Meet The MBA Class Of 2020: Profiles In Courage

Grace Zimmerly

University of Chicago, Booth School of Business

 “Stubborn small-town idealist who enjoys unknotting intractable problems.”

Hometown: Waterford, PA

Fun Fact About Yourself: I have received medical attention for injuries sustained during four separate bike commuting accidents.

Undergraduate School and Major:  Yale University, B.A. in Ethics, Politics, & Economics

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: New York / New Jersey High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA); Lead – Overdose Reduction Initiatives

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: In June 2016, I had the opportunity to spend nine months embedded at NYPD headquarters in what was then the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Operations (now the Chief of Crime Control Strategies). At that point, city agencies outside of the health department were just beginning to realize the scale of the opioid overdose epidemic across the five boroughs. It was especially important for the NYPD to get ahead of the problem, as their 25,000 uniformed officers are among the most likely of city employees to encounter individuals struggling with substance use disorder or an acute intoxication.

I was asked to develop a way to track fatal overdoses in as close to real time as possible. This was challenging because of the lag time between death, the finalization of the death certificate, and the official reporting by the health department. But a solution had to be found, because real time data is necessary for allocating resources, developing timely and actionable strategies, and identifying emerging threats.

The interagency data collection and reporting system that I designed and implemented has since reduced NYPD’s reporting time on fatal overdoses from six months to approximately 36 hours. This allows leadership to drill down into what’s happening on the illicit substance scene in the immediate term, which has led to both new initiatives within the Department and to collaborative projects with partner agencies to reduce overdose fatalities.

What quality best describes the MBA classmates you’ve met so far and why? Coming from the government, I didn’t know what to expect from conversations with my business school peers – I guess I thought we’d sit around talking about IPOs and P/E ratios all day. This is not at all true of the Booth students I’ve met so far, who are more than willing to jump into unusual conversations and activities.

If I had to define the common factor across my classmates, it would be intense curiosity, broadly applied. No idea is too off the wall. And while that kind of intellectual openness can be terrifying, it’s also exhilarating. Boothies are an idiosyncratic bunch, in the best way possible, and that contributes to an active and fast-paced learning environment.

Aside from your classmates, what was the key factor that led you to choose this program for your full-time MBA and why was it so important to you? Booth is particularly open-minded about the origins of good leadership and new ideas. I think this is reflective of the University of Chicago’s general unconcern with the beaten path; how else do you get a Nobel Prize in economics out of your behavioral science department? On a personal level, this agnosticism was important because I didn’t want my prior work history to define my business school experience.

Anyone applying to business school from a nontraditional background is intimately familiar with their top schools’ “pre-MBA industries” pie charts – the ones that show that 15 percent School X’s incoming students come from consulting, 15 percent from tech, 10 percent from financial services. These charts usually combine education, nonprofits, and the government into a single segment, and it almost always sums to less than 10 percent.

Those ratios didn’t vary much between the schools that I applied to, but the way that Booth levels the playing field across different backgrounds stood out to me. I appreciate that Booth doesn’t have a set core curriculum, because someone who spent five years at Goldman Sachs has different gaps to fill in her knowledge than I do. Also, the LEAD program we participate in before classes start is a chance for all members of the incoming class to think about leadership with a wide lens, one that’s expansive enough to include experiences outside of the VP – associate — analyst structure. Even during the application process, I felt that Booth’s comparatively unusual essays were a chance to move beyond retelling anecdotes from the classic corporate narrative.

While we may have a steep learning curve in certain areas, MBA candidates from nontraditional backgrounds have fresh perspectives and unique experiences to share. Booth’s approach to both academics and culture makes it clear that that’s treated as a given.

What club or activity are you looking most forward to in business school? Booth students have recently decided to field a women’s rugby team. I don’t yet play rugby, which means that this has the potential to unite three of my favorite things: helping build something new, trying something I’ve never tried, and good old-fashioned competition. Let’s go, Kellogg ladies.

What led you to pursue an MBA at this point in your career? I spent the past four years working for the City of New York, first in gang intelligence and then in overdose reduction. This means that everyone in my former work life is hugely confused about my grad school plans. They’re more of a law and policy school crowd.

I considered law school seriously. And after spending a lot of time with brilliant, idealistic, hard-working lawyers, I still believe that a legal education is the best way to understand the ins-and-outs of the way the world works now. That’s just not the kind of thinking that I want to apply in my career.

We need people who understand the minute operations of our companies and institutions and society as they are. However, we also need people who can look at that status quo, break it apart, and rebuild the pieces into something better. I was at a point in my professional career where I felt that I needed to double down on one of those tracks. For me, the choice was obvious.

Regardless of sector, management and leadership in the modern world needs more creative thinkers and effective actors. I think those are some of the most important skills that the modern MBA education provides – it’s not just economics and corporate finance anymore.

What other MBA programs did you apply to? Berkeley, Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Yale.

How did you determine your fit at various schools? Since I didn’t have any mentors or coworkers who’d played the MBA game, my priority in evaluating schools was understanding the perceptions that people within the business world held about my top programs. I had a few conversations with current students, but directed most of my questions to recent graduates who were working at firms I’d be interested in, as well as hiring managers and directors at those firms. Everyone I spoke to was open in discussing not only what they liked about their favored programs, but also the pros of competitor schools and the challenges at their alma maters.

As for assessing culture, I’m glad that I did in-person interviews wherever I could. Seeing the pace at different schools was useful to me. Plus, being in the winter garden at Booth in early February did a lot to soothe my fears about Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Where do you see yourself in five years? I hope to have a career that requires solving increasingly challenging problems, but also constantly gives me new skills and shows me new ways of thinking. I’m also interested in trying out the brave new world of the private sector. I think that combination might put me in consulting or a start-up in five years, but I’m not closing any doors. I’m always happy when I manage to surprise myself.

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