2022 MBA To Watch: Kelly O’Brien, University of Rochester (Simon)

Kelly O’Brien

University of Rochester, Simon Business School

“Extroverted strategist who is passionate about cities, technology, and social equity!”

Hometown: Niagara Falls, NY

Fun fact about yourself: In 2013, I won a Fulbright research fellowship to study graffiti and street art in Montreal, Quebec.

Undergraduate School and Degree:

Fordham University, 2013 – BA, American Studies
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2020 – MS, Urban Studies
(soon!) University of Rochester, Simon Business School, 2022 – MBA, Strategy

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? University of Chicago, Strategic Planning Manager for the Arts

Where did you intern during the summer of 2021? Discover Financial Services in Riverwoods, IL

Where will you be working after graduation? Discover Financial Services in Riverwoods, IL

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

Dean’s Leadership Award, 2021
Fielding Leadership Fellow (full tuition & stipend; awarded to top 3% of incoming class)
Forté Fellow
Graduate Business Council, VP of the Benet Career Management Center and Alumni Relations
Simon Golf Club, VP of Marketing
Simon Consulting Club, First Year Rep

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Winning the Dean’s Leadership Award was immensely meaningful, particularly because I received the award at a time when I was feeling unsure about my abilities as a leader. A few months prior, my mother had a heart attack and I moved in with my parents for a while to help while she recovered. This happened at the same time as club leadership transitions, and I didn’t know if I would be able to show up for the Simon community the way I wanted to, the way I had committed to doing. On the award inscription, I was commended for my work as VP of Career and Alumni on the Graduate Business Council, specifically for centering mental wellness as part of the recruiting process. I was grateful to receive this recognition from my community, especially coming out of this hard time.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? This might be an unusual answer, but the achievement I’m most proud of is helping my female colleagues get paid what they were worth in my role before business school. I worked closely with the executive team in our organization and was privy to information about salary bands for the various levels in our organization (Coordinator, Manager, Assistant Director, etc.). Through some frank conversations with my colleagues, I learned that two of them were being paid 10-15% less than the lower end of their respective bands. I helped them both prepare to address the gap with their direct supervisors and spoke to our finance director on their behalf. As a result, one of them received a substantial raise and the other was recruited into a higher-paying role at a major tech company. Though my path to and through business school has been non-traditional, to say the least, this passion for making sure people are paid what they’re worth has been a major driving force in my journey.

Why did you choose this business school? I chose Simon for the people. I wanted a diverse experience, and we are the #1 most diverse MBA program in the US. The cohort size is small for the full-time program (100-120 per year) and the staff and faculty are very present on campus and in students’ lives. Though I wasn’t initially planning to attend business school in a small city like Rochester, living here has defined my experience because the lack of big city distractions has made the community that much closer-knit.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Ravi Mantena. I had Ravi for three courses: Business Modeling, Business Analytics, and Digital Platforms. I also worked with him as a faculty advisor on the Graduate Business Council. I have tremendous respect for Ravi as a scholar and as a leader; he has made me a better STEM thinker and a more thoughtful decision-maker. When a student makes a good point in his class, he always says, “That’s exactly right.” I live for those moments of validation!

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? I really wish I could say Diwali, because it’s a major Simon tradition. Sadly, however, my first year Diwali was celebrated virtually and my second year, I tested positive for COVID the day before! I feel like it’s indicative of the Class of 2022’s unique COVID-MBA experience that I was never able to fully experience the event I was most looking forward to. That said, I absolutely love Keeping Simon Social. KSS is a weekly event, usually on Thursday nights, where the entire Simon student community is encouraged to meet off campus and get to know each other. While the evenings occasionally end in debauchery (it is business school, after all), it’s exciting each week to see a mix of new and familiar faces outside the halls of campus or the windows of Zoom.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? I’m not sure I would have chosen to attend business school during COVID. While I value the Simon community deeply—especially during such a globally traumatic time—the market in fall of 2021 was…not great. I felt my options were limited while recruiting for summer internships. Though I am thrilled that I interned and am returning full-time to a firm I love, I will always wonder what the recruiting process would have been like in a better job market.

What is the biggest myth about your school? That Simon is an underdog when it comes to the top MBA programs in the US. We are constantly fighting the battle of brand recognition, even as we consistently climb higher and higher in the rankings. I look forward to seeing where we’ll be five, ten years down the line—that ROI is going to be major.

