2016 Best MBAs: Allison Davern, University of Maryland

Allison Davern Maryland

Allison Davern

 
Robert Smith School of Business, University of Maryland

“I didn’t realize how valuable soft skills and emotional intelligence are until business school. They truly differentiate candidates and leaders, and can impact whether someone is successful in a role. Many hard skills can be taught in a classroom or on the job, but it’s the soft skills that are far more difficult to develop.”

Age: 29

Hometown: Reno, Nevada

Undergraduate School and Degree: B.A. Political Science and B.A. Journalism, University of Nevada

Where did you work before enrolling in business school? I was an account supervisor at Ogilvy Public Relations in Washington, D.C. I specialized in account management, crisis communications, project management and strategic communications. My multi-million dollar account portfolio included non-profit, Fortune 100, trade association, and Federal government clients.

Where did you intern during the summer of 2015? During the summer of 2015, I interned at Vanguard, one of the world’s largest investment groups, in Malvern, Pennsylvania. I was a member of Vanguard’s MBA general management leadership development program.

Where will you be working after graduation? I have accepted a role as a Senior Product Manager at Amazon, Inc. in Seattle, Washington.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School

  • MBAA Vice President of Student Affairs. I was elected by my peers in December 2014 to serve as Smith’s next MBAA VP of Student Affairs. The role consists of advocating on behalf of MBA students’ interests to the Smith administration and faculty, conducting and analyzing our annual MBA Student Satisfaction Survey, and importantly, planning and executing the two week orientation for the next full-time MBA class (an effort that involves committee recruitment and nearly nine months of planning).

During my tenure, I successfully advocated to add global learning objectives to Smith’s accreditation learning goals, pushed for significant changes to Smith’s marketing and supply chain elective courses, executed new programming to increase participation and communication between domestic and international students, and (lastly) executed a successful orientation for the MBA Class of 2017 that included a first-ever orientation case competition with client Northrop Grumman.

  • Vice President of Finance, Smith Association of Women MBAs. I also serve as the VP of Finance for the Smith Association of Women MBAs (SAWMBA). In this role, I’m responsible for managing the club’s budget and advocating for additional funding and resources. But I wanted to have a bigger impact, so I co-developed a first-ever series of events designed to educate women on activities and topics that are typically dominated by men – golf, sports, gambling and spirits. Named the “Get Confident Series,” these fun, engaging events helped introduce a number of my classmates to common topics of discussion among men in the workplace.

In addition, I believe it is critical to involve men in conversations surrounding women in business if we hope to fundamentally change the U.S. workplace. To do so, I developed and executed an event called “Unconscious Bias in the Workplace” featuring a notable guest speaker and an interactive workshop. The event exceeded capacity with attendance by both male and female MBAs. This event kicked off an important conversation that will continue at Smith next year.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I am most proud of the significant changes I made to the Smith MBA Class of 2017 Orientation. My goal for orientation was clear from the beginning: to elevate the program, challenge students, and live up to the top-25 ranking the Smith program had worked so hard to achieve. Therefore, I eliminated a beloved event and replaced it with a three-day corporate-sponsored case competition because I believed it provided greater value to students. Planning and executing a case competition in addition to two weeks of orientation activities was an ambitious undertaking, but I had confidence that my team and I could pull it off. The Class of 2017 confirmed that I made the right decision by not only impressing our sponsor, Northup Grumman, during the case competition, but giving it one of the highest ratings of all orientation activities. Overall, this change elevated the experience for new students and provided them a forecast of what was to come.

Subsequently, the Smith Class of 2017 has gone on to win first place in almost every case competition entered this year. I believe this is a direct result of the practice and experience derived from the orientation case competition. It makes me so proud to see the impact my efforts have had and will have for many years to come.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? While at Ogilvy, there was a high-profile, multi-million dollar government account that was failing. Concerned that in six months the client would not be renewing its contract, my boss asked me to step in and take over the management of the account. It was a huge professional risk with responsibilities far above my current title. If I failed, Ogilvy would lose the account, and although I wasn’t initially on the account team, I knew the blame would fall on me. But I ultimately saw it as an opportunity to build my brand and reputation. So I took the challenge on.

I immediately instituted weekly in-person meetings with the client and practically lived in their offices so I could start building strong relationships and have a better understanding of their business needs and where we were failing to meet expectations. I then restructured the account team, put in place processes to better service the client, and ensured that every deliverable didn’t reach the client until I reviewed it for consistency, quality and impact. These changes resulted in the rebuilding of trust between my account team and the client, and eventually lead to the renewing of our contract for two additional years.

I continued to lead that team until I left for business school, and I consider it one of my proudest professional accomplishments because I took a high-profile account that was near failure, rebuilt it into a thriving, growing account, and developed a strong professional reputation as an exceptional client manager and “fixer.”

Who is your favorite professor? Charlie Olsen is my favorite professor. To be honest, I was very nervous the first day I stepped into his Global Economic Environment course because he had such a strong reputation at Smith. But I love how he challenged students and engaged the entire class to share information about their home countries. His class provided exactly what I expected to learn in business school, and even though I disagreed with him at times, he was always respectful of all opinions. And because of him, I’m hooked on reading the Wall Street Journal every morning!

