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Bouncing back better from a layoff with an MBA

Successful business woman at work

An MBA from UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School is never just a notch on a resume.

It’s moving up in a current career or pivoting to something brand new. It’s learning invaluable skills and uncovering others that were always there. It’s becoming an effective leader and making lifelong connections.

And for those coming to UNC Kenan-Flagler following a layoff, an MBA is an exciting new beginning. Here are three such stories from the Full-Time MBA Program’s Class of 2022.

Katie Knapp: Open to change

Katie Knapp had a decision to make.

After two years working in Washington, D.C. on healthcare and real estate projects for a boutique consulting company, Knapp was let go in June 2020 after an organizational restructure.

Her job was her life for those two years and had become increasingly important after the world shut down in March 2020. Focusing on it helped make the early months of the pandemic bearable.

“I was not expecting to be laid off. It shattered my stability, my confidence and my purpose,” says Knapp. “Being in quarantine without a job is a terrifying place to wake up in each day.”

It wasn’t long before Knapp took charge of her career destiny. She didn’t rule anything out. She was open to moving to a new state and entering a different industry. Prior to the pandemic, she had considered going back to school and had started to make moves toward business school. Her GMAT exam scheduled for March 2020 was postponed indefinitely because of the pandemic.

“I decided to reflect on what was most important to me and what was going to get me out of bed every day,” says Knapp. “I needed to redefine my job-related purpose.”

Her new purpose led her to make a big pivot in her career and focus on healthcare, and Knapp turned to UNC Kenan-Flagler.

“UNC Kenan-Flagler opened up a new world for me. My professors, classes and classmates changed the trajectory of my life and career.”

Two of her brothers, who are alums, had earned MBAs to make shifts in their careers. She was able to apply because the Business School had extended its fourth-round application deadline to mid-July.

Knapp was admitted less than month after being laid off, moving from Washington, D.C. to Chapel Hill just a week before beginning the Full-Time MBA Program.

“It was terrifying and challenging,” she says, “but I knew I would grow to be a better, more resilient person. I knew I wanted to change my career path and UNC Kenan-Flagler was the exact place I wanted to do it.”

The program was everything Knapp wanted it to be. Her healthcare professors exposed her to the ins and outs of the industry. She joined a pharmaceutical STAR project focusing on developing customer strategy. She co-developed and led the Healthcare Club’s annual Case Competition. She traveled to Switzerland to present a strategy proposal to a healthcare startup.

The career coaching staff supported her through numerous coffee chats and interview rounds. She made valuable personal and work-related connections that she’ll use throughout her new life and career.

“They helped me lead with my newly defined purpose in every single recruiting event,” she says. “UNC Kenan-Flagler opened up a new world for me. My professors, classes and classmates changed the trajectory of my life and career.”

Knapp, now based in Philadelphia, is a product manager for cardiovascular therapies at the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, where she’s part of its Leadership Development Program after interning there during the summer of 2021.

“The MBA program gave me the confidence to believe that I could not only change my career path but succeed in the career I chose,” says Knapp.

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Ryan Fleer: Stepping outside the comfort zone

New York City had been very good to Ryan Fleer.

After earning a degree in international relations and economics from Tufts University in 2016, he moved to the city to work for a major investment bank. Later, he joined capital and advisory services group Emigrant Partners in 2019 as its fifth hire. His career path seemed bright. He loved the city and made great friends.

Then in June 2020, he was laid off. Fleer, who was about to move to a new apartment, didn’t see it coming.

He didn’t know what to do next.

“It was a very intense two months between when I was laid off and when I got into Carolina,” says Fleer. “It was two months that included a lot of soul searching. I had gotten into three schools and felt that at the end of the day, UNC offered the most of what I needed to get out of an MBA education. It was the best option for me.”

The experience was something of a blessing in disguise. Fleer was looking to move away from the financial services field but found the shift was difficult without a business degree.

UNC Kenan-Flagler exposed Fleer to new business concepts and helped him learn about himself. He quickly uncovered what he was good at and what was not right for him. By the time he landed a consulting internship with PricewaterhouseCoopers after his first year at the Business School, it felt like more than a career accomplishment.

“I discovered my self-confidence,” Fleer says. “I was pretty low on myself when I got to business school. As I went through UNC Kenan-Flagler my confidence skyrocketed. That pushed me forward.

“The person I am now is not the person who went off to business school. I’ve learned a lot that has helped me not just in my job but in my personal life. It has helped me grow relationships and just think about the world in a different way.”

Fleer thrived during his second MBA year. He was the Consulting Club’s vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, co-president of the Pride Club and a teaching assistant for Professor Alex Dickey’s course on consulting skills and frameworks.

“The way Dickey taught made me realize that the way I was thinking was not the way I needed to think for my career long term,” says Fleer. “I realized there’s a difference in the way I talk to and collaborate with people. I am a lot more comfortable in the workplace.”

Fleer’s internship with PricewaterhouseCoopers led to a full-time offer from the company. He’s now back in New York as a consulting solutions senior associate.

“I plugged right back into the friends I have and the life I was living,” says Fleer, “but I won’t ever forget my time at UNC Kenan-Flagler. I don’t want to.”

Claire Caudill: Seeing business differently

When the pandemic hit, Claire Caudill had spent two years as a product manager and customer success associate at Durham tech-startup WorkTrip.

She loved her job. It was unique and fun — part sales implementation, part product development, part customer relations. WorkTrip created software for trade show managers and early in the pandemic it became clear that the trade-show industry would be disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In April 2020, WorkTrip ceased operations.

“I realized that taking the layoff as an opportunity to jump ahead to an MBA was going to be a better use of my time than looking for a job,” says Caudill, “in the hopes that once an MBA was complete the job market would look much better, and I’d have up-skilled myself in the process.”

Carolina was her first choice. Caudill comes from a family full of Tar Heels, and it is where she earned a bachelor’s in economics and management and society with a minor in entrepreneurship. Its location (Caudill lives in nearby Durham) was a draw with its robust tech industry, and the Business School offers the types of social experiences she craved.

Caudill made the most of her experience. It opened her eyes to consulting. She took on leadership roles, serving as the vice president of communication and technology for the MBA Student Association and executive vice president of the Carolina Women in Business Conference.

“These roles helped fill some of the identity lost when I lost my job,” she says. “I found meaningful experiences and community in a large place like UNC Kenan-Flagler.

And she discovered why UNC Kenan-Flagler faculty are the best of the best. While she interviewed for a position with IBM, Professor Mark McNeilly, who spent part of his career at IBM and Lenovo, offered guidance that would have been difficult to find elsewhere.

Caudill got the job she wanted. She’s now a senior offering management consultant at IBM, a unique role that combines product management, her previous wheelhouse, with strategy consulting and technology.

“My MBA has widened my horizons, not just with academics but in networking relationships, social relationships and job opportunities,” she says. “When I think back to April 2020 with so much uncertainty and unemployment compared to now, with a fantastic job, friends I’ll have for life and another Carolina degree, it’s a path I could not have imagined, but one I am immensely grateful for.”


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