2016 Best MBAs: Blair Pircon, Northwestern Kellogg

Blair Pircon Northwestern

Blair Pircon

Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management

“There are a lot of ways to apply your talents and abilities. Take the time to know yourself, invest in your skills and network, and focus to go after the area where you want to make an impact.”

Age: 30

Hometown: Chicago, IL

Undergraduate School and Degree: (The University of Notre Dame, B.B.A. in Finance (magna cum laude)

Where did you work before enrolling in business school? Robert W. Baird, Equity Research Senior Associate

Where did you intern during the summer of 2015? The Graide Network; Chicago, IL

Where will you be working after graduation? The Graide Network, Founder and CEO

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

Co-President, Women’s Business Association (WBA) – In this role, I co-lead an executive team of 15 members, a leadership team of 47 members, and a membership base of nearly 570 members. The WBA is one of the largest student clubs at Kellogg. Unlike other clubs, we fund our entire budget through corporate sponsorships and also offer two partial scholarships to students each year. This year, the WBA launched a successful Women’s Leadership Seminar for second year MBA women. Nearly 120 women participated in the five-session seminar.

Co-President, Women’s MBA Coalition – (an association of the presidents of the women’s organizations at 14 top business schools). In this role, I am launching the first in-person summit for the incoming and outgoing coalition members. The annual Women’s MBA Coalition Summit is designed to empower and prime first-year women selected for leadership roles within their respective women’s business associations by equipping them with the institutional knowledge of second-year women across schools. Simultaneously, the event will celebrate the triumphs and address the challenges that second year women faced in leading their organizations during the previous academic year.

Zell Fellow 2016 As one of nine students, I was selected to participate in Kellogg’s six-month accelerator program. The program provides mentorship, international exposure, and up to $25,000 in funding to support The Graide Network. I just returned from a week in Israel meeting with our sister Zell program at IDC Herzliya in Tel Aviv where we helped each other work on our startups, meet the Israeli tech community, and pitch to advisors and investors.

MBA Impact Investing Network & Training (MIINT) Program 2014-15 – “Best Impact Investment” winner

Forté Foundation Fellow – Full-ride merit scholarship

NewDay Social Entrepreneurship Internship Award – Winner, received $30,000 to launch The Graide Network.

2015 Leap Innovations Summer Startup Award – Winner, received $10,000 to develop The Graide Network; incubated at Leap Innovations (an education innovation R&D center based in 1871).

2014 Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Inspiration Project Impact – Winner, received $2,000 for startup

2016 Cambelback Ventures Fellow – Selected to participate in a seven-month accelerator supporting social impact entrepreneurs with capital, coaching, and networks.

Member of the 2016 WiSTEM cohort – Selected for a 16-week program for early-stage technology or technology-enabled companies at 1871 in Chicago.

Finalist for Chicago Inno’s “50 on Fire” Award recognizing the top innovators and influencers in Chicago.

2015 Kellogg Venture Capital Investment Challenge – Winner;

Central region Venture Capital Investment Challenge – Winner of Entrepreneur’s Choice 2015.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? During my time at Kellogg, I am most proud of founding, developing and growing The Graide Network, an education technology startup. The Graide Network connects educators with qualified teaching assistants to grade and provide feedback to students. Resisting the temptation to pursue more traditional post-MBA opportunities required a lot of confidence in myself and my venture. Starting a business has not been easy, and I don’t expect it will ever be. The numerous challenges—identifying and validating critical business assumptions, handling founder departures, making strategic decisions with minimal information, and overcoming adversity to change—have tested and strengthened me in ways that I never expected. I am excited to pursue The Graide Network full time after graduation. I am proud to further our mission to unlock the full potential of our educational system through human-powered, technology-enabled collaboration by connecting teachers and learners in entirely new ways.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? When I think back on my six years as an equity analyst before Kellogg, I am proud of my strong track record of providing clients with the best possible investment advice. But I am most proud of the tangible impact I had on my team, including rising to the challenge of leadership during my bosses’ medical leaves, on my department in recruiting and cross-team collaboration, and on the company as an executive team member and later Co-Chair of the annual Women at Baird conference.

Who is your favorite professor? There are many great professors at Kellogg, but one of my favorites is Professor Victoria Medvec, the Adeline Barry Davee Professor of Management & Organizations and Executive Director of the Center for Executive Women. I had the opportunity to take Professor Medvec for three classes, including her extremely popular Negotiations class and the newly launched Women’s Leadership Seminar. She is dynamic, incredibly knowledgeable in her areas of expertise, and passionate about developing women as business leaders. I left her classes more savvy about group decision-making and networking, more strategic about achieving long-term career success as a woman, and certainly with better negotiating skills.

Favorite MBA Courses? Negotiations, Public Economics for Business Leaders, Kellogg Innovation Network (KIN) Challenge, Global Initiatives in Management: India, New Venture Development

Why did you choose this business school? I was attracted to Kellogg’s open and collaborative culture, strong female role models in the faculty and administration, and the incredible diversity of the students’ backgrounds and post-graduation fields. I came from a finance undergraduate program, worked for six years in finance, and am a CFA charterholder. Therefore, I was interested in Kellogg’s ability to diversify my skillset and expose me to the areas of launching, growing, and scaling a business.

