2024 Best & Brightest MBA: Elizabeth Willis, Northwestern University (Kellogg)

Elizabeth Willis

Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management

“Passionately committed to the ‘Infinite Game’ and focused on becoming 1% better each day.

Hometown: Atlanta, GA

Fun fact about yourself: I had the amazing opportunity to take part in a Habitat for Humanity build in Romania when I was in high school, and I have recently had a full circle moment when I joined Habitat for Humanity Chicago’s board as an ex-officio board member.

Undergraduate School and Degree: The University of Georgia, BBA in Marketing

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Oracle in their New York City office

Where will you be working after graduation? Alvarez & Marsal in their Private Equity Performance Improvement (PEPI) practice

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

  • Executive Director of Personal & Professional Development, Kellogg Student Association
  • Board Scholar and Ex-Officio Board Member, Habitat for Humanity of Chicago
  • Women’s Business Association member
  • Women’s Business Association Mentor (Undergrad mentorship program)
  • Entrepreneurship & Venture Capital Club Member
  • PE Club member
  • VP of Section Experience, CIM (Kellogg orientation)
  • K-Bud Mentor (Kellogg Accepted Student Mentor)
  • Day-At-Kellogg Section Leader (Kellogg Accepted Student Weekend)
  • The Garage, Tinker Program member (On-Campus Startup Incubator)
  • Growth strategy and Venture Equity Projects for Local Chicago Companies: UICO, ValueSync, Bitoy’s Sweet Treats

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? During my time at Kellogg, I have started a company, Equiseed, that aims to expand access to capital for underrepresented founders, while simultaneously breaking down the barriers to pre-seed investing. As the company is in the ferment stage of the innovation s-curve, I have been fortunate that professors and students alike have offered support, time, and resources to further the venture. I am ultimately proud of taking the first step to create the company as the mission is incredibly important to me and many others, but I am also overwhelmed by the number of resources such as Northwestern’s startup incubator, The Garage. The Garage consistently puts on workshops, networking events and speaker series and gives student founders access to a rich ecosystem of founders and investors to conduct deeper market research, strengthen their business models and solutions, and refine their pitches. It’s resources like The Garage, as well as a strong network of fellow founders, professors and investors, that I have collected through my time at Kellogg. All of this has enabled me to take critical next steps in the growth of Equiseed with confidence.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Early in my career, I was given a piece of advice that formed my foundational principles for creating lasting value in an organization: “Don’t show up with problems, show up with solutions.”

Instead of identifying problems that surrounded me, I started searching for answers. One example that resulted in the achievement that I was most proud of was the identification of a gap in Oracle’s promotion and onboarding process of new sales reps, which prompted me to conceptualize, design, and launch a national program, LevelUp. LevelUp is a structured 1:1 mentorship program that aligns sales professionals to high-performing business development reps to prepare them for revenue-closing roles at Oracle. Since the launch of LevelUp in 2020, the program has involved hundreds of reps nationally and was planned to launch internationally as I was leaving the organization. As a result, LevelUp has increased retention rates, accelerated promotion timelines, shortened onboarding processes, and led to faster deal cycles, attributing to a direct bottom and top-line impact for the company globally.

I am most proud of this achievement because it taught me that there will always be room for innovation and change for the betterment of the organization, even in a Fortune 100 company. Additionally, it taught me the value of stepping up to lead even without a title and gave me conviction to enter every room with an eye towards finding gaps and solutions to make my experience and those around me better.

Why did you choose this business school? I chose Kellogg for many reasons. When I boil it down, it comes out to a few salient points:

1. Culture—In every single conversation that I had with current students and alumni of Kellogg, the constant theme that was echoed across every conversation was the importance of culture and the unique, inclusive, and collaborative nature that Kellogg students possessed. This was incredibly important to my decision because business school is not just a place for you to show up, get a degree and leave. Ideally, it is a place where you go to become the best version of yourself and to create friendships and connections that last a lifetime.

2. Career Trajectory—Coming from the Tech sector, I had interest in staying in the industry, but pivoting into the private equity space. Kellogg is well-known for its experiential opportunities in the Private Equity and Venture Capital Space and is well regarded for its faculty and programming around growth-staged leadership. As a result, Kellogg has been a feeder for Private Equity operations roles, which really intrigued me as I felt that this potential profession would give me tangible experience that would hone and round out skills that are imperative to leading a larger company one day.

3. Rankings—It is undisputed that Kellogg is a top business school on a number of dimensions. When I began my MBA search, I narrowed in on a top set of schools as it was important to me. I wanted to make sure that if I was going to make the financial and time commitment, I knew I was going to be learning from exceptional faculty and peers.

