Most people work for years before moving up to an office with a view, but Mary Grace Hicks (MBA ’13) walked into one right after graduation. After completing an art history degree at UNC, she moved to Tuscany where she took a job at the Borgo Finocchieto, an under-construction hotel at the site of a medieval village that had fallen into disrepair. Living onsite at the hotel, she spent her first year as the sole resident of this Tuscan village writing a guidebook for the property’s future guests. As the property neared completion and opened for business, Hicks was able to take on new projects, such as creating a website and developing a marketing plan.
“It was really exciting to have the chance to make yourself a new home that’s so far away from what you’re used to – with a completely different language and culture,” she said. “It was an amazing experience.”
After two years in Italy, Hicks began to miss her home country and returned to the United States to take a job at TIG Global, an online marketing firm where she managed a portfolio of more than 20 hotel companies. But she didn’t leave Tuscany behind for long. The Borgo Finocchieto wanted a representative on the ground in the United States to lead marketing efforts and drive bookings, so Hicks was hired to open an office for the hotel in Washington, DC.
But while Hicks’ Italian skills had been growing by leaps and bounds over the years, she felt that her background as an art history major hadn’t left her fluent in the language of business. For this reason she decided to return to school and pursue an MBA.
“My number one priority was gaining confidence,” said Hicks. “I wanted to drastically grow my knowledge base of business so that no matter what I wanted to do or how often my goals changed, I would be capable of getting the job I wanted and executing what was expected of me.”
Drawn by the school’s small class sizes, strong support system and leadership focus, Hicks ultimately decided to enroll at Kenan-Flagler. While her years in Tuscany had been an invaluable experience, she had spent most of the time working alone and hadn’t really had the opportunity to lead a team. She was looking for classmates and a curriculum that would support her growth in this area. Having attended UNC as an undergraduate student, Hicks said she understood how collaborative the culture at Kenan-Flagler is.
“In picking your MBA program, you’re choosing a community,” she said. “You need to choose one that’s going to help be the type of person and business leader that you want to be.”
To achieve that goal Hicks is participating in the Sustainability Leadership Capstone, an intensive course that gives MBA students real-world experience using their business skills to drive social and environmental change. The immersion’s first three weeks are spent helping clients in distressed areas of eastern North Carolina with economic development, and students complete the course with a two-week excursion to Africa. Hicks will be traveling to Ethiopia, where she plans to help several local organizations expand their global reach.
“It’s really cool that Kenan-Flagler commits to the community and encourages students to apply the business principles they learn to helping others,” said Hicks. “The sustainability immersion teaches us to be a voice for social responsibility in any job that we may have. It will be woven into everything I do.”
Hicks hopes to one day apply these lessons in sustainability to opening a restaurant with her fiancé, whose experiences in restaurant management and wine buying complement her business and marketing skills. She envisions “a neighborhood kind of place” that will use locally grown, environmentally friendly products.
Thanks to a “fundamentals of business planning” course taught by Kenan-Flagler entrepreneurship professor Ted Zoller, Hicks has already had the opportunity to vet her concept and design a comprehensive business plan. Outside of the classroom Zoller connected her with entrepreneurs in the hospitality industry.
“He did a really great job of growing our resource base and challenging us to answer the ‘big questions’ of our business model,” she said. “He helped me to do what I came to business school to do. It was just another example of the many opportunities Kenan-Flagler has given me to improve myself, from how I solve problems to how I present myself.”