best faculty. I ultimately chose Darden because when I stepped on grounds and visited a first-year class, I could see all of these things coming to life before my eyes. Darden’s talking points weren’t just spin, it was real. When I interviewed for a spot in the class of 2016, I explained it this way to my second-year student interviewer:

The case I got to see was a long accounting case. Cold call after cold call, students were giving wrong answers. It was obviously a challenging day and they were struggling, but they were laughing. And they were all helping each other through the complexity of financial accounting rules – students and professor alike. This is the kind of classroom I want and these are the kinds of people I want to be around for two years. I want to be in a place where I can grapple with new ideas and ambiguity and technicalities, supported by my peers and mentors.

Darden is a hidden gem in the MBA world. While I’m of two minds about spilling the news, it should be on the short-list of every prospective MBA who wants to work hard, learn a lot, and thrive in a case method classroom, side by side with some of the warmest, smartest, and most down-to-earth students, staff, and faculty out there.

What did you enjoy most about business school? Other than being at Darden and in Charlottesville, I enjoyed these two years for the time they gave me to explore. I came to school thinking my path would be pretty direct into a corporate responsibility or social impact role. But through my classes, in meeting new people with backgrounds so diverse and different from one another and from my own, and in getting to learn and contribute at The Coca-Cola Company in my summer internship, I found that my best path isn’t as direct as I thought. In taking courses in finance and product development and through workshops in rapid prototyping and operations management, I’ve been exposed to new influences that have reshaped my vision for my career. I no longer want to sit in a job with “sustainability” in the title (just yet). Instead, I want to be in a role that is integrated into the core operations of the business, influencing from the inside out and from the bottom up.

The process of getting to this point of clarity has been my favorite part of business school – the exploration and experimentation, the freedom to ask lots of questions and meet interesting people with important insights to share.

What was the most surprising thing about business school? I’ve been surprised about how life-affirming business school has been. I expected school to be disruptive, to be exposed to new people and ideas, and – between finance, accounting, statistics, and spreadsheets – to feel like a fish out of water most of the time. I was prepared to be rudely awakened by the reality of the vast amounts of knowledge I did not yet possess.

What I did not expect is that coming through the other side of this process would leave me feeling so confident, so self-assured, and truly ready to independently execute on the goals I wrote about in my application essay. I knew business school, the case method, and the first-year core were going to break me down in some ways, but what I didn’t see coming was just how strongly they were going to build me right back up again. I’m starting the next phase of my career knowing I still have more learn, but with the tools to do that confidently and strategically, and with tact and empathy.

What’s ironic is that this is exactly why I came to Darden, and it’s exactly why our mantra is “Trust the Process.” But in a way I’m glad the repetition of that refrain didn’t ruin the surprise for me, because experiencing for myself just how well the process works is even more satisfying.

What was the hardest part of business school? Tactically, the hardest part was learning how to be a student again, and specifically, within the Darden system. Having worked for five years before starting my MBA, I was in a life groove: sleep, work, exercise, play, and relax. I had moments when I really could leave work at work and turn my brain off for periods of time. But coming back to school, I found the adjustment to student life to be a jarring one. My school days started at 7:30 and ended at 11:30, 12:30, or later. With three cases to prep every day, and not enough weekday hours to manage it, I played catch-up on weekends, meaning I compromised on exercise and relaxation. Business school can be all-consuming and it was a challenge for me to find balance.

Not everyone struggles in the same way – some of my friends managed this transition much more seamlessly – but I found it to be exhausting. There are moments of exhilaration when I had a breakthrough in a case or a model, and those wins kept me going. If I had that transition to do over again, I’m not sure I’d change a thing. It was difficult, but when I finished that first year, and the Darden core specifically, I felt like I achieved something great in the best way I knew how.

I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I realized that the private sector wields the greatest potential power to create positive, sustainable change around the world.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…on one of two paths: following my creative passions into advertising or following my personal social impact mission into a nonprofit that is fighting hard to make a difference.”

