A MBA degree opens doors. For Cynthia Frelund, it opened them a bit wider than they already were.
The Boston College grad was in the midst of a solid career trajectory, having already spent a stint with the NFL in a finance/strategy role before joining ABC Disney in a business development/strategy capacity in 2010. Soon she would jump to ESPN, where her tech development and innovation job would morph into an on-air gig at the network discussing fantasy football.
But it was before her on-camera breakthrough that Frelund, a native of Okemos, Michigan, decided to go to business school. A somewhat unconventional B-school applicant — her undergrad degree was a BS in biology — Frelund’s foremost concern was fit, and she had a definite idea of what she was looking for in a B-school. Eventually, what tipped the scales was good old-fashioned word-of-mouth: During her frequent cross-country travels for work, she had met many alumni from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and she loved what she heard.
“I really liked a bunch of alums that I had met on my road — I have sort of a nontraditional career path — and every time I came across a bunch of Kellogg people, they were all in love with the school and happy and they lit up when they talked about it,” Frelund tells Poets&Quants. “The prestige of the school is something that I was aware of prior to that, but when you start to do your investigation of where you want to go to school, you ask: ‘What does the network look like when you’re done? What kind of industries are people in? What type of opportunities will I have a chance to really investigate when I’m there?’ And every single person was just like, ‘I love Kellogg, it’s the best!’ And I’m the same way now.”
There was one problem: her aforementioned blossoming career. Frelund was doing what she loved, working with data in a high-profile field, and she was a success. She didn’t want to slam on the brakes and take two years off for a full-time MBA program. So she applied to Kellogg’s Chicago-based Evening & Weekend MBA program, from which she eventually received her degree in 2015.
‘WE REALLY WANT PEOPLE TO GO TO KELLOGG’
Northwestern Kellogg’s Evening & Weekend MBA program is ranked third by U.S. News, behind only UC-Berkeley’s Haas School and the University of Chicago’s Booth School. Kellogg’s program has nearly 750 students, according to 2017 data, with an average age of 29 1/2, an average undergraduate GPA of 3.40, and an average GMAT of 675. The acceptance rate is nearly two-thirds (65.6%), and the average work experience of admits is about six years. Most entrants to the program (20%) have a financial services background, and the program is overwhelmingly male (72.2%).
Cynthia Frelund would have been toward the top end on the work experience front, having entered the Evening & Weekend MBA program with about six years’ experience in various roles in finance, strategy, tech, and, obviously, media and entertainment. And here’s where it gets really interesting for MBA watchers: Since getting her degree, Frelund’s career has really taken off. She moved back to a former employer and became first analytics expert for NFL Media, appearing regularly on a bunch of NFL shows and platforms including NFL Fantasy Live and NFL GameDay Morning.
Celebrity hasn’t lessened Frelund’s appreciation for her Kellogg experience. “I used to work in numbers, now I just do it on TV,” she says. “I’ve kept in touch with many of the people I was in classes with, and I think we’ve all kind of shared that same view: Whenever we get a chance to talk about it, we really want people to go to Kellogg.”
‘IT’S ABOUT BEING IMPACTFUL IN A WAY THAT TRULY RESONATES WITH WHO YOU ARE’
Frelund probably didn’t need to get an MBA. Maybe she didn’t need to stay at Kellogg to pursue a master’s in predictive analytics, either, a degree for which she is currently completing a capstone project. But after all, what is need, anyway?
“To me ‘need’ is hard, right? Because the word need — I don’t know who needs what,” Frelund says. “I know that for my life, I needed to take some space to devote the time to thinking about how I can be the best version of myself and be the most impactful to others in a way where I have a structure that other people can relate to. It’s not about monetization necessarily, it’s about being impactful in a way that truly resonates with who you are.
“Some of the things that are really interesting for me, especially when I was going through my journey, I would often be traveling from California or Connecticut or from other places because of the nature of my job — I was often not in town — so even when my career was taking me off to different places, I always felt grounded and centered in the program. I always felt everyone was really easy to talk to. All my professors genuinely wanted me to be the best version of myself and push myself and get the most out of the program. It never felt like a chore — it was like, ‘OK we get to do this now.’
“The best thing about Northwestern, the other students that were there with me, we had this awesome community of people who come from all over the world,” says Frelund, a marathon runner and former Pilates instructor who is involved with Bright Pink, a national nonprofit focused on preventing breast and ovarian cancer in young women. “People with such different backgrounds, from lots of different places — one of my good friends is in healthcare finance, which is not something that is interesting to me at all, on its face. But if I wanted to try to learn more, I knew 15 people I could ask, ‘How does this work? What does this mean? Can you help me understand it?’ It was a space where it was safe to ask questions of people who are not necessarily in my industry but that were going to serve me going forward.
“I am now located in Los Angeles, and I have met up with Kellogg alums from full-time, from part-time, and I actually get a chance now at the NFL Network to work with one of the full-time professors through the Analytical Consulting Lab. And I get a chance to talk with current full-time students and we do projects with them, and I couldn’t love that more.”