No stranger to a challenge, Justin Grant made the decision to earn his MBA during a global pandemic in order to pivot into a career in marketing. Yet even this wasn’t enough for this civil engineering major turned management consultant from Birmingham, Ala.
To top off his b-school experience, this Consortium fellow assumed the role of co-liaison for The Consortium cohort at the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School as well as president of the Simon Marketing Association. After a year of virtual learning — not to mention a remote internship at American Express — Grant was ready to be face-to-face with his peers and professors for the first time, to dedicate even more time to mentoring and to further develop his marketing skill set. He recently shared with us insights from his first (fully remote) year as an MBA and how he plans to make the most of his last year.
What was it like attending your MBA program virtually for your entire first year? How did you have to adjust your expectations of yourself and others during that time?
I never thought I would be completing my first year of business school virtually. I was excited to move to New York, but instead, I moved from Raleigh, N.C., back to my hometown of Birmingham, Ala. I was also a “summer start,” so I literally got accepted into Simon, moved in with my parents and started my program all within the span of a month and a half. I realized then that I would have to make some concessions in terms of my experience.
My first year was challenging, exciting and humbling. There was a big learning curve, especially when it came to juggling classes, recruiting and professional clubs; that’s not to mention the fact that I was an hour ahead of my school’s time zone, so my Zoom calls started early and could go into the late evening. After being away from the classroom for over six years, it took some time to get reacquainted to studying and doing homework, especially at the MBA level.
Being in school during a pandemic and racial unrest definitely brought its own challenges outside of the classroom. Therefore, I had to have empathy with my classmates, understanding that school was not always the top priority — and that was OK. And while I wasn’t able to be in person with my classmates, Simon did a great job keeping us engaged and helping us feel united. My core team was amazing, and we really bonded. I also had my Consortium family, which I consider a tremendous advantage.
Ultimately, I had to give myself and others grace for the fact that we were all just figuring it out and trying to do our best. My mindset throughout my entire business school experience has been, “Be firm with the goal but flexible with the path.” At the end of the day, my goal is to get a great job in marketing that I enjoy at a company where I can grow and that values my skill set — and that is going to happen whether I am in class or virtual.
What positives have come of the experience? Are there certain skills you were forced to develop as a result of the pandemic?
A major positive has been spending quality time with my family. We are extremely close, and I had not been in Birmingham for an extended period since 2013, so that time was priceless. Also, I enjoyed saving money on rent that I would have been paying in New York.
Going to school during a pandemic forced me to enhance my time management and organizational skills. I’ve somewhat adopted the mindset that, “If it’s not on my calendar, it probably won’t happen.” It helped me to become more assertive with my conversation style in order to extract necessary information during meetings, due to everyone suffering from “Zoom fatigue.” Being virtual also allowed me the flexibility to literally work from anywhere. I formed a routine of studying at my favorite coffee shop, O’Henry’s, before every midterm and final exam.
Furthermore, it allowed me to set not only long-term goals but also short-term goals that were truly important to me. I pushed myself to get outside of my comfort zone and to be proactive in taking on leadership positions during my first year.
As a Consortium liaison for your class at Simon, how did you work to bring your cohort together (virtually or in person) to foster connections and provide support during your first year?
The Consortium at Simon is a big deal; we treat it like family. As a Consortium liaison, I work to ensure my Consortium classmates have the best experience they can have and to provide an outlet for them to be authentically themselves. Last year, alongside my co-liaisons, I created virtual happy hours, “Guy Talk/Girl Talk” sessions, DE&I sessions, personal branding sessions and interview and internship prep. This year, we plan to do even more now that we are in person.
One of my favorite things about being a liaison was serving as an OP Coach this past summer to an incoming Consortium student. I took this responsibility very seriously, as my own coach was amazing. During this month-and-a-half prep, I worked with my mentee to refine their pitch, S.T.A.R. (Situation, Task, Action, Result) stories, resume and company strategy to ensure they were prepared and confident. I truly enjoy being a liaison because it allows me to provide representation to incoming students of a person of color in leadership and to pay it forward.
You were also forced to go through recruiting virtually. What was that like?