What did you enjoy most about business school? The people! The student experience at Kellogg is really powerful. The open culture combined with the administration’s empowerment of students to create and improve the school made for an exciting and fruitful experience. The caliber and quality of people involved have made all the difference in a wide range of my favorite experiences—leading the Women’s Business Association to create far-reaching new programs, designing my own research on startups in India during an immersion class, or starting my own company.

What is the biggest lesson you gained from business school? There are a lot of ways to apply your talents and abilities. Take the time to know yourself, invest in your skills and network, and focus to go after the area where you want to make an impact.

What was the most surprising thing about business school? The fallacy of free time. The grad student schedule is certainly different than the workplace, but no less busy!

What’s your best advice to an applicant to your school? Be open-minded. You are smart and capable and know a lot, but each of your prospective future classmates has life and work experience wildly different than yours. Learning from them is your chance to jumpstart your understanding of business in both global and local contexts.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I was graduating from college and already recognized that I had ambitious plans for a long-term career (whatever that was). Then, work proved to be quite fun and kept me busy for the next six years. I realized that I needed to apply to business school when I reached a temporary plateau in my career mobility. I decided that I wanted to use that period of time to invest in myself in an entirely new way.”

“If I hadn’t gone to business school…I would be leading my own list of coverage as a Senior Equity Research Analyst. At least, that was the near term goal! I come from several generations of entrepreneurs and business owners, so I could only delay the itch to do my own thing for so long.”

Which executive or entrepreneur do you most admire? I admire Ellen Kullman.  I had the opportunity to see Ellen speak at Kellogg, and I was impressed by her integrity, ability and commitment. Her executive presence was palpable and her grounded leadership style resonated with me.

What are your long-term professional goals? In the long-term, I want to be leading others to achieve collective impact. While there are a number of roles that could allow me to achieve that goal, I see myself thriving in small, dynamic, and growing companies. In 20 years, I hope to still be building vibrant, impact-oriented organizations that deliver excellence and value the dignity of each person.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? My husband! He has advised me through every professional and personal step and ardently supports my efforts to create and run a company. Plus, he was the one who encouraged me to apply to business school in the first place.

Fun fact about yourself: I attended eight different schools by the eighth grade—the joys of growing up in a military family!

Favorite book: My favorite book to read over and over again is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, my favorite book to study is Dante’s The Inferno, and a “new” favorite that I read recently is Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

Favorite movie: The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers

Favorite musical performer: George Strait

Favorite television show: NA, I don’t really watch TV

Favorite vacation spot: Either the beaches on St. John, US Virgin Islands or camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota.

Hobbies? Ballroom dance, yoga, and cooking (as long as Plated ships all the ingredients and recipes directly to me).

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

“I am privileged to recommend Blair Pircon, Kellogg School of Management Class of 2016, for Poets&Quants’ “Best and Brightest MBAs” feature. I have enjoyed getting to know this dynamic student leader, and have witnessed on numerous occasions her passion for social entrepreneurship.

Blair’s strong vision, persistence and ability to reflect on goals and priorities have garnered increasing recognition for The Graide Network, the promising education startup she cofounded and for which she serves as CEO. Rather than completing a traditional MBA summer internship, Blair chose to incubate this game-changing startup, which stemmed from an idea pitched at a Kellogg social impact event. Extensive research showed that overworked teachers lack time to give students critical, personalized feedback. To offer a solution, Blair cofounded The Graide Network, which connects overwhelmed teachers with qualified teaching assistants. As a recipient of the NewDay Social Entrepreneurship Summer Award and LEAP Innovations Summer Stipend and Working Space Award, Blair was able to spend last summer preparing the startup for its successful launch in September. The Graide Network has matched teachers from 10 public middle and high schools with teacher candidates from eight universities. Chicago tech hub 1871 recently chose the startup to participate in WiSTEM, a 16-week, curriculum-based program for female entrepreneurs with technology-related companies. ChicagoInno selected The Graide Network as one of 10 student-launched startups set to make moves in 2016. Blair will continue her important work as one of 10 entrepreneurs selected for the 2016 Camelback Fellowship, an accelerator program for women- and minority-owned social enterprises.

A standout Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship student, Blair takes the initiative to apply her leadership skills to the benefit of her community. As co-president of Kellogg’s Women’s Business Association, she gives voice to students’ concerns and works to empower members by finding connections and identifying career enhancement opportunities. Her contributions as a key student team member led to a Best Impact Investment award during the 2015 MBA Impact Investing Network & Training (MIINT) Competition and earned her team the opportunity to present its proposal at KIN Global 2015. She is one of nine 2016 cohorts of the Zell Fellows Program, a highly selective entrepreneurial experience for intelligent, passionate students who strive to create new ventures with lasting value. Blair exemplifies Kellogg’s mission to “develop brave leaders who inspire growth in people, organizations and markets.” — Linda Darragh, Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurial Practice, The Larry Levy Executive Director, Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative,Executive Director, Heizer Center for Private Equity and Venture Capital


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