Coming from both a disadvantaged and nontraditional background, Aisha Hurston has made it her mission to show others that no matter your background or formal training, it’s possible to earn an MBA.
In 2013, Hurston earned her Juris Doctorate from Loyola University Chicago School of Law and is now pursuing her MBA, with a focus on corporate finance and investment banking, at The University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Wisconsin School of Business as a member of The Consortium’s class of 2022. Inspired to help other people from similar backgrounds pursue their dream of getting an MBA, she has been creating videos in which she shares her b-school experience.
In these videos, which she posts on LinkedIn, Hurston provides insight and advice on the business school process and journey to show others that they, too, can do it — that there are people and resources to help. Each video, she notes, typically gets around 1,000 views. “I’ll have people who reach out to me asking about the process, asking all kinds of questions about my professional history and how to contact The Consortium,” says Hurston.
We recently spoke with Hurston to learn more about her background and where her passion for helping others began.
What sparked the idea for the video series, and what is the focus of your videos?
I just felt like it was important as a minority female who comes from an underprivileged background to share my process of deciding to get my MBA and the things I experienced along the way to applying. There is so much to say because I know the things my people have to overcome a lot in order to even apply to MBA programs, so I was really trying to hit those points.
Now my videos are turning more into how to apply and then do well; I want to do something on “OK, you’ve gotten in, now what?” Those will be videos about networking and growing your network (even in remote environments), building your confidence as school progresses, resources you may need along the path and building your resource tool kit (time management, health management, mind management).
Going back a bit, where did you grow up? How did your experiences as a child influence the direction you decided to go in your career?
I’m from the south side of Chicago. I grew up in a very impoverished neighborhood — which has now become a stellar neighborhood, thankfully, because it’s where the Obama Foundation is. A lot of work has been done in that area over the years, but when I was growing up, it was all poor people. However, we were a very close-knit community.
My mother had me very young, so I grew up in a household with my mother, her younger siblings and my grandmother. So, I was very close to my aunts, uncles and my grandmother. I came from a very distressed background; there was a lot of violence around me — I endured a lot of abuse — but I was always told I was a brilliant child. I was always in gifted programs in school, and I learned to read at a very young age. The first thing I read was the newspaper; I hardly read kids’ books. I read the daily news, and so people would tell me how a part of my destiny and life was going to be focused on being an advocate and an example for my community. So when it came to what I wanted my career to be, I’ve always had a heart for justice and advancement.
What initially inspired you to pursue law and earn your JD?
It’s not easy to say what initially inspired me because I never knew anything different. I always knew, as far back as I can remember, that I was going to go to law school. Every bit of injustice that I see, even small things that we walk past every day — human trafficking, poverty, domestic violence, all of those things — keep that fire burning within me. So when I went to law school, that was my initial intent: I have to do something about injustice. I just can’t survive in a world where I’m not doing something about it.
What led you to go beyond law to pursue business?
After I went to law school, I did contract and advocacy work with the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters, but a part of me was not fulfilled because I wasn’t pursuing the business side of me. I wanted to be able to strategize with companies and people to promote growth. I was once in a negotiation and realized I couldn’t understand some of the finance they were talking about. It was then that it became very clear to me that I wanted to get an MBA and what area I wanted to focus on. I just needed to make sure I had the resources.
I ended up coming to Wisconsin School of Business, majoring in corporate finance, and now I have an even clearer vision of how to marry the two — business and law. Yes, I’m going into corporate America, but I’m also going to bring everything that my legal background has afforded me in order to enhance everything I’ll do in business.
So were you automatically drawn to The Consortium’s mission?
Absolutely, because The Consortium affords so much opportunity for people who [may not otherwise have access to such opportunity]. When I considered my life’s story — knowing my vision and being willing to put in the work to make it happen — there was still a gap in terms of having access to what I need in order to make these things manifest themselves, and The Consortium bridged that gap.
I didn’t know how important The Consortium was until I became involved. When I became connected with the organization through the University of Wisconsin, I was opened to a world of opportunity and support. I am still amazed at what The Consortium offers. Being a part of the organization has also helped me generate a network of my classmates and peers. They have been a lifeline for me by helping me survive and thrive in my MBA program. The Consortium opens the door for those who don’t even know how to find it.
How does The Consortium align with your own goals?
We have the same goals: the advancement and inclusion of diverse people in every aspect of business. That’s the goal I have in my own life. I want people around me — those who come from where I come from — to advance, and I want their voices to be heard and included in the decisions that are made for and around them.
How do you hope to help advance the organization’s mission through your work?
I don’t limit The Consortium’s mission to just my work. Because it aligns with my goals, I embrace it in every aspect of my life. Inevitably, my actions will prove The Consortium’s mission to be both necessary and possible. I want to be a great example of a Black woman in business, one who has integrity, one whose voice is worth the investment The Consortium has made in my life, and one who doesn’t negate or forget where she came from, because that will motivate me to help others get to where I am and beyond.
There are women who want to do what I’m doing but have no clue how to get here; all they see is their past or present. But if they can see me or somebody like me, or the people who are coming through The Consortium, they can see that their goals are possible. So, the main reason why I started doing my LinkedIn videos is because of The Consortium. I want people to see that there are people like them who are doing what they want to do. I’m an example, and that’s how I keep the mission going.
How do you feel like Wisconsin, specifically, is helping you on the path toward achieving your goals?
Wisconsin is invested. Everyone I’ve come across at Wisconsin, from before I even applied to today, has been invested in my academic and professional success, so I’m able to perform well. But also, they hear what we — “we” being Consortium fellows, who make up the majority of minorities in the MBA program — have to say and support us by implementing our ideas for furthering the mission of The Consortium at Wisconsin. I appreciate Wisconsin for being so accepting of us and for including us. I don’t feel tolerated here, I feel valued.
With regard to your video series, what do you hope that others gain or learn from your experience and insight?
I want to expose more people to The Consortium, because more people need to know about its existence. I want to make sure that people like me have an example they can see — that I’m doing what I want, but there is hard work involved. I don’t want people to see through rose-colored glasses; I want them to get real insight into what an MBA program demands, and I want to expose them to the business world. I want to expose some of the truths and happenings that I’ve seen taking place in these circles so that people can be aware of what’s happening around them and become more educated in the decisions that are being made [that affect] their lives, and then participate.
What has your MBA experience been like thus far, and what have you learned?
The MBA is hard. It’s a lot of juggling and a lot of thinking, and it’s fast paced. I’ve learned so much. The greatest lesson I’ve learned is the value of your network. Networking will help you navigate hard times. Your network can give you answers, it provides you support, and it can give you hope. Those are all things you need in an MBA program.
Your MBA program may be kicking your butt, but in the end, you’ll know so much that you’ll be able to apply. You need people to help you, to think through things with you, to just be there — and not all of my support comes from within the program. My mom, my sisters, even my kids don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, but they’re happy to listen. That is invaluable to being successful in my MBA program.
What is the best piece of advice you have for prospective MBAs?
I would say, specifically for Consortium MBAs, don’t be afraid. Just because you feel fear doesn’t mean you have to embrace it. An MBA program can seem really scary and impossible to some people, but you can do it. There are people and resources that can help you get through it. I’m one of them — and I’m an example that you should follow your path and get an MBA.