Which executive or entrepreneur do you most admire? Bert and John Jacobs, the creators of the Life is Good brand, are executives/entrepreneurs I have long admired. The brothers became successful selling t-shirts out of their van by capturing an optimistic sentiment that customers quickly related to. In addition to the brand name, the slogan of “Do what you love, love what you do,” captured eloquently how work, hobbies, and personal values can be intertwined to make life so good. And Bert and John continued to build out their company keeping this philosophy in mind in the broadest sense. Life is Good products depicted sports, music, books, and family. Life is Good Festivals became places of pure joy for families, communities, and employees, with concerts from popular bands and artists, and proceeds benefiting first local organizations around New England. Then once the strategy became more mature, it became the company’s own foundation. Bert and John created a brand that understood and prioritized a wide swath of its stakeholders, while continuing to innovate and expand its product line and reach.

Life is Good has grown from regional start-up to become a national – even global – brand. I worked for two summers in high school and college at the Life is Good company store in Portland, Maine. Visitors from around the country and the world would flock to our shop, delighted by the clever and inspiring messaging and cartoons on the clothing, excited to see the merchandise up close, rather than buying online from far away.

Bert and John created a movement of consumers who began to see how business can care about them, about their families, and how it can simply bring joy to their lives. Bert and John have never compromised on their mission to deliver the most good they can to their stakeholders, and for that I admire them. I loved working in their store and I hope to spend my career in companies that make me feel just as fulfilled and happy as I did ringing up merchandise in high school.

What are your long-term professional goals? I’ve had one clear goal since the day I graduated from college: to lead the social impact or sustainability work within a company I am passionate about. It was in college during an internship with Nike that I learned to recognize the ways in which the private sector can influence and improve individual human lives. Whether through the core products and services of the business, the processes and procedures of the company’s operations, or the philanthropic or policy priorities, a for-profit organization has many tools at its disposal that it can use to effect change.

In my career I want to be the manager of a team that is responsible for creating good within and outside a company. I want to be the strategist and the executor, the thought leader and the early adopter. This will take time to achieve – to gain the experience and the credibility to lead such a team in such a robust way – and so it’s the North Star toward which I continue to align my decision-making.

My next role at General Mills is intended to help me continue down that path. I’ve already spent time in the impact world, particularly in strategy and communications. Now is the time for me to leverage my MBA and dive into the guts of a business; to learn how and where value is created, so I can integrate that experience with what I already know, and overtime, meld this “traditional” role with the “nontraditional” to ensure that I am prepared to reach the long-term goal that I’ve set.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? This may be a predictable answer, but I have to thank my family. The further I’ve come in my career the more I value the influence and examples that my parents and older sister been for me.

My parents – writers, readers, and leaders; curious by nature – have taught me how to effectively engage with and communicate in this world. As a lawyer, my mom taught me how to write with clarity, how to make arguments, and how to create a complete narrative. She pushed me to care more and try harder when I was apathetic or ready to give up on an assignment. By far, our biggest disagreements have come when arguing over how to edit a sentence (her) or not (me). My dad’s influence on my writing is subtler. He knew better than to get too involved in the writing/editing process with me. Instead, he led by example. The editor of our local newspaper, he frequently wrote columns that were funny, persuasive, or heartfelt. Reading his words and bantering about current events helped infuse personality into my own writing, giving me a unique voice in life and on paper.

Simultaneously, my parents were also active in our local Jewish, school, and sports communities, holding leadership roles in various organizations that set an early example for the active citizenship that runs in my veins today.

My sister, three years older, more studious, shy, and quiet than I’ll ever be able to be, was the trailblazer in my life. She had no choice but to do everything first – play with Barbies, play an instrument, go to high school, college, and then graduate school. We are different people, but my life has unfolded like hers in many ways, in large part because the risks she took and the successes she made for herself made those same options seem attainable for me.

Business school has been the most significant time in my life where I, as the younger child, have paved a new path for myself. But I’ve done so knowing that I have my family to thank for it, benefitting greatly from the patience, attention, care, and support they offered – and continue to offer.

