2024 Best & Brightest MBA: Melissa Cunningham, Southern Methodist University (Cox)

Melissa Cunningham

Southern Methodist University, Cox School of Business

“Girlmom with an insatiable curiosity and passion to enable others to reach their potential.”

Hometown: Pasadena, Texas

Fun fact about yourself: I lived and worked on a sustainable agricultural teaching farm after undergrad where I learned to milk goats, design gardens, prune fruit trees, and cook for 30 people on a budget.

Undergraduate School and Degree: University of North Texas – MS in Information and Library Science; BA in English

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Dallas ISD – Media Specialist and R.E.A.D. Site Lead

Where did you intern during the summer of 2023? EY-Parthenon, Dallas

Where will you be working after graduation? EY-Parthenon, Consultant

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: Career Center Peer Coach, President of the Consulting and Corporate Strategy Club, Vice President at Large of the Student Advisory Board, Student Ambassador for Admissions Events and Prospective Student Outreach

I also volunteer with my daughter’s Girl Scout Troop: led a campout during fall break, supervised cookie booths on the weekends, organized a girls’ archery day. I also do parent volunteer work at her middle school: set up and supervise events, lunch monitor, and career day speaker. I recruited many people from my B-school class, especially women, to come talk during Career Day to showcase a wider variety of career paths, especially women in finance.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I’m proud of successfully juggling full-time business school and being a mom, but at SMU one of my goals was to lead a club and create positive change, and I am especially proud to say that I achieved that goal. During my tenure as president of the Consulting and Corporate Strategy Club, membership increased by 20% from the year before. I focused on cross-program engagement and implementing a cohesive and consistent plan for events like case prep, career info sessions, and social networking. I recruited and worked with a leadership team who brought talent and passion to their roles; this developed a model for the next cohort of leaders.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I turned around the library program at Townview Magnet Center, a bustling high school in Dallas ISD with six distinct career and college-focused magnet schools. I was hired to revitalize the library as a collaborative experience center and reengage the school community in the space. I got to know everyone possible in the different schools: students, teachers, administrators, and community liaisons, to redesign the program offerings, atmosphere, material selection, and spaces that would truly meet a diverse set of needs and wants. Attendance, check-outs, and special requests skyrocketed. Most importantly, people were happy and felt welcome. I started a podcast that turned into a club, a service model that turned into a district strategy, and laid the groundwork for an interiors remodel with new furniture and technology. There were plenty of obstacles, and nothing moves quickly in public education, but I heard so much direct and positive feedback from everyone involved, that I know the work was worth it.

Why did you choose this business school? A true career pivot requires the complete immersion and dedication of a full-time program, but I wanted to continue investing in Dallas, where I planted roots with my daughter eight years ago. High quality classroom education and strong ties to local and national industry players made SMU Cox the obvious choice. It’s a build-your-own-adventure school with every element you need to succeed. The more you dive in and give, the more you receive. I researched the alumni, the professors, and the corporate partners. SMU Cox had everything I needed to launch, and I could build a professional network in my city at the same time.

What was your favorite course as an MBA? My favorite course was Coaching to Improve Performance. I’m forever grateful for each technical, quant-heavy class because I’m walking away with tangible skills in finance and business that I did not have before. The Coaching class, however, was pure soft skill, and something I think can be easily overlooked in the climb to the top at business school. The professor was an executive coach and taught us a style of coaching that relies on questioning, listening, and customizing our approach based on the other’s needs. I took this course toward the end of the MBA program, and it brought me back to a center of human empathy which we need more of in business. As a future leader, I want to build team capacity and support the potential of others in their journeys. Financial modeling will be necessary but strengthening my ability to be present and lift up others will be crucial.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? My favorite event was the annual Cox Cultural Festival. The first year I volunteered as the photographer, and the second year I simply went to eat the food. SMU Cox graduate programs are diverse, with students and faculty from so many different cultures and countries. The festival is hosted each year by the International Business Club and features volunteer food booths, cultural displays, performances, and interactive activities. It’s such a beautiful time to celebrate my friends and classmates in the most personal way. The evening is filled with smiling, laughter, and exclamations of pure joy. One of my favorite memories was hearing, more than once, this sentence: “Melissa, have you been to my table yet? You better like spicy food.”

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? One thing I’d do differently would be to let go of perfection sooner. Because I came from a non-traditional background and am one of only two moms in my program, I felt like I had to prove myself 24/7 and show that I belonged. I competed for a high GPA, volunteered for everything, and pushed myself so hard to never fail or mess up. It’s part of my personality and probably helped me succeed in the program. However, I’m learning now to better weigh priorities and know that it’s okay not be perfect. It’s been hard to juggle the demands of business school and be present as a parent at the same time, but I know it’s been great practice for what comes next.

What is the biggest myth about your school? I heard that SMU Cox is best for people trying to stay in Dallas, but that hasn’t been true at all. I’ve known many classmates who’ve taken Fortune 100 and consulting internships or full-time offers across the country in Seattle, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and more. Because Dallas is home to several major companies, some choose to stay right here. I’ve known classmates who moved from out of state because they were looking to start a new career and take advantage of the corporate growth in North Texas. Because it’s a smaller program, there is focused attention on individual growth and opportunity if a student stands up to take it.

What did you love most about your business school’s town? I most loved two things: the fact that opportunity is just up the freeway and the food. Dallas is such a great place to build professional relationships because everyone seems to be connected. One meeting leads to another and another, and people are always willing to share. Coupled with spending weekends exploring new restaurants, and long-standing classics, if Dallas had the mountains nearby, I’d be in heaven.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I most admire Ashley Tsao. I met Ashley during a spring happy hour after we’d both been admitted to SMU Cox. We talked about career pivoting and eventually developed a friendship eating food and drinking boba. Throughout the program, I’ve watched Ashley stand up and voice her learning insights, dissent against groupthink that drowned out the quieter voices, and give business presentations that could rival anyone in the program. What’s great about her is that she’s not a bully, or forceful, or trying to shut other people down. She works with honest, intelligent conviction, and it’s powerful. She always wears bright colors, and you can find her often laughing about something hilarious. When it comes to a hard decision or standing up for what is right, she never backs down. She’s someone I would have on my team, work next to, or work for without a second thought.

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

1) Sit on the board of an arts organization, and

2) Start a scholarship fund for mothers going to business school.

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

“I’ll always remember the first time I met Melissa Cunningham. It was during her second-round interview to join the Cox FTMBA program, and I was blown away by her poise, professionalism and mission to make the world a better place for her nine-year-old daughter. Pre-MBA, Melissa had worked more than 10 years in public education in inner-city and economically disadvantaged schools as a teacher and librarian, improving students’ access to diverse voices by leading professional development sessions for teachers and librarians to acquire reading materials from women, LGBTQIA+, and BIPOC writers. Beyond this and with whatever free time she had, she identified, won, and executed freelance consulting projects to gain strategic problem-solving, analytical, entrepreneurial, and presentation skills she would need to thrive in the Cox MBA program and launch a successful consulting post-MBA career. Melissa has continued to apply the same intention, tenacity, and hunger to her entire MBA program experience, directly impacting the lives of her peers and the Cox community.

It has been an honor and joy for me to observe many of Melissa’s triumphs in the program, most notably her impact in helping MS and MBA students prepare for and launch consulting and strategy careers. With intense curiosity and deliberate practice, Melissa secured a role with EY Parthenon early on and then quickly turned her efforts towards helping current and future students as President of the Cox Graduate Consulting & Corporate Strategy Club and as a Cox Career Management Center Peer Coach. Under Melissa’s leadership, the Consulting Club supported 1st Years and beyond to land successful internships and FT consulting and strategy roles. This was a direct result of her leading a large overhaul of Consulting Club resources and offerings, including hosting speaker events, developing brand new case prep materials, hosting case prep workshops and case mock interviews to all MS and MBA members. Through these efforts, the Consulting Club’s member engagement improved, leaving a legacy of success for new leaders to continue supporting students’ consulting and strategy careers years to come. Melissa Cunningham has made a lasting impact on her fellow MBA and MS students, future graduate students and the Cox School itself. She is an outstanding example of the Cox School’s “Best & Brightest” Full-Time MBA students.”

Judi Umali-Rajkumar
FTMBA & MBA Direct Career Programs Director


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