Meet the MBA Class of 2025: James Griffin, Northwestern University (Kellogg)

James Griffin

Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management

“Recovering finance guy with a big heart.”

Hometown: Foothill Ranch, CA

Fun Fact About Yourself: Over the course of my baseball career (little league to college), I have caught pitches from six Major League Baseball players – the fastest pitch I caught clocked in at 98 miles per hour!

Undergraduate School and Major: Texas Christian University, Finance

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Aurora Capital Partners, Private Equity Associate

Aside from your classmates and location, what was the key part of Northwestern Kellogg’s MBA curriculum or programming that led you to choose this business school and why was it so important to you? I was dead-set on attending a different business school until the last day of Kellogg’s admitted students day (Day at Kellogg, or DAK). I had jumped out of the last break-out session to catch up on some work when a Kellogg professor sat down at the table next to me with a couple who was coincidentally deciding between the same two schools. As I eavesdropped on this conversation, I came to realize three things:

1) Kellogg’s professors are incredibly distinguished, but uniquely focused on teaching and providing a differentiated student experience.

2) Kellogg’s simultaneous proximity to and distance from Chicago has helped to foster both world-class professional opportunities and a culture that is second to none.

3) Joining a business school network is only valuable if the alumni in that network pick up the phone when you call. Every single Kellogg student and alumni to which I reached out not only offered to jump on the phone, but could not say enough good things about their experience.

I left Kellogg’s Global Hub to talk my family through my change of heart as I walked five laps around the lakefill next to the business school campus. The views of Lake Michigan and downtown Chicago aren’t really fair. I could not be happier I changed my mind that day.

What makes Chicago such a great place to earn an MBA? Kellogg’s Global Hub sits on Northwestern’s undergraduate campus, which is in Evanston (~30-40 minutes away from the Chicago Loop). First off, the area is beautiful. The campus sits right on Lake Michigan and has a stunning view of downtown. The surrounding neighborhoods are all very nice Chicago suburbs.

I will make it to various neighborhoods closer to the Chicago Loop at least once each weekend (maybe even twice), plus the semi-frequent mid-week trip. I’ve found Chicago to have the perfect combination of activities I liked in New York and Los Angeles. There are some world-class restaurants, an extensive bar scene, and a vibrant running/cycling community – the Lakefront trail along Lake Michigan is beautiful. I will be a Dodgers fan until the day I die, but Wrigley Field is the most exciting place to watch a baseball game. There are some truly unique venues where I have already seen some of my favorite concerts – seeing Mt. Joy and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in Grant Park at Lollapalooza on my second day as a Chicago resident has to be a highlight.

Professionally, the value of proximity to one of the largest markets in the United States speaks for itself. Many students choose to stay in Chicago for an internship between their first and second year. There are also many opportunities to network with and even work for Chicago-based firms during the school year. The example that comes to mind is Kellogg’s PE/VC Lab, where students have the opportunity to intern for a local PE or VC firm for course credit.

Kellogg is known for a team-driven culture. What quality do you bring as a teammate and why will it be so important to the success of MBA class? I take pride in my ability to flex my role based on my team’s needs. In college, I was the Chief Administrative Officer for the TCU Educational Investment Fund and a bullpen catcher on the varsity baseball team. During the EIF’s annual Board Meeting, I was expected to take lead and engage with our Board. During baseball practices and games, I was expected to do whatever I could to help our team prepare for success on the field. Though I was leading from the top in one role and from the bottom in the other, I approached each role with the same level of enthusiasm.

The same goes for my approach to teamwork at Kellogg. My role on a Finance group project will be very different from my role on a Marketing group project. When I work with a team on a Finance group project, I take the time to walk them through examples of how our academic lessons play out in real-life (from the context of an ex-banker/private equity investor). When I work with a Marketing team, I ask my talented ex-marketing colleagues to do the same.

What course, club or activity excites you the most at Northwestern Kellogg? Kellogg is investing in its private equity programming and invited me to join the Advanced Private Equity Experience (APEX) after I was admitted. The APEX program is geared towards students with previous private equity experience and provides both mentorship and a tailored curriculum sequence. I have 35 students in my class, each of whom came from private equity investing and operating roles. I am most excited to engage with the formal APEX mentorship program. Kellogg has an impressive network within private equity and the APEX program matches each member with a mentor who serves on Kellogg’s Private Equity Advisory Council. If this program sounds interesting to you, I’d encourage you to look into Kellogg’s Private Equity Advisory Council.

What has been your first impression of the Kellogg MBA students and alumni you’ve met so far. Tell us your best Kellogg story so far. Kellogg’s Worldwide Exploration Trip (KWEST) perfectly articulates the average Kellogg student. KWEST is one of the first experiences you will have as an incoming Kellogg student. After a half-day of orientation on campus, Kellogg students head to O’Hare International Airport with 20 incoming students and 5 second-year leaders to spend a week in one of ~35 exotic locations (domestic and international). For the first few days, you can’t tell anyone where you are from, what you did before Kellogg, or where you went to undergrad, among other things. This is geared towards minimizing surface-level conversations and encouraging deeper connection. You also shed your last name and adopt an epithet – I was Jovial James.

For three days, I explored Medellin with a group of people I knew very little about. We rode ATVs through the beautiful mountainous landscape, enjoyed a relaxing day at the spa, and watched an electric soccer match in a stadium situated in the heart of the city. We might have even mixed in a few drinks at some of the local Colombian watering holes! After forming some awesome memories with this new squad of friends, our group flew to Cartagena where we had our Big Reveal dinner and spilled all our secrets.

Following the KWEST model, Kellogg students are friends first, then incredibly impressive individuals who I have no doubt will prove invaluable as I navigate the rest of my professional career. I met some of my best friends on KWEST and will be traveling to Mexico City with some of them this November so our “KWESTee bestie” can show us around her hometown.

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: I am most proud of the relationships I was able to develop in my last job at Aurora Capital. I consider the partners, VPs, and associates I worked alongside to be mentors, colleagues, and, most importantly, friends. I had many of our portfolio company management teams and third-party service providers on speed-dial and consider myself fortunate to have been able to work with some true professionals and kind people.

I’m especially proud of the work I did while I was there. In two years, I helped the firm make two platform investments, ten portfolio company add-ons, and two full-company sales. At the risk of exposing myself as a giant nerd, I geek out thinking about the cash flow profile and value creation plan for the two companies we bought. One of our sales was a grand slam and the other navigated a particularly treacherous macro environment. I learned so much at Aurora and couldn’t be more grateful for the two years I spent there.

Looking ahead two years, what would make your MBA experience successful? While I was working for Aurora, I realized I really enjoyed working with our portfolio companies to create value. I also identified a growing opportunity for management talent with private equity familiarity/fluency. In two years, I hope to position myself for a successful career in private equity portfolio company management by either raising and deploying a search fund or working directly for a PE-backed portfolio company. I will count myself successful if I find myself in one of these two roles upon graduation and have a network of friends, colleagues, and mentors to lean on for a career full of advice.

What other MBA programs did you apply to? Wharton, Columbia, Anderson, HBS, Stanford

What advice would you give to help potential applicants gain admission into Northwestern Kellogg’s MBA program? Visit the campus and engage with the Kellogg community, especially the program to which you plan to apply. I visited the Hub last November during a Kellogg Admissions event. Since I was in town for work, I had to show up late and remember chatting with a member of the admissions team while we walked to the auditorium where the event was already underway. When I came back to Kellogg for the admitted students day, he remembered my name and went out of his way to have a quick conversation with me. Kellogg is a unique community and a trip to campus is the best way to experience that for yourself!


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