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Bi-coastal busy: Whitnie Low’s MBA challenge

The UNC MBA candidate is determined to make a full-time job and a full-time education work — even if she’s on the redeye.

In a few days, Consortium fellow Whitnie Low starts the second year of her MBA education. Like all MBA students, she’ll be busy. But Low’s brand of busy involves a full-time MBA program and a new full-time job that’s meant to shake up the way venture capital firms support their startup entrepreneurs.

Oh, and we should mention: The job is on one side of the country. Her MBA classes are on the other.

“It’s doable,” Low told us, nonplussed by the grueling schedule ahead of her.

A former dancer who started a troupe in undergraduate school, she was asked to model some new spirit-wear at UNC. Folks at the home of the Tarheels call it "targyle." (Via her Twitter page @whitnielow)
A former dancer who started a troupe in undergraduate school at Boston College, she was asked to model some new spirit-wear at UNC. Folks at the home of the Tarheels call it “targyle.” (via her Twitter page @whitnielow)

Low is a second-year MBA student at The University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School. Meanwhile, in May, Low started working full-time as an advisor manager at First Round Capital, an early-stage venture capital firm in San Francisco, after an internship at the firm that started in January.

She plans to fly to North Carolina every three weeks for an intensive weekend of full-time classes that runs Friday through Sunday. Back in San Francisco, she’s been entrusted to work on a major project for the firm that focuses on improving the way early-stage entrepreneurs get startup counseling from corporate advisors.

She launched the initiative with a post on Medium entitled, “Startup Advising Is Broken — Here’s What We’re Doing to Fix It.”

“A vast majority of startups have five to 10 general advisors who take equity and end up as nothing more than names on a slide deck,” Low wrote. “No one knows what fair economics look like. And it’s not any better for advisors. We often hear that ‘It’s too hard to find the right entrepreneurs to work with,’ or ‘It’s too much of a time commitment.'”

Working with the partners at First Capital, Low is implementing a solution called STAR — “Short-Term Advisory Relationships” — designed to spell out very specific, 90-day engagements with standardized, measurable, performance-based expectations.

For example, a startup entrepreneur working on the next big thing in wireless routers may need help testing whether the product will pass a security audit. Low and her colleagues develop a slate of experts, the entrepreneur reviews them and selects the best fit. Meanwhile, Low helps draft the specific expectations and timeframe, then follows up to gauge whether the engagement was effective.

“My role is to execute on the initiative, to figure out what’s working and what’s not,” she said. “I do a lot of data collection; every time a founder and expert talk to each other, I send out a 45-second survey. I’m doing a lot of qualitative analysis to see what works.”

The job is something of a departure from what Low thought she’d be doing when she took off for her OP experience in Austin last summer. She thought she was destined for a large, consumer packaged goods firm, working on products focused on sustainability. Interviewing with those sorts of companies at OP persuaded her otherwise.

“Going to OP really solidified my understanding of what I wanted to do and who I really am,” she said. She found that a small company, focused on technology and closer to home was more where her heart lay. That revelation led her to lean on her skills as a former recruiter to craft her own “career trek,” whittling down a list of 100 possible firms to 10 that granted her interviews. She landed at First Capital.

Still, she’s steeped in a world of entrepreneurs who have launched businesses in garages and dorm rooms, without the benefit of an MBA. Even if some of those business owners don’t appreciate the extra education, she’s undeterred.

“Even if I work full-time,” Low said, “I’m going to finish my MBA.”

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