2021 MBAs To Watch: Alexis Zawelensky, Penn State (Smeal)

Alexis Zawelensky

The Pennsylvania State University, Smeal College of Business

Passionate, research-focused marketing innovator practiced in crafting insights and revealing stories from data.”

Hometown: Uniontown, Pennsylvania

Fun fact about yourself: One of my bucket list items is to run a marathon on every continent!

Undergraduate School and Degree: Bachelor of Science in Marketing and English and SAP Business One Certification Program Graduate from Saint Vincent College

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Marketing Director at QuatriniRafferty, P.C.

Where did you intern during the summer of 2020? Johnson & Johnson

Where will you be working after graduation? Marketing Manager via the Marketing Leadership Development Program at Johnson & Johnson

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: President of the Marketing Association; Vice President of Operations of WMBA; Marketing Teaching Assistant; Powerful Women Paving the Way Fellow

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I made it my mission to learn to lead from behind during my business school experience. I purposely turned down opportunities to run for more front-leading organizational roles, similar to what I held throughout my undergraduate career, in the hope of instead leaning into the efforts of others, learning by their example, and filling gaps as they appeared. I found this to be an exceptional learning opportunity, not only in the humbling opportunity to learn to say “no,” but also to listen more than I speak and to work without recognition. One example of a noteworthy initiative I’m proud to have led from behind is organizing of a Mental Health Committee of 1st year MBAs to work directly with our support office and career counselors to help combat imposter syndrome across the program, bring in mindfulness and stress relief workshops, and (pre-COVID) organize a meditation yoga course run by a peer.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I am perhaps most proud of serving in my last role as the first ever marketing director of a mid-sized law firm out in Pittsburgh, PA. Being the first in a role is always challenging – no one before you has laid the foundation for how your days should operate, what metrics you should be achieving, and what your responsibilities will entail. But with that open framework comes the freedom to truly innovate, try (and fail!), and make a substantial impact in your role. Looking back at my time with the firm, I am so proud of my ability to analyze a 30-year-old CRM system to define the firm’s optimal client in six different practice areas, triple brand awareness over my three years at the firm (measured via blind recall regional study), and reengineer our brand identity to differentiate among 100+ Pittsburgh area law firms. I truly loved my job and the creative freedom and opportunities it provided.

Why did you choose this business school? Penn State’s world-renowned alumni network, paired with Smeal’s impressive financial aid packages, were paramount selling points to me. However, what truly set Smeal apart from other MBA programs I considered was the authentic community created within the program; I’ve truly not seen anything like it elsewhere. From a daily coffee buzz to connect peers, faculty, and staff, to the multiple weekly social outings and events, I always felt connected to campus and my peers. Given that the average MBA class size hovers around 60 students, the community quickly came to feel like family thanks to the program’s abundant activities and collaborative classroom environment. The community here has crafted the perfect sense of classroom collaboration and extracurricular fun; I’m truly so grateful for it.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? While it’s difficult to pick just one favorite, I have to recognize Professor Vilmos Misangyi for his efforts in creating my favorite course, Power & Influence. Professor Misangyi crafted a course applicable beyond just the boardroom. He challenged students to conduct self-assessments and have tough inner dialogues to uncover what really makes them “tick” and how they might utilize that knowledge to seek out appropriate power within all of their relationships and work endeavors. I jokingly referred to the class as “free therapy” given just how much I learned during it and how applicable it is to holding power in all aspects of life.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? The Smeal MBA Association hosted numerous community engagement activities, including fall tailgates, dances, weekly outings, and more. However, perhaps most noteworthy has been the annual celebration of Diwali each fall. This event brought together both classes for an enriching evening learning about this important holiday and celebrating in the best fashion. I especially enjoyed learning traditional Bollywood-style dances, practicing them with my peers, and finally performing at the event – some of my most enjoyable memories in the program resulted from those late-night dance rehearsals!

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? I would without a doubt tell myself to “relax and enjoy the journey!” You put a lot on the line to come to business school, and the pressure to make the most of that experience can be overwhelming, particularly in your first semester on campus. While maintaining a high GPA is important, your quest for a high GPA shouldn’t consume your B-school experience. Be sure to enjoy all that B-school has to offer, and focus on maintaining a healthy balance between the career hunt, networking, classroom engagement, and social extracurriculars. Often, you learn more about your own leadership capabilities outside of the classroom, so take advantage of the social opportunities provided to you!

What is the biggest myth about your school? Penn State is a Supply Chain school. Our Supply Chain faculty is top notch and our SCM recruiting partners are unparalleled. Smeal offers a breadth of opportunities generated from the Penn State alumni network. Truly, if you have a dream, someone from Penn State can help you get there no matter the industry or concentration.

