When Nikita Mitchell arrived at Haas in the fall of 2013, her top goal was to develop her leadership skills—which she knew would require stepping outside her comfort zone. So instead of heading up a club or organizing a conference, she decided to run for class president.
"I've never been in a big public role. I've never had to be the face of something, and the idea was terrifying," says Nikita, MBA 15. "Ultimately, I decided I should do it because I didn't have anything to lose."
A few months into her first semester at Haas she was elected, and in 2014 she served as the first African-American woman to head the MBA Association. She also served simultaneously as a liaison to the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, which works to bring more under-represented minorities into top MBA programs. Along with co-liaisons Kory Vargas-Caro and Dan Wong, both MBA 15, she led the Haas group to win the Consortium's highest honor and $10K to build on their work.
Just after passing the mantle to the 2015 MBAA President Dan Fishman, Nikita spoke with us about her leadership style, her accomplishments, and what she learned.
"I've grown a lot," she says. "Most importantly–both personally and professionally—I've also learned how to ask for help when I need it."
Nikita is up front about the fact that balancing outside leadership activities with the rigorous academic demands of the MBA was the biggest challenge she's faced. During her first semester as president, she took on some big issues for the program, including how to make changes in the academic culture.
She credits the support of her classmates, and former MBAA President Stephanie White, for going out of their way to support her. "It was really incredible what people did to help me, often without even being asked."
Her approach to managing it all was to build a strong team.
"I feel I created a high functioning team where everyone has been able to accomplish a lot in their own roles," she says. "And I feel like I’ve been a strong voice for students."
As a natural collaborator, she knew being at the top of an organization would sometimes mean making tough calls.
"Being at the point of making a decision, where you know not everyone is going to be happy, was the biggest development area for me," she says. "I think my biggest lesson was the realization that being in a leadership role among my peers wouldn't harm my friendships. In fact, the relationships I built fueled my leadership."
Though Nikita says the experience underscored how critical it is to not go at decision-making alone, she also learned that sometimes people don't want to have input.
"That's part of leadership too—knowing when people want to be brought to the table," she says. "It started to become more instinctual toward the end."
The importance of community
As the daughter of Caribbean immigrants, Nikita is proud that she was the first African-American woman to serve as Full-time MBA class president—and it was important to her family in the tight-knit community around Howard University where she grew up.
Her father came from Trinidad on a soccer scholarship to Howard, and her mother immigrated from Barbados. They met in the 1980s at Howard, where both worked as accountants. Nikita and all four of her sisters earned their bachelor's degrees at Howard as well.
After graduation, she landed a position at Deloitte Consulting. She later earned a fellowship through ProInspire, which matches young professionals with nonprofits, as she explored careers in social impact.
She applied to MBA programs through the Consortium, which offers full scholarships to students who get into their top-ranked school. At the last minute, she ranked the University of Michigan's Ross first, which has a large and active minority population. But in a twist of fate, she visited Haas during the Women in Leadership conference weekend, and knew it was the right place for her.
"I was so surprised by how right the culture felt. The warmth was there. The connections I made with people felt authentic," she says. "I felt included immediately, and I thought 'that's somewhere I'll continue to grow."
As she looks toward graduation in May, Nikita summed up her biggest takeaway:
"What this leadership experience taught me is that I like to run things," she says.
No doubt she will.
Update, March 18: Nikita has accepted a job as Chief of Staff for Cisco Consulting Services.