You can't know until you try: the MBA conundrum

By Jenny Clare

During the four years that Katherine Zepeda Arreola, MBA 24, pondered whether to get a graduate degree—and what kind—she remembers a mentor telling her, “Be afraid. Do it anyway.”

“That is the best advice I’ve ever gotten,” she says now. “Without it, I’d still be trying to decide. Instead, here I am just a few months away from getting an MBA, which was the perfect choice for me. It’s a degree that offers a core set of skills—finance, operations, innovation, and leadership—that will serve me well.”

Katherine’s fear had many sources: fear of not doing well, of not fitting in. It turned out, Katherine says, “that I have more skills than I thought, and I have a lot to offer in terms of my personal and professional experiences, and my way of looking at the world around me.”

Another source of anxiety was the financial burden of a graduate degree. While taking a career break for a full-time program was enticing, Katherine worried about student debt. But she also believed that “when there’s a will, there’s a way” and decided her best path forward was to keep her full-time employment. Shortly after enrolling in the Evening & Weekend MBA program, she was promoted to chief of staff to the CEO of Beyond 12.

“Maintaining my income lowered my financial stress level,” she said, “and I am blessed with lots of support from the team at Beyond 12. They recognize what an excellent growth opportunity this is for me. Beyond 12 aims to dramatically increase the number of first-generation students who graduate from college and translate their degrees into meaningful employment and choice-filled lives. That is exactly what my MBA will allow me to do.”

Being part of the evening cohort also permits Katherine to maintain important family responsibilities. Raised in the Bay Area by a single mother in a household where education is greatly valued, Katherine is an engaged role model for her two younger sisters. She acknowledges the learning curve needed to balance family life, work, and classes, but appreciates the “wisdom that my classmates and students in the classes before mine have shared. And when you get started, you realize it is only three years—three years that go by very, very fast.”

She also welcomes the opportunity to apply lessons from her MBA classes in her job. “I had never taken any kind of finance class, and now I can’t get enough of them,” she said. “I can read financial statements and forecasts, and know what elements to look for, which questions to ask. I’m using these skills at work to assess proposals for new projects or operational changes. I’m looking at our work through a new lens and with much more insight.”

She credits the elective class Turnarounds, taught by Peter Goodson with calling on all the knowledge and skills she had gained in earlier classes. In that way, she said, “it resembles a capstone class. You are in class Monday to Friday, from nine to five, during the summer. It is immersive and demanding. We worked through 16 different business cases. That meant wearing all sorts of different hats as we created strategies for different kinds of turnarounds: financial, leadership, and operational. It was by far the most challenging and most rewarding class I’ve taken. The learning is exponential.”

Early in my studies, a mental switch went off and I realized that I have a lot to share, and that what I have to say resonates with people."

From the first-year core class, Leading People to her positions as a student leader, Katherine also has honed her leadership skills at Berkeley Haas. “I’ve learned so much about having difficult conversations, about listening with empathy, and having Confidence Without Attitude,” she said. Describing herself as a “servant leader,” Katherine focuses on “elevating my team members. I want to propel the work and the team forward, rather than highlight my efforts.”

And as a student leader, Katherine and her co-VPs-Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Justice & Belonging in the EWMBAA, Paola Gonzalez, MBA 24 and Rhea Wadia, MBA 24, created the first Haas Heritage Night. “We wanted to give students an opportunity to experience a little bit of the cultures represented among our classmates, and food is the best way to do that,” she said. “While nothing beats a home-cooked meal, we made it easy by ordering from local restaurants: pupusas, chicken Cilicia, samosas, kebabs, gyozas, spring rolls. We gathered nearly 100 people from different classes and cohorts who came to eat and meet old and new friends. We hope this is a new tradition that future students can look forward to.”

The trio were also active participants in shaping the annual Diversity Symposium. When Katherine was still a prospective student, attending the Diversity Symposium was “a pivotal moment for me. A few years later, being able to share my experience as a Haas student for prospective students was a moment of coming full circle. Representation is so important, and to me, this was a true privilege.”

As an Oakland resident who earned her BA at UC Berkeley, being back on campus was a reassuring and familiar environment for Katherine. She expected to learn from world-class professors, rich in both academic and real-world credentials. What she didn’t expect was how much she would learn from her classmates. “They come from so many different places and have such diverse work experiences,” she said. “The professors are great at presenting their research and the academic perspective, and my classmates can tell me how the tech company where they work handles performance appraisals, for example. Those classroom discussions spill out into coffee chats and snowball from there. The larger network effect is amazing.”

Another surprise was just how much her classmates are interested in Katherine and what she does. “As a Latina and a first-generation college graduate, I often preferred to stay in the background. I didn’t think people would be interested in what I had to contribute. Wrong! Early in my studies, a mental switch went off and I realized that I have a lot to share, and that what I have to say resonates with people. We don’t always agree, but being able to offer a different opinion is what makes for growth, change, and avoiding the 'group think’ trap. I’ve realized how powerful my voice can be.”

“And now, I can say to others, with confidence, ‘Be afraid. Do it anyway.’”

An MBA from a top business school can help you grow your network and leadership skills so you can take the next step toward a fulfilling career and increase your salary. Are you ready to invest in yourself?

Compare Berkeley MBA programs

Posted on September 16, 2023
Jenny Clare
Jenny is Senior Associate Director of Admissions for the Berkeley MBA Programs for Working Professionals. She hopes these blog posts provide you with useful insights into the Berkeley MBA experience and answer questions you may have about the MBA in general.