Marlene Avitia, WG’20, spent her childhood in two countries. During school, she lived with her parents in central California. But during school breaks, she returned to her parents’ hometown in Mexico and worked on her family’s farm.
“Not many people I know grew up milking cows and working in the fields during their school breaks. It was a unique experience,” she said.
Attending college at UC Davis, Marlene ran track and field and majored in exercise biology. After graduation, she worked in the fitness industry and opened up her own business training professional athletes.
After a few years, she transitioned to work on the business side of fitness at Equinox, where she focused on West Coast operations. At Equinox, she became more interested in finance and thought about getting an MBA. But before she made that kind of investment, Marlene decided to spend some time working as a financial analyst at an investment firm.
Finance turned out to be a good fit, but her stint as an analyst ended when her firm relocated to London. Marlene decided it was time to find a new position and apply to EMBA programs.
Joining her husband’s talent agency, Bailey Brand Management, Marlene became chief operating officer. “He had been outsourcing a lot of the COO/CFO responsibilities and I was able to come in and help reorganize that function and grow the business,” she said.
As for EMBA programs, Wharton was Marlene’s top choice. “I’m an athlete and want to be trained by the best coaches. Wharton’s faculty are the best. Also, I wanted a school with global brand value. And I wanted a reasonable commute. San Francisco is only a 45-minute direct flight from my home in Manhattan Beach,” she said.
How Diverse is Wharton?
Marlene was excited to come to Wharton, but she admits to feeling a bit concerned about what the environment would be like. “I’m a Hispanic woman and a mom. Would this program be all white men? Would I see anyone like me? Would I fit in?” she wondered.
When she came to campus for Orientation Week, she saw more diversity than she expected. Marlene explained, “The reality is that this program is very diverse not only in skin color, but also in personal and professional backgrounds. In my class, there are three students from Mexico City and Canada. And if you look at heritage, we have Russian, Italian, Japanese, Jamaican, Chinese, Indian, Korean, and Guatemalan students. I’m not sure if there is a race or heritage that isn’t represented.”
She added, “Diversity is important because it provides new perspectives. If you want to start or lead a company, you need as many opinions as possible to avoid ‘groupthink’ and to be innovative. Wharton embraces inclusivity and creates a melting pot of people in the EMBA cohorts.”
Marlene acknowledges that there are reasons it might be more challenging for underrepresented minorities to attend top MBA programs. She said, “If your parents are from another country and don’t know how special Wharton is, they may not be as excited for you to invest in this type of education – and family support is important. And if there is no blueprint because you are the first in your family doing this, navigating it can be scary. It’s also daunting because you don’t know if you will see people like you in these programs. When you see people like you in a program, you feel like you can do it too.”
She noted that women with children also might face some challenges. “It’s more socially acceptable for men to spend time away from their families, and this mentality can be a roadblock for women. They also may not want to take time away from work because they worry about looking bad, despite the fact that what they’ll get at Wharton is more valuable than anything they could learn at work during that time.”
For women with those concerns, Marlene, who has a toddler, said, “It is possible to do this program. You will find more hours in the day than you thought possible to fit everything in. You will create a support system at school with your classmates. This community pushes you to challenge yourself. It’s worth it to overcome any personal or mental barriers to come here.”
How is Wharton Adding Value?
Coming to Wharton was the “best decision” for Marlene. She points to several ways that the program is already adding value:
Community – “This program is like a family. You make lifelong friendships with people you would never meet anywhere else and create a close community.”
Classes – “The classes are all very applicable to my job. I recently took Strategy Implementation on the Philadelphia campus, which changed my view of how to implement strategy at work. Now, I think about our end goal and how we move backward from that goal. I’m looking at things differently because my eyes are more open. And in Negotiations, I’ve learned to harness my competitive personality. The professor showed me that this isn’t a bad characteristic, but that I might be blindsided by my focus on winning. I learned how to find solutions that weren’t even on the table by taking a step back.”
New Interests – “I’ve discovered that I have a passion for economics. I love learning how the economy works and how everything is connected. I’ve also further explored entrepreneurship and am looking into starting a VC fund that specializes in female entrepreneurs. That could become an arm of my current company or I could spin it off on my own. I’m motivated by the females we represent at the talent agency and am inspired to help more women.”
Environment – “On the first day, everyone is nervous and not sure if they belong here. But by the end of the first session, you realize everyone is there to help each other and wants you to succeed. I can call my classmates who have expertise in other areas to talk about business issues and get insight into how they would approach things in their industries. They are a great sounding board and always willing to help.”
-By Meghan Laska
Posted: May 20, 2020