An interview with Columbia Business School EMBA Eddwina Bright:
What led you to business school?
I moved to New York from Baltimore in 2008 to start a career in finance at Citi, where I was focused on internal consulting projects — things like creating a new global operating model for the securities lending business and pricing a new eCommerce product for institutional clients. While I was there, I volunteered with university recruiting and trained analysts and joined the leadership board of a startup non-profit called America Needs You, which focuses on the career development of first-generation college students. I’m only the second person in my family to attend college, so it was a mission that I was passionate about.
Eventually I left Citi to work at the non-profit full-time as chief of staff. I thought that it would be a great opportunity to build new skills, especially before going to business school. After I left that job, I started my own fashion company, and I also consulted with small businesses for three years before I felt that it was time to go to business school. I’m back in the non-profit world now, and long term, I’d love to be head of corporate social responsibility at a bank, an area that blends my different skills from finance, non-profit, and entrepreneurship. Many firms could have a greater impact in the communities they serve. Having someone who has had that mission-oriented background but also fully understands financial products gives me a unique skill set. I’d love to offer that value and passion to such an organization in the long term. I’m from Baltimore, and that’s a city that could use investment for growth. I’d love to be in a position to help locales and cities like that.
Why did you choose Columbia?
I chose Columbia because of the EMBA program. I had that three-year gap of being an entrepreneur and felt it was important to pursue an MBA while still working, so that I could show that I could be focused, multitask, and manage multiple different, competing priorities. I think EMBA forces you to do that. I also explored what it would mean to be a student on campus at various schools and compared the social and recruiting offerings. At Columbia, I always felt that I could be myself, like I didn’t have to make a lot of concessions around my personality or the way that I work. I felt like there was a place for me here, and it was the only school where I felt that sense of ease and comfort.
What were your first impressions when you arrived on campus?
My first impression was that everything was so organized; they think of everything, from your nametag to mailing your books. I feel like they’re making it easy for me to transition into this world. Especially being out of school almost 10 years, you get nervous and think, am I going to be able keep up? Am I going to be able to focus? I’m still working. I have a family. I think Columbia does a really good job of structuring the program in such a way that it’s easy to integrate it into other aspects of your life. I live close to campus too, which makes it even easier for me. The professors are in tune with what we’re going through so they understand, and they ask for real-life examples from work. They know where people work. They say, “Hey Sally, I know you’re in consulting, so tell us about how this works in your company.” It makes the classroom come alive.
How do you balance everything?
I have a 2-year-old daughter. I’m not Wonder-Mom, Wonder-Wife, Wonder-Student, or Wonder-Employee, but I do feel that I’ve reached a good balance in terms of deciding where my priorities lie. I’ve been deliberate about planning date nights with my husband or planning days with my daughter on off-class weekends. I go to work early, and I have to study, so I have to be okay with making little sacrifices and concessions. Two years is a short time, really. I see it as an investment in my personal and professional growth, and the dividends will pay for the rest of my life. Before I started the program, I prepared my family for the fact that I would need a lot of help from them over the next two years. I did the same for my team at work. And I try to make my family an active part of my experiences; my husband went to Cuba with my classmates and me, and he’ll join me for my international seminar. Making everyone feel like a part of the experience means they’re also accountable to you for your own betterment. I think that’s important.
What experiences have you enjoyed the most so far?
We have a group chat that I started for our class. I told the group in the fall, “Hey guys, I just bought a ticket to go to Cuba in January, hoping one or two people want to go, let me know.” By the next day, 36 people said they wanted tickets, too. It’s a testament to how quickly you make connections at the School. That these people are willing to step off a cliff with me and dive into this experience, head to this place no one had ever been before — that’s something I never would have expected. I expected the program to be much more of a kind of long-term networking exercise, but there are deep, close personal relationships. I’ll remember and reflect on that trip for a long time.
What is it like going to business school in New York City?
It’s intense. There is always something going on, robust events, speakers — Warren Buffett ’51 was just on campus. We’ve had heads of state visit. I’ve been to interesting conferences on sustainability and impact investing. The School does a good job of taking full advantage of being in New York. You have access to key players in the market, and that’s something that I think is unique to New York City. Being close to these amazing people, ideas, and events makes what you learn tangible.
How have you gotten involved in the School community?
I’m the academic student representative for my class. I’m in the Black Business Students Association, the Real Estate club, and the Social Enterprise Club. Just last week I went to an event at the Global Impact Investing Network through the Social Enterprise Club. It seems like I’m doing something Columbia-related almost every night of the week. In December, I went to Taiwan and Singapore on a trip organized by the Chazen Institute and was able to connect with a lot of full-timers through that experience. I feel like I have a robust network on the full-time side as well as the EMBA side.
How have your professional skills translated into success in business school?
One thing that has particularly helped has been my organizational skills. I manage a team of nine at work, which involves staying organized and understanding where all the work streams stand. That experience has helped me in my role as academic rep. My ability to distil complex ideas into simpler, easily digestible action items, which I attribute to my background in finance, has also been a plus. I see that come to fruition through my team or through something like organizing and executing the Cuba trip so that everyone has an amazing time.
I’ve had experience with a large company, I’ve had my own company, and I’ve worked for a non-profit. I’m at the intersection of a lot of professional backgrounds, which gives me a different perspective when speaking about my experience in class or being able to contribute to an idea.
What will you take with you?
In the beginning, I thought this would be a professional experience; I’ll get a degree, and I’ll come out of it better professionally. But, I feel like I’m also going to walk away a better person. I’ve grown through so many experiences already — things like conducting a 360 assessment in leadership class; traveling around the world with classmates and breaking bread in another country — and it’s all helping me identify and understand my principles and core values. I know that I will leave as a better leader, a better businesswoman, and a better person. That’s what I’ll take with me.