From Humanitarian Work To An MBA: How My Non-Traditional Background Is Helping Me Succeed

Rachel Curtis spent four years working in nonprofits before her MBA at Arizona State University's W. P. Carey

As business schools strive to become more diverse, it’s more important than ever for schools to attract students from non-traditional backgrounds into their MBA programs. 

At Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business, they’re encouraging students from a wide variety of backgrounds to pursue an MBA through their ‘Forward Focus’ initiative. 

In the Forward Focus MBA, every student receives a scholarship, and the program itself has seven diverse concentrations and four specializations, allowing students to continue their pre-MBA career path or for non-traditional students to learn a wealth of information in a new subject area.

Since starting the Forward Focus initiative in 2016, the MBA program saw an immediate increase in the diversity of the program. Of the 2016 cohort, 25% of admitted students came from non-traditional backgrounds.


From nonprofits to b-school

Rachel Curtis was one of these non-traditional students that started on the MBA in September 2016. 

She had spent the two years prior to starting her MBA working for International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid nonprofit, as an anti-trafficking case manager. During her time there, she helped provide social services to more than 80 victims of labor or sex trafficking. 

In other nonprofit experience, she has led humanitarian trips to Ecuador and Fiji, and volunteered in a neonatal unit in a hospital in Jerusalem. 

In all her nonprofit work, while Rachel found she was making a difference, she knew that having specialized business knowledge could help her go further in the sector.

“I saw a major gap in the efficiency and effectiveness of operations, and wanted to learn technical and tactical skills to improve those inefficiencies,” Rachel explains. 

“I believe that if we don't involve the private sector in international development initiatives, we won't make sustainable progress.”

And it was in the unique Forward Focus program at W. P. Carey School of Business that she felt she could build upon her nonprofit experience.

“I wanted to go to a school that I knew would provide a personal graduate experience,” she says. “My personal values of inclusion, and serving the community in which I live, aligned with the mission of ASU and W. P. Carey.” 



While the preconception might be that non-traditional backgrounds don’t align with a business classroom, Rachel says she’s been able to succeed in her MBA because of her unique background.  

“I remember one specific incidence working with a team on a case study,” she recalls, “and I brought up the human element to the problem.

“This, combined with the technical recommendation, helped us come up with the correct solution to the problem at hand.”

Ultimately, it’s these ‘soft skills,’ developed extensively in the non-business world, can be just as important in an MBA. 

“I've found that the skills necessary when working directly with clients in non-profit work are just as necessary when tackling problems in the business world,” Rachel says.

Thanks to her MBA, Rachel has secured a position at the US Department of State in the Office of Global Partnerships, where she can apply her nonprofit experience in working with public-private partnerships (PPPs). 

“My ability to work in PPPs wouldn't be possible without the knowledge that an MBA has taught me,” Rachel affirms. “I also know that if I return to the nonprofit sector, I hope to do so in a management position. The technical skills learned during my MBA at W. P. Carey School of Business will be crucial to be an effective leader.” 

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