Alumni Stories: Sarah Riley, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota

Alumni Stories: Sarah Riley, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota main image

Sarah Riley CarlsonSarah Riley is an alumna of Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota.

Before starting her MBA studies, Riley held the role of Marketing and Strategy Account Manager at Padilla Communications in Minneapolis, with a total of five years’ work experience under her belt.

After graduating from Carlson, Riley landed the position of Marketing and Strategy Consultant at 3M in St. Paul, Minnesota. But that wasn’t the end for Riley working up the ladder, and she now holds the position of Global Marketing Manager at Boston Scientific.

What were you doing before starting your MBA?

I was a marketing communications consultant with Padilla, a mid-sized PR agency in Minneapolis. I worked predominantly with large, global manufacturing and technology companies to hone their messaging, branding and positioning to better reach their customers.

What factors led to you pursuing a graduate degree?

The more I worked with clients, the more I wanted to be on the other side of the table, making decisions and owning the outcomes, rather than advising externally. As I considered my options, I sat down with some of the clients and mentors I most admired, and they all had one thing in common: an MBA.

What factored in to your final choice of where to study?

Although I grew up in Minnesota, I attended college in Maine, so my professional network outside the Northeastern US was rather limited before grad school. Carlson is incredibly well-known and respected within the regional business community; access to that alumni community was a driver. The other major factor was Carlson’s enterprise program, which provides real-world, project-based work experience in your focus area throughout your MBA. I completed marketing projects for 3M, General Mills and the Carlson Company while working towards my degree, which provided experience I could apply to my classroom learnings as well as robust content for my resume to help me succeed in my internship and post-graduate job.

How did the program you chose contribute to your career progression?

The enterprise program was a huge help in honing and exercising my marketing skills, and the career center support was phenomenal. When I started looking for my next role outside of 3M, I leveraged my Carlson network – including the career center on-campus – extensively to identify new opportunities and prep for interviews. From a curriculum standpoint, I couldn’t do my job now without that educational background. Prior to Carlson, I had no exposure to finance, accounting or operations, all of which are essential components of my work today.

What was your favorite thing about the city/campus?

The Carlson building is shaped like a ship; as a lover of the many lakes in Minnesota, I appreciate that nod to our aquatic nature. Minnesota is also home to 19 Fortune 500 companies, which makes for a forward-thinking, growing and prosperous community that is inextricably linked with Carlson.

What was your single best experience on the program?

During my second year, I had the privilege of spending two weeks in China with 30 of my classmates. The trip was educational – we visited a variety of companies to learn more about business in China – but was also a lot of fun. Our hike along the Great Wall and the final night at one of the country’s best-known nightclubs were particular highlights.

Would you do anything differently if you could apply to business school over again?

I’d understand scholarship and grant options better. I was lucky enough to receive a Forte Fellowship to attend Carlson, but until my admissions interview I hadn’t heard of the organization. There are lots of options for funding your MBA, particularly if you’re a member of an underrepresented population. Being smart about those options and what’s required to secure those opportunities can only benefit you in the long run.

What do you think is the biggest myth about business school?

That you need to be a numbers wiz to succeed. I think that’s driven largely by the GMAT – my GMAT prep work was the first time I’d thought about math in almost a decade: the highest college-level course I completed was a sub-100 level course my sophomore year called “intro to college math”. My accounting and finance courses challenged me, but it’s doable, and you won’t be alone. Some of my closest friendships were formed while we struggled through credits, debits and EBITA together.

What is the one piece of advice you have for incoming students?

Don’t sacrifice building relationships in favor of classroom work. You might hear people say “grades don’t matter”; I consider grades as a barometer of how well I’m understanding a subject, so you’ll never hear that from me. However, the friendships you build are going to serve as the most important foundation of your post-grad experience and will make your program infinitely more enjoyable. Sacrificing a social event or casual chats in favor of cramming for the operations final isn’t necessarily the best use of your time.

Niamh Ollerton, Deputy Head of Content at QS
Written by Niamh Ollerton

Niamh is Deputy Head of Content at QS (TopMBA.com; topuniversities.com), creating and editing content for an international student audience. Having gained her journalism qualification at the Press Association, London and since written for different international publications, she's now enjoying telling the stories of students, alumni, faculty, entrepreneurs and organizations from across the globe.  

See related categories:

Click here to Log in or register to share your views on the article.