2019 MBAs To Watch: Catherine Dávila, USC (Marshall)

Catherine Dávila

University of Southern California, Marshall School of Business

I am more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

Hometown: Los Angeles, CA

Fun fact about yourself: When I was 9, I made a series of trashy talk shows in which my friends played the hosts, and I played all the guests. My favorite was titled “Encounters With Santa Claus” in which I played three different characters, all of whom had had explosive exchanges with mall Santas. 

Undergraduate School and Degree:

Undergraduate: New York University, BFA Drama

Graduate: USC Peter Stark Program, MFA Motion Picture and TV Producing

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Hollywood FC, Director of Operations

Where did you intern during the summer of 2018? During summer 2018, I returned to my roots in youth and adult soccer. In my capacity as the President of the Board of Hollywood FC, I engineered a merger with LA Premier FC, an influential youth club in the area. This merger saw the introduction of US Development Academy, WPSL and PDL opportunities for all of Hollywood FC’s players.

As President of the Board of L.A. Villa F.C., the adult women’s soccer club I co-founded in 2007, I secured a partnership with FC Golden State to co-manage a team in the WPSL, the second tier of women’s soccer in the United States.

Where will you be working after graduation? Pocket Academy (Startup developing soccer coaching app in conjunction with US Soccer), Partner

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: Co-Director – MBA Ambassadors, President – Marshall Leadership Fellows Program, VP Marketing – Marshall Soccer Club, Dean’s List

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Without a doubt, I am most proud of working with my high school mentee through the Marshall Youth Outreach (MYO) program. It was humbling to see the world from a dramatically different perspective and to realize both the extent and limitations of my own influence as I helped a local high school senior apply to college.

Like many of the students MYO engaged, Chelsea was a first-generation college applicant. We spent hours brainstorming and then refining her personal essays and even after the applications were submitted, we met most weeks just to talk.

Chelsea, whose family lived and worked within a few blocks of USC, had dreamed of attending USC since she was a little girl. When she didn’t get in, she was heartbroken. As part of a team of people around her – including her mom and her high school counselor – I got to help her reorient herself and move forward. She visited four schools and settled on UC Santa Barbara. Throughout her first semester, we kept in touch a couple of times a month as she struggled with being away from home and feeling out of place socially. She wanted to leave.

Over her winter recess, we got together and made a handshake deal that she would at least finish the year. When we spoke last week, she said the time is passing quickly (a big change) and that though she still goes home most weekends, she’s in a much better headspace. Demonstrating her characteristic, and deeply impressive determination, even as she finishes her second semester at UCSB, Chelsea has applied to USC for Fall 2019.

Getting to know and help Chelsea made me feel useful in a way that even the most instructive schoolwork did not. Mentorship and teaching are things I’ve been drawn to since I started coaching soccer seven years ago. This kind of relationship highlights the power that comes with perceived expertise and the importance of using it with care. Chelsea has faced challenges I never dreamt of at her age and has overcome them with tireless support from her amazing mother and her own willingness to look beyond what is easy and what is comfortable. More than anything, my relationship with Chelsea became a two-way conduit for care and knowledge.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Though I’m no longer in the entertainment industry, I am still most proud of the very first feature film I produced. At the time, I was a 23-year-old, just finishing my MFA at USC’s Peter Stark Program, and I proceeded fearlessly on instinct. When I set myself a goal, there was no ambiguity around reaching it. Like many people at that age, I was Captain Kirk-like: refusing to believe in the no-win scenario. I was creative and determined, both practical and expansive in my thinking and I learned what it meant to face monumental professional challenges head-on and find a way through them.

I’ve done many things since then of which I’m proud, but this stands as a key achievement. That’s because, though every aspect of the project was grueling and made one mistake after the other, I believed completely in what my team and I were doing and created something beautiful in the process.

