More than ten years after graduating from Indiana University with a degree in marketing, Sandra Perez-Contreras made a life-changing U-turn back to the classroom. Although she had built a successful career in business-to-business sales, Perez-Contreras says she came to the realization that she was meant to do something else. Figuring out what that “something” was, she explains, required shifting gears from full-time business professional to Full-Time MBA student.
“I was at a crossroads in my career. I woke up one morning and realized that I didn’t want my boss’s job and I didn’t want his boss’s job either. I wanted something different and believed that earning a Full-Time MBA at the University of Tennessee would be a career changing opportunity.”
Since Perez-Contreras was based in Knoxville at the time, she researched the UT MBA Program. Going back to school meant quitting her job and paying tuition, so cost and location were definite considerations. However, she was equally focused on only applying to programs that could give her a competitive advantage in the job market.
“Having gone to a university (Indiana) with a really strong recruiting program, I knew that I wanted a school with an active recruiting office and with credentials that attracted top companies to recruit on campus,” Perez-Contreras adds. “The fact that the UT MBA Logistics/Supply Chain Management concentration was ranked in the top 10 by U.S. News and World Report magazine was definitely attractive, and I knew I couldn’t beat the value of UT. I felt that the amount of debt I would incur as a student would be worth my while, because I knew that I would come out of the Program with the kind of job I wanted.”
When she applied, Perez-Contreras initially intended to pursue a concentration in operations. Based on her experience as a business consultant where she specialized in helping small businesses get better, she thought operations aligned best with her strengths. Once classes began and she got an overview of all the available concentrations, however, Perez-Contreras quickly realized that logistics was a better fit, and switched her concentration.
“When I was exposed to logistics and the concept of supply chain management, I realized I had discovered what I was meant to do,” she explains. “At heart, I am still a sales person. Knowing that I could help make improvements to better serve my customer seemed like a perfect combination. So, I changed my direction.”
As one of the oldest students in her class, Perez-Contreras had an advantage over most of her classmates in terms of work experience and technical skills. This allowed her, she says, to focus on refining the soft skills needed to take her career to the next level.
“The most important things that I learned in the UT MBA Program involved soft skills, such as public speaking. Between project presentations in class and participating in a business case competition, I had the opportunity to become more confident and comfortable speaking in front of groups.”
Perez-Contreras says she is particularly thankful for the opportunities she had to make presentations without prepared notes. “I told my professor that I wanted to be prepared for the day when I’d have a microphone thrust in my face and be asked for a comment,” Perez-Contreras recalls. “While she would have preferred that I come into meetings with prepared notes, she allowed me to look at the topic 10 minutes before class and then ad lib. That experience prepared me to put my thoughts together and speak coherently to any group with very little time to prepare. I believe my success at Nike is definitely due to the skill and confidence I built in the MBA Program. The lessons learned at UT come into play almost every single day.”
Sandra Perez-Contreras on how the UT Full-Time MBA Program helped her LEARN, TRANSFORM, and LEAD:
“Business is about making things happen. At Nike, we can’t spend days and months talking about things. We have to present a compelling business story for why we are going to do things. In my entrepreneurship and innovation classes at UT, that was the order of the day. We didn’t learn in a classroom. We learned from listening to successful business leaders in our community, and then by going out and doing actual work in our community.”
“When I went into the program, I wasn’t necessarily where I needed to be in terms of confidence. I joined Nike a week after graduation and, within my first year, I was leading 8 managers and about 300 indirect reports. If you had told me on the first day of class that would I be hired by Nike as an operations manager, I would have said, ‘There is no way.’ I was such a different person back then. The nurturing and feedback I received in the MBA Program, as well as the accomplishments I achieved, allowed me to pursue opportunities I never would have dreamed of before.”
“I was hired by Nike initially as an operations manager for our 1.2 million square-foot footwear distribution center in Memphis. There I led a couple of departments before being promoted into a global role based in Beaverton, Oregon. In this new position, I am tasked with developing a lean training program for our logistics operations around the world and with supporting the new lean coaches as they go back to their distribution centers to implement lean. Thanks to the confidence and skills I built at UT, I was able to convince Nike that I had the ability to communicate with people and influence others to action. They took a chance, and clearly, as evidenced by my success within the organization, they have not regretted it.”
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