Pivot from nonprofit to world's largest airline

As a journalist turned nonprofit communications director, Tara From (MBA11) often found herself seeking advice from board members whose wisdom, she discovered, derived partly from their MBA backgrounds. She thought: that’s who I want to be.

After visiting Tippie, she decided on an Iowa MBA—a degree that has taken her from the role of advice-seeker to advisor as a board member for two nonprofits.

Read how Tara’s Tippie experience transformed her career goals from nonprofit leader to senior marketing manager for United Airlines.

#1: Visit, and don’t turn back

Tara was recruited by five MBA programs, but after visiting the Iowa campus, she says, there was no comparison. Admissions set her up with a couple of classes, lunch with students, and meetings with Tippie leaders.

“Even though it was December, and felt 2 degrees outside. It was just such a different experience than any of the other campuses that I went to,” Tara says. “Tippie had carved out a whole day for me. I had a full day of really getting to know everyone. I loved the size of the program and the personal touch—a real differentiator for me.”

#2: Define your own plan

Coming from a liberal arts background, Tara didn’t think she knew all the business principles she needed to compete. But she knew that Tippie’s core curriculum, geared for students without business backgrounds, would give her the confidence. After customizing her individual development plan, she added core business principles to her resume, specialized marketing courses focused on emerging skills in analytics, an independent study in marketing analytics, and two industry-focused consulting projects.

“The core curriculum was important to me,” Tara says. “Having a nontraditional background, I had undervalued my experience relative to people who had been at corporations or had a more formal undergraduate business background. It took me a while to build my confidence and to see that just because I worked at a nonprofit, it was still a business. And I was still getting business skills.”

#3: Consult for the greater good

In her second semester, she was on a five-person consulting team that helped the Chicago Lighthouse figure how it could get GPS-enabled cell phones to blind and visually impaired children in Illinois. The Iowa MBA team designed a fundraising and marketing campaign that recommended the best technology devices, high-potential funding sources, training needs, a communication rollout strategy, and long-term success metrics for the project.

“I can see why many of my classmates were drawn to consulting,” Tara says. “You get exposure to a wide variety of business problems and to numerous industries. You also work with very smart people. It couldn’t be completed without the unique strengths of each team member.”

The result: the Chicago Lighthouse invested in the team’s recommended technology and began the grant process with companies the team identified.

#4: Seize unique experiences like lunch with Warren Buffett

Tara and 25 of her classmates traveled to Omaha to meet the business magnate, receiving advice on everything from investment to marriage. With data so widely available nowadays, he lamented he wasn’t in their shoes, younger and positioned with easier ways to find investment opportunities.

“His big differentiator was that he would study everything there was to know about a company, figure out where they were undervalued, and invest,” Tara says. “I will always remember him saying to us, ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.’ He meant we have a tendency to overvalue the potential of something versus seeing what’s right in front of you and valuing it appropriately. That was really apt advice.”

#5: Get a career-launching internship

Tara leveraged career services and her network to land a merchandising internship at Continental Airlines in Houston. After learning about the internship from Tippie’s weekly postings, Tara met with her career advisor to strategize how to shuffle her resume to the top of the pile.

“My advisor encouraged me to think about my network,” Tara says, “I wracked my brain and remembered that I did a photo contest at my nonprofit organization with Continental. Even though I didn’t know the person that well, my advisor told me to reach out. My contact put in a good word for me, and I secured the internship.”

During the internship, search engine optimization was new to Continental, and Tara developed the business case to hire an expert SEO firm to conduct an audit of Continental’s website. By the end, Tara delivered a prioritized list of 100+ items to improve SEO, including a recommendation to invest in a full-time SEO position that exists today.

#6: Discover what you love

Tara leveraged her Continental internship for a spot on United Airlines Emerging Leaders rotational program. For her first rotation, she led the post-merger communications plan for marketing in-flight operations.

“Just imagine—none of the communications or policies were consistent,” Tara says. “We didn’t even have flight attendants wearing the same uniform yet. There was a ton of bringing together and finding a balance in policies, communications, flight attendant bases, everything. It was a big challenge and a neat opportunity at the same time to reinvent the new identity of the company.”

For her second rotation, she worked with the loyalty group in airline miles redemption before moving to the merchandising team to manage change fees. After the program, she joined the media team selling United’s advertising space to third parties, and most recently, rejoined the loyalty redemption team in a senior manager capacity in non-air redemption miles. Her team manages products for customers to use their airline miles for just about anything—from an Apple computer to an opportunity to drive a Ferrari on a racetrack.