2020 MBAs To Watch: Liz O’Brien, University of Minnesota (Carlson)

Liz O’Brien

University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management

“Nonprofit-fundraiser-turned-human-capital leader on a quest to help others realize their potential.”

Hometown: Boston, MA and Chicago, IL

Fun fact about yourself: I taught English in very rural part of Normandy after college, picking up a passable French accent and a penchant for camembert.

Undergraduate School and Degree: University of Chicago, History and French

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Development Manager, Chicago Scholars

Where did you intern during the summer of 2019? General Mills, Minneapolis, MN

Where will you be working after graduation? General Mills, Human Resource Business Partner

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

  • Forte Fellow
  • Vice President External Relations (elected), MBA Association
  • Diversity Graduate Assistant, Carlson School Admissions & Recruiting
  • Co-Chair, Class Gift
  • Co-Chair, Carlson Women’s Leadership Conference 2019
  • Member, Carlson Women’s Leadership Conference Steering Committee 2020
  • Board Member, Graduate Women in Business
  • Ambassador, Forte Foundation
  • Peer Advisor, Forte Foundation
  • Graduate Business Career Center Peer Coach
  • Team Lead, Carlson Brands Enterprise

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? As a young woman with a liberal arts degree working for a nonprofit, I never dreamed of getting an MBA. However, with the help of the Forte Foundation and the encouragement of an incredible community of women, I decided to take the MBA leap. Knowing that there are many other women and traditionally marginalized populations who might think that they are ‘not right’ for an MBA, my time at the Carlson School has focused on paying it forward to the next generation of MBA women. In my first year, I joined the Graduate Women in Business Board and was selected to co-chair the Carlson Women’s Leadership Conference, a conference that serves the entire Twin Cities community. I am incredibly proud that we were able to redesign the conference program to include more sessions on inclusion, social impact, and entrepreneurship, leading to a sold-out conference with 400+ attendees. In my second year, I was selected to become Carlson’s Forte Ambassador and Admissions Diversity Graduate Assistant. I have been working closely with the admissions team to nurture Carlson’s community of women and invest in recruiting diverse talent. Every conversation that I have with a prospective MBA woman energizes me and drives me to work toward a more-inclusive MBA and business landscape.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I spent the five years prior to my MBA dedicated to the growth of Chicago Scholars, a nonprofit that helps under-resourced and first-generation students access college and become the next generation of diverse leaders. In 2012, we were a small, scrappy organization. On my first day of work, I had no job description and just 12 colleagues. Steered by an incredible leadership team, I worked to help Chicago Scholars triple in size over five years, growing to a staff of 30 that served 3,000+ students. As our Development Manager, it was my job to develop the funding, relationships, and infrastructure to enable this growth. It has been incredibly rewarding to see Chicago Scholars continue to grow and flourish since I left, especially as I watch the students in our program beat the odds, enter college, and transition into impactful careers.

Fun fact: Chicago Scholars was selected this February 2020 as the “Team LeBron” charity of choice for the NBA All-Star Game, inviting our Scholars onto a national platform and awarding them $400K when Team LeBron won the game.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Marketing Professor Seth Werner. In addition to being a brilliant marketer, Seth is an engaging teacher who truly cares about learning and the student experience. He collects student feedback after every class period and adapts his courses throughout the semester based on student input. Seth also leads a student book club and opens his family’s home to students for Thanksgiving so that everyone is able to celebrate the holiday. I signed up for every single one of Seth’s classes, from core marketing to our two-week “Marketing in the Mayhem” experience in South America, to Carlson’s first-ever CPG 101 course. You never know what fun surprise might be coming next in Seth’s class — whether it’s a full peanut butter aisle display in core marketing or a guest appearance from his pet chicken in pricing, Seth keeps our classes exciting.

Why did you choose this business school? The amount of personalized support and real-world experience that you get at Carlson is unrivaled. Minneapolis is also an amazing place to live and work. As I weighed my MBA decision, I knew that I wanted a tight-knit community where I could build career-long relationships with my classmates, learn by doing, and access great career opportunities in a city that I loved. Carlson is at the forefront of experiential learning, requiring two semesters of project-based consulting for Twin Cities companies and social ventures in our ‘enterprise’ program. Carlson’s smaller class size also enables individualized career support for every student and the opportunity to build deep relationships with your classmates. I was particularly inspired by Carlson’s impressive community of women and was blown away by the support they gave me through the admissions process.

What is your best advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? Talk to people, talk to people, talk to people! The more time that you invest in speaking with current students, alumni, the admissions team, and other members of our community, the better positioned you will be to articulate your career goals and ‘fit’ with Carlson. I spoke to over 80 people across the four business schools where I applied. Remember that these conversations are not just about your admission to a top MBA program — you are refining your career goals and building your long-term network (you also don’t have to do 80 … start with one or two and see where they take you!). I have stayed in touch with many of the people that I met during the MBA admissions process, and these relationships ultimately helped me to get an early October internship offer and full-time role at General Mills.

