Shortly after the Covid-19 lockdown began, Bethany Cuenod and her 3 1/2-year-old son, Max, began setting up their work stations side by side. While Bethany studied in the Rice Jones MBA for Professionals Weekend Residency program or worked remotely at her full-time job in product planning and marketing, Max, who could no longer go to daycare, did word and number games.
There were challenges. Keeping a little boy occupied is a full-time task in itself. But it was nothing compared to what Cuenod has experienced.
After leaving her Ph.D. program in behavioral neuroscience at the University of Illinois, Cuenod, master’s degree in hand, moved home to Texas. Pregnant, she struggled to find a job. So did her husband. Both were unemployed when she gave birth to Max. Eventually Cuenod found part-time work as an office manager for a church; her husband got a job as a server.
It wasn’t enough.
“I realized that it was too small for me — part-time wasn’t going to be where I wanted to go,” Cuenod tells P&Q. “I am a person who dives 150% into almost everything I do, and so part-time and the low salary just wasn’t going to cut it for me.” She found a contract position as a marketing and operations person for a small startup; that didn’t work out. Next she got a job in marketing and logistics for a Canada-based energy company. Coming from academia and wading into tech, an MBA was never something Cuenod considered — until she was inspired one day at a trade show.
LEARNING THE INS & OUTS, AND TAKING THE PLUNGE TO B-SCHOOL
“Honestly, I’d never thought about going to business school,” Cuenod says. “I was like, ‘I’m going to be in academia forever. I love research, this is great. I started doing my Ph.D. and I was like, ‘I hate this. I hate not seeing the sun, it’s so hard.’ I was literally indoors in a lab most of the day or at a computer writing up reports — this is not what it is for me.” But she never thought about going into business because of her impression of business majors at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, where she went for undergrad. “In undergrad it was just a bunch of white bros and just bros in general, and it was kind of a turn-off for me,” she says.
But the entrepreneurial gene is strong. In November 2017, Cuenod had launched her own business, Invented Space, working with small and medium-sized businesses making designs for trade show displays and other marketing materials. “I would come up with dimensions as a kid, but I never thought about the business part of that, I just thought about the fun, creative part of that, and I never understood how important that was to business.”
It wasn’t until she was doing marketing and office management for the energy company that she realized she had an aptitude for business, and perhaps more importantly, that she enjoyed it. “I like getting to learn the ins and outs, how things work, how to be creative in a place that isn’t necessarily the most creative.” And she was inspired by the owner’s wife, who was the president of Skyline Displays of Houston. “I was at at trade show and I was like, ‘Wow, this woman is doing everything and she’s super cool and fun.’ Seeing a woman in a very powerful position, and still be very approachable, was kind of like a spark.”
FROM PREGNANT, BROKE & QUASI-HOMELESS TO A RICE MBA & HP MANAGER
Cuenod only interviewed at one B-school. She almost didn’t interview at any.
At the end of May 2018 she decided to take the plunge and pursue an MBA. She knew nothing about the process — “I knew nothing about anything. I was just like, ‘Rice is local, why don’t I go talk to them?’ I sat with one of the admissions people, and at first she was just like, ‘Well, the full-time program is full, you can try applying next year.’ But then we kind of got off on a tangent talking about how important representation was for women in business, because there’s just not enough of us. And she was like, ‘You know what? The professional program still has a couple of spots available, you should really try and do it.'”
There were hurdles. It was too late to apply for grants, and Cuenod could not afford to stop working. Even more pressing: It was May 20. Deadline for application to the program was May 28.
She crammed for the GMAT and scored in the low 600s. She got her application in just under the wire. She was called in for an interview on May 31, and two days later she was accepted. “In two weeks my life changed, and it’s been incredible,” she says. “I’ve been so lucky.” Last summer she interned with HP, and she’s since entered their Certified Professional Program. She’s been working full-time for them while completing her MBA.
“It’s been one thing after another,” she says. “But after being pregnant, broke, and quasi-homeless, you kind of are used to being able to roll with the punches.”
There was one more big punch: divorce. Cuenod and her husband separated in September 2019, and the divorce has not been finalized. It has left her a single parent, the heaviest responsibility among many.
