Pooja Raja, FEMBA ’17, couldn’t have imagined her team would win the Business Plan Competition, or that she would find a new job and nearly double her salary—all within her first year at The Paul Merage School of Business. But it didn’t happen overnight. Starting before she even enrolled, Raja made a series of swift, yet highly strategic decisions that leveraged key opportunities available to all Merage School students.
It was close to the start of the opening residential for first year students at the Merage School, and Pooja Raja hadn’t yet made the decision to accept her offer of admission. “She was sitting in my office,” recalls Melanie Coburn, Fully Employed MBA (FEMBA) senior associate director of Admissions. “She hadn’t even decided if she was ready to take part in an MBA program.”
But, the very next day, Raja did make her decision. “She came into my office and said, ‘I’ll do it!’” Coburn says.
A year later, Raja talks about her first year at the Merage School. “It’s been a dream,” she says, speaking of a position she recently took at UC Irvine Health as Senior Strategist. Her ability to make lightning-quick decisions belies a thoughtful, strategic approach to her education and goals.
She found several opportunities inside the Career Center, where she not only searched for her new job, but learned how to present herself to potential employers. “The Negotiations Workshop was really helpful,” she says. “They advise you to emphasize what you bring to the table rather than focus on what employers are giving you. You might say, ‘Yes I might have only four years of experience, but I know about all of these things and here is how that can help you.”
Raja notes that employers and potential employers are impressed when she shares that she’s currently in an MBA program, and she has a sort of sixth sense when it comes to choosing extra-curricular resources, such as The Distinguished Speaker series, that help in her work. “When you hear people like Dr. Benjamin Chu (Memorial Hermann President and CEO) or Brian Niccol (Taco Bell CEO) you get to see what industry leaders are thinking and what their issues are. It’s often relatable with my current work and roles, so I’ve been able to approach my leadership team with a better perspective. I could say, ‘have we thought about doing this? Can I do some research, and propose this as a project?’ So there’s a little more understanding of what my leadership is thinking and how I can fit in.”
Raja recently took the unusual step of taking health care electives from the Health Care Executive MBA (HCEMBA) program in her first year. Being in classes with accomplished physicians and medical directors might seem intimidating, but Raja found it freed her to ask questions she might avoid at work. “Dr. [Mireille] Jacobson was great at bringing different perspectives into the classroom,” she says. “We got the physicians’ perspectives, which were clear-cut and clinically focused. We also heard from the medical device industry, administrators and consultants. It opened my mind so that I could better understand their various motivations with regard to initiatives and projects.”
Despite her seeming confidence, Raja reveals how easy it is for first year students to get intimidated. “It’s important to surround yourself with people who know more than you do,” she says. “Don’t be intimidated if they’re smarter or if there’s something you don’t know about. When I walked into that first residential, everyone was wearing suits, someone worked at Microsoft, and someone else had their own business start-up. I had no econ experience and I thought, ‘what am I doing here?’ But it was a great opportunity to learn from all these people. You just never know who you’re going to learn from.”
She also advises students to keep their eyes and ears open to every opportunity. “Everything matters,” she says. “Don’t confine yourself to one area. I started my career in finance, moved into IT and now I’m going into strategy. The program at the Merage School can help you bridge all of those things really effectively. That will really differentiate you in today’s market.”