Tag: Elizabeth Nguyen

Peace Corps + Heller: A Perfect Combination

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Elizabeth Nguyen, MBA/SID ’20

Editor’s Note: This is a bittersweet post, because it’s Elizabeth’s last one for the blog. She graduated from the SID/MBA dual program at the end of last year, but remained on staff for the summer while she was looking for a job… and she was offered a full time position as a Program Manager for Social Entrepreneurship for All starting last month! Congratulations again, Elizabeth, but you will be so missed!

Walking the halls of Heller, you will inevitably come across a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. These students and leaders are recognizable because they will inevitably have stories of living overseas, starting their conversations with the iconic “When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in….” It’s an identity that comes with leaving the US behind to spend 2+ memorable years as a grassroots international development worker in another country. 

As a member of this elusive group, I can proudly say that my Peace Corps experience in Swaziland (now called Eswatini), has been a life-changing experience that has defined my career path and time at Heller. As a recent Heller graduate who completed the Social Impact MBA and Master’s in Sustainable International Development (SID) concentrating in Social Entrepreneurship and Impact Management, I brought my experiences from my Peace Corps service into all of my conversations and projects, both inside and outside of the classroom. 

I officially started my service as a Youth Development Volunteer in Swaziland, a small landlocked country in southern Africa in 2013. But because of my family and upbringing, I knew in high school that I wanted to join the Peace Corps. As a first-generation American-born citizen, I was raised with a strong commitment to service, as exemplified through my family trips to Vietnam, where we worked in rural communities by building homes, supporting school children with school supplies, and advocating for health and hygiene.

The natural progression for my love of service grew into joining the Peace Corps. Throughout my three and a half years, I worked primarily on supporting students at a children’s home. I also ran a handcraft social enterprise supporting over 70 women and men in three rural communities. It was my first introduction to managing a business, and I was responsible for everything from creating a budget and international marketing strategy to planning trainings for the artisans. I was challenged but thrived, learning through this experience, that I loved the social impact part of enterprises. I decided to stay a third year in Swaziland to work with Enactus, an international organization working with youth social entrepreneurship, where I helped develop the communications and programs of the organization to increase impact with the students we worked with and the communities we served. 

I returned to the US and knew that I wanted to pursue a Social Impact MBA to further my education and to learn more about how to run a business so that I can best support other entrepreneurs around the world. At Heller, the MBA classes have helped me better understand business strategies, financial management, and even business pitches. My SID classes have helped me focus my work on Southern African countries like South Africa and Swaziland. 

I even was able to help plan the annual Social Impact Startup Challenge and Hult Prize competitions, encouraging other students across all programs with ideas to start businesses. Last year, I was also asked to present in front of an audience at Brandeis University’s Africa Culture Night, where I was able to highlight my experiences in Swaziland. It amazes me how much my service has changed my life and directed my time at Heller and as I move forward into my next job as a Program Manager for Entrepreneurship for All, I am excited to bring my Peace Corps and Heller experiences to create maximum impact for entrepreneurs and their communities.

Changing the World 101: Elizabeth Nguyen’s Favorite Classes

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Elizabeth Nguyen, MBA/SID ’20

Managing the Triple Bottom Line, which is an MBA elective that is taught by Senior Lecturer Michael Appell, was one of my favorite classes during my time at Heller because it made me think differently to understand the business world in a new light. Highlighting that the MBA at Heller has a focus on social impact and social justice, this unique seminar-style course emphasizes why traditional businesses also need to have a social impact and what strides are being made currently in companies and corporations around the world. 

As the only class related to corporate social responsibility at Heller, it had students from all different degree programs who brought their diverse international and domestic perspectives to the classroom. The classroom dynamic was always conversational and exciting, with Professor Appell constantly asking everyone their opinions and creating spaces to have deep conversations challenging the status quo. The class also had many incredible guest speakers, who brought in their personal perspectives in the field, covering topics including impact investing, B-corps, corporate foundations, and even ESG (environmental, social, and governance) reporting. 

I was interested in this class because my work pre-Heller had introduced me to the phrase “triple bottom line” or “people, planet, and profit”, which is increasingly becoming an urgent focus of corporations. During the previous summer, I had a further introduction into this area of work when I completed my MBA Team Consulting Project with Oxfam. During this capstone project, I was working to create toolkits to pressure international agribusinesses to improve their environmental sustainability and human rights practices. Entering this class, I was excited to learn how corporations are focusing on a “new” bottom line that prioritizes not just traditional financial returns but also environmental and social returns.   

