What I Learned at…Cornell, Part 1

In our “What I Learned at…” series, MBAs discuss the tools and skills their business schools provided as they launched their careers.

Sandra Persing is the founder and farmer of Persing Woods LLC, a holistic wellness company that includes a working goat farm and apiary and that provides business development support for local farmers and other wellness professionals. Sandra believes that wellness is fundamental in living a good life. In this four-part series, Sandra reflects on how her business acumen and MBA education from the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University helped her turn this belief into a solution that future MBAs can  embrace as part of their own life journey.

After working in the publishing industry for five years and reaching the position of international sales manager, I found myself at a crucial point in my professional development. I needed something to get more out of my life, and investing in myself seemed like a good bet. If I were to go back to school, I wanted to return to the work force with a solid degree that confirmed my ability to read a P&L (profit and loss statement) and create solid strategic plans. Earning an MBA seemed like the most logical path for someone like me. I was sure of advancing my skills, but I wasn’t sure in what capacity, or even in what industry.

After completing my first year at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, I realized that a business degree is not just a means to climb the corporate ladder. The beauty of such a flexible educational experience is that it opens doors to many possibilities, including nontraditional options like farming! I, like many MBA candidates, started my program with the goal of improving my financial and management skills. Investment banking seemed like a great option to recoup my investment with a positive return. So did a sales and marketing position with a top-ten consumer packaged goods company. I could have also returned to my former employer in publishing, as a more valuable contributor. The possibilities seemed endless, and at the same time, limiting.

The opportunities seemed limiting because, at the end of the day, the work was essentially the same. Analyze data, churn out reports in one Microsoft Office document or another, present PowerPoint slides to mid-level managers and do it again the next quarter, hopefully with the graph moving in the general northeasterly direction. At one point, after going through a few informational interviews—a standard procedure during the first year—I didn’t feel as though I fit into this mold. I began considering the possibility of trying something else. It wasn’t easy to leave the close-knit community of the MBA crowd, but I began attempting to break away from the group and step into a new direction—by myself. I looked inward, evaluated my resources and decided that I should at least go exploring.

I was surprised to learn that one of Cornell’s best assets is that there are so many resources packed into one expansive campus, and there is actually a drive toward entrepreneurism within the Johnson community that runs beneath the surface of the search for traditional jobs.  For example, the Entrepreneurs In-Residence at the school coach and mentor students wishing to strike out on their own. The entrepreneurship courses Cornell offers are usually oversubscribed, attracting both curious and serious students. Entrepreneurship@Cornell hosts an annual weekend-long symposium to celebrate entrepreneurship, and this is open to the entire university. The Cornell Center for Technology Enterprise and Commercialization is a tech-focused research center that fosters collaboration with the business school to launch R&D into real businesses. The resources and support were obviously available, but it was challenging for me personally to break away from the herd and integrate into this entrepreneurial community.

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