What is the biggest myth about your school? As a Bostonian by birth and a Chicagoan for a decade, I thought Minneapolis was a sleepy Midwestern city without much job opportunity. When I came to visit Carlson, I learned that Minnesota is home to 17 Fortune 500 companies and an incredibly robust job network. Big names like Target, 3M, General Mills, and Medtronic have chosen the Twin Cities as their U.S. headquarters, and there is a vibrant nonprofit and entrepreneurial scene here as well. With no other top MBA programs in the area, Carlson is the apple of recruiters’ eyes, giving our MBAs a first look at the best job opportunities. This ecosystem has led to a strong Carlson alumni network in the Twin Cities and generated excellent inter-industry job movement possibilities. While your Carlson degree will certainly translate well outside the Twin Cities, it will be invaluable if you decide to stay.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? Business school is the best possible place to leave your comfort zone and take risks in a ‘safe’ space. While I did take quite a few risks (running for an elected position terrified me), there are a few more I wish I would have taken, such as participating in a case competition outside my area of expertise. I would definitely encourage incoming MBAs and rising second years to say yes to the things that scare and challenge you. By developing that mindset now, you will set yourself up for continuous growth and learning for your entire career.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Amy Hromatka, our student body President. Amy and I sat next to each other at the very first Carlson admissions event, and have been friends and ‘partners in change’ ever since. Amy was one of the inspiring women I met in the MBA admissions process, and I remember thinking, “Wow—if she goes to Carlson, I want to go to Carlson.” She is a powerhouse leader and change-maker, relentlessly pushing to leave Carlson a better place than when we found it. When she takes on a cause (and she takes on many), you know that she will make it happen. As our president, she has been an incredibly strong voice for collaboration and inclusion, working to create cross-club partnerships and recently spearheading an initiative to make changing tables accessible in men’s restrooms. I know that we could conquer the world together, but she will be joining me at General Mills, so we will start with cereal.  I can’t wait to share her leadership journey for years to come.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? Dominique Jordan Turner, CEO of Chicago Scholars. As a first-generation college student and black woman born on the South Side of Chicago, “DJT” defied the odds, graduated from an excellent college, entered corporate America as a management consultant, and then decided to leave the cushy paycheck to pursue her passion for mission-driven work. She went on to get her MBA and become CEO of Chicago Scholars, which is where we met. Beyond being a “shero” and role model to me, she pushed me to think bigger about my work and my own potential. She also showed me that business and impact are not mutually exclusive—in fact, they work best in harmony. When I saw her ability to combine business savvy with a mission, I was inspired to start researching MBA programs. DJT wrote all of my MBA recommendations and celebrated every interview and offer a call with me.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list?

1 – Make human resources cool: HR has an outdated reputation for cumbersome paperwork. This does not reflect the competitive advantage that great talent and organizational strategy can offer modern business. I want to change this paradigm — when I share that I work in human resources in the future, I want the first comment to be “wow” instead of “why?”

2 – Lead a business abroad: My partner and I have always dreamed about raising children in a foreign culture and language someday. There is nothing better for learning and going outside your comfort zone. My goal is to become an invaluable leader who is worth the international relocation investment.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? As someone who pushed for excellence in the Carlson community set them up for success and was always happy to grab a beer or take a walk.

Hobbies? I have really connected with the Twin Cities’ active, friendly, and affordable lifestyle. Helped by an excellent trail and park system, I do a lot of biking and strolling next to the Mississippi River and local lakes with my fiance. Yes, even in the winter. On Thursdays, you can find me at Carlson TAPS (Thursday After Professional Studies) sharing a brew with my amazing classmates, plotting our next event or strategy, and getting wedding vendor recommendations.

What made Lizsuch an invaluable addition to the Class of 2020?

“From the moment she set foot on campus, Liz O’Brien has made an impact. Having secured her internship within weeks of school starting, she became a force within the program. Touching almost every part of the MBA experience, Liz been a part of the admissions process, the student government, the career search, diversity and inclusion efforts, and no shortage of club and student events. Without question, she has graciously and consistently given so much to her classmates and the Carlson School Community.

During her time at Carlson, Liz has held over 10 leadership roles including her leadership as a board member of our MBA Association where she represents the voice and the needs of both the first and second-year classes, her work as Chair of the FTMBA Class gift (where she has led a 13-person team to secure enough early commitments that she has already exceeded last year’s total and is on track to bring in one of the largest Class Gift commitments despite a smaller class). And finally, as Peer Coach, where she provided tailored coaching and feedback to students across multiple programs prepare for interviews during the campus recruiting process.

While Liz has contributed to many parts of our community, diversity and inclusion may be where she has demonstrated the greatest impact. While holding leadership roles for both our Women’s Leadership Conference and the Graduate Women in Business Club, she has been able to build programming and secure grants that not only supported women within Carlson School but also women in the Twin Cities and individuals in the LGBTQ+ community. As a Graduate Assistant for the MBA team, she designed and led the first-ever women’s focus group to solicit feedback on the admissions process and student experience for women. And, while she has done all of this for Carlson and her classmates, she continues to give outside of the Carlson School Community by serving as a Peer Advisor for the Forté Foundation to mentor and encourage the next generation of MBA women.”

Kelly McClellan
Senior Associate Director
MBA Career Coaching


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