From Music to MBA: IV with a Notre Dame Mendoza Student

Author: Mendoza College

Note: This interview originally was published on

Here’s a talk with Notre Dame Mendoza student, Jessica Bonanno, a second-year student with lots of advice to share about life at Mendoza – competitions, courses, and culture. Of particular interest to ND applicants will be Jessica’s application tips and her definition of the ideal Mendoza student. Thank you Jessica and best of luck to you!

This interview is the latest in an blog series featuring interviews with current MBA students, offering readers a behind-the-scenes look at top MBA programs. We hope to offer you a candid picture of student life, and what you should consider as you prepare your MBA application.

Accepted: We’d like to get to know you! Where are you from? Where and what did you study as an undergraduate? What’s your favorite non-school book?

Jessica: I grew up in Central Florida and got my degree from a small liberal arts school called Rollins College, where I studied classical piano and music education. During my senior year, I started a small music program for kids which became very successful in its mission and was my full time job for about eleven years, until I decided to apply to b-schools.

Accepted: Can you talk more about your involvement with music? Is there a connection between your work as a musician and an educator and your MBA?

Jessica: I always think it’s funny when folks ask me how I went from music to business because it’s much more typical, indeed clichéd, for folks working in the corporate world to feel mismatched and dream of being an artist or a musician. But I am the opposite: I was a total Type-A hiding out in the world of fine arts.

Yes, I majored in music and went on to found an after-school music program. Yes, I ran a non-profit trade association for music teachers and I even managed a rock band. But, all along, I knew deep down that I wasn’t truly a musician on the inside. Music was just something I knew, which became a conduit for me to serve others and express my creativity. The reason my initiatives succeeded was less about my musical knowledge and much more about my entrepreneurial nature and inclination toward designing efficient systems to support innovative ideas or worthy missions.

It took me many years to realize this but, when I finally did, I knew getting an MBA would help me take my natural organizational development talent to the next level and give me some hard skills to back up my leadership ability.

Accepted: Why did you choose Notre Dame Mendoza?How would you say you’re a good fit with the program?

Jessica:Notre Dame was the very first program I ever looked at, after deciding to apply to business school. Coming from mission-driven organizations, I had a lot of apprehension about applying to business school. I knew my interest in social enterprise would not be the norm in any b-school but, at a minimum, I wanted to find a program that supported a critical examination of the role of business in society and promoted discussions about the intersection of business and ethics.

Notre Dame was that program.

This doesn’t mean that everyone here is interested in social business, like me. To the contrary – only about a fifth of my class plans to pursue this type of a career. But even if everyone isn’t interested in an expressly social career, nearly everyone in the program is interested in expressing their own personal values in their career choices. And though this means different things for different people and we sometimes disagree among ourselves, you’ll never find anyone here who would argue that it’s ok to succeed in business at the expense of others. I expected to find an overemphasis on profit at any cost at b-school but, instead I have found that nearly every MBA topic at ND is examined through an ethical lens. The curriculum is refreshingly holistic.

Accepted: What have been some of your favorite classes so far at ND?

Jessica: I set two personal goals for my MBA experience: First, I wanted to become really, really knowledgeable and skilled in the areas that I already knew something about, such as organizational leadership and social business. Second, I wanted to learn a brand new area that I knew absolutely nothing about, so I selected finance and investments.

On the social side, I’ve been privileged to take courses like Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries, which is coordinated through our Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship (a fantastic resource for aspiring entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs alike). This spring, I’ll be participating in one of our program’s signature courses called Business on the Frontlines, in which students work as real-world consultants for businesses in post-conflict regions or developing economies. My team will be traveling to Guatemala to work with an agricultural cooperative.

On the finance side, I’ve been able to study topics like M&A and International Finance under expert practitioners and, this spring, am looking forward to participating in the elite Applied Investment Management (AIM) program, in which my team and I will be responsible for managing a portion of our school’s endowment.

Other highlights of my time at Mendoza include studying for 8 weeks in Santiago, Chile, writing an original case study (pending publication) for the Fanning Center for Business Communications, and competing for thousands of dollars in start-up capital in the McKloskey Business Plan competition.

But none of this compares to the sense of community. The people are what make Notre Dame special. Here’s a blog post I wrote about what it’s like to be a student in such a close-knit and amazing community.

Accepted: Can you tell us about your competition experience – both with the ND Deloitte Interterm Case Competition and the BYU Social Innovation Case Competition?