4. Location—I loved the fact that Kellogg was slightly removed from a larger city, so it created its own environment and motivated everyone to make Evanston a home (as opposed to other campuses which are in the city and can be easy for students to disperse throughout the week or weekends). Additionally, in my eyes, Evanston was still close to Chicago, so I was going to be able to get all the perks of being close to a big city without having campus be located there.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Karin O’Connor—I am very fortunate to have gotten to know Professor O’Connor through two main experiences while at Kellogg. The first experience was in her class, Growth Strategy Practicum, where students are broken into groups and paired with a local Chicago-area growth-staged company to help them with a specific growth-related initiative. Professor O’Connor helped our team to effectively navigate our project, offering insightful nuggets of wisdom from her years of experience as a venture investor and growth-stage advisor. The second experience I had to get to know Professor O’Connor on a deeper level is through a startup I am working to found. Given Professor O’Connor’s deep expertise in the venture space, she was able to quickly identify several areas for deeper exploration, connect me to others in her network, and make several suggestions of other business models to consider based on the competitive landscape of the industry.

Professor O’Connor is the epitome of a professor who brings real-world context into the classroom to ensure that students are exposed to a well-rounded curriculum. She is constantly finding ways to pull her contacts from her venture and angel investing experience into the classroom to give us their perspectives. Additionally, Professor O’Connor is highly involved on campus, with student organizations and is always willing to meet with students outside of the classroom to help them to advance their careers, startup ideas, and more.

What is the biggest myth about your school? The thing that I heard echoed across every conversation I had about Kellogg during the application process was the amazing culture. I had assumed that there may be some amount of myth to this but it wasn’t until I stepped foot on campus that I realized the truth behind so many of the stories that I had heard. Other than that, I can’t think of any myths that I heard coming in.

What surprised you the most about business school?  The thing that surprised me most about business school is that it is truly a “choose your own adventure” experience. I had a preconceived notion that everyone would walk out of business school with a similar set of knowledge and experiences. Though this may be true as it pertains to many of the core courses that everyone takes (finance, accounting, operations, etc.), beyond this, everyone’s experience is unique. I also think that this is one of the most rewarding aspects of business school as it enables you to try courses and subject areas that are well outside of your comfort level and/or allows you to specialize on an area that is of significant interest. In addition to classroom learning, there are also endless opportunities to learn about certain industries, topics, and professions through networking sessions, speaker series, company events and experiential opportunities. All of these truly extend, enrich, and round out the MBA experience.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Saman Salari—Saman is an incredible leader, classmate, and close friend. I have had the privileged to get to know Saman across three main experiences—on KWEST, in the classroom and on the Kellogg Student Association Executive Board. My first experience getting to know Saman was during our KWEST in Malta. Saman has the type of personality that makes everyone feel comfortable and welcome. From the start, he went out of his way to gel the group and get everyone involved.

My second experience getting to know Saman was in class. While others are furiously writing notes, Saman consistently sits with the material and asks incredibly insightful questions that relate the current topic to topics from other Kellogg classes or real-world events, which helps to bring the concepts to life and pushes his peers to think more deeply. Lastly, I have had the privilege of serving alongside Saman on the Kellogg Student Association executive team where Saman currently serves as Kellogg’s student body president. It is through this experience that I have seen intentional leadership embodied. Saman consistently checks in with each member of his team, asks insightful questions, ensures that all opinions and perspectives are heard, pushes everyone to reimagine what is possible and encourages a bias towards action.

Coming into Kellogg, I did not know anyone, and when surrounded by so many rock stars, it can be really easy to slip into an imposter syndrome mindset. On KWEST, I found out that Saman had started his career in the same program as I did at Oracle and was going on to work in private equity consulting, a field I was highly interested in pursuing. Saman’s path, whether it be internal to Kellogg (student leadership, for example) or external to Kellogg, inspired me to consider and seize opportunities well beyond what I originally believed was possible.

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

– Take on the role of CEO at a Fortune 500 company

– Found and successfully exit a company through IPO or sale

What made Elizabeth such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2024?

“It is with great pleasure that I recommend Elizabeth (Liz) Willis for this honor. Liz was a student in my Fall ’23 Growth Strategy Practicum, a course that pairs student teams with growth-stage company clients. Liz was fearless in her choice of an exit planning project for a $13 MM technology manufacturing company, a far cry from her sales background at Oracle. She quickly became a collaborative leader for her team, deftly managing through unfamiliar territory and sorting through more than a few speedbumps to help the group deliver a thoughtful and well-received set of recommendations to their client.

Liz’s style is collaborative and low-key, but she knows when to assert herself and does it with the sort of grace and sense of humor that brings others along without feeling pushed. The course opened her mind to the possibility of joining a smaller organization, one in which she can see the impact of her work in real time. Success here often depends on one’s ability to lead a diverse team—to understand what motivates people who are different from oneself and to help them contribute in their own way towards a common goal.  In this, I have no doubt that Liz’ star will shine brightly.”

Karin D. O’Connor
Clinical Associate Professor of Strategy
Executive Director, Heizer Center for Private Equity and Venture Capital


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