Though I’m perhaps wiser now, I have also accumulated more boundaries, more rules about what I should and should not do. With that awareness comes fear – of failure, of judgment, of losing out to the passage of time. Reflecting on my first professional achievement, finishing the first of four feature films I would go on to produce, reminds me that a thing doesn’t have to be perfect to have been worthwhile. It is the clearest example from my life the power of engaging a growth mindset. It serves as a reminder of what’s possible, even when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Kyle Mayer was my favorite professor for the simple reason that it was clear, in the two classes I took with him, that he loves teaching and he’s good at it. Speaking at a furious pace, Professor Mayer can’t help but convey his excitement for the subject matter – problem-solving, strategy and specifically cooperative strategy. He has the capacity to recognize intention even when the phrasing isn’t in business lingo, which was particularly helpful during the first semester when my classmates and I were drinking from the lingo firehose. More than any other professor I’ve had during the MBA program, Mayer has taught me how to think. In one class, I turned in a paper likening power dynamics in corporate alliances to submissive and dominant dog interactions at the dog park, complete with pictures in the appendices. He completely understood and made a point to tell me how well-reasoned the analogy was.

Professor Mayer also has enough perspective to find humor in the entire MBA endeavor. When I told him that the class considered creating a drinking game based on a particular word he (over)used, he immediately laughed and replied, “Is the word ‘salient’?” (It was.) He cares not just about teaching, which he does exceptionally well, but also about the well-being of his students. I’ve no doubt other professors do as well, but Mayer makes a concerted effort and it feels genuine.

What was your favorite MBA Course? Again, there is no ambiguity around this: Fostering Creativity was by far my favorite MBA course, and absolutely not the type, of course, I expected in an MBA program. It was not specifically a business course, but rather a class designed to empower all of us to know ourselves better, to treat ourselves better, and to take risks without fear. In a business context, that has helped me to be selective about the projects I take on, to better motivate myself and my teams, and to address difficult decisions and circumstances without magnifying them.

Why did you choose this business school? To be blunt, there were lots of very practical reasons I chose USC Marshall and all of them completely missed what is truly exceptional about the school. My grades and test scores were higher than the school’s average; I was an alumnus; it was a lot more geographically convenient than the cross-town rival, and it had a reasonably good ranking. It is an incredible stroke of luck that, proceeding from completely the wrong place, I ended up at a school whose culture of collaboration and entrepreneurial grit both pushed me well outside my comfort zone and provided a supportive environment in which to grow.

What is your best advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? Be completely honest with yourself and with the school about why you should be at Marshall. The school wants to see that you’ve thought it through. They want to know that you are ambitious. Not only will you benefit from Marshall’s specific culture and offerings, but also that you will go into the business world and represent the school positively.

What is the biggest myth about your school? I saw Marshall through the lens of fraternities, finance, and football. I was sure that I would be an artsy outsider in a class full of “finance bros” and girded myself to be surrounded by business jocks. What I found instead was that my view was embarrassingly narrow and clichéd. My classmates came from a broad constellation of backgrounds, from aviation and theater to healthcare and professional poker playing. Of course, there are the requisite finance bros, and true to the Marshall brand, they are the nicest bros with whom I’ve ever had the pleasure to work.

Think back two years ago. What is the one thing you wish you’d known before starting your MBA program? I wish I’d had a clearer understanding of what I hoped to get out of the program. There is a strange push and pull between feeling like one has to have everything figured out and taking the time to explore and find the right fit. Most of my professional life has proceeded without planning, based on what appealed to me most of the opportunities that landed in front of me. I wish I had put more time into learning specifics of the industries and roles to which I generally aspired.

Also: Make a genuine effort from the get-go to be a part of the social side of the program!

MBA Alumni often describe business school as transformative. Looking back over the past two years, how has business school been transformative for you? I was a drama major at NYU for undergrad and got an MFA in film producing. Both of those programs were very well-regarded and they were worthwhile in terms of my personal growth, but at Marshall I was truly challenged, psychologically, academically, and intellectually for the first time. The rigor of the coursework, particularly in the first semester, required a focus and stamina I hadn’t needed in many years. Surrounded by smart, driven, ambitious people, I felt imposter syndrome sweep over me like a tsunami. Over time though, professors in the program drew out my instincts and honed them into skills, while my classmates commiserated, collaborated and sometimes carried me with them. Though I felt under water for many months, I slowly found a way to tread water and finally to swim. I learned real skills and found myself engaging beyond the classroom. From practical financial modeling skills to leading with mindfulness and compassion, I have developed an extensive toolkit. It makes me feel powerful.

Every day in the program has been a reminder that growth, though it can be painful, is both good and necessary.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Rob Stevenson and I could not be more different. He is a Marine with three kids and deep religious faith. I am and have none of those things. Politically, we are on opposite ends of the spectrum on almost every issue. Yet in the first month of school, which was grueling, he was the first person with whom I made a meaningful connection. Even though we are at odds on nearly everything, we found that we share a desire for discourse. We spent hours respectfully, but determinedly uncovering and testing each other’s vastly differing perspectives. I admired his thoughtfulness and vast knowledge of history and philosophy.

