Meet Northwestern Kellogg’s MBA Class Of 2021

Caroline Nguyen

Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University

Life-long nerd passionate about social impact, problem-solving, and the San Francisco Giants.”

Hometown: Corte Madera, California

Fun Fact About Yourself: I was the female MVP of a multi-sport athletic league for two years running. I should mention I was the only female in this league, and this was in 4th and 5th grade. Nonetheless, the fact stands.

Undergraduate School and Major: University of California, Los Angeles; Major: Anthropology (BS), Minor: Public Health

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Senior Associate at Arabella Advisors

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: Over the last two years, I helped a Fortune 500 company design, launch, and implement a $10 million innovation initiative to advance affordable housing, education, health, and economic opportunity across the United States. It was the company’s most significant philanthropic commitment in over a decade. I managed the project, working with the company’s executive and innovation teams to not only craft the strategy, but also secure buy-in across diverse stakeholders and effectively change the company’s risk appetite and perspective on innovation.

What quality best describes the MBA classmates you’ve met so far and why? Genuine and supportive. Every time I meet a new classmate, I get more excited about starting at Kellogg. Everyone has been so genuinely excited to start this experience together, genuinely curious about the different knowledge and experiences we each bring to the table, and genuinely supportive in helping each other reach the personal and professional goals we’ve set for ourselves.

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? The culture of teamwork and collaboration. I’ve had the fortune of working in environments that encourage shared learning and growth. When I thought about the kind of business school experience I wanted, I knew I wanted one with the same community-focused orientation. To me, Kellogg exemplifies that trait. Throughout the admissions process, I was impressed by how willing students, alumni, and faculty were to speak with me – from picking up the phone to answer questions on the academic program to writing lengthy emails with pointers on which events would help me think about my application to providing calming words as I prepared for my video essay. In many ways, I felt like I had a Kellogg team on my side before I was even admitted. Since then, that sense of community and encouragement has only grown as I’ve met more current students, prospective students, and alumni who are so excited for me and so willing to help me grow in my personal journey.

While business school is often considered a place for competitive and high-achieving individuals (which I still think is true!), I’ve learned that Kellogg is also a place for people who want to do good and would prefer to do good together rather than separately. That’s the type of place I want to be.

What club or activity are you looking most forward to in business school?
I’m excited to join Net Impact and meet other students interested in using business to advance social impact globally. My most meaningful professional experiences have come through learning from my peers. Through Net Impact, I know I can meet people who come from a wide range of backgrounds, geographies, and experiences, but who all have a common focus on advancing good in the world. Other than that, I’m hoping to join an intramural league or two (see “fun fact” above for my sports credentials) and see what ultra-collaborative, but also ultra-competitive business school students look like out on the playing field.

Kellogg is often described as “team-driven.” In your experience, what is the most important quality of a team member? How do you intend to bring that in a culture where “students run everything.”
I think the best teammates are generous ones – people who give their time, their knowledge, and their honest opinion to others. I’ve benefitted so much from mentors and peers who took time out of their day to walk me through something I’d never done before or who stopped by my desk to give me a tip on how to approach a problem. That willingness to support others is something I hope to both provide to and receive from future teammates. In fact, I can’t think of a time I wasn’t better off for having learned from another person’s perspective and experience. One of the reasons I’m so excited to go to Kellogg is because it already has this collaborative, rising-tide-lifts-all-boats spirit embedded in its culture and community. As I start school, I can’t wait to learn from my classmates and share more about my experience in the nonprofit and philanthropy sectors with others as well.

What was the most challenging question you were asked during the admissions process? During one of my interviews, I was asked if and how I’ve promoted diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in my career and how I hope to continue doing so in the future. I thought it was a surprising and brilliant question, but a difficult one to answer because it’s work that I care deeply and that’s also complex, ongoing, and imperfect (e.g. what does an equitable workplace truly look like and how can we get there?). In the end, the interviewer and I had a long conversation about what DEI efforts looked like at our respective companies, what challenges we were facing in creating more inclusive and supportive work environments, and what this work might look like in business school. It turned into more of a brainstorm session than an interview and it was helpful in giving me insight into how students think about DEI at their particular school.

What led you to pursue an MBA at this point in your career? I loved my last job – it was the best mix of challenging, engaging, and fulfilling. However, when I thought about a long-term career, I knew I wanted to strengthen the strategic and financial muscles that will help me become a better leader in the future. I wanted to be fluent (or at the very least, conversational) in the traditional business skills that enable companies to thrive and sustain themselves and the people skills necessary for building a strong company culture. An MBA could give me both of those things on a focused, yet accelerated timeline. On top of that, I’m at a stage in my career where I’ve genuinely enjoyed what I’ve done, but I am also open to exploring new types of industries and solving new types of problems. Through the courses, recruiting opportunities, and general networking that happens during business school, I’m excited to learn about careers I never considered and jobs I never knew existed.

What other MBA programs did you apply to? Berkeley Haas School of Business

How did you determine your fit at various schools? I considered several factors when thinking about “fit” at different schools:

  1. Academic Rigor
  2. Reputation
  3. Employment Opportunities
  4. Geographic Location
  5. Culture

For the most part, academic rigor, reputation, and employment opportunities are similar across business schools – all will give you the necessary knowledge and connections to have a successful career. I did specifically look at each school’s employment report to see if the companies that interest me recruit a large number of students for their summer internships or full-time job opportunities. Then, I thought about geographic location. I have ties to the Bay Area, where I grew up, and Chicago, where I’ve lived since graduating college. I only applied to schools in those two places knowing that I wanted to build networks there and, ideally, live and work in one of those places after school.

Finally, and most importantly, I thought about culture. Pursuing an MBA is a big investment and I wanted to make sure wherever I went was the right place for me. I read MBA blogs, like those featured on Poets & Quants, to understand how current students landed where they did. I had “virtual chats” with what felt like a thousand (this is an exaggeration; it was maybe closer to fifty) students, alumni, professors, and staff to get a better sense of their personal experiences. And I was fortunate enough to visit each school during admitted students weekend to meet my future classmates. These experiences gave me insight into the types of people I would be surrounded by in my future MBA program.

In the end, there was no wrong decision. Both schools I considered have phenomenal academic programs, ambitious and impressive students, and promising career opportunities for every graduate. I based my decision on a gut feeling that Kellogg would be the best place for my personal and professional development.

What was your defining moment and how did it shape who you are? I don’t think I have a single moment that’s shaped who I am, but following my parents’ example has been foundational in defining my goals and perspective on life. My parents came to the United States as Vietnamese refugees with nothing more than a little cash and minimal knowledge of English. Since then, they’ve worked as mail carriers for the United States Postal Service, working six days, 60-70 hours a week. On weekends, they lead a church that supports new Vietnamese immigrants in getting settled in America. Their determination, work ethic, selflessness, and the positivity that underlie it all are characteristics I strive to emulate every day and what led me to a career focused on social impact. It’s a lot to live up to, but I’m enjoying the challenge so far.

Where do you see yourself in ten years? In ten years, I see myself managing a philanthropic foundation that supports and scales innovative grassroots organizations advancing health access and economic opportunity worldwide. I would also love to partner with my business school peers on this work, pulling in lessons from across sectors to create new solutions to the world’s most complex issues. On the personal side, I see myself as the parent of a tiny dog and a proud fan of an ongoing Giants dynasty!

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.