What surprised you the most about business school? I was surprised by how quickly recruitment starts! They say that your first semester truly is your busiest, and I can attest to that being true. I advise all incoming students at Smeal to map out their target companies prior to arriving to campus, refine their resumes early and often, and to begin conversations with company connections ASAP. Career fairs and on-campus recruitment start as early as your first week of classes here at Smeal, and you truly don’t want to miss your opportunity to connect with recruiters at your dream role by being unprepared. I was fortunate to not learn this lesson the hard way and now work to ensure other incoming students aren’t surprised!

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to tour and interview in-person. I firmly believe that set me apart not only in the candidate pool, but also allowed me clear insights into the programs best suited for me. I had a compelling story to tell that perhaps did not translate as well on paper. I had the opportunity to sit down in front of admissions, prospective students, and faculty to provide my personal pitch, which allowed my communication skills to shine. In-person visits and interviews also selfishly allowed me to meet and befriend MBA candidates at other universities, thus expanding my network prior to formally beginning my studies.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Matthew Tremblay was one of the first students I met at Smeal. Throughout the duration of the program, I have remained deeply admirable of his courage to pursue every academic opportunity presented to him, his passion for advocating for and advancing his peers, and his relentless commitment to balance and family. Matt is challenged because he is simultaneously pursuing both his MBA and Masters in Business Analytics, all while excelling in his role as a newlywed. Despite a strained schedule, Matt always arrived to classes an hour early to converse and assist his peers in networking with his existing connections. Personally, Matt went out of his way to connect me with a contact at Johnson & Johnson, ultimately opening the door to my future work opportunities. For that, I will be forever grateful.

How disruptive was it to shift to an online or hybrid environment after COVID hit? If there’s one thing the MBA is meant to teach you, it’s that resilience in business is everything. While the transition to virtual learning was certainly not ideal, our professors acted nimbly to ensure that we received quality education and coursework despite the circumstances. Our team-based culture quickly adapted as students got sick, and the care and comparison seen from faculty and staff remained strong (if not grew) despite the situation. I am equally as impressed by the amount of creative Zoom social engagements crafted by our MBA Association – I felt connected and engaged despite the new challenges!

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? As a 1st generation college graduate, my parents have been so supportive of my life-long passion for education, and specifically stand behind my zest for marketing. Deciding to pursue my MBA was a decision I had committed to immediately upon completing my undergraduate degree, and my parents supported me in any way they could as I worked to finally take that leap. I’m forever grateful for their love and support throughout this journey and beyond.

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

  1. I worked in Front-End Innovation for Johnson & Johnson last summer and developed the Go-to-Market strategy for a new medical device. I am exceptionally passionate about returning to J&J and seeing that device launch, knowing that I had firsthand experience in getting it there.
  2. To work abroad!

What made Alexis such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2021?

“I am not at all surprised that Alexis has been nominated by her peers as one of the Best and Brightest MBAs. She meets all of the usual criteria for such a nomination: she is a top student academically who is one of the rare people who can do it all: she is both highly detail oriented (and consistently delivers top-notch technical work) and is also equipped with the interpersonal and relational skills that are essential not only for success in business but also to be an effective manager and leader. She is a highly respected leader in the Smeal MBA community who serves as the President of the Smeal Marketing Association.

I got to know Alexis through having her as a student in my Power and Influence elective course. Through her coursework and my interactions with her, I have observed that she stands out as an invaluable contributor to our MBA program because she possesses a mix of characteristics that clearly makes her poised to be a great leader: Alexis is highly ambitious, focused and driven, while at the same time she is humble, empathetic, self-reflective and genuine. Alexis sets high expectations for herself and those around her, but is always truly compassionate, warm and understanding toward her peers. So, this enables her to constantly push herself and her teammates and colleagues to improve, achieve, and strive for more, and does so in an inspiring way that is ultimately effective for achieving the goals and betterment of the collective.  Perhaps more important still is that Alexis is someone with true “grit”—she comes from incredibly humble roots and her journey to this point seems to have given her the toughness and hardiness needed to endure any adversity with which she is confronted in a highly optimistic and resilient way. I expect that Alexis will accomplish great things for whatever organizations and collectives that she chooses to work for in the future.

I enthusiastically recommend Alexis as one of the Best and Brightest MBAs of 2021.”

Vilmos F. Misangyi
Professor of Strategic Management, BNY Mellon Fellow
Department Head of Management and Organization
The Pennsylvania State University


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