Mary Elizabeth Russell
“Obsessed with place-making, community building and leveraging business for positive social and environmental impact.”
Hometown: Durham, North Carolina
Fun Fact About Yourself: I have lived within 30 minutes of where I was born for my entire life.
Undergraduate School and Major: UNC-Chapel Hill, BA in Economics and Religious Studies
Currently enrolled in the UNC dual-degree MBA/MCRP program: Master’s from the Department of City and Regional Planning and MBA from UNC Kenan-Flagler
Most Recent Employer and Job Title: I am a graduate fellow with the Development Finance Initiative (a program of the UNC School of Government) and previously was the strategic partnerships and operations director at 5th Element Group, PBC.
Aside from your classmates, what was the key part of Kenan-Flagler’s MBA programming that led you to choose this business school and why was it so important to you? I chose UNC Kenan-Flagler because of its world-renowned real estate program and robust policy think-tank, the Kenan Institute for Private Enterprise, which brings together leaders in business, academia and government to strategize ways that the private sector can work for the public good. This was a draw for me because I am pursuing a dual-degree with a Masters of City and Regional Planning and believe that public-private partnerships are essential to advance inclusive economic development. Real estate has long been used as a wealth creation tool, but I hope to focus on approaches that create more ways for lower-income communities to have ownership over their neighborhoods, so that wealth can be generated and sustained at a local level. Moreover, I was accepted as a Vetter Dean’s Fellow, which is a leader-scholar program that presents additional opportunities to make an impact within the MBA community. With a high regard for integrity, inclusivity and leadership, I knew that the Vetter Dean’s Fellowship would equip me with the tools needed to advance in my goals alongside an amazing group of peers.
What course, club or activity excites you the most at Kenan-Flagler? As crazy and exciting as it feels just to be on campus with my cohort, I am also looking forward to participating in a Global Immersion Elective. This is an opportunity for students to travel to another country for an intensive experience, learning about the local business challenges, techniques and cultural environment from top leaders and experts. I am excited to learn more about how real estate is advancing and transforming across the world, especially in the company of my classmates.
Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: I was a founding team member of a company, and working for any start-up requires grit, heart, and vision. I absolutely loved that environment because I could be creative and see the impact of my work quite explicitly. The company connects corporate leaders, investors and philanthropists with strategic partners to grow their businesses and leave a positive impact on society and the environment. It was inspiring to work with each non-profit and to find funding partners that could help advance their mission – the most impactful for me being the Free Yezidi Foundation. We met the founder at a business accelerator at the U.S. Department of State focused on religious freedom. After that, we created a marketing campaign backed by a generous match partner that crowdsourced enough funding for the Free Yezidi Foundation to qualify for USAID funding – a big leap for them. That was really incredible to be a part of it.
How did COVID-19 change your perspective on your career and your life in general? During a majority of 2020, I was a virtual student at UNC-Chapel Hill for my MA in City and Regional Planning studying economic development. We spent a great deal of time researching the experiences of a variety of “essential worker” groups and the increasing threat of eviction for millions of families, despite a booming housing market. This drove home for me the ties between our work and well-being and reassured me that there is much to be done to improve that connection, which my MBA will enable to me to help do. Logistically speaking, I already had been working completely remotely for three years when the pandemic began, so it did not provoke a significant change to my work style.
What is the most important quality of a leader…and why is it so important to success? Empathy has to be up there with the most important qualities of a leader. A leader creates the environment and sets the tone. Leading with empathy creates an environment where it is safe to learn from mistakes and resolve inevitable conflicts with less drama. Empathy inspires kindness and humility, and we all need more of that in the world.
What led you to pursue an MBA at this point and what do you hope to do after graduation? I worked for five years before choosing to return to school, which was a good choice for me. I knew I wanted to pivot in my career to focus in development, but needed to learn more first. After graduation, I hope to work for a real estate development firm before pivoting to a community development finance institution (CDFI).
What other MBA programs did you apply to? UNC Kenan-Flagler was the only MBA program where I ultimately applied. I considered other schools that offered the dual-degree I was looking for, such as Michigan Ross and Wharton, but felt UNC Kenan-Flagler had the best culture and academic fit for me. Plus, it was hard to look past the benefit of in-state tuition!
What advice would you give to help potential applicants gain admission into Kenan-Flagler’s MBA program? First of all, I know this process is not easy. I remember being very nervous and uncertain. A friendly reminder here is that you can thrive wherever you land. Being on the other side of the admissions process, I would share that UNC Kenan-Flagler is particularly interested in developing leaders with strong character. They want a cohort that cares about leveraging their degree to make positive change in the world, as well as perform with excellence. Check out their core values and share how they fit into your MBA and professional goals. Additionally, they have done a fantastic job at cultivating a cohort that is diverse along so many lines – nationality, race, economic background, age, gender, interests, and experiences. If you are worried that you “don’t fit” I would recommend applying! You may be the missing piece.
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