Recruiting virtually was a whirlwind. Preparing for The Consortium’s Orientation Program & Career Forum (OP) and the National Black MBA Association (NBMBAA) conference was one of the most intense times of my adult life — especially doing it on a folding tray table in the corner of my childhood bedroom. Between mock interviews, company info sessions, setting up follow-up calls with recruiters and more, it was a 24/7 endeavor. Also, as a person who thrives on in-person communication and relationship building, to have the virtual limitation was pretty nerve-wracking. I had to focus not only on what to say but also on how to say it in an engaging way.
I am a career switcher from management consulting to marketing, so I initially approached recruiting with an open mind and applied to every job that I thought was interesting. However, I soon learned that filling out all of those applications was too time consuming and that it was more strategic to have a targeted list of jobs that I truly thought fit my interests and skill set.
Much like the in-person job search, you win some and you lose some. I took all the feedback I received, wrote it down on a whiteboard in my room and crossed each item off as I implemented it so that I could see my progress. I started recruiting in May and did not land my internship until October. I only mention that because timing is everything. I wasn’t concerned with getting a lot of internship offers (although I did have a few options in the end), I just wanted the right one — the best one where I could personally succeed. I was blessed with exactly that at American Express.
You just completed your remote internship with American Express. How would you describe that experience?
My summer internship experience at AMEX was amazing. It was my introduction into the financial services industry, so I was amazed at how thorough the onboarding was. AMEX prides itself on having a “coffee-chat culture” where communication, collaboration and relationship building are encouraged. I took full advantage of this opportunity by speaking with anyone I could, from the executive team to fellow interns. I was shockingly pleased that we even had a Q-and-A session with the CEO, Steve Squeri. Having that interface as an intern seemed uncommon and, therefore, was much appreciated.
I worked on the Marriott Co-brand Marketing team within our Global Consumer Services Group. This was an awesome team with incredibly smart people who embraced my curiosity, celebrated me as an asset to the group and were intentional in ensuring I had the resources and information I needed to be successful. My project focused on analyzing the competitive landscape and growth opportunities within the Marriott timeshare portfolio. While the focus was very broad and challenging, I used the ambiguity as an opportunity to be creative and innovative in my recommendations.
Although I would have loved to be in New York City, taking part in the traditional intern festivities, AMEX did a good job of engaging us through social activities, such as a virtual escape room, a pizza making class and a mixology class. To have somewhat of a “real” experience, I rented a co-working space where I could go every day and focus on my work. That was the best decision that I could have made. Overall, AMEX is a place that I felt aligned with my personal values and where I could see myself progress professionally. It was an honor to intern at such a powerhouse company, and I am excited to have the opportunity to return in a full-time capacity post-MBA.
As you begin your second year in person, what do you plan to engage in that you weren’t able to virtually?
First, I plan to enjoy the city of Rochester; I have heard that the city is full of hidden gems. It may sound weird, but being from Alabama, I’m actually looking forward to the infamous New York winters. In terms of school, I recently participated in our “re-orientation,” which was a fun kickoff to the year.
As president of the Simon Marketing Association, I am excited to host events on campus that will engage students and provide them with a foundational understanding of all facets of marketing and to help identify how their interests can turn into a career. With all that said, I plan to enjoy my last year of business school to the fullest!
What legacy would you like to leave in your last year of business school?
I want to be remembered as someone who was ambitious enough to lead but humble enough to always be coached. I want to be remembered as someone who maximized every opportunity and who used his influence to have a positive impact. I want to be known as someone who didn’t take himself too seriously and truly enjoyed this season of life — personally and professionally. Lastly, I want to help at least one of my classmates turn their dream job into a reality.
How has being a member of The Consortium affected your experience going through business school at such a unique time?
Being a member of The Consortium has been the icing on the cake of business school. I wanted to attend a program where I felt like I was joining a family and was not just another number in a class. That’s exactly what I got. The Consortium network has proven strong across all industries. I have reached out several times to alumni during the recruiting process, and they have always set aside time to help me. The Consortium has given me confidence, knowing that I am well-equipped to be successful in school and in my post-MBA career.