Sarah Alexander went into a full-time MBA program at Chicago Booth expecting to pursue a traditional corporate career path. She came out a professional triathlete.
Today’s MBA students are increasingly looking beyond banking careers on Wall Street or a lifetime’s work for one of management consulting’s ‘big three.’ The Chicago Booth MBA – ranked the best MBA program in the world by the Economist – gave Sarah the space to explore what she really wanted from her career.
Now, she’s ranked the 108th best female triathlete on the world circuit. She’s training full-time, competing internationally, and attracting sponsorship. To date, she’s competed in 50 triathlons all around the world, including a podium finish at the recent CAMTRI Havana Continental Cup.
Sarah has always juggled professional life with a passion for sports. She was a competitive figure skater as a young girl; a champion rower during her undergrad at Dartmouth College.
After three years in environmental consulting at ICF International, she decided to shift gears and take her career to the next level with an MBA. Triathlon was a hobby at the time, which quickly evolved into much more over the course of her two years at Chicago Booth.
Alongside her professional career in sports, Sarah also runs her own consulting firm, Next Level Advisors.
How did the Chicago Booth MBA help you transform your career?
One of the gifts that Chicago Booth bestowed on me was the confidence to follow my passion whatever it may be. Professor after professor and alum after alum hammered into me: ‘success comes to those who love what they do’ (and have the skills to back up that passion). As a Booth alum, I was confident I would have the skills required to make it no matter the pursuit. So, I decided to seize the opportunity and pursue a full-time career as a triathlete.
Success as an elite triathlete requires race results of course. However, it also requires a business mind, as sponsorships are a large part of athlete salaries and viability. I am unique in that while I am building my race results and world ranking, I bring a strategic mind and understanding of business that will enable me to provide additional value to sponsors over many of my competitors.
I also started Next Level Advisors to continue expanding my traditional professional skillset while funding my start in the sport. Without Chicago Booth, I wouldn’t have the network or the strategic know-how to serve the clients that I do with such quality. I owe my professional development and success as well as my personal growth and confidence to my MBA experience at Chicago Booth.
How does a career in sports prepare you for a career in business?
It’s incredible how many overlaps there are between success at the highest level of sport and business. Both take commitment, technical knowledge, time management and communication skills, and the ability to work both individually and as a member of a team.
The grit and determination that any sporting experience fosters will translate to the boardroom as well. Just as one must practice to master a sport, business executives and managers must practice to master their roles. Both must be self-aware, reflective, and open to critique in order to learn.
Something that we discussed regularly at Booth was that great leaders must be able to make decisions under stress and without complete information. In a race, I need to read signs and make quick decisions in order to pre-empt or respond to moves from my competitors. My athletic experience has helped me gain confidence in my gut. This confidence, paired with my experience at Booth, has made me a stronger businesswoman.
Why did you decide to pursue an MBA at Chicago Booth?
I felt I had a great foundation through my liberal arts education at Dartmouth but lacked the business-specific experience that I needed to make the career shift to corporate leadership that I sought. I wanted a program that was renowned for its quantitative strength but also offered top-notch managerial classes that would continue to develop my soft skills. As I did my research on top-ranked business schools, Chicago Booth stood out as by far the best fit for me.
I loved that Chicago Booth – more than any other top-10-ranked program that I considered – celebrates the journey of personal discovery that business school can be. Some programs seemed very focused on churning out bankers and consultants. But Booth encourages its students to question what they are passionate about, regardless of what role they thought they wanted to pursue entering the program. Chicago Booth didn’t just let me have space to explore the many options open to me after graduation – it encouraged it!
What should applicants think about when deciding to do an MBA?
In the process of applying to business school, it can be easy to lose yourself and get wrapped up in what you think you should say, do, think, and so on.
My biggest piece of advice for MBA applicants is to stay true to themselves. Being honest with yourself, you will be able to better answer the questions, ‘Why an MBA?’ ‘Why this program?’ Schools will value hearing your unique voice and story, and you will set yourself up to attend a program that is truly the best fit for you to grow and excel.