Meet Cornell Johnson’s MBA Class Of 2021

Natalie Kirchhoff

Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, Cornell University

“Nicknamed ‘Rudy’ — I am persistent, dedicated, and authentic. I lead with heart and learn from failure.”

Hometown: Columbia, MO

Fun Fact About Yourself: At 11 years old, I swam through a competition with appendicitis and underwent surgery the next day; I sped up the recovery in order to compete in the season championship.

Undergraduate School and Major: Rice University — Kinesiology, Sport Management

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Director for Swimming Luxembourg, a 100-year-old aquatic club in Europe serving 1000+ members, offering all water-related activities from swim lessons to underwater rugby (yes, it’s a sport. Just Google it!).

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: Launching Disney’s first destination resort, Aulani, on Hawaii. After interning for two years at the company, I landed a spot on the resort development team where I managed the food and beverage equipment needed for the resort. This was a stretch role for me, as I was very new in my professional career, but I learned a lot and got to see the company’s vision become a reality.

What quality best describes the MBA classmates you’ve met so far and why? Genuine.

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 initiatives for women. I had the privilege of hearing Dean Mark Nelson speak at Johnson’s Women in Business event. He is a father who has raised two daughters, and he talked about making Johnson a place where women have all the training and resources they need to succeed in the marketplace. He wants Johnson to be a place that values and champions women — a place that his daughters would want to attend. Being one of five women in my family, his sentiments struck a chord within me. I know he “gets it” — he doesn’t just talk a good game; he walks it out.

What club or activity are you looking most forward to in business school? As an avid podcast consumer, I’m excited to get involved with the Present Value Club, a student-run monthly podcast interviewing fascinating faculty and leadership. I’m excited to learn the back end of producing a podcast and the art of asking good interview questions.

What was the most challenging question you were asked during the admissions process? “Walk me through your resume.” That was a challenging one for me as I’ve worked and lived in seven states and two countries. In addition, I put my working career on hold to pursue athletic aspirations; thus, I have anything but a straight-line career path. Connecting the dots and weaving a coherent story took some effort. Honestly, with some mindful reflection, I was able to see how each opportunity connected to the next one.

What led you to pursue an MBA at this point in your career? It has been a winding road getting here, but the bottom line is I kept finding myself as a bystander in the boardroom lacking some critical and strategic business skills. I got tired of being a wallflower and knew I needed an MBA to sharpen my business acumen so that I can drive more positive change in the marketplace. Full disclosure, I applied to business school in 2012 and got rejected — definitely a hit to my ego! Now, looking back, I am grateful I got the rejection because I wasn’t ready. I had very few work and life experiences to draw on. Now in my thirties, I am more confident in who I am and how I want to use this degree to propel me toward my future goals.

What other MBA programs did you apply to? Believe it or not, none! After careful and thorough research, I submitted only ONE application—to Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management. I knew that was where I wanted to be. I admit, it was pretty risky, but I went all in (I took the GMAT five times!) and it worked out.

How did you determine your fit at various schools? Laugh if you want, but I liken the MBA process to dating and getting married. It is a long-term commitment — a symbiotic relationship between you and the school. This is why it is crucial to find the right program for you. First, you must decide what is important to you in school. For me, the key criteria were the following: class size, leadership programs, and initiatives for women. With these in mind, I researched schools using websites like Poets & Quants. I also attended MBA forums, such as Forté events. This is a good way to “speed date” and find out which schools you may want to visit. I also recommend leveraging your current networks to connect with students and alumni from the schools you’re interested in. Talk to them about their experiences — the highs and lows of their MBA journey.

Once you clarify your criteria and have done your homework, choose your top three to five schools and make the visit. Visiting is the best way to really understand and learn fully about what a school offers. You can only learn so much online and one size does not fit all. A good fit for one candidate may not be the fit for someone else.

What was your defining moment and how did it shape who you are? I was a high-performance athlete for 20 years who was optimistic about making the Olympic team. The year after winning a USA Triathlon national championship, I then had two knee surgeries. This was a pivotal time for me. I had to get quiet and reflect on my identity, priorities, and how I wanted to move forward.

Where do you see yourself in ten years? Wow, 2029 — that number sounds crazy! Professionally, I am not sure the exact industry, company, or job title, but I do know I will be making a difference, creating waves, and encouraging more women to join the marketplace. As a passion project, in 10 years I want to have a thriving platform that offers women in their teens and twenties mentorship and coaching to better navigate life’s journey.

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