Using an MBA to explore how other places work

By Eric Askins

Kelsie Smithson, MBA 24, intentionally chose an MBA program far from her beloved hometown of Louisville, Kentucky because she wanted to get out of her comfort zone and learn how other places work. “It was important for me to spend time developing my career away from Louisville, where the inevitable first question when you meet someone for the first time is, ‘Where did you go to high school?’ Here in Berkeley, that question and the answer carry less weight. We’re all here to think about redefining our futures and supporting each other along the way,” she said.

Telling family and friends that she had been accepted in the Berkeley Haas full-time MBA program was stressful. “I knew there would be questions, and there were,” Kelsie recalled. “Despite knowing that I was applying to schools across the country, I think my parents and a lot of my friends were pulling for me to pick a school closer to home. But once I committed to Berkeley Haas they all pitched in to help me answer one question: ‘How in the world do you move to California?’”

She did it by purging and storing a lot of her possessions, shipping five large boxes via the U.S. mail, and flying to San Francisco with three overstuffed suitcases. “A road trip didn’t appeal to me. I wanted the mental freedom of arriving fresh in my new home. And because I was the first of my roommates to arrive, I was the one to rent a small U-Haul truck and drive around collecting a couch here and a dresser or bed somewhere else. It was a delightful way to get to know the Bay Area a little bit.” And it turns out that Kelsie’s North Berkeley home isn’t all that different from where she lived in Louisville’s Highlands neighborhood: Close to shops and good restaurants and pedestrian friendly—a place where people greet each other on the street.

Kelsie came to Berkeley Haas with deep experience in the nonprofit sector, both running her own consulting practice and working for foundations and public-private partnerships. Given her undergrad degree in social work and subsequent work experience, a graduate degree in public administration might have made more sense, but Kelsie wanted an MBA to expand her management skills and provide the hands-on learning needed to scale her career.

Kelsie initially wanted to test a hypothesis about transferring her background in nonprofit work to a more corporate, for-profit setting. She quickly realized that working for an organization with a social mission was key for her career satisfaction, so she refocused on opportunities to work in social impact. She credits her career coach, Laura Snow Benoit, with helping her through the evolution of her career hypothesis. “We talked at length about the internship offers I received and the offers I wanted but didn’t get. Laura’s approach is the perfect mix of career coach and a therapist. I adore her.”

As a member of the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, Kelsie was able to take advantage of pre-MBA support services from Laura and the Berkeley Haas Career Management Group. “The head start on recruiting was invaluable,” she said. “Christina Meinberg is our main contact for impact-focused careers. Every session with her resulted in a list of impressive Haasies across the sector I could reach out to.” Kelsie’s networking list paid off. As she connected with Haas alumni, many of whom were also members of the Consortium, she formed a more robust sense of the experience she was looking to gain during her summer internship.

The internship Kelsie landed as a Faber Fellow at REDF (pronounced Red-F) was a proving ground for her revised career hypothesis of applying business best practices within a social impact context. REDF uses venture philanthropy to invest in businesses whose purpose is to create jobs for overlooked talent. “My internship was headquartered in San Francisco, but I worked with an organization in the REDF portfolio called Neighborhood Industries based in Fresno’s Tower District. They are such cool people and their mission of operating businesses that reveal value in people so they can be positive contributors in their homes and neighborhoods resonated with me. I helped them evaluate expansion opportunities by conducting a feasibility analysis and an accompanying operations plan.”

Lessons Kelsie gained in Professor Terry Taylor’s Operations class framed her work, starting with an emphasis on asking the right questions. “Given the needs of Neighborhood Industries’ client base, we were asking questions about the proximity of a DMV office, mental health services, and even cross-checked the most used bus lines,” Kelsie explained. “Those insights will complement the financial and human resources considerations in the feasibility study.”

In her second year, Kelsie is looking forward to electives like Power & Politics and Difficult Conversations: Conflict Lab that will grow her soft skills. She will also build her business skills in Designing Financial Models that Work after realizing during her summer internship that this was a prime growth opportunity.

But she is most excited about chairing the Race Inclusion Initiative. This student-run independent study course conducts qualitative and quantitative research with the goal of advocating for a racially diverse and inclusive environment at Berkeley Haas while equipping students to lead diverse and inclusive teams in their careers. “Three student teams are looking at the entire Berkeley Haas student experience including admissions, academics, culture, and career. I’m particularly excited about the team focused on Black mental wellness, led by Emani Holyfield, MBA 24. The pressure Black students and professionals often feel to succeed in the face of systematic disparities comes with a cost,” Kelsie said.

“For me, being able to show up fully as myself—a Black, queer woman—is one of the things I value most about Berkeley Haas. I don’t have to trade off any of my identities. That is a gift that I want every MBA to experience here.”

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Posted on November 14, 2023
Eric Askins
Eric is the Executive Director of Full-time MBA Admissions. He partners with students, faculty and staff to recruit a diverse student body that enhances our community through innovative leadership and academic excellence.