2020 First Generation MBAs: Jamaal Wright, Wharton School

Jamaal Wright

The Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania

Class: 2021

Hometown: Houston, TX              

Fun Fact About Yourself:

1) Due to completing an early college program, my first graduation ceremony occurred at a community college two weeks prior to me speaking as Salutatorian at my high school graduation.

2) I’m a health and fitness enthusiast who, prior to graduate school, invested in my well-being by working out daily for over three years without missing one day.

Undergraduate School and Major: The University of Texas at Austin, Finance

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Impact Capital Managers, 2020 Summer Associate

What did your parents do for a living? Father: Aircargo Specialist for Flour Corporation (Contracting Company) serving the Bagram Army Base in Afghanistan. Mother: Consultant at the U.S. Small Business Administration in Houston, TX.

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your father? My father attended one year at The University of Houston and did not complete a college degree. However, my mother attended Houston Community College and earned a two-year degree in General Studies. 

Which family member or mentor is your biggest inspiration or role model? Why? My father is my greatest inspiration. Throughout my grade school education, my father encouraged me to prioritize my education while also instilling a selfless work ethic in me. I recall my father returning home each morning after working the manager night shift for several restaurants over the years. His commitment to my family’s financial security, despite his exhaustion, inspired me. During this time, I often spoke with my dad about many topics, ranging from baseless adolescent requests to my worries about the harsh realities of my under-supported school district. Over time, these conversations molded me into the driven young man I am today.

Notably, my father, who lacking a college degree and battling other adversities that disproportionately suppress communities of color, decided to uproot his life for adequate paying work on a U.S. Army base in war-torn Afghanistan. Despite my concern for his well-being, I admired my father’s bravery as demonstrated in the lengths he was willing to go to in order to develop financial security for our family and build savings to afford college tuitions or my brother and me.

Fortunately, at 13 years old, I was selected in a lottery for an educational program that felt surreal to many of us in working-class families. I joined about 120 diverse students in the first class of Victory Early College High School. I was determined to break a generational cycle within my family by concurrently pursuing my high school diploma and a two-year associate degree. Due to the vigor of the curriculum, disciplinary issues, and shifting direction in a novel program, only about 40 students graduated with a high school diploma – and even fewer students received the associates of arts degree in the early college program’s first graduating class. I’m proud that despite these challenges, I graduated as Salutatorian and as the only early college student to maintain a 4.0 college GPA in earning my associate of arts degree.

My dad instilled in me what matters most- persevering despite adversity and helping under-supported individuals do the same – which has come to define who I am as a person and professional. I attribute my father’s continued guidance, encouragement, and focus on my education while parenting from abroad as the driving force behind my success throughout this early college program and beyond.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? The moment I was accepted to an early college program to pursue my high school diploma and associate degree concurrently, I realized that obtaining a higher education had become a more realistic dream for me. I felt empowered and ultimately confirmed my potential to succeed on a collegiate level.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? Due to my unconventional early college experience, I was confident in my ability to perform at the university level. However, like many students from working-class minority households, I lacked a clear understanding of the breadth of career opportunity available to me as a promising young professional. My biggest worry regarding my pursuit of an undergraduate degree was the risk of me being unable to find a sense of purpose and, as a result, experiencing a lack of fulfillment throughout my career.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? The most challenging part of pursuing my undergraduate degree occurred when I began vigorous upper-division coursework as a freshman, earlier than many of my peers at UT Austin. Because I transferred extensive college credit hours from my early college program, I had to remain mature and focused to perform through an accelerated curriculum. Despite this challenge, I excelled in highly quantitative coursework and earned a 3.76 GPA in completion of my Finance degree from the McCombs School of Business in only two-and-a-half years.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher experience that you wish they would understand better? My family never understood the mounting pressure and anxiety I felt to succeed as a black student on a competitive predominately white college campus. During my time at UT Austin, black students represented less than 4% of the student body. Despite this lack of diversity, I’m proud that I still strived to be a leader and change agent within student-driven initiatives on campus. For instance, the Multicultural Engagement Center granted me the For Us From Us scholarship in recognition of my academic excellence and community involvement. As a scholarship recipient, I served as funding coordinator on the scholarship committee the following year to help raise funds for other deserving underrepresented leaders on campus (lifting as I climbed).

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? I decided to pursue my MBA to explore my interests in Investment Management and Social Impact. I felt compelled to gain the dynamic leadership skills, financial and business acumen, and networks required to success in an investment-oriented career. I have come to realize my deepening interest in a career that enables me to support and invest in innovation and black entrepreneurship.

How did you choose your MBA program? I choose Wharton’s MBA program because of its diverse student-driven environment, strength in financial services and social impact recruiting, and distinguished alumni network. I also felt the exceptionally engaged Black at Wharton community would provide an additional layer of community support. The Black at Wharton community has been a pivotal part of my Wharton experience due to the targeted support and engagement that I have received over the past year.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? My biggest worry before starting my MBA was not measuring up to high expectations and underperforming my talented peers in a new-found, competitive environment. Imposter syndrome at times paralyzed me from making plans to transition to campus because self-doubt prevented me from visualizing myself as a capable and contributing member of the Wharton community. I am proud to share that my recent leadership and engagement on campus has become a significant asset as I continue to unlock networks that enable me to explore career opportunities aligned with my interests.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first-generation student? I am grateful for being granted a Wharton family fellowship that partially funds my MBA. Additionally, I’ve been accepted paid leadership roles on campus as a Student Life Fellow, Diversity Admissions Fellow, and Toigo Foundation Campus Captain to help finance my graduate degree.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? My advice to other first-generation college students is to lead with healthy vulnerability and to lift as you climb even when facing adversity in unfamiliar environments. Many first-generation students hold deep-seated insecurities that are tied to “unappealing” aspects of their upbringing or background. I have realized that leading with healthy vulnerability helps to develop mutually beneficial relationships, uncover previously untapped networks, and gain valuable insight necessary for effective career pathing. Many of the unforeseen opportunities I have been presented with occurred as a result of me actively engaging and supporting the advancement of marginalized communities.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? Following graduation, I plan to pursue an investment-oriented career that enables me to support and invest in innovation and black entrepreneurship. I am interested in working for a diverse asset manager and developing the financial and business acumen necessary to raise, manage and deploy catalytic capital that achieves attractive market-rate returns.


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