Graduating MBA Prepares Young Scholars to Have Agency Over Their Lives

MBA Bree Jenkins is the student speaker at her Haas School of Business commencement ceremony on May 24. (Photo courtesy of Bree Jenkins).

“If you had asked me five years ago if I’d be walking out of Berkeley to start a new elementary school in Hayward, California, I would have politely smiled and shook my head. I had no interest in going to graduate school, never mind business school.

At the time, I was an industrial engineer at Disney, and every day, I created magic. My favorite project was with Disney Cruise Line, supporting the largest dry dock in cruise line history, the Disney Wonder. In Cadiz, Spain, I joined thousands of people from all over the world renovating the ship. We switched out ceilings, floors, stages and walls to convert to new themes like Tiana’s Place (a restaurant themed to Disney’s the Princess and the Frog), my team handling the scheduling.

My work was chaotic and intense, and I couldn’t have been happier. Decades could have passed quickly and I might have stayed on at the company, if not for one question nagging me: Were there other jobs, other opportunities, that I could equally love and find purpose in?

That’s what brought me to Berkeley to earn my MBA, with a focus on social impact.

Growing up in Flint, Michigan, I was steeped in a community that cared deeply about its children, but lacked adequate resources. My mom, a military reservist, earned her bachelor’s degree in business and worked seven days weeks — sometimes only to come home to eviction notices on our apartment door. She struggled knowing that the schools were not providing a great education, and she needed a better job. So, we moved to Southfield, Michigan, where we found both.

A different zip code meant a better school and more opportunities. I had access to the Academic Games, where I could “get my nerd on,” competing to outwit my opponents with mathematical equations. My mom encouraged me to join the band and, thanks to a small black clarinet and a brilliant teacher named Mr. Scott, I learned to train my fingers and mind to the sounds of music. Our lives changed.

Years later, at Disney, I recognized that I had gained everything my mother could have wished for when she moved my brother and me to Southfield: responsibility, independence, mobility and financial security. But it wasn’t enough. While I enjoyed these privileges, my family and friends back in Flint, who were just as talented and intelligent, lacked the security that I felt. They were let down by their zip codes and school districts.

So, when I was considering my career path at Berkeley Haas, I thought of all the teachers and mentors I had and how my educational experience had changed me. Through a social impact speaker series at Haas, I heard someone talk about their work in education and got curious. How could I use my skills in operations in this field?

I turned to my Consortium mentor and friend, Om Chitale, who helped me find an internship as an Education Pioneers Fellow at ACE Charter School Network. Because of him, I started thinking about how I could work in education and, as a result, I built Cheetah Tank, a Shark Tank-style pitch competition for elementary school students in Oakland. Co-created with the incredible Andrew Davis, the program focuses on idea generation stemming from the simple question, ‘What problem are you trying to solve?’ This project, and an introduction from Om, led me to my full-time position at Hayward Collegiate Charter School.

As head of operations, I’m working with our determined founder, Neena Goswamy, to open a new tuition-free charter school to serve the students of South Hayward and provide them with an opportunity for an excellent education. I know that opening this school will not be easy. I’ve been working on it part-time since January, while finishing my MBA program. Each time we speak with families, we promise that we will prepare their scholars to have agency over their lives. We are being given an incredible responsibility to make a positive difference, striving to ensure that our students leave us as hardworking, creative and kind individuals. Not only that, we want them to know where they come from — and that they represent and belong to a community that supports them.

I believe that who we are surrounded by affects what we think is possible. Whether it be in the form of blood relationships, teachers, my amazing partner and his relatives, my peeps at Disney or the talented individuals inside and outside of Haas who I call my friends, my family has held me up and shown me that anything is possible for me. As I leave Berkeley this month, I want to do the same for my young students.”

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