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Unemployed as a Result of COVID, This Incoming MBA Found Hope in Being Open