2023 Best & Brightest Online MBA: Leah Gistenson, Indiana University (Kelley)

Leah Gistenson

Kelley Direct Online MBA Program, Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business

“Passionate, creative, and empathetic leader with strong ability to make connections and solve complex problems.”

Age: 40

Hometown: Northbrook, Illinois

Fun fact about yourself: I was the lead singer and writer in an original, alternative rock band, and I still sing as much as I can (I am trying out for Matilda the Musical in my hometown this summer!).

Undergraduate School and Degree: Bachelor of Science in political science, University of Iowa; Juris Doctor (J.D.), University of Iowa College of Law

Where are you currently working? General Counsel and Managing Director of Meadeco LLC

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Honestly? Being able to have a career after taking seven years off to have my three kids. It was a hard and long climb back — and I’m still fighting for the career I want. But as to a concrete achievement…

At the very beginning of COVID, I was working with the Turnaround Management Association as the membership chair of their Chicago chapter. I developed a new, targeted, virtual networking platform on Zoom called “Networking Power Hours” and had my committee personally invite each chapter member to one (we hosted them weekly). During the Power Hours, a membership committee member would moderate, and everyone would get to present their 3-5 minute “elevator pitch” to the group. The moderator and the other participants would then ask questions (especially when there were obvious connections or synergies between the participants).

The achievement was two-fold: first, the targeted outreach increased our member retention significantly, and second, the Networking Power Hour format took off and evolved to twice monthly member events, then to cross-chapter (i.e. Chicago and New York) events, and even cross-chapter international events (i.e. Chicago and Germany). That year, my membership committee won the Outstanding Service Award and I won “Most Active New Member.” I was promoted to vice president of education the next year, overseeing three awesome committees. But I am very proud that the Power Hours are still being used, even after COVID, as a way to expand networks outside normal geographic limitations and have been “borrowed” by other chapters (as well as in national TMA events).

My coolest achievement during my MBA program so far was being chosen as one of the 100 most influential MBA students in the world and invited to attend the 2022 MBA World Summit in Milan, Italy. I also had the incredible opportunity to be a speaker in a Summit laboratory session of my design. The summit was amazing. I had the honor to meet brilliant students from 32 different countries and over 40 different business schools. Their passion, creativity, perseverance, and dedication were so inspiring. I made life-long friends and left the Summit more determined than ever to reach my goals.

My presentation had some technical hiccups at the beginning, but turned into a great conversation on “Cancel Culture and When Corporations Speak … or Don’t.” My incredible Kelley School of Business professor Angie Raymond helped me prepare for the presentation and is currently helping me turn it into a journal article. We also had the opportunity to split into groups to work with Italian NGOs. My group was able to work with Spazio Aperto Servizi Cooperativa Sociale ONLUS on addressing the bias and prejudice many Italian LGBTQIA+ kids face from their own families. Spazio Aperto Servizi provides housing and support for these kids when their families have kicked them out and works to bring the families back together again. I am still working with other summit participants to organize cross-border programs (we are currently planning a 3-school/country DE&I virtual panel).

Why did you choose this school’s online MBA program? Kelley has an amazing reputation and the Kelley Direct program is one of the best in the world. Kelley Direct offered an amazing education, flexible enough for a working professional and parent, at a great price. It was an easy choice.

What was your favorite part of being in an online MBA program? The classes are relatively small, and I have gotten to know some awesome professors through this format. I also really like that everything is recorded, not just because of the amazing flexibility it gives me, but because I am able to re-watch lectures if I need to review challenging topics.

What was the most surprising thing about an online learning environment? The asynchronous work. It can be a lot, but it really does keep me caught up (which makes the live classes even more valuable and interesting). Coming from a law background where you have in-person classes and lots of reading before taking one test at the end of a semester to determine your grade, this was a big adjustment.

How did your online experience compare with your in-the-classroom experience as an undergraduate student? I strongly prefer the online format. In undergrad, many of my classes were large and required a lot of unstructured studying to learn the materials. The smaller online MBA classes facilitate interesting discussions (especially because most of my fellow students are experienced, working professionals with examples of real-life applications of the concepts we are studying). This encourages a deeper understanding of the subjects we are learning.

What is your best piece of advice to an applicant for thriving in an online MBA program? Be realistic in your expectations. Just because it is online and flexible does not make it any less time-consuming than an in-person degree. You must be organized and diligent, especially if you are working full-time and/or have a family to care for. For us, that means having an au pair to help with the kids and a very supportive and understanding boss.

What would you change about an online MBA Program? For career switchers, it can be hard to apply for work internships in the summer because the program runs all year long. Also, we don’t have on-campus recruiting and interviews, so we may lose out on some opportunities. But Kelley Direct has great career coaches and organizations that try to bridge this gap with a lot of individual help and attention.

How has your online education helped you in your current job? It has definitely been a value-add. I am primarily doing legal work, but I also do some consulting, and my online education has really helped me develop and bring new ideas and strategies to our clients as well as to our business.

Did you earn a promotion while in the program or immediately after graduation? No. We are a small company and the only person more senior is the owner/CEO.

Why did you pursue an online MBA program instead of a full-time residential program? I have three elementary-aged kids and a job (and my husband is a partner at a firm in Chicago). Moving to another city for school was not an option. And the Chicago schools were three times the price (and I already have a pricey in-person graduate degree).

Number of Hours Per Week Spent on an Online MBA: 15-25

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I really like strategy, problem-solving, leadership, law, and governance, and I think strategy consulting could be a great fit for my skill set. But ultimately, I want to continue learning and growing throughout my career. And in doing that, there really is no “ultimate goal,” but more of a life-long progression of goals.

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