Jessica: You’ve probably heard that case competitions are considered the varsity sport of b-school. They’re a chance to consolidate the sum of your professional experience and business training to solve a real business problem in a short time, while competing against other very talented people to create the best solution.

I’ve had the pleasure of competing in three case comps and they’ve been some of the most fun I’ve had during my MBA. Most case comps are time constrained, requiring a full solution to a challenging case in under 5 days. The process is extremely intense and involves a lot of all-nighters and last-minute preparation, which can stress out a team that doesn’t have a commitment to humility, cooperation and kindness. But the amount that can be accomplished in this time is astounding, when you have a group of diverse, brilliant students with a do-or-die work ethic and an attitude of good sportsmanship, the signature trait of a Notre Dame MBA.

My teams took first place in two of the three case comps I’ve participated in, which made the fun of competition all the more rewarding. The Deloitte Interterm Case Competition is actually a part of the first-year curriculum – all students participate and we compete among other Notre Dame MBAs. The BYU Social Innovation Case Comp is an annual competition sponsored by BYU’s Ballard Center for Economic Self-Reliance. Notre Dame actually sponsored our team and flew us out to Utah, where we had the privilege of meeting some amazing MBAs from other schools. As part of the festivities, we even got to participate in an all-day TED-X event.

Accepted: What has your involvement with the Forte Foundation been like? Would you recommend the program to other b-school-bound women?

Jessica: I’m very supportive of Forte’s mission to bring more women into business leadership. However, the companies that they work with, many of which are large banks, aren’t necessarily a match for my own interests so I haven’t become too involved with the foundation. Regardless, I think they’ve created an amazing resource for women who are seeking more traditional business careers, which is a positive thing for women as well as for society, in general. Research shows that women business leaders tend to take less unnecessary risks and are much more concerned with the role of business in society…And the world needs more of that.

Accepted: Where do you see yourself in five years from now?

Jessica: My professional interests include a variety of social business topics including cooperatives, social enterprise, and impact investing. But I’m seeking a career in the socially responsible investment space because my background in non-profit and education taught me that that’s where the greatest need is. There are plenty of brilliant people with brilliant ideas in the social space but there is a shortage of socially-oriented professionals who understand how to raise capital, create sustainable revenue models, or maximize a shoestring budget. That’s the value I hope to provide, perhaps as the manager of an impact fund.

Accepted: What are your three top tips for ND Mendoza applicants?

Jessica:  1. In my observations, Notre Dame is looking for mature, honest candidates who have a record of accomplishment, a strong work ethic, and a balanced lifestyle. This community encourages excellence not only in academics and professional background, but also excellence of body, mind, spirit, and citizenship. Make sure that your essays and interview answers reflect the things about you that demonstrate this. Talk about your accomplishments and your values. Talk about your ambition and your family or community. Most importantly, don’t act entitled. Humility is the hallmark of the type of servant-leader that Notre Dame is looking for.

2. Notre Dame wants you to want them. Our program has chosen to remain small to preserve the type of close-knit community that makes us unique. For that reason, admissions officers will be impressed by candidates who can clearly articulate why they think they are a match for ND. So, find out by reaching out to current students or scheduling a campus visit. Most people don’t truly understand and can’t explain what makes Notre Dame so special until they’ve been there or interacted with the people. Once they have, they can craft a much more convincing argument for why they belong at ND.

3. Take advantage of all application rounds. Unlike some top schools, who fill most of their class in rounds one and two and have few seats left open in spring, Notre Dame admits a good number of candidates in every round. So, if it’s late in the year and you’re trying to decide whether to apply or wait for fall, go ahead and do it! As long as you have a strong application, your chances will still be good even late in the year.

Accepted: Last but not least, who would you say is the ideal ND student?

Jessica: I would suggest that Notre Dame’s MBA program is a good fit for anyone who has good qualifications but who is also interested in:

• a traditional business career (finance, consulting, etc) but who wishes to express either personal or religious values in their career; or

• social enterprise or an impact career; or

• entrepreneurship generally; or

• the emerging field of business analytics (we just developed a concentration in this field); or

• Business Communications (our Fanning Center for Communications is very well-known).

ND is also very military friendly and is good for anyone who is married or has a family (the grad school is extremely supportive of young families and couples and has many resources, activities, and housing options available).

For one-on-one guidance on your b-school application, please see our MBA Application Packages. For specific advice on how to create the best application for Notre Dame Mendoza, seeNotre Dame Mendoza 2014 MBA Application Questions, Deadlines, Tips.

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