2023 Best & Brightest Online MBA: Kelsey Wolak, University of Michigan (Ross)

Kelsey Wolak

Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan

“Petroleum engineer, U.S. Navy veteran, and project management professional now working in the tech industry.”

Age: 32

Hometown: Scottsdale, AZ (currently based in San Francisco, CA)

Fun fact about yourself: Scuba diving is my newest favorite hobby, and I’ll be traveling to Bali in the fall to earn my wreck diving certification.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Rice University, B.S. in Chemical Engineering

Where are you currently working? Program Manager at Google

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I recently led an organizational simplification effort, which meant downsizing my program’s offerings. This project was less “flashy” compared to launching a new product and not many stakeholders were initially on board. However, I knew the objective was entirely in line with C Suite-level organizational goals. Over a period of 6 months, I influenced the right leadership and the project ended up being sponsored by a VP at my company. I also ultimately completed the initiative on time with zero negative feedback from our external partners due to my comprehensive communication planning. This was a significant personal milestone for me as I’ve historically been uncomfortable interacting with senior leadership, but I was able to overcome this obstacle and confidently drive a high-level objective for the company.

Why did you choose this school’s online MBA program? I’m a major proponent of the “learn by doing” philosophy, so the chance to experience work as a hands-on consultant for an actual company via Ross’ Multidisciplinary Action Project (MAP) curriculum was a significant factor. I also attended a small school for my undergraduate degree, so I was very excited to become part of the University of Michigan’s notably massive alumni network upon graduation.

What was your favorite part of being in an online MBA program? I’ve always enjoyed independent study, so I’ve absolutely loved the flexibility of being able to complete assignments and attend classes from any location. This meant neither business nor personal travel interfered with my ability to stay on top of coursework. Plus, I could tailor my class schedules accordingly when I anticipated heavier or lighter workloads for my full-time job.

How did your online experience compare with your in-the-classroom experience as an undergraduate student? I felt trusted and respected as an adult professional in the online experience, especially compared to my undergraduate education which required a physical presence that didn’t enhance my understanding of the subject material.

What would you change about an online MBA Program? I found having to compose academic-length papers with minimum word counts and page lengths ineffective. I have yet to come across the need to write essays in my professional experience and I actually believe long writing assignments can encourage bad habits. This is particularly apparent when participating in an online education while working a full-time job, as the writing expectations are much different in comparison. I recommend incorporating more practical, real-world exercises into the curriculum such as drafting concise emails and developing effective, compelling slide decks (all of which can be assigned and graded virtually).

How has your online education helped you in your current job? I have both technical and operational experience from my engineering and military careers respectively, but I decided to pursue an MBA as I felt my business exposure was lacking. My MBA education now enables me to take a more informed, well-rounded approach towards developing long-term strategies and objectives. My particular career ladder also involves a significant amount of “influencing without authority”, a skill in which I’ve seen notable improvement since the start of my MBA experience. Finally, the online environment is more representative of my day-to-day job (in which I interact with stakeholders across the globe and rarely, if ever, meet in person) so I’ve become increasingly confident in communicating and building relationships virtually.

Did you earn a promotion while in the program or immediately after graduation? Yes! I was promoted to “Senior Program Manager” close to the end of the program, which I attribute to improved confidence and holistic, business-oriented thinking skills acquired throughout my MBA journey.

Why did you pursue an online MBA program instead of a full-time residential program? The opportunity cost of forgoing 2 years’ worth of both income and work experience to attend a full-time program was too high for me personally. I also chose an online program over a weekend or evening version specifically because I prioritized flexibility to relocate for job opportunities. It was absolutely the right decision as I ended up moving from Texas to California for a fantastic new job during my first year of the program!

Number of Hours Per Week Spent on an Online MBA: ~15-20 hours per week (on average)

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I would love to own and run my own bakery someday, so having an MBA provides me with the tools to increase my chances of success in an incredibly competitive environment. In the meantime, I feel advantaged to be able to put many skills learned from the MBA program into practice while navigating the corporate world.



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