Throughout the class, I was introduced to areas of corporate social responsibility that was new to me, including the emergence of public-private partnerships between nonprofit and for-profit organizations, ones like Starbucks with Conservation International, which are mutually beneficial – Starbucks increasingly has a positive image in conservation while Conservation International receives funding and international support for their programming with coffee farmers.

One area of the class that was memorable, was when we had deeper dive into understanding the role of industry leaders such as Nike in CSR to see if they have been able to uphold change and progress. Many times, these corporations have gone through a “public relations crisis” which has informed their pivot towards corporate social responsibility. For my midterm paper, I researched SeaWorld, and their ongoing public relations crisis after the documentary “Blackfish” was released exposing their treatment of killer whales and the death of a trainer at SeaWorld. I was able to create an analysis of their response to the film over the years, their operational and strategic pivot, and how they were able to respond to the controversy to improve their image and overall business.

Walking away from that class allowed me to rethink and reassess businesses and their role in the larger world. While I would often hear at Heller that for profits and corporations are the “bad guys” who are only profit focused, it was important to see and understand that their role is critical to creating impact and enacting social change. Yes, companies have the money, but they are increasingly realizing that their money can be used to help nonprofits – ultimately supporting the people who need it the most.

Campus Connections: Elizabeth Nguyen’s Perspective

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Elizabeth Nguyen, MBA/SID ’20

My first experience visiting the Heller School as a prospective student was memorable. I had decided to fly up from Washington, DC to visit the Brandeis campus, where I was slated to attend a class on Social Entrepreneurship and meet the professor and MBA Director, Professor Carole Carlson. When I walked in, teams of students were practicing their business pitch presentations for their final project. I very excited about this class in particular because of my previous work supported social entrepreneurs. Through the entire class, there was palpable energy and passion for starting these businesses. Carole was leading the class and it was clear that her questions were motivating and guiding the classroom as well. I always joke that this class was what sold me on the Heller School, mainly because I instantly knew that I wanted to learn more from this incredible professor.

Reflecting on my many interactions with Carole, I am grateful that Heller is a tight-knit community where professors know the students. Since I went to a large school in California where professors didn’t know the students as well for my undergrad, I chose Heller for my graduate school knowing there were smaller, intimate classrooms. As a student, I would often interact with Carole through MBA town calls and other events like many of MBA students, but I was able to work with her more often when I planned a series of MBA events at the Heller School including the Social Impact Start Up Challenge, the Hult Prize, and the Case Competition. It was exciting to be responsible for important events at Heller, with the support of Carole to make sure that the event went smoothly. I was always impressed with how responsive Carole was to all of our emails and occasional panic and how she was able to support us when plans changed.

I was able to take Carole’s Social Entrepreneurship class in Fall 2019, where I was able to learn everything I had been excitedly waiting for and hoping for. Armed with my new MBA knowledge of Strategic Management, Financial Management, and other classes, I felt that this experience was different than when I shadowed the class because by this time, I had could to reference the lessons I had learned in other classes aside from my work experience before Heller. A few months later, Carole contacted me to help her write a few chapters on a textbook that she was creating on social entrepreneurship. Knowing that this is what I am passionate about, of course I said yes! I felt like this was a “full circle” moment – seeing that I admired this professor from before starting the MBA program and then getting to work alongside her for this exciting project.

Carole is a great mentor and connection to have as I move forward in my career. I have learned a great deal from her over the years, and I am so grateful I sat in on her class years ago before I even applied!

What I Wish I’d Known When I Started Heller: Elizabeth Nguyen’s Advice

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Elizabeth Nguyen, MBA/SID ’20

The “Heller experience” varies from student to student. There is so much to do, and for me, not having been in school since I graduated from undergrad in 2011, I wanted to do it all! Your time at Heller allows you to try new things, meet new people, and sign up to be a part of many exciting Heller and Brandeis wide events. As we approach the new school year, I want to pass along three pieces of advice I would give any incoming or prospective student:

1.  Prioritize career development, such as having an internship or Career Development Services workshops. While I chose to be very involved on the Heller campus through my on-campus work  and extracurriculars activities, I wish I had made it a priority to do more career development along the way, such as internships with organizations, especially because for the MBA, it can count as credit. There are a number of incredible organizations, including health, public policy, international development all within the Boston area. Having graduated, I think that if I had put an effort into connecting with local organizations while in school, I would have at an advantage in the job market. If internships can’t fit into your schedule, Career Development Services has a number of great workshops and informational packets as well. I would advise that students reach out sooner than later for help with interview prep or resume reviews, because graduation creeps up on you quickly!