Favorite MBA Courses? My favorite MBA courses have been Data Mining and Decision Analytics. Because I do not come from a quantitative background, I took every single quantitative course I could in business school in order to round out my skill set. I was intimidated by data before taking Data Mining and Decision Analytics, and now I feel that I have a stronger understanding and a skill set that I can build upon in my post-MBA career. Those courses have given me a much needed boost of quant-confidence!

Why did you choose this business school? I chose Smith because of the warm and collaborative nature of the school. I’m naturally competitive, but I didn’t want to compete against my fellow classmates. Smith was so welcoming and had so much personality, and I knew that I would learn a lot from the faculty and my fellow students. Smith lived up to my expectations, and I couldn’t be happier with my choice.

What did you enjoy most about business school? My experience at Smith has been profoundly impacted by my classmates. They are the best part of business school. I have learned so much from each of them, and I have been exposed to new cultures and ideas that have changed the way I look at and interact with the world. I strongly believe I have built a lifelong network of future business partners, colleagues and friends. I am so grateful to have met each and every one of them.

What is the biggest lesson you gained from business school? I didn’t realize how valuable soft skills and emotional intelligence are until business school. They truly differentiate candidates and leaders, and can impact whether someone is successful in a role. Many hard skills can be taught in a classroom or on the job, but it’s the soft skills that are far more difficult to develop.

What was the most surprising thing about business school? Recruiting. I found it so surprising that companies would come to recruit as early as September of my first year when I hadn’t yet completed a course or received a grade! Although I felt that I hadn’t changed, I guess simply being admitted to a good MBA program was enough to start the recruitment process. I had no idea it would be like this when I decided to go to business school.

What was the hardest part of business school? The hardest part was managing all of the competing priorities: class, group work, recruiting, social activities, and spending time with family and friends. It took me a full semester to finally figure out a way to invest enough in both school and in my personal life.

What’s your best advice to an applicant to your school? Be yourself. I think Smith looks for people that fit the unique culture. Collaboration, enthusiasm and personality are all important, so being true to yourself and honest in your responses are critical to the admissions process.

I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I reached a point in my career that I knew if I wanted to get to the next level, I needed to have a stronger business background and acumen. For the rest of my career, I wanted to eliminate from any future promotion conversations any questions regarding my ability to understand the “business of our business.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…I likely would have started my own PR consulting company, working with clients on my own terms and occasionally pairing up with other women-led PR shops to jointly service larger clients.”

What are your long-term professional goals? My dream is to run my own venture capital firm where I invest exclusively in startups founded by women and/or persons of color. Currently, there is a significant lack of capital available (or being allocated) to startups founded by underrepresented persons and I would love to spend every day making a positive impact on this issue.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? My husband is my biggest supporter and advocate. He has worked tirelessly to support me, both emotionally and financially, through school. He has been so patient and supportive of the long study nights, the travel and the internship. He didn’t think twice about giving up his successful career in Washington, D.C. to move to Seattle so I can take on my new role at Amazon, even though it means that he will have to make a radical career change. He is simply the best and I’m so thankful.

Fun fact about yourself: I once saw Patti LaBelle perform a private show at The White House for President Obama and several U.S. governors.

Favorite book: The Catcher in the Rye

Favorite movie: A League of Their Own

Favorite musical performer: Taylor Swift because she is a brilliant business woman! But for listening pleasure, I’m a huge Michael Jackson fan.

Favorite television show: Parks and Recreation. Leslie Knope is my hero.

Favorite vacation spot: Any place that I haven’t visited before! I love seeing the world and visiting new places that impact my world view. Next on my to-do list is either a tour of Italy or Japan.

Hobbies? I love to golf, play and watch sports, cook, and travel.

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

“Allison Davern entered the Smith School and immediately starting enhancing our program. While many students serve in leadership roles in their MBA programs, how strong of an impact do they really have? I can say with utmost certainty, that few would equal the impact Allison has had on a program. From the time of her first few weeks in orientation camp, she started designing improvements and positive changes in our program. Every course she took or competition she participated in, she came up with new ways to make it more challenging and difficult for herself, her peers, and future MBAs. Why? She simply knew that if she and her fellow students were to be superstars in their careers and really make a difference that all of them (including herself) were going to need to be pushed as hard as possible to excel. They were going to need to be uncomfortable, and embrace change in order to do things differently.

As you can see from her application, Allison has been a leader in numerous MBA activities and clubs. In all of those activities and in her work as my graduate assistant, she has been instrumental in changing the culture at Smith to being more rigorous yet at the same time, maintaining the collaborative spirit that is so famous among Smith students. Allison has consistently pushed all of us – faculty, students, alumni, and administrators to do more and be more, so that the MBA experience is the best it can possibly be. In her first year, second year, and I am sure as an alumni (she has already agreed to come back to help with activities), Allison focuses on the greater community (not just her own career goals and plans). Ask any student across our various programs, and they can tell you how much they respect Allison and value the contributions she has made for the entire school.

She is a true servant leader with an ambitious agenda for us all! For example, she overhauled a successful orientation week to make it even more demanding, yet beneficial for our students. She designed a new “get confident series” for our women MBAs to make them career-ready as soon as possible. She prepared an extensive MBA survey to scrutinize every aspect of the MBA experience in order to make more improvements. And, she did all of this by partnering with fellow students, faculty and school leaders. — Joyce E. A. Russell, Ph.D., Senior Associate Dean, Robert H. Smith School of Business

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