2021 MBAs To Watch: Nicole Brunning, Notre Dame (Mendoza)

Nicole Brunning

University of Notre Dame, Mendoza School of Business

Impact-minded individual who enjoys diving into “why?” and asking “why not?”

Hometown: Troy, MI

Fun fact about yourself:  I spent the last six years in Baltimore, MD and Brooklyn, NY and loved them both.

My background is in education, and I have taught or tutored every grade from kindergarten to 12th.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Grand Valley State University – B.A. in English and Group Social studies (double major) with a concentration in secondary education

Johns Hopkins University – M.S. in Educational Studies with a concentration in secondary education

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Community Engagement Manager at Reading Partners New York, an education nonprofit dedicated to supporting early childhood literacy in systemically disadvantaged communities.

Where did you intern during the summer of 2020? I returned to Reading Partners New York (working remotely from South Bend) as a Development and Program Strategy Intern where I focused primarily on strategy for fundraising, grant proposals, and community communications in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Educational inequity and disparities in the system have been exacerbated by COVID-19, and it felt important to continue to do work that provides essential supports to students who were most impacted by the pandemic.

Where will you be working after graduation? Still TBD – I haven’t yet landed on my next role.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: I serve in two club leadership positions: VP of Communications for our Women in Business club and President of Mendoza Professional Services, a student consulting group that serves local businesses and nonprofit organizations.

I am a Forté Fellow and have been awarded Mendoza’s Brogan Fellowship which honors the four MBA women with the highest GPAs at the end of the first year of the program.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I am most proud of the work my team and I have done with Mendoza Professional Services. We have grown the club to over 50 MBA candidates working across eight consulting projects with local businesses and nonprofit. We have created new structures and processes to manage those projects more effectively to better support teams and increase the impact provided to our community partners. It’s no secret that COVID-19 has taken a major toll on local small businesses and nonprofits, so this work feels especially important now. Making community connections and being able to support South Bend businesses and organizations while also providing students with real on-the-ground project experience has been a highlight of my time at Mendoza. For student teams, it’s also a great way to get to know South Bend and its many offerings, and I’m happy MPS has helped students find some new favorite spaces like farmers markets, food co-ops, and bakeries.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I’ve had the opportunity to work on many interesting projects and initiatives in my career, but one I am most proud of was a panel I organized focused on representation in children’s literature. Working on this project introduced me to amazing people across New York City from bookstore owners to community activists to authors and illustrators. Children’s literature is incredibly powerful, and the characters and stories represented in them can have a tremendous impact on the way children see themselves and the world around them. I was proud to have helped create a platform for this conversation to be had.

Why did you choose this business school? I was drawn to Mendoza’s message of “Grow the Good in Business” and the way that plays out in the classroom with ethics infused into every course above and beyond the ethics electives students have access to. Visiting campus and speaking with current students showed the kind of welcoming, supportive community Mendoza is, and the smaller program size meant that I would have the opportunity to really get involved and get to know faculty and classmates as more than faces and names.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? I enjoyed so many of my classes and professors, but one of my favorites has to be Professor Emily Garbinsky and her Consumer Behavior course. Prof. Garbinsky organized her course much more like a seminar than a traditional lecture, and students had the opportunity to analyze and discuss the academic research being done to better understand how people make decisions. While the thought-provoking discussions were a lot of fun. I especially appreciated how Prof. Garbinsky ensured we always brought it back to a marketing context and asked us to think about how we might be able to leverage findings in our own careers or how we could take an experimental, data-driven approach to new initiatives. The projects I did for her course were some of my favorites, and I’m excited to be able to apply all my learnings from her course in my career.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school?  Prior to COVID-19, we had an active MBA bowling league. Mendoza is a very collaborative place, and I’ve never felt in competition with classmates over grades or jobs. However, the competitive spirit came out during bowling – teams had custom shirts, people would pour over the stats and standings. It was a great way to spend time with classmates outside of the classroom and take a break in the middle of a busy week.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? I don’t know that I would change a lot because the choices I’ve made are what got me to this space. However, I think I would have tried to be a bit more confident in myself and really appreciate the value my background and experiences brought. Especially for women, “imposter syndrome” can be very real, and I definitely wasted time and energy doubting myself and my abilities.

What surprised you the most about business school? Is it too cliché to say how quickly it goes by? I feel like I was just at orientation and now graduation is looming. Apart from the rapid pace of it all, I was most surprised by the diverse backgrounds and experiences of my classmates. I have classmates who have backgrounds in international development, primatology, media, military, entrepreneurship, law… the list is long and varied, and I’ve loved the opportunity to learn from their unique perspectives.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? Throughout the application process, I stayed true to myself and my goals rather than trying to anticipate what the school might expect or want. Admissions officers know when an application isn’t authentic, so staying true to my story and vision both helped my application stand out and gave me confidence that any school where I gained acceptance knew who I was and what I wanted.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I greatly admire Eric Sweeney, another Class of 2021 MBA. Eric is an integral part of our Mendoza Professional Services leadership team, and I have learned so much from the way he approaches things with a combination of curiosity and analytical thinking that allows him to dig into a question or problem without losing sight of the end goal. Eric is clear on his values and goals and is committed to taking action. His work as a member of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion task force and co-president of the LGBTQ+ club is sure to have an impact on the students who come after him.

How disruptive was it to shift to an online or hybrid environment after COVID hit? While it has been great to be back on campus this year, the transition to an online environment for the end of the previous academic year was surprisingly smooth. Professors did an excellent job finding ways to keep online courses interactive and adjusting assignments to work in the virtual environments. On the student side, we found ways to continue to connect through things like trivia nights and guided wine tastings over Zoom.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? I have been fortunate enough to have had many influential, supportive people in my life without whom I would not be about to graduate with my MBA today, including family, friends, coworkers, and managers. Of all these amazing people, my husband, Eric, has been the biggest influence in my MBA journey. He was supportive from the earliest days when getting my MBA was a burgeoning thought and never faltered in his belief that it was something I could and should do. He helped me see what I would bring to an MBA program in addition to the ways I would be able to learn and grow throughout this challenge

From the first applications to late-night projects and studying, he has helped me maintain both confidence in myself and focus on my goals.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list? I like to stay open to different opportunities, so I don’t have solidified bucket list, but I would love to work abroad at some point and serve on the board of a nonprofit I’m passionate about.

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

“I’ve had the distinct pleasure of working with Nicole for the past year in my capacity as the advisor to the Mendoza Professional Services (MPS) group. Nicole, as one of the lead co-chairs of this group, has been an absolute joy to work with. In this capacity, I’ve appreciated and have been so impressed by the organization and project tracking Nicole has brought to the project process. This has created a more robust mechanism for ensuring projects were on track, and if not, provided a catalyst for early intervention.

I’ve also really appreciated Nicole’s initiative and consistency in communicating with me on the progress of the projects, including bringing any issues to light. She has been a tremendous source of support to the students by setting clearer standards for organization and outcome. As such, the students approach the projects with greater purpose, which has led to more consistent outcomes. I think they’ve felt better prepared and supported to work with their clients in a professional manner.

All these structural enhancements that Nicole has instituted in the last year in MPS, not to mention her professionalism and positivity, has not only elevated the program overall but leaves the organization in a great position for the next group of MPS leaders. She’s leaving a very positive legacy.”

Alice Obermiller
Director of Experiential Learning & Leadership Development
Mendoza Graduate Programs

University of Notre Dame