2. Take a look outside of Heller.  It’s already overwhelming to see the options of exciting classes to take at Heller. But don’t forget, there are options to take classes or attend conferences and events at universities in the Boston area! Students often take courses for credit or for audit at the Brandeis International Business School or through the Consortium (which includes local universities such as Babson, MIT, or Harvard). During my time at Heller, I attended events and conferences that were hosted at Harvard or Boston University and appreciated the networking opportunities. I also had the chance to attend a conference in Detroit with Net Impact. Even better, you can apply for a Heller conference grant which will help offset your conference fees.

3. Challenge yourself with the social entrepreneurship events at Heller. I may be biased as someone who was known at Heller for loving everything related to social entrepreneurship, but I highly recommend that students, regardless of their degree program, sign up to take part in Heller Social Impact Startup Challenge and Hult Prize Challenge, which are two social entrepreneurship events at Heller. During my two years at Heller, I was actively involved in this event, first as a participant and then as a Director. It allowed me to plan, lead, and organize events with layers of complexity, which I have been able to reference in many of my interviews! Participants I have worked with have enjoyed this event and have found that it helps hone their leadership, presentation, and teamwork skills.

There are many opportunities for you at Heller, Brandeis, and in the Boston area. Remember that although you may be going to graduate school to further your professional goals, it’s not just the degree that matters: the connections you build and the skills you acquire can be a major asset in your future. Keep an eye out for the different events and enjoy being in school!

Heller Bucket List: Elizabeth Nguyen’s “Must Do” Experiences around Waltham

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Elizabeth Nguyen, MBA/SID ’20

There are a number of exciting things to do and see when you start your program at Heller. For those of you moving to the area for the first time (or even those of you who have been here your whole lives), the amount of “must-do” activities can sometimes seem overwhelming, but remember, you have your whole program to cross them off your list. After two years at Heller, here is my list of things to make sure you do at Brandeis, in Boston, and in the New England area!

  1. Go to Brandeis events – Sign up for the general Brandeis listservs and follow the Brandeis Facebook pages to find out more about Brandeis events going on outside of the Heller building. I follow the Campus Activities Board and have gotten information about great events the past two years that I have signed up for with my Heller friends. During Halloween, there was a fun zombie escape room (we escaped!), a zoom chat with John Finlay from Netflix’s show “Tiger King”, free tickets to a Red Sox game, and even free ice cream in the summer!
  2. Check out the Mapparium in Boston – This three-story tall stained-glass globe is one of the coolest places I have seen in Boston, and every time I have someone visiting, we try to go see it. The map itself is from 1935 and has some countries with different names compared to today. As a traveler and history nerd, it always is so interesting to find new bits of information on the map and see how the world has changed! Since it’s a perfect sphere, it also has fun acoustics, so bring a friend to test it out.
  3. Explore Cambridge and Boston –  There is a great free campus shuttle during the school year that drops you in Cambridge or Boston for you to explore the city for the day. Cambridge has great options for food, including coffee from Tatte or Pokeworks for sushi. I sometimes also like to explore the Harvard campus with its beautiful buildings for some hidden places to study. Boston is a great city to explore as well, from its historic Freedom Trail sites to museums like the Museum of Science, the Aquarium, and the Museum of Fine Arts. Some of these places are free with a student ID!
  4. Take a day trip outside of the city – As someone from California, it still amazes me that driving an hour and a half can easily bring you to another state. Living in Massachusetts, you have the option to drop into Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, and hike mountains, sunbathe at beaches, and explore cute little towns! I like going to Newport, Rhode Island for a quick getaway or up to Maine to shop at the different outlets. Sometimes, I will even drive with friends and family along the New England coast to look at the beautiful lighthouses!
  5. Go leaf-peeping in the fall – New England is famous for its fall/autumn leaves, and rightly so, because they are so beautiful. Make sure to follow along on the leaf peeping maps to tell you where you should drive to see in New England to best see the peak leaf season… but even just walking to campus, you will see the leaves change color dramatically. This fall season makes you fall in love with the Boston area and will make you want to stay forever.

