2020 Best & Brightest EMBAs: Olivia Benson, Brigham Young University (Marriott)

Olivia Benson

Brigham Young University, Marriott School of Business

“I am a loud, feisty, introvert.”

Age: 29

Hometown: Mesa, AZ

Family Members: My husband, Jeffrey, and our dog, Tofu.

Fun fact about yourself: I am an avid knitter and I have been doing so for 20 years! I often knit in class to help me pay attention to lectures and in meetings at work.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Arizona State University – BA in Chemistry, BAE in Secondary Education

Where are you currently working? Qualtrics – Project Management Team Lead

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: Outside of school, I am involved in the Women Leadership Development group at work and I volunteer at events for Womenpreneurers and SoGal. I was a STARR Noyce Scholar in science education at ASU and an Obama Scholar. I have served in multiple leadership roles for women-centered organizations in my church as well.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? This is not a conventional achievement, but I am most proud of overcoming my great fear of heights and completing an 80-foot and 100-foot rappel on a trip to Moab with my MBA cohort! I even enjoyed it a little.

I am also very proud of surviving my first-semester finance class.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? When I first made the transition from education to business, I worked for a very small solar startup. I was asked to set up an in-house installation program –- something I knew NOTHING about. I had no experience in operations management or supply chain. Yet, I was able to learn what I needed quickly, thanks to the guidance of some kind and patient mentors. Over the course of months, we set up a successful program and, though it took many late nights, I learned I can do hard things! It was a turning point in how I viewed myself and my abilities. This was when I knew I loved business and, specifically, operations management.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? My favorite professor is Mark Widmer. He interviewed me for my MBA and taught our Razor’s Edge class, which was my favorite class. He’s a big reason I decided I could go to BYU. I went into business school because I was driven by insecurity to be successful. The Razor’s Edge class has taught me that there’s more to life than a successful career and good grades. I have to think deeply about what a fulfilling life is and how to achieve that. His class helped me to prioritize a more balanced life and I have become a better person overall as a result.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? Initially, I was interested because it was well-ranked, inexpensive, and allowed me to work full time while attending school. However, what I found was a program that attracted a diverse group of incredible people – people in different stages of life, different careers, and different educational, and religious backgrounds. I found professors with incredible experience and knowledge who loved what they did. Ultimately, the people are what attracted me to the BYU EMBA program.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? As mentioned previously, it was the people. My classmates are some of the smartest, most talented people I have ever met. I have a phenomenal network (a network that actually got me my current job) of caring people who are not just a career network, but a group of close friends I could call for just about anything. I have learned so much from them and become a better person from knowing them.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? I learned that I can pursue a fulfilling career and live a balanced life. It sounds silly, but I was very prepared to commit the best parts of myself to the pursuit of a successful career. I was afraid of how I’d balance a family and a career and imagined it would mean sacrificing a lot of myself in the pursuit. When I started the MBA program at BYU, I found a group of people who had successful careers but also balanced the needs of their families. They had a strong sense of self and knew how to prioritize the things that lead to a full life.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family, and education? Working full time and managing my MBA and personal life was definitely challenging at times. I also switched jobs during the program, which didn’t make things easier. One time that sticks out was early in the program during a grueling finance class. We had a presentation coming up and our groupmate who was set to present wasn’t going to make it. He commuted from Texas and his flight was delayed due to a storm. The rest of us were at a classmate’s house until late in the night preparing. I was asked to present instead given the flight delay. A groupmate asked me to rehearse even though we were all exhausted and worn out. After I gave a pretty haggard run-down of the presentation at 11 pm, one of my friends said, “Well that was pretty good, but maybe try it again with more energy?”  I don’t think I found it funny in the moment, but it’s something I have laughed about often since. We were all so close and so willing to stay up late to do well on this project. We were in the home of a classmate and his family didn’t mind that a group of strangers was at their kitchen table talking about finance for hours. It was something that bonded us knowing we could support each other late into the night. I think we all appreciated our families a little more for tolerating us during that time too.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? Do it! Make sure you have the support of your family and workplace – you’ll need to make some sacrifices over the course of the program, but the things you learn and people you meet will make it worth it!

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? That it is going to be just as difficult and cutthroat as previous educational experiences. While my program was competitive, the main motivation was learning as much as we could. It was no longer about grades and class ranking, but about what we were getting out of the program.

What was your biggest regret in business school? I wish I had attended more social events with my classmates. I loved getting to know everyone and I wish I could have spent more time with them outside of class.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Brinda Jaikumar is the classmate I most admire. She was in my first group and instantly felt like a big sister. She is incredibly smart. She has had an incredible career, but also managed to have two kids and maintain a healthy balance with work and family. I was lucky enough to get to meet her family on multiple occasions and it was clear they were so full of love and respect for each other. She somehow managed to be smart, ambitious, vulnerable, kind, and selfless all at once. I look up to her for what she has accomplished and who she is as a person.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…a respected mentor recognized my abilities and encouraged me to pursue more.”

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I hope to be in high-level operations management. Regardless of the exact position or company, I want to be in a place where I can develop others and influence processes for the better.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? I hope my peers remember me as someone who was kind, sometimes funny, and always made sure to make the homework checklist for our class each week.

What are the top two items on your bucket list? Visit CERN in Switzerland and travel to Antarctica.

What made Olivia such an invaluable addition to the class of 2020?

“In her interview, Olivia told me about her work and how leaders in her company kept giving her more responsibilities. She almost seemed a bit surprised or not quite willing to fully accept that fact she is extremely effective in her work. She has a unique mixture of humility, authenticity, intelligence, and tenacity (she is indeed feisty). Olivia is an invaluable addition to the class of 2020 because she brings the perfect mix of innate ability, optimized by effort, resulting in high performance. She is an inspiring example to all of us.”

Mark Widmer
Professor, Graduate Coordinator


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