In addition to his willingness to discuss difficult subjects openly, with both respect and vigor, I have also been struck by Rob’s focus. The way he proceeds, thoughtfully gauging what is most important to him, and allotting his time and energy without regret in accordance with those priorities, is impressive to behold. The result is that he engages fully where he wants and needs to – be that a particular class discussion or with his family – and wastes no time with FOMO. I have watched him, over the course of our time at Marshall, methodically define his ideal career path and then pursue and secure it. All with seemingly endless optimism.

He is dedicated to his family, fastidious in pursuit of his goals and enthusiastic about learning. It was a distinct pleasure, and an honor, to find in Rob a real friend with whom I can disagree about pretty much everything. (Except the superiority of the Portland Thorns women’s professional soccer team.)

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? My brother, Daniel, is eight years my senior and has been perhaps the greatest influence on my professional life. For six years, we made movies together. He directed our first film during the summer in between his first and second years at Stanford GSB. As we applied ourselves diligently to securing financing for additional projects, I saw the facility Daniel’s MBA gave him with investors and other producers. It was as if he spoke a different language. For years after, I flirted with the idea of getting my MBA. While I envied Daniel’s fluency, ultimately I could depend on him and didn’t have to cultivate those skills myself. However, when I changed career paths, finally running a youth soccer club, I became frustrated with what I perceived as a desperate need for the professionalization of the space, without the skills to do it myself. Finally, with my brother’s success as an inspiration and a specific and urgent need in my own work as the impetus, I applied to USC Marshall.

What is your favorite movie about business? 1983’s Trading Places. I learned what the futures market is, not from the movie exactly, but because a major plot point revolves around futures I got my brother to explain it to me. “Pork bellies, I knew it!”

What was the goofiest MBA term or acronym you encountered – and what did it meanPPPICACC, pronounced “Pick axe” – it’s a problem solving framework intended to help examine a problem holistically. POVs, Purpose, Problems, Information, Assumptions, Conclusions, Consequences. Super easy to remember, right? (Actually incredibly useful though! Provided by my favorite, Kyle Mayer.)

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…frustrated and longing for something bigger while running a tiny youth soccer club.”

What dollar value would you place on your MBA education? Was it worth what you paid for it – worth more or worth less? Given my specific situation – I am older than most of my classmates, I received a sizable fellowship and am not sure how much I’ll make, if anything, in my first year after school – dollar value is not a meaningful metric for me. Time invested seems a more worthwhile measure. By that metric, it has been worth well more than the investment.

The Marshall program has enriched my life in countless ways, from the most basic level of introducing me to new information and people, to more dramatic changes in my overall outlook. It has been eye-opening and humbling to work alongside such bright, talented, hardworking people. The time I’ve spent at Marshall has fundamentally altered my self-perception and my sense of what I’m capable of in the world. Through exceptional classes and intensive teamwork, I have learned greater empathy for others and greater compassion for myself. With statistics, modeling and project management classes, I challenged parts of my brain that hadn’t been pushed in more than a decade. It has at times been a painful process, and in the end, it will have been worth every second (plus interest).

What are the top two items on your bucket list?

  1. Go on the pitch at the Camp Nou in Barcelona.
  2. See wolves in the wild.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? A fearless, compassionate woman who cared deeply about people and got shit done.

Hobbies? Playing and coaching soccer, running half and full marathons, baking artisan bread, playing piano, hiking, camping, skiing, building furniture, reading, listening to podcasts, walking and playing with my dog, watching movies

What made Catherine such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2019?

“As the student lead for the Marshall Leadership Fellows Program, Catherine worked selflessly to develop programming and training to give students in her cohort the space to grow and develop their leadership styles. In this role, she also coached several first-year core teams through difficult situations and helped them navigate work style and team commitment issues. Catherine’s leadership and decision-making style are an example for all students. She has followed her passions and has never been tempted to conform to “traditional MBA” paths. After graduation, she plans to combine her passions for soccer and entrepreneurship at a tech startup, which if you know Catherine, makes perfect sense.”

Anne Ziemniak

Assistant Dean & Director

Full-Time MBA Program

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