As you can see, I’ve tried to include choices that are safe in our “new normal”, but these will be experiences to cross off your Heller Bucket List for years to come. No matter when you’re joining us, you’ll find that the area has a lot to offer, so make sure you get out and experience all that you can: you’ll be surprised at how fast your program flies by!

Graduating During a Pandemic: Elizabeth Nguyen’s Experience

Class of 2020 – Graduating this past May, my cohort had it differently than most Heller graduates. I think the word that I would use to describe the majority of this year is “surreal”… When March hit, COVID-19 was escalating quickly and it was clear that all of our in-person classes would need to move online immediately. It felt like that the transitions of all of my classes (including ones I was a student in or a teaching assistant in) to online happened quickly and dramatically – one day, we were in class, and then the next, the Heller building was closed.

Twenty students pictured in a Zoom call

Maintaining community through Zoom

My Operations Management class was one of the first classes to transition online.  Fortunately, many of the MBA classes are also already taught through the Heller School’s Executive Physician’s MBA, which contributed to a seamless transition. Regardless of the graduate program, every professor had to adapt their classes, whether that included introducing an offline component, uploading additional documents onto LATTE, or utilizing Zoom functions such as breakout rooms for added smaller group discussions. All of the professors were also very flexible with the students, readjusting different classroom requirements and projects to accommodate the changes and challenges that the students were facing. There was also a request for constant feedback from the professors and the Heller Administration to provide insight to the professors and helped them adjust their classes as needed.

Dean Weil toasting the community during a Zoom Call

Dean Weil hosts Cocktails with the Dean

I think that one of Heller’s strengths through the pandemic is that there was a push to maintain the sense of the Heller community. There have been official and unofficial events to continue to connect with people the Heller community. For example, the Heller Student Association planned an exciting Heller Trivia Night event which included hundreds of students, staff, alumni, and prospective students. In planning for this event, I recruited my core group of friends from my MBA program – and we won first place!  In true Heller form, my team also decided to donate our winnings as gift cards to Healthy Waltham to help the Waltham community. The Dean also hosts consistently hosts Heller-wide “Cocktails with the Dean”, which is a great chance to see the faculty and staff of Heller in a casual environment.

Over the past few months, my friends and I have managed to stay connected across states and often countries through using Zoom. We will have Zoom calls to check up on everyone, weekly movie nights, and even recently had a fun “Powerpoint Presentation Party” where we presented powerpoints about obscure and interesting topics. While we cannot be in person to connect, I am grateful for technology connecting people I haven’t seen in a long time.

Elizabeth in a cap and gown smiling next to the Heller School Sign

Ready for graduation!

As a 2020 Heller Graduate, the entire graduation process also felt “surreal” at first. Because we were not going to receive the cap and gown until after graduation, I borrowed a cap and gown from a recent graduate to take photos at Brandeis. I think this was the beginning of everything feeling “real” to me. While I watched the online graduation ceremony, it was still disappointing not to be able to see my classmates and my family who were supposed to fly in for the graduation. To help make the graduation more personal, I had two Zoom calls, including one for family and for friends to celebrate. One added benefit of the online ceremony was that I was able to have my extended family, including my grandparents, watch the graduation. Even my Zoom calls were able to bring together from different aspects of my life – high school, college, Peace Corps, and graduate school. In this sense, regardless of the disappointing aspects of graduation, there was still a silver lining! I was able to see and celebrate with more people across the US because of technology. Brandeis has promised an in-person ceremony next year and I am hopeful it will help make the graduation feel more real!

Working to Change the World: Elizabeth Nguyen on her Team Consulting Project

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Elizabeth Nguyen, MBA/SID ’20

The MBA Team Consulting Project (TCP), or the MBA program’s capstone project was one of my favorite parts of Heller experience. Over the summer, teams of 3-6 MBA students work with an organization to help with a proposed management challenge. What’s unique however, is that organizations pitch proposals to the students, who are then asked to form teams around their preferred choice. I wanted a project that combined both my MBA and MA in Sustainable International Development degrees, and was excited when Oxfam, a well-known international organization, was one of our choices. The Oxfam team that was formed included three other classmates with international development, corporate social responsibility, and supply chain experiences and expertise that made the group ideal for this project.

