2019 Best Online MBAs: Sarah Genelle Castagnola, IE Business School

Sarah Genelle Castagnola

IE Business School

“My passion for people, travel, adventure and love of learning has defined my unconventional career.”

Age: 34

Hometown: I was born in Juneau, Alaska. However, when I go back to the United States, I consider Oregon home. Portland, Oregon is where I’ve lived the longest of any place in the world and more importantly, it is where my community of friends are.

Fun fact about yourself: I went to middle school in West Papua in Indonesia. I moved around a lot as a child. It’s what instilled my love of travel.

Undergraduate School and Degree:

University of Oregon: Bachelor of the Arts (BA) in Political Science and International Community Development

Portland State University: Master of Public Administration (MPA) in Global Leadership and Management

Where are you currently working? Markets, Economic Recovery and Growth Sector Manager at Mercy Corps (Beirut, Lebanon)

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? In my late 20s, I quit my job in the U.S. to become a Peace Corps volunteer. I worked for Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Union, a coffee cooperative of over 5,000 farmers in the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains in western Uganda. I spent two years living and working behind a coffee warehouse, marketing green bean coffee to international buyers and increasing awareness of the Cooperative’s brand.

In 2015, after two years of work with the Cooperative to increase sales and brand awareness, we won the Specialty Coffee Association of America Sustainability Award. It helped put the Cooperative on the map and they continue to have a steady stream of buyers supporting their farmers today.

I’m proud of this achievement because I was able to showcase the hard work of rural coffee farmers, 80% of whom were women. I was proud to see my work helped farmers gain international recognition and more importantly the business and income they deserved.

Why did you choose this school’s online MBA program? I wanted an excellent quality of education. IE’s GMBA program consistently came up as one of the top online MBA programs in rankings such as P&Q. I also wanted an MBA program that offered a blended in-person and online format. I appreciated that there were two in-person sessions in Spain. IE also provides the opportunity to do an international immersion week halfway through the program to reconnect with classmates and provide greater exposure to the region and industries that interested us. My decision to go to IE was solidified by the diversity of the student body as far as nationalities, industries, and expertise. IE provides the global network of colleagues who are representative of the diverse work environment I am currently in.

What was your favorite part of being in an online MBA program? The flexibility of the program. Like many of my classmates, I have a family, a demanding job, and travel often. When I applied to the program I was living and working in Syria. Now, I’m based in Lebanon and likely I will move again within the next year. It was important for me to be able to continue working throughout my program and not have to quit my job or stay in one place for 2 years. The program allows us to work on our own schedule during the week with weekly Saturday classes as the only scheduled time.

What was the most surprising thing about an online learning environment? The most surprising thing about an online learning environment is the depth of learning you can gain from peers through the online platforms. Each term, we work with different work groups and throughout the week we are interacting online. My classmates have extensive experience in a wide range of industries and technical functions. People openly share their first-hand experiences about the topics we are learning about in class through our online forums, class and group work. Peer-To-Peer learning has greatly enriched my MBA experience.

What is your best piece of advice to an applicant for thriving in an online MBA program? Identify the people in your program who can best support you and cultivate your community. Within my cohort, I have a small group of women with whom I am in contact with daily. We have an “IE Chicas” WhatsApp group and share what is going on in our lives personally, professionally, and academically. We motivate each other and keep each other on track. We check in constantly and support each other’s learning. These friendships beyond the support of your family and friends at home are really important as these people understand exactly what you are going through.

What would you change about an online MBA Program? I would love one more in-person residential session with our entire GMBA cohort. We are all geographically disbursed and busy (with limited vacation time), so I understand why only two weeks are required throughout the program though three weeks would be a greater benefit. I think it’s one of the reasons many people in our cohort end up planning vacations together during our school breaks. We genuinely enjoy spending time together.

How has your online education helped you in your current job? I currently work for a humanitarian organization in Lebanon supporting refugee and Lebanese employment and MSME development. My class learning helps me understand financial and technical resources MSMEs need to grow and helps me to design programming to support businesses’ development.

If you had to do it all over again, would you? Why? Absolutely! In addition to increasing my understanding and confidence in for example, financial analysis and business strategy, I have learned so much both personally and professionally in navigating and embracing changes when balancing a heavy workload.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? If you asked me this question 12 years ago when I started my career, I had a specific position and company in mind. Now I am more interested in working for a company where I see an alignment of our values. It’s less about a specific position, company, or even sector and more about a positive environment that plays to my strengths, challenges me, and offers continue learning. I find this the most motivating.



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