Melissa Pepper

Melissa Pepper used the flexibility of the Iowa MBA to her advantage—taking 5 years to finish while having a second child, starting a non-profit, and navigating a new role.



Pivot from controlled chaos to controlling your destiny

When Melissa Pepper decided to go for her Iowa MBA, she had her sights set on a Director of Marketing role. With little experience in business and a liberal arts degree, Melissa decided that she needed an MBA to make her next move.

She also knew she’d have to find a program that could adjust to her lifestyle.

“I know myself, and I know what I can handle, so I didn’t rush through the program. Because I’d never worked in business, I needed to really learn the curriculum at my own pace,” she says.

The tipping point

Melissa felt stuck in a position that required a lot of travel. She realized if she wanted a career in business, an MBA was her ticket in.

“I was working at a nonprofit before starting the program,” she explains, “and while I loved the mission, I was on the road all the time. I knew there had to be more for me.”

The book 168 Hours, You Have More Time Than You Think encouraged her to chart her week and circle the times in the day when she was living her core competencies. 

“I had one circle in a seven-day period, so I knew it was time to make a change."

An MBA with merit

When researching her MBA options, Melissa knew she needed a program that would fully immerse her in the unfamiliar world of business.

Melissa Pepper
“I wanted something rigorous—I didn’t just want the stamp of an MBA. Iowa is ranked and it’s a Big Ten school. I wanted a credential that would mean something on my resume, so that’s why I chose Iowa.”

Throughout the program, her mind was opened to the big picture of what it takes to successfully run an organization. She also discovered one of her top strengths: strategy.

“My liberal arts degree formed me into a critical thinker, taught me how to look at problems differently and to be an exceptional writer and communicator. My MBA showed me how to lead and run a business operationally and to strategically manage change.”

Paying it forward

As Melissa moved through the Iowa MBA program, she didn’t stop pursuing her main goal: to become a Director of Marketing. While still in school, she landed that very role at a prestigious law firm. 

And where some people would have simply settled for their own success, Melissa took a semester off to help others pursue their own big dreams. 

“I was so grateful to achieve my goal and I wanted more women to achieve the goals that they set for themselves. So, I founded a mentorship organization for women in the workforce called Lead(h)er,” she explains.

Her organization has connected over 900 women with mentors in the last five years, helping them gain confidence and earn a seat at the table in their own organizations.

"I believe it’s not just about what we do every day within the four walls of our workplaces. It’s about who you know and how you help," she says.

Letting go to make it happen

While finishing her program over the span of five years, Melissa had a second child, launched a nonprofit, and pivoted from her Director of Marketing role into her current position as Chief Strategy Officer at Russell Construction + Development. She made it happen by taking her classes one at a time, taking breaks when she needed, spending her evenings studying … and “feeding her kids cereal some nights.” 

“It’s hard to have kids and work and go to school,” she admits. “My advice to those considering the Iowa MBA is that you really need to be okay with some parts of your life being in chaos."

She also recommends that anyone interested in the program take a visit to campus or sit in on a class to see what it’s really like, and give serious thought to why they’re considering an MBA in the first place.

“The degree is a nice to have, but it’s not always the deciding factor in hiring,” she explains. “You really need to think about why you want to do this. Is it to add letters in your email signature, or is it to become a strategic thinker, or to own your own company? That will inform the classes you choose.”

For Melissa, the sacrifices were worth it. She graduated on Mother’s Day with a full picture of how businesses operate, from supply chain to financial statements to people management—and a new confidence in how she works with peers and colleagues across the business world.