We worked with Oxfam’s Private Sector Engagement division on their “Behind the Brands” initiative to pressure the supply chains of the ten largest food and beverage companies in the world. While consumers recognize names such as Unilever, Nestle, or Coca Cola, the agribusinesses who supply to these companies are less visible and less pressured to improve their environmental sustainability and human rights practices. Our goal was to provide our client with a toolkit of resources for future conversations with these agribusinesses in four key areas – land, climate, gender, and transparency and accountability.Three students stand in front of a board with sticky notes

We examined the agribusinesses’ current Oxfam scorecard results, analyzed where they fell short, and researched policies, commitments, and best practices that could be referenced for improvements. The project allowed us to pull from MBA classes such as “Managing the Triple Bottom Line” and “Strategic Management” through analyzing how to make the business case for corporate social responsibility and developing a sweet spot analysis and a theory of change.

Teamwork for this project was a challenging learning curve. Early on, we identified our individual leadership styles and communicated how we work in groups. We also established ways to destress, such as having lunch together or walking around campus. This helped us step away from our work and remember that despite our disagreements, that we were all still friends.

Chart with various projects outlinedThis project was high stakes, with months of team meetings, stakeholder interviews, and research culminating in final presentations in front of the Heller community and Oxfam stakeholders. In preparation for the presentation, I memorized and recited my lines over and over again. At one point, I apparently was even reciting my part of the presentation in my sleep! Our presentation was visually appealing and well executed, showing all of our expertise, research, and analysis. When my cohort finished presenting our TCPs, we all breathed a collective sigh of relief – we were doneFour students smile in front of an Oxfam America sign! Our client, who flew in from DC for our two presentations, was happy with our deliverables and hard work over the summer.

The overall experience of completing the MBA Team Consulting Project was incredible and when I think of all of our final presentations, I am still amazed at how much the teams have been able to accomplish in just a few months!

 

Hello Heller!: Elizabeth Nguyen’s Acceptance Story

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Elizabeth Nguyen, MBA/SID ’20

I found out that I was accepted into the Heller School on my birthday! At that time, I was living in Washington, D.C., working for the federal government. I remember getting onto the green metro line and seeing that I had received the alert that my application status had been updated. My excitement and eagerness meant that I only waited a few days to accept my invitation. In the end, I didn’t even finish the application process for the other two schools I had initially applied to because I had already gotten into my first choice with a great scholarship. It felt like the decision was already made – The Heller School was a school that I wanted to go to and that also wanted me.

Before starting my dual programs, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Swaziland (Eswatini), where I ran a social enterprise in rural communities and worked with university students who were interested in starting community-based social enterprises of their own. This introduced me to social impact-driven businesses or social enterprises, essentially what I see as the “good side” of business. As I started looking at various graduate programs, I was searching mostly for MBAs focusing on nonprofit management, social impact, and social entrepreneurship. I was specifically looking at programs where I could gain tangible skills and academic knowledge to support the work that I had done in the field, especially because I wanted to learn the ins and outs of businesses so that I could best support the communities that I had started to work with.

Another factor in my graduate school search was my desire to continue my education at a school that supported Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. I looked at schools that had a strong Coverdell Fellows program and a strong community, both at the university level and the local city level. I found that Brandeis had a commitment to RPCVs by offering generous scholarships. I saw that there was a community of service-driven individuals with a commitment to international development and knew that I had found a second home.

During the application process, I had the opportunity to come to the Brandeis campus and visit Heller. The class that I shadowed was Carole Carlson’s social entrepreneurship class and it instantly confirmed that this was where I needed to be. (As I was a student, this ended up being my all-time favorite class at Heller.) Over the summer after my acceptance but before classes started, I decided that I wanted to add the Sustainable International degree as a dual degree. While I was traveling in Belgium with limited service, the MBA Admissions Director at Heller was very accessible and provided me with all of the documents I needed to go through the process. It made me even more confident and excited about my degrees. I felt extremely supported by the Heller staff to help me achieve my dreams.

There are two main decisions in my life that I have never had to second guess – joining the Peace Corps and completing my Social Impact MBA and MA in Sustainable International Development.

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