What surprised you the most about business school? I didn’t realize until I got here what a pivotal role the first years play in shaping the culture at Simon. When you’re looking at business schools, the culture and personality of the student body seems relatively fixed—like, “Oh, this is the school where no one’s taking the same classes at once,” or “This is the school that loves to tailgate on game days.” While those things are true, I was surprised to see how quickly leaders emerged within our class to both change and continue the culture that already existed at Simon.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? Talking to current students and visiting the campus. Before arriving, I did not realize that Admissions tracks every interaction you have with the school, and making a good impression—by being open, engaging, and authentic—is paramount to being a good applicant.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Brittany Floyd. Brittany and I got to know each other working together on the John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition last fall. Over the course of the competition, I was blown away by her grace and drive, especially when it comes to all things entrepreneurial. She founded her own travel company before business school, and she will be the first person to go directly from the front lines to the corporate offices at American Airlines. Like, what?! I am so proud of her. She’s a trailblazer!

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? My cohort in the Urban Leaders Fellowship, a summer policy fellowship for professionals. The Denver 2019 Fellows were a group of dynamic, brilliant individuals committed to social justice. My experience as a Fellow drove home for me how passionate I am about social equity and the wealth gap, and how important it is to understand the capitalist forces that drive our society. I have long felt that to change the game, you need to understand the rules. An MBA was the perfect way to do that.

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

1. Get paid what I am worth.

2. Retire early.

How has the pandemic changed your view of a career?
The pandemic made me appreciate work-life balance a whole heck of a lot more and convinced me to pursue the LDP/internal strategy route instead of management consulting. I am working to live, not living to work.

What made Kelly such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2022?

“Kelly was elected to the role of VP of Career & Alumni Relations to the Benet Career Management Center during the 21-22 academic year. I met and began working with Kelly when I joined the Simon Business School as the Assistant Dean of the Benet Career Management Center in June, 2021. As Assistant Dean, I am responsible for developing and implementing the strategies to ensure successful student employment outcomes. Kelly’s role is an extension of the Benet Center team and is key to the partnership between the students and the staff. In this role, Kelly has been a great thought partner to the team at the career center, a trustworthy student advocate vocalizing concerns and issues of the student body and an assertive leader holding herself and her peers accountable to the commitments and goals they’ve agreed upon as job seekers. Kelly has made so many contributions to the Benet Center but these three attributes have been what’s attributed to her success in the role of VP as highlighted in the example below.

One of the most important, and delicate operations of a graduate business school career center is student data collection. In order to report on current hiring and salary trends, recruit gifted and talented students, raise awareness of a school’s brand to hiring organizations and be eligible to participate in rankings, the career center must have an professional, efficient, and timely process of collecting accurate student outcomes data. During the fall of 2021, myself and two other career center staff met with Kelly and shared the dilemma in getting students to report outcomes in a timely fashion. Kelly informed us that students view the confidentiality of the information they share and the transparency of the collection process are the key components in addressing this dilemma. Simply put, the career center team needed to do a better job of conveying to students that the process is highly confidential and what and how we use the outcomes data.

As a result of numerous conversations with Kelly about this, the career center created a monthly communication plan to make students aware of how and why we collect the data and how it benefits them as students to report. This monthly messaging began in December, 2021 and has led to increases in employment outcomes survey completion for both 1st and 2nd year MBA students. Additionally, during our weekly meetings with Kelly, we began sharing the unofficial employment offer percentages for both the 2nd year full-time offers and 1st year internship offers and a YOY comparison. Kelly shares these weekly progress reports with her peers to create a sense of excitement about how much progress has been made and as a reminder to all the importance of timely reporting.

As your committee and colleagues can attest, data collection is one of the cornerstones of a top MBA program. I have spent the majority of my career in career services. I’ve worked at 4 universities (including my current employer) and have worked tirelessly to find the “secret sauce” to make the data collection process efficient. There are several platforms on the market which help, but it all starts with students who have bought in to the why and how. Kelly’s contribution to the Benet Center in this way has already started to transform our operation in many ways but primarily in that it gives both career center staff and students a sense of excitement and confidence about the stories we glean from the data. My time and experience with Kelly spans over her 2nd year in our MBA program but the legacy she’s leaving as a student leader was built over her entire 2-year journey at Simon and will serve as a foundation for her successors to build upon for many years to come.”

LaTanya Johns 
Assistant Dean, Benet Career Management Center and Corporate Engagement ‘
University of Rochester, Simon Business School



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