At first, Morgan Bernstein says, she struggled with the idea that returning to work at one’s alma mater was akin to failure. But then she looked around at her MBA colleagues, some of whom were deeply unhappy in their work lives after settling for first offers during the recession years of 2008-2009, and she realized that there are worse things than working at the University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business — and doing what you love.
“Initially, I still had those hesitations,” says Bernstein, executive director of admissions for the Haas full-time MBA program, “and I heard the voices in my head telling me this isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing, this is an entry-level job, and, ‘Really? You want to work in admissions?’ But I pretty quickly was able to turn down those voices and just give myself the opportunity to be happy.
“I make less now than I did in my first job right out of grad school,” Bernstein says. “But I’m happier than I’ve ever been. And that’s worth everything. Here I am, seven years later, and there is no other place I can imagine being.”
UNFAMILIAR STRUGGLE: FINDING WORK IN THE GREAT RECESSION
Bernstein earned her Haas MBA in 2009 in an economic climate that it would be generous to describe as challenging. The country was deep into the worst recession in decades. Companies simply weren’t hiring. With a background that included investment banking and product management, Bernstein had hoped to work for Google after interning there between years one and two, working for the Internet giant’s online field operations team in a role that she describes as “awesome.” She was one of about 40 interns that summer — but in 2009, for the first time in memory, Google hired none of its former MBA interns.
“So I ultimately graduated without a job, which was fairly common, at least for my class,” Bernstein tells Poets&Quants over coffee in Rockridge, where she lives with her husband and two young children, about two miles from the Haas building on the Berkeley campus. Seeking work in marketing and tech, she got a foot in the door at eBay through a Haas connection. It was “Pretty much the next job that came across my radar that aligned with my interests,” she says. “And then I was kind of tossed around until we found what the right fit was.”
At the time, eBay was trying to compete with Amazon and Overstock in the retail space, and Bernstein came on board just as the online auction site was opening up a fashion category. That’s where she landed, and it was “a great place to be at the time.” Her job was to help eBay figure out what their strategy was to bring on brands and retailers directly — “to bring on Michael Kors to sell directly on eBay,” she says. “It was a great place to be.”
‘I DIDN’T GO TO BUSINESS SCHOOL FOR NOTHING’
But something was missing. Bernstein was experiencing a common problem of MBAs who choose a job for reasons other than fit: She was having a hard time getting behind her company and its mission. She couldn’t “evangelize” it. And the result was unhappiness.
“Truth be told, I have never actually bought or sold anything on eBay, and here I was working for this incredible company but I was having a really hard time just getting behind it,” she says. “I was living in San Francisco at the time and I was commuting an hour and a half each way on the eBay bus, and that made for really long days, and I was having a really hard time sinking my teeth into it and getting excited about my job.
“One day I woke up and my then-boyfriend, now husband, said, ‘You complain about your job all the time — I’m sick of it. Do something about it.’ And I thought, ‘You know what? You’re right. I didn’t go to business school for nothing.’ I stopped and thought, ‘I have options. I’m not stuck.’ At the time, because so many of us had graduated without a job, we felt the need to take that first opportunity that came our way, and six months out, a lot of people were really unhappy, and a lot of us spent our get-togethers and happy hours complaining about our jobs. And I thought, ‘Why? Why are we doing this?'”
THE PROBLEM OF FIT
Bernstein says one of the most important things she learned at Berkeley Haas was the importance of cultural fit. Unfortunately, one of the things she learned out in the workforce is that it’s really hard to know the cultural fit at a company until you actually get hired and go to work there. It’s something she’s “thought a lot about and talked to students about.”
The solution, she found, was actually in the rearview mirror: She re-engaged with the career management team at Berkeley Haas, “and they kind of helped me home in on one of my four areas of interest, which was really in coaching and mentoring others and helping other people achieve their best. And we also realized that I needed something that was more mission-driven that I could really get behind.”
Bernstein thought she’d found what she was looking for in a small education company based in San Francisco that provided coaching services to high school and college students. But that turned out to be a mere layover. Again, there was the problem of fit: the marketing job she thought she had turned out to be more of a sales job. Fortunately, a much better gig — the perfect fit — was about to open up.