Trené Hawkins, WG’20, program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, credits learning teams and the supportive environment for her success in the EMBA program.

With an interest in health care, Trené Hawkins, WG’20, began her career working in labs, where she focused on clinical diagnostic work, automation, and supporting academic research. While it was “intellectually exciting,” it didn’t satisfy her desire to make a tangible difference in peoples’ lives. She decided that she wanted to do more “values-forward work” with greater social impact.

She explained, “As the first person in my family to go to college, I experienced first-hand the access and opportunity it opened up for me. It quickly became apparent that I wouldn’t be happy keeping the knowledge and networks I’d gained to myself. I credit my family, but also amazing mentors, teachers, and peers with opening up my worldview in this way. They helped foster an awareness of what it means to be in and of community – to leverage my advantages, to work in partnership, to be in service to others.”

After posting her interest in a different type of career path on a Princeton alumni message board, an alumnus sent her resume to her former employer, helping her land a position that eventually led her to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). “That type of support opens doors in ways that are particularly valuable to ‘first-gen’ college students, anyone who’s new to navigating certain career paths, and folks who can be viewed as outsiders in some industries and careers – like women and people of color,” she said.

Trené in Argentina during Global Business Week, posing on an Andes Aconcagua hike outside of Mendoza, Argentina.

Trené joined RWJF and discovered a passion for philanthropy. She explained, “It was the first time in my career where I felt like my values were aligned with my work. Leaders in the field that I admire talk about the roots of the word: phil = loving and anthropos = mankind. That resonates with me 100 percent.”

She also discovered an interest in getting an MBA. “At first, I didn’t think I needed an MBA. I already had a Master’s degree and I was getting hands-on experience in the sector. But I soon realized that philanthropy is just as much about the process as the outcome. There is an aspect of the work that requires an understanding of how to use money as a tool to drive social impact. You can understand social policy and health care — or whatever issue your foundation promotes —  but if you don’t understand the money part, then you are short-changing the impact you can make,” she said.

Talking to friends and colleagues who had earned an MBA, she saw that an EMBA program made sense for where she was at in her career. “I wanted the benefit of learning from a more experienced peer group. I didn’t want to take time off from building valuable experience in my day-to-day work, and I didn’t feel I could give up my income for two years,” she said.

Trené zeroed in on Wharton’s executive MBA program. “I liked how Wharton’s EMBA program offers the full Wharton MBA. I wanted to learn about all aspects of business and dig into subjects that I didn’t learn as an undergraduate. I also liked the residential requirement because I knew it would help me focus on my coursework and build relationships with my classmates by spending more time with them on school weekends, rather than commuting back home to New Jersey after class.”

Learning to Work in Teams

Trené points to learning how to work in teams as one of the biggest values of the program.

She said, “Wharton attracts high-performing people who can do a lot on their own. When I got here, I realized how unexcited I previously was with the idea of ‘group work.’ But my learning team restored my faith in the type of teamwork I’d come to dread and sometimes avoid. They taught me when and how to ask for help because other people’s strengths will help bring you along. Learning how to divide and conquer based on strengths is a practical skill that I’ll carry with me through my life and career.”

She pointed to her accounting class as an example. “I wouldn’t have passed accounting without my learning team. Before our final exam, we sat down together and went through financial statements line by line and thought of all the different questions that might be on the exam. That team approach to learning was a powerful experience.”

Trené with members of her learning team

Trené added that learning teams also help students make friends. She explained, “The art of developing relationships as an adult can be awkward. Having a group of people on your learning team who are going through the experience with you provides a sense of comfort when everything is new. When you get to campus for those first few sessions, you’re like ‘that’s my person!’”

She described her learning team as “siblings, mentors, tutors, and lifelong friends. We talk about all aspects of our lives and we help each other navigate different situations. We are now in our second year, but we still get together for dinner and work on projects when we are in the same classes.”

Being a Black Woman at Wharton

In addition to learning teams, the women at Wharton offer another source of support for each other. “We have a chat group and are a sounding board for each other. I’m constantly amazed by the ways in which we’re able to support each other through a range of shared experiences, including the challenges of navigating  male-dominated spaces or trying to juggle family demands. It’s important for women in the program to find or create space to share their experiences and lend support and advice. We relate to each other in ways you don’t always anticipate, but are incredibly validating and encouraging,” she said.

The “unique privilege of being a Black woman at Wharton” isn’t lost on Trené. She explained, “It wasn’t that long ago that women didn’t have access to higher education. Black students and faculty are still underrepresented at Ivys. And today, women of color, folks with limited financial resources, and so many others with brilliant minds, still don’t have equal access to the range of academic opportunities that allow them to feel fulfilled and to support themselves and loved ones. This kind of education has a tremendous impact on anyone’s life, and it has ripple effects on your family and community.”

Trene at a Wharton MBA mixer during the 2019 Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Conference

Those ripples matter a lot to Trené. “The mentorship and support I can provide to others who are navigating this journey without a roadmap makes a huge difference. When other women, and people of color in particular, see I’m doing it, they believe they can as well. So, even when I’m stretched thin, I try to always make time for mentoring others.”

The diversity of students at Wharton also creates opportunities for impact. “The EMBA program is comprised of students from a wide variety of backgrounds, ethnicities, and professional experiences, which creates areas of similarity and difference. Both are invaluable to our experiences and learning here,” she said. “Being part of this program enables me to influence others’  perspectives as well as the broader Wharton community. It’s a privilege and a joy to get the opportunity to do so!”

Trené added, “The Wharton community is also influencing my perspective. Wharton is opening up my mind about the type of leader I can be and how I can influence people to address inequality and structural issues. This experience is shifting how I think about future possibilities for myself, my family, and my community.”

  -By Meghan Laska

Posted: June 24, 2020

Related Content

Read More Stories