“It’s all-the-time work, it does feel like you’re constantly working,” she says. She makes lesson plans on the weekend and adds at least one or two things she wants him to learn each day, and schedules that between her many meetings. “It’s exhausting and I’m tired, but I think the thing that’s really helped me is thinking at the beginning of each day, “Okay, what do I want to do with him?” That’s been really helpful,” she says.
‘VITAL TO ENLIST THE SUPPORT OF LOVED ONES’
Liliia Voitenko is a second-year student in the full-time MBA program at Northwestern Kellogg, pursuing a career in technology. The mother of a 4-year-old daughter, Eva, Voitenko is nearing the end of a long journey. She will graduate in a virtual commencement June 19; an on-campus ceremony is promised for a later date.
Even with the help of her husband, Andrey, Voitenko spends half of each day caring for Eva. In the early weeks of the coronavirus shutdown, that didn’t t change, but as the shutdown continued she has learned how to better manage time and responsibilities.
“Initially, I treated our new ‘staying at home’ lifestyle as a sprint, thinking that everything would go back to normal in a few weeks,” she tells P&Q. “That mindset changed quickly, and I realized this would be more of a marathon, which allowed our family to become more sensitive to each other’s needs.
“My daughter, Eva, has grown a lot over this period. She has become even more independent and has helped me in so many ways — for example, bringing me a mid-day snack or a charger for my laptop.”
Eva’s parents teach her through play. “Whatever she learns — math, science, or art — we are trying to create a fairytale story, an adventure or to invent a character who needs her help in solving a problem or completing a task,” her mother says. “Although Eva really misses her friends from her class, she knows that she will see them soon and is very excited about that! In the meantime, we can video-call our family and friends and play as if we pack our bags for vacation or leave to visit her grandparents in Ukraine.”
The synergy Voitenko has achieved at home would not be possible without complete buy-in from her family. An MBA would be impossible without it.
“If you are a mom hoping to purse an MBA, it will be vital to enlist the support of loved ones during your journey,” she says. “This has become even more critical now, juggling school and child care at home.
“I am very lucky to have a husband whose help cannot be overemphasized. Andrey is a principal at the Boston Consulting Group. He puts a lot of emphasis on Eva’s development and growth. His invaluable support allows me to devote myself to classes.”
Time alone, whenever possible, is also vital.
“Since we have one-bedroom apartment in Evanston (Illinois), and all common areas in our building are closed due to COVID-19, I often study outside the apartment, sitting on the carpet by the door,” Voitenko says. “Pretty often my peers and professors can see me hugged and kissed by Eva via Zoom.
“I want to applaud all of the single parents who might be dealing with work, studying, and child care during this challenging time.”
FINDING A SOURCE OF HAPPINESS
As she winds down her time at Kellogg, one of the hardest things for Liliia Voitenko has been a newfound anxiety and loss of security, doubts about what the future may hold. She calls it “a new kind of ambiguity.” It has upsides, though, helping her realize that “we only have control over certain situations,” and showing her the importance of reflection and slowing down.
It’s important, she says, to find a source of happiness and strength mid all the anxiety and uncertainty.
“For me,” she says, “this is my daughter. Even the decision to pursue MBA was based on my desire to become a role model for her and prove that you can always change your life and the efforts made will be rewarded. Eva gives me the strength to go forward, look with optimism into the future, and never give up! What delights me in children and what, I think, adults should learn from them is their ability to adapt and be happy regardless of external circumstances.”
Those circumstances did nothing to dim Voitenko’s view of the Kellogg School. “The most important thing for me now is flexibility and empathy,” she says. “I am grateful to Kellogg for the willingness to meet students’ needs. All of my classes are recorded in the event I am not able to attend live, which has been the case a few times due to my responsibilities as a mom. In a very short time, professors adapted the material for high-quality online learning, and Kellogg has allowed more students to audit other classes they might have an interest in. Dean Francesca Cornelli has held regular town-halls with students to answer any questions and instill encouragement and pride in us. I am proud to be a part of Kellogg community!”