Victoria McDonald’s path to her MBA has been anything but a straight line. The 26-year-old Calgarian initially graduated from the University of Calgary in 2020 with a Bachelor of Education, majoring in Early Childhood Education and Teaching, as well as a Bachelor of Arts with a major in English Language and Literature.
Yet as she prepared to enter the workforce, the pandemic was also in its early stages. This led to the closure of schools, emergence of online learning and, essentially, a freeze in the labour market for aspiring educators such as McDonald.
So, she chose to pivot and open her own education hub. Over the next two years, the teacher-turned-entrepreneur operated an alternative learning environment for families looking for options outside of the mainstream education system.
It was during this time that McDonald discovered her passion for business, which was further fueled by a subsequent career switch to finance. With encouragement from family and some relevant work experience under her belt, McDonald went back to the classroom in January 2022 to pursue her MBA online through the University of Fredericton.
“I ended up getting in, which was really surprising at first. I was excited, but also very nervous. I had a lot of impostor syndrome,” she says, attributing those initial feelings to not having a traditional business background.
“However, within the first couple of classes, I felt I was doing extremely well. I’ve been really working hard since to prove to myself and others that I continue to belong to be there. That impostor syndrome has slowly started to fade away.”
McDonald is not alone. Many professionals are heading back to the classroom, being driven by everything from the desire to advance or transition within their professional careers, or adapt to growing trends such as digital transformation, globalization, remote leadership and more.
One of the reasons McDonald pursued her MBA was credibility, pointing to the uphill battle of being a young female professional in the male-dominated finance sector.
“Beyond that, I’m hoping that my MBA will continue to open more doors for me in my career,” says McDonald, who is currently a wealth management associate at Scotia Wealth Management and expects to graduate with her MBA at the end of 2024.
“I’m really excited to see, once I finish, where these new doors lead me.”
Josh Malate took a much different path to his MBA, yet it was no less straight.
The current entrepreneur in residence at Calgary-based venture capital firm Thin Air Labs was, in 2013, serving as the general manager of a hotel in the Beltline. With a background primarily in the construction industry as well as a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering, the switch to running a hospitality-type business came with all the surprises you would expect.
“Walking in the first day and having 13 staff – that was a very unknown quantity,” he says. “Understanding how to market and sell to customers from around the world was foreign as well. And so there was a lot of learning on the fly.
“I quickly fell in love with this idea of building and owning businesses, but I knew I had a gap in skillset. I could only muddle my way through a financial statement, and I honestly didn’t understand sales and marketing. So, I knew I had to go back and get some formal training.”
In 2015, Malate pivoted by leaving the hospitality industry and focusing exclusively on completing the MBA program at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business.
“I wanted to immerse myself totally in the experience of just learning something completely new. It was a chance to sort of transform again into a different career,” he says.
Malate attributes his experiences in the program with his successes since. After graduating in 2017, he went on to co-found Athennian, a cloud-based entity and subsidiary management platform that powers teams to be transaction, audit and compliance-ready. The company raised a $42-million Series B in 2022, and today has more than 2,500 users and 400,000 business entities managed on its platform.
Malate credits the horizontal nature of the MBA program with providing him with the skills needed to successfully launch a new business, whether that included sales, marketing, strategy, finance, accounting or operations.
“I took a finance specialization because I knew that it was a barrier for me. I can now read and put together financial statements in the work I do, and even challenge others when I’m looking to invest in their company,” sales Malate, referring to his current role at Thin Air Labs where he helps to nurture early-stage start-ups.
He adds the networking opportunities through the MBA program were also invaluable. In fact, much of the financial seeding for Athennian originated from relationships he was able to build through the program.
“The real differentiator with Haskayne is the Calgary business community interfaces with that school significantly,” he says. “The biggest leaders in this city are very engaged. And so, I got a chance to develop that network and even leverage some of those relationships beyond that.
“But it was much more than that. I had a unique opportunity to work within some very diverse teams that provided a lot of relevant cultural experiences. That was huge, especially in the technology and start-up world where every business is going to be a global business.”
Like Malate, Nadia Lachman was similarly eager to enhance her business acumen when she applied to the Haskayne program in 2020. Lachman had previously graduated from Mount Royal University in 2016 with a Bachelor of Science, General Science – the goal to later attend medical school.
Yet Lachman was drawn to the business side of health care and chose instead to complete a Master of Biomedical Technology from the University of Calgary in 2019 where she was exposed to broad range of biotechnology and business concepts.
“By then, I didn’t necessarily feel like I wanted to start a business, but I wanted those business fundamentals to see where else my science could take me,” says the first-generation Canadian, whose parents are originally from Guyana, South America.
“So, I applied to the MBA program in hopes of later getting into a health care consulting or management role with one of the Big 4 (accounting firms).”
Once in, Lachman says the two-year experience was best at helping her to identify those business blind spots and providing a broader perspective on everything from governance to marketing.
It also taught her a valuable lesson about opportunity. During her MBA program, Lachman raised her hand several times, including an internship at CDL-Rockies, a startup program at the University of Calgary for seed-stage, science-based companies. Through that role, she later received a call, and job offer, from the managing partner at Panache Ventures, where she currently works as an investment analyst.
Panache Ventures is a pre-seed venture fund that works with Canadian start-ups across multiple sectors, including digital health.
“My advice to anyone considering taking an MBA is to be just reflective on what you want to get out of the program. If it’s a specific industry or vertical, make sure to seek opportunities in that,” says Lachman, who graduated in 2022.
“And don’t reject anything prematurely. That could have easily happened to me, and I wouldn’t be where I am today.”