Fun fact about yourself: A few of my friends and I hold Maine Swimming state relay records from our ten- and eight-and-under meets – nearly 20 years ago. I haven’t swum regularly since high school, and so I’m pretty sure those times would be faster than anything I could swim today!

Favorite book: I learned to love reading at a young age from my parents and my older sister. I often read voraciously, speeding through series or collections of books in the same theme. So while it’s hard to pick out a single book, I can quickly pinpoint a series. Before there was Harry Potter, there were five different Tamora Pierce collections about a young female heroine named Alanna, whose stories about becoming a knight in a medieval, male-centric world captured my attention and never let go. To this day, I occasionally scan Amazon hoping that somehow I’ve missed one of Pierce’s books so that I have some new story to devour.

Favorite movie: I’m going to fudge the rules here a bit, and say that since most epically successful Broadway shows eventually become movies (granted, usually mediocre ones), I can pick a musical rather than a movie…And in that case, it’s Hamilton: The Musical. All the hype is worth it and I am happily on the growing bandwagon. After seeing the show live, and even after dozens and dozens of listens to the soundtrack, I still get chills hearing lyrics like these coming from a strong female character: “You want a revolution? I want a revelation. So listen to my declaration: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’ And when I meet Thomas Jefferson? I’ma compel him to include women in the sequel.”

Favorite musical performer: Ryan Montbleau Band. Ryan is a Boston native whose bluegrass/Americana band often just includes him on a guitar and one other musician/singer on an upright base. It’s possible that in some small way, being a fan of Ryan’s helped me head south to Darden and to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Favorite television show: My answer is heavily influenced by proximity, but I’ve just finished Season 4 of Parks and Recreation, and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed and cried more (sometimes at the same time) than during this season of television. And I like to think I’ve got a little Leslie Knope in me.

Favorite vacation spot: I haven’t lived in my hometown for more than 10 years now, and so Portland has definitely become my favorite vacation spot. My parents are still in the area and there’s nothing better than going home – even for just a weekend – to smell the ocean, take a ferry ride in Casco Bay, and eat some of my favorite foods (my Dad’s cooking and local lobster rolls included).

Hobbies? Playing soccer (I played in college), listening to podcasts (I’m pretty addicted to NPR’s Planet Money), experimenting with cooking (just like the smell of baking cookies, putting any kind of meat in a slow cooker for eight hours can both intoxicate and impress yourself and your friends), and volunteering (my passion is for sports and literacy, and I hope to get involved in these kinds of organizations when I relocate to Minneapolis).

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

“I have taught at Darden for 30 years (Wharton and Carlson before, and guest taught around the world), so I have had literally thousands of MBA students at some of the best schools in the world.  Ali Mehlsak is the cream of the crop.  She is unbelievably bright and articulate, able to analyze complex phenomena and explain them to her classmates.  She was a superstar in a recent seminar on Economic Inequality, analyzing extremely complex data sets and arguments and making sense out of them.  Intellectually, she is among a handful of the best students I have ever had.

However, that only begins to tell you who Ms. Mehlsak is. She believes in her core that business and capitalism can be used as a force for good in the world.  Yesterday she stood in front of hundreds of her colleagues and delivered a stirring introduction to John Mackey of Whole Foods. She has been the leader of Net Impact, organizing to get Mackey to speak here, as well as a leader of the club’s Business and Society week. In addition she is working with my colleagues and I on a “stakeholder theory” case which we will use in our curriculum. And, she has been a leader in our Institute for Business in Society’s program on Tri-Sector Leadership and public-private partnerships. Ali also has a good heart. She is organizing a fund for a recent tragedy that has affected many in our community. In short, I can’t think of a better person for this recognition.”

Edward Freeman
Elis and Signe Olsson Professor of Business Administration
Senior Fellow, Olsson Center for Applied Ethics
Academic Director, Business Roundtable Institute For Corporate Ethics
University of Virginia, Darden Graduate School of Business

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