2020 First Generation MBAs: Malena Lopez-Sotelo, Duke University (Fuqua)

Malena Lopez-Sotelo

Duke University, Fuqua School of Business

Class: 2021

Hometown: Dublin, GA

Fun Fact About Yourself: My first time on a plane was also my first time leaving the country. Destination: Morocco – to study Arabic.

Undergraduate School and Major: The University of Georgia (UGA), Religion with a Global Studies certificate

Most Recent Employer and Job Title:

MBA Summer Internship: Microsoft, Marketing Communications Manager

Prior to MBA: Stacey Abrams for Governor, Deputy Data Director

What did your parents do for a living? Both of my parents are proud immigrants from Mexico and started out in the U.S. as migrant farmworkers. My mom has worked in furniture manufacturing for over 20 years in various roles ranging from industrial sewer inspector to trainer to model maker. For more than 10 years, my dad has worked in the landscape services industry as a small business owner.

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your father? My mother studied through the 10th grade and my father reached the 6th grade.

Which family member or mentor is your biggest inspiration or role model? Why? My mom is my biggest inspiration and role model. As a child, my mom was a single parent and she prioritized me and my siblings and our education while also encouraging our participation in activities that are formative to children. Even though she couldn’t always afford them and the schedules were difficult to align, she never made these struggles apparent in a way. She didn’t want me to drop these activities that taught collaboration, advocacy, and fun. Most recently, my mom has inspired me with her choice to continue her education in order to transform her career. 30 plus years later, my mom is moving forward on a postponed goal: achieving her GED. My mom’s commitment to developing herself and those she believes in that makes her an inspiration and my role model.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? I don’t recall a specific moment. Pursuing higher education was embedded in my plans because of the way my mom treated education as a necessary aspect of my present and future. Beyond undergrad, my decision to pursue graduate school was solidified when I realized the domino effect that my undergrad experience had on family members. My younger sister also graduated from UGA and my younger brother will graduate this fall. I now know that other people who look like me are watching, and representation matters.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? My biggest worry before going to the University of Georgia was leaving my family behind and no longer being as available to help. Then and now, I feel an incredible sense of responsibility to my family. For a period of time while growing up, my dad was undocumented. It was not uncommon for me to think through a Plan A, a Plan B, and a Plan C should my family have to deal with such a tragic and life-altering event as a deportation. As the oldest of five siblings, I was also responsible for stepping in when my mother, as a single parent, needed to work late or work two jobs to make ends meet. Lastly, as one of the oldest of the first generation children in the extended family and the most fluent in English, I was often a broker between several systems, such as healthcare and education, as well as my family’s needs. Adding distance to this equation made me hesitant to move away.

I had an amazing opportunity that largely removed a significant financial barrier to attending college. After toting around a folder full of scholarship applications my senior year, I managed to piece together Georgia’s HOPE scholarship, Coca-Cola’s First Generation scholarship, grants, and locally-awarded scholarships to cover most of my expenses. As a result, money for tuition, books and living expenses was still a concern, but not the highest. College looked like a real possibility. I’m not 100 percent sure what gave me enough confidence to leave, because I remember being torn in fear. I believe it was a combination of my mom’s encouragement, knowing the sacrifices my parents made in order to have a better life, and a need to see what more I was capable of. Ultimately, that’s what I did, and my family supported me through it.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? The most challenging part of getting my undergraduate degree was lacking the multi-dimensional safety net that addressed internal stressors, such as reinforcing study skills and addressing stereotype threat. There were also external stressors, such as racism on campus and lack of representative mentorship, that I needed to create my key to success.

While I was an involved and accomplished A+ student, I went to high school in a small, rural town. On campus, there were wealthy students who took private SAT/ACT courses, were already accustomed to college courses and had already achieved college credits. They also had internships and arrived to higher education with a network to guide them. In the classroom, there were courses to ground you in critical thinking, opportunities to study abroad, and pre-requisite classes that required a plan and knowledge of the path these classes could take you in the long-term. As a first-generation student and Latina woman from a low-income background attending a predominantly white university, I had none of the aforementioned resources which largely led me to navigate on my own. I struggled throughout my four years from various dimensions. While I knew that education was the key to my success, I did not know how to ensure I had the right key, my key to success.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher education experience that you wish they would understand better? Regarding the higher education experience, it was hard for my family (and myself sometimes) to overcome the constant friction between taking a short-term payoff and understanding an opportunity with more long-term value. For example, in undergrad, I had a goal to gain an internship on Capitol Hill, most of which were unpaid. It was difficult for my family to understand how such an experience, which would pull me away from my money-making job and family, could be academic in nature and still worthwhile. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to make this internship a reality through the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, which eased my own financial concerns and provided a lens that my family could relate to.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? Prior to business school, most of my career was in the software industry, where I thrived in the fast-paced and creative environment as a product manager. From there, I worked for Stacey Abrams, a thoughtful and fierce leader, on her gubernatorial campaign, and subsequently at Fair Fight. I knew the world needed more women of color to lead in a socially responsible way and that I deserved to be one of them. I wanted to combine these lessons learned with my long-term goal of becoming an entrepreneur. But I needed the resources to innovate, a stronger foundation in skills like finance, accounting and marketing and a strong network that I could count on. I believe an MBA is the right program for me to take this next step.

How did you choose your MBA program? It was a trial-and-error process. I first considered part-time programs and ended up applying to two top 25 full-time MBA programs twice. The first time, I focused on the school’s brand and scholarships available. By not getting into a full-time program the first time, I learned through (costly) failure. I worked to improve as an applicant by taking advantage of resources like the Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT) program, while overcoming personal barriers, such as asking for additional help. The second time, I focused more on personal fit and the school’s career and entrepreneurial strengths. I also looked for an inspiring community and a team-oriented environment where collaboration was core. I’m happy to report Fuqua met all of these attributes, and I’m especially proud to be a part of the Black and Latinx MBA Organization (BLMBAO) community.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? My biggest worry was the possible size and burden of MBA debt that I’d be taking on. No one in my family had ever taken on this amount of debt for education so it was a scary concept. Duke Fuqua only became a reality after achieving enough financial support and further understanding the long-term value of an MBA outside of the financial ROI.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first generation student? I’m able to finance and attend Duke’s Fuqua School of Business through a merit-based Forte Fellowship, federal loans, and personal savings from pre-business school work and my MBA internship.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? I urge first-generation students to not get overwhelmed by negatively comparing themselves to their peers, especially to those that have a different starting point in their journey. Commit to understanding yourself and the impact you want to have on the world, as well as improving yourself in a way in which your only comparison is the person you used to be. Knowing how far you have come and why will help a great deal as you navigate more complex and ambiguous challenges.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? Post-MBA, I intend on joining a leading technology company in an intrapreneurial role where I can leverage my MBA focuses on entrepreneurship and finance. Ultimately, my goal is to start and scale my own business. I also have a strong bent towards politics, where I see a need for more representative tri-sector leaders. I keep running for political office on my radar too.