My Story: From Wall Street to Duke and Sears’ Leadership Program

by on June 21st, 2013

Jessica Williams is an optimist. Though she hasn’t settled on her final destination, she’s navigating her career path with gusto. “You have to go after what it is you want to go after,” she says. “You have to be determined.”

After graduating from Spelman College with an undergraduate degree in economics, Jessica moved to The Big Apple and began working at Standard & Poor’s, a financial services company. She stayed for four years and held several different roles, but the world beyond Wall Street beckoned. “I knew I could leverage my experience into another industry, into another job,” she says.

Business school was the next logical step. To prepare for the application process, she entered an MBA preparation program with Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT). MLT provides career coaching to African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans with exceptional leadership potential. “It helped me round out exactly what I wanted to do, what my strengths were,” Jessica says. She zeroed in on marketing and began applying.

Her top choice? Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. It came from the heart: “Two years is a very short time if you’re having a great time, but it’s a very long time if you’re miserable,” she says. “Go to the school where you know you’re going to be very, very happy.” Having graduated on May 11, Jessica is now preparing for a new life—and a new career—in Chicago.

My Story

When people say that business school is a transformational experience, they’re being 100% truthful. I’m one of those people who tries to live without regretting things; I think everything molds you. Having a better parking spot would’ve been great, but aside from that, I don’t think there’s anything I would change about my time in business school. The good, the bad, the ugly, the tears, the laughter—I would take it all. I would do it all over again.

Prior to business school, I was working at Standard & Poor’s in New York City. I had a number of roles there. I went from ratings to the fixed-income management services group, and by the time I left the company to go to school, I was primarily in the sales division.

Business school was always on the horizon. I knew that I wanted to focus on marketing, but I had to figure out exactly what that meant for me. A lot of the time, you can get comfortable: “Hey, I know this job, I know what I’m doing, and I’m in New York.” I enjoyed the fact that my job allowed me to leverage my skills. I was an economics major at Spelman College, so while I wasn’t in a finance role, I could use a lot of what I had learned. But the financial services industry wasn’t really for me.

I joined a program called Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT) a year and a half before I went to school. My friend and I were at the gym in our apartment building, and we saw a girl with an MLT shirt on. Another good girlfriend of ours had also done MLT, but hearing my neighbor talk about it got me even more interested. I thought it could give me that extra push I needed to get my act together.

MLT has a very rigorous application process. They get a lot of applicants, so they want to make sure that they can work with you. Once you’re accepted, you have a cohort, a coach and monthly assignments. The assignments aren’t meant to be taken lightly. One day, I put off an assignment—like a crazy person—until the last minute. It took 18 hours in one day to complete it.

MLT wants you to set yourself apart from every other candidate. If I say, “I’m Jessica Williams, I did this before school, I want to do this after school, and you should let me into your school”—that’s pretty generic-sounding. MLT’s goal is to understand your story: “Why do I want to do marketing? Where is that passion coming from? What do I do with my current job that I can relate back to marketing?” You get a better understanding of what it is you want to do and why you want to do it.

There were certain things I was looking for in a business school. I wanted collaboration, a challenging environment and a strong and supportive alumni base. I applied to Duke, Indiana, NYU, Kellogg and Michigan. My friend, who was also applying to business schools, fell in love with Cornell. He told me, “When you go to visit a school, you’re just going to know when it’s the right place for you. You’re absolutely going to know.” I didn’t think it was possible—I was being jaded, like, “Oh, I’m a New Yorker, it’ll probably just be fine”—but I actually fell in love.

The hardest thing was making the commitment. Indiana gave me a full ride, and Duke gave me a portion. I knew I needed an environment where I felt supported, confident and happy, and I could not get rid of the feeling that Duke was where I wanted to be. It was probably hard for my parents to wrap their heads around my decision because I was doing everything on my own. I had to put aside the idea of debt.

Coming from New York and suddenly having green grass, trees and beautiful weather—I loved it. I was walking to my apartment on the first day, and I got so excited because it had carpeting and air conditioning. I thought, “This is amazing! I haven’t had this in years.”

In business school, you have to make a decision. You have social activities, you have networking and you have school, and you can’t do all three at the same time. It’s all about deciding what kind of experience you want to have. I was able to learn a lot about marketing and management from the different student clubs and organizations. During my first year, I ran around like a chicken with my head cut off. Thankfully, most of the big events didn’t coincide, and if they did, other people in leadership positions were there to help.

If I had gone somewhere else, I know I would have been very happy, but I am so grateful to have experienced Duke with my classmates. The community at Duke made it possible to have tricky conversations in a very comfortable environment. In one of my sections, we did something called Diversity Download, where students from different backgrounds talked about what it meant for them to go to business school. Four or five of our Mormon students also held a discussion on what religion meant to them. Seeing students so vulnerable and so willing to talk about something that was important to them was really touching. These are conversations that need to happen more often.

Business school gave me the opportunity to reevaluate my career plans. I interned with Citi in the summer between my first and second year. It was a phenomenal experience, but after the summer, I had to ask myself: “Is this what you wanted to do? Remember why you came to business school. You wanted a change from financial services. Can you do that from this company? If someone were to look at your resume and see that you’re employed with Citi, what is that going to say to them?”

There are certain kinds of marketing that I thought would make me exceptionally happy—that would excite me every day. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t getting caught up in what everyone else was doing. My dad, who worked in marketing and sales at IBM, gave me some things to think about. He helped me look beyond consumer packaged goods (CPG) marketing to retail marketing or nontraditional marketing.

I’ll be entering Sears’ Senior Leadership Program in August. The thing that really appealed to me about the Sears program is its rotational nature. They’re very invested in hiring candidates who are also invested in helping to grow the company, and the experience will be easily transferable to other industries.

I have an idea of where I want to be in five years, but I don’t know what my perfect dream job looks like. I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to be when I grow up. I know I want to work at a company that is invested in growth strategies. I know I want to work with people who are just as invested in those growth strategies as I am. I also want to gain experience in digital marketing, because that’s where companies are putting a lot of time and energy.

Everyone questions why they’re at business school at one point or another. “What did I do? I quit my job. What am I doing?” My MLT coach told me to imagine a foundation where a house is being built. You get inside and look at a corner and it’s cracking. From that one perspective, things look really bad. But if you’re at another corner of that house, and everything else is strong—those other strong corners could be your friends, or your family, or your faith—things suddenly don’t look as bad anymore.

I’m excited about this new chapter. I’m excited about moving to Chicago. I’m going to explore the city for a month before I start and just kind of relax. It’s been a very long time since I’ve had nowhere to be and nothing to do.

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