Love & The MBA: Couples Who Study Together, Stay Together

Kellogg MBA candidate Jane Henningsen and her fiancé, Michael Perry, a 2018 Kellogg MBA grad. Courtesy photo

Love conquers all — even the rigors of a MBA program.

Just ask Jane Henningsen and Michael Perry. The duo met as freshmen at the University of Virginia, where Michael studied architecture and Jane studied comparative literature and Spanish. Through college and afterward, and even during long periods when they were separated by long distances, they supported each other in their endeavors — she as an admissions counselor at Virginia and then as a financial analyst, he as a designer, first in residential spaces and subsequently in brand spaces like restaurants and hotels.

And then came business school.

In 2016, Perry applied and was admitted to the “Triple M” program at Northwestern University, a dual-degree MBA from Kellogg School of Management and M.S. in Design Innovation from the Segal Design Institute at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. A year later, Henningsen joined him in the Kellogg MBA, and thus began an intense shared journey made easier, in many ways, by their mutual support. The journey continues through this spring, when they will be married a week after Henningsen graduates.

“I think for me, there were some advantages in that I knew what to expect,” Henningsen says of her MBA experience so far. “I knew about what’s difficult about the first year — about how blindsided you are by things sometimes, how fast it all starts and how quickly recruiting starts, and what recruiting is like. In all of that, he was sort of the brave one who went ahead, and by the time I got to Kellogg I sort of knew like which weeks would be difficult weeks and things like that.”

“I don’t know if I was the brave one or the foolish one!” Perry interjects, and they both laugh.

COUPLES TAKE ON THE MBA: ‘IT HAPPENS MORE OFTEN THAN YOU MIGHT THINK’

Alex Min, CEO of The MBA Exchange. Courtesy photo

There is no available data on how many couples attend top MBA programs together, but it’s a phenomenon that is both uncommon and not unheard of, says Alex Min, CEO of The MBA Exchange, an admissions consulting and test prep tutoring company. A few couples seek Min’s company’s services every admissions season, he says, and while all clients are different, with couples there are some basic realities that must be explored, acknowledged — and possibly used to the clients’ advantage.

“It happens more often than you might think!” Min tells Poets&Quants. “One of the first topics we discuss when we work with couples applying together is selection of target schools, respectively and together. Would the couple consider possibly attending different schools if not both admitted to the same school? If not, perhaps there can be a geographical ‘consideration,’ such as both applying to HBS and MIT Sloan together, or both applying to Stanford GSB and UC Berkeley Haas together, or both applying to Columbia and NYU Stern together. That way, if they each get accepted to one of the schools, but not both to the same school, they can at least be located in the same general area.

“We also have to be upfront when assessing each person’s candidacy. It can be a somewhat challenging and sometimes sensitive conversation when the two are not similar in terms of candidacy and competitiveness — which also ties back to their target schools list.”

What advantages might being a couple offer? “I think first and foremost, no top-tier school’s adcom is going to admit anyone that isn’t qualified, period. However, assuming both are qualified, admitting both can’t help but to increase the probability of both matriculating (increase yield), not to mention the “human interest story” angle it will add to that particular cohort. I think one of the challenges from an adcom’s perspective might be when one is highly qualified and attractive to the school, but the other is less so. We’ve had couples end up East Coast (MIT Sloan)/West Coast (Stanford GSB) for two years; both at the same school — HBS for one couple comes to mind, and Wharton for another also comes to mind) — and everything in between! We’ve had couples work with the same admissions consultant and couples work with two separate consultants. There is no one shoe that fits all sizes! That’s part of the fun and what keeps things interesting. I think what’s important is to listen to both people, help them ascertain what factors are most important to them, and then help them make some decisions that are the most ‘right’ for that particular couple and situation.”

TWO PATHS CONVERGE … AT NORTHWESTERN KELLOGG

Though each came to see Northwestern Kellogg as the best option to further their careers, Jane Henningsen and Michael Perry had their own reasons for choosing to pursue a MBA. After graduating from the University of Virginia, Perry took a job in residential design on Long Island, New York, while Henningsen worked in undergraduate admissions at the University of Virginia. They both eventually found work and moved to New York City together, but by then Henningsen already had been thinking about business school for a while. “My approach in undergrad had been to study something that was intellectually interesting to me. I considered the idea of going into academia, but ultimately I decided that I would rather be in the corporate world, which is a little bit faster-moving, a little more strategic,” she says. “Through a series of jobs, I ended up working in the healthcare industry, for a health insurance broker, and I was at a point where I had to do something very, very specialized for the rest of my career and be very good at that one thing or go back to school get the knowledge and skills and kind of expand and solve more complex and interesting problems.”

Perry’s work in residential architecture had evolved into a different kind of design work: branded space for restaurants, hotels, corporations, and the like. As the Irvine, California native put it, he was “Translating business strategy to design strategy. And when I was doing that I noticed that there’s a disconnect between the design team and the business team. It was almost like we were speaking different languages. And as somebody on the design side, I felt like I needed to go to school and learn the language of business in order to become a more effective bridge between the disciplines. I want to be able to help designers help great design get into the world — and also help the business world understand the value in great design.”

Henningsen says her research led her to Kellogg very quickly. “I think I became interested in the MBA path fairly early on. In fact, when I was still working in admissions years ago, probably 2012, 2013, I started to feel that the school was going to be the step that I needed and that I would just need to take some time to prepare myself and get there. Kellogg always seemed to me to be the best destination — if I could get in, which was the beginning of the process. You really don’t know where you stand, but from cultural research it seemed like it would be the best place.

“And you know, it’s proving to be a very social, very friendly, very supportive kind of place. Which I think Virginia is also known for, which is one of the reasons that both of us went to UVA. So I knew that when we visited Kellogg and when we thought about it, because the school was kind of on our level. It’s the one that felt the most familiar.”

THE BIG & LITTLE THINGS

Though they were attracted to Kellogg individually, for different reasons, They researched and visited Kellogg together, and decided it was where they wanted to go. Henningsen had her own pioneer to get advice and guidance from, but Perry has benefited, too — particularly since he graduated and joined IBM in Chicago.

“Having Jane as someone supporting me in my first year outside of Kellogg but someone who knew the MBA process and lifestyle was very, very helpful,” Perry says. “I just appreciated having somebody to call as a support, because it gets crazy, you know. You’ve had a very life-changing event, and you don’t know what you want to do. You’re changing your career and you’re trying to find your next passion, and having Jane as somebody who is helpful and guiding me and reminding me what I was actually there to do and all that was extremely helpful. So having that on the outside has guided my first year for sure.”

He tries his best at guiding her as well, particularly in easing her stress about exams or “the little things” like where the back stairs are if you’re in a rush. But Perry’s biggest help may have been in designing posters for Henningsen during student government elections this year. Henningsen won the 2018-2019 student body presidency. “I would be off strategizing with my team,” she says, “and I’d come home and he’d be like, ‘I made this poster for you and this logo and I printed it out’ and it was so sweet!”