Meet The ‘MomBAs’ Of The Covid Class Of 2020

Mercede Barnes in coronavirus lockdown with her husband, Maarten Dullaert, and daughter Mia. Barnes has completed her MBA at Rice University Jones Graduate School of Business and will graduate May 15. Courtesy photo

If anyone could be pardoned for not having the time or energy to do more — to “go the extra mile” — it’s Mercede Barnes. The mother of a middle-schooler and an entrepreneur with her own business, Barnes is also a graduating MBA student at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business. And like most who have the ability to do so, she is sheltering in place during the coronavirus pandemic — still working, still studying, still raising her daughter.

Yet with all that going on, she still finds time for charity work.

Barnes, who graduates from the Jones School on May 15, has worked in operations and account management and currently handles sales for a company that specializes in bulk liquid gases — oxygen, nitrogen, CO2, and the like. She is also in the process of launching a children’s entertainment company that she hopes will one day grow into a chain — an undertaking that requires countless hours of planning and strategizing.

Yet with all that, Barnes has always given back. A former tutor and girls basketball coach, last month she launched an effort to help needy children in Houston, Texas, where Rice University is located. Inspired by classmates’ efforts to support front-line healthcare workers in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, Barnes started a GoFundMe campaign to support Kids Meals Houston, which delivers lunches to thousands of preschool-aged children.

“I have a huge heart for children and families,” Barnes writes on the fundraising donation page, “and realize we can all do our part during the current Covid-19 crisis to help our most vulnerable populations, including children and families that are not able to afford or access food during this time.”


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Bethany Cuenod is raising her 3 1/2-year-old son alone while wrapping up the Rice Jones MBA for Professionals Weekend Residency program. Patty Cobleigh, a mother of three, is about to graduate with an MBA from Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business; Cobleigh’s classmate Annie Henderson is raising a 2-year-old and a 5-month-old while she and her husband finish their full-time MBA studies together. Liliia Voitenko is soon to graduate from the full-time program at Northwestern Kellogg School of Management while raising a 4-year-old daughter.

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Mercede Barnes. Courtesy photo

Mercede Barnes’ new venture, co-founded with fellow Jones School MBA Chris Jones, is called Place of Play. The original concept was for a Houston-area, brick-and-mortar children’s entertainment center that would bloom into a chain of locations; coronavirus hit as Barnes and Jones were nurturing the fledgling business with support from Rice’s Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. So they pivoted to virtual party packages, “rescuing birthday parties one child at a time” with online platforms and delivery of boxes of custom party favors.

“This whole situation hasn’t put Place of Play on hold, but we took the opportunity to pivot and do something now with virtual parties,” she tells Poets&Quants. “We’ll be delivering customized party game boxes — only local for now, and probably we won’t grow much during this time, but it’s all about marketing and trying to connect with our customers now already.” Place of Play recently launched its website and is open for business, Barnes says. The original concept is only on hold until normalcy returns and in-person birthday parties are possible again.

Somehow, with a 13-year-old daughter, a burgeoning business, and an MBA to study for, Barnes found time to work full-time as well — though the health crisis may have actually eased her schedule on that front. As a salesperson for Praxair Inc., she was in charge of driving sales growth for bulk liquid gases — oxygen, nitrogen, CO2, argon, hydrogen — in the Greater Houston and Southern Louisiana area. Her work required partnering with business development, logistics and distribution, and services personnel, and involved a great deal of face-to-face time.

“I manage a territory here in Houston and Louisiana. So normally I’m working from home and I’m going out to visit customers — and that’s really the only thing that’s changed,” Barnes says. “I can’t physically visit all of my customers — but it’s still been pretty much business as usual, which has been nice.

“I think at first the biggest challenge was making sure that Mia was also doing her daily middle school Zoom classes, doing what she needed to do while I’m working at home and doing school at home. That was the hardest part: the structure and the discipline, just making sure that she’s doing what she needs to do.”


A combination of things spurred Barnes to pursue an MBA: a need to grow professionally and equip herself with the tools to grow into leadership roles, but also the credibility to move up or move on. She raves about Rice delivering on all those promises.

“The professors have been world-class, most of them, and the students and the tech people in our program have really like challenged me, inspired me, motivated me,” she says. “And actually for the business that I launched, I partnered with a teammate that I’ve had on my team for most of the program.

“When coronavirus hit, I think Rice did a fantastic job getting the virtual Zoom setup, and it’s been good. I think we obviously miss being in class with our classmates and that sort of physical aspect. But I think it’s been just as effective. We’ve had all our classes. They do breakout sessions where we can meet our groups. In a way, I prefer it, because every time I have to go somewhere, every minute counts and those are just minutes that I’m able to put back into what we’re doing.

“It’s hard to realize that this is ending, because we had our last class and didn’t realize it was our last class and now it’s like, ‘Wait, we’re graduating? We’re done?’ It’s been a lot of work. Definitely a lot of sacrifice and understanding from my family, from my husband and my daughter. And I’m just excited that I kind of got everything that I was hoping for out of it.”

Mercede Barnes and her husband Maarten Dullaert and daughter Mia take time for a little lockdown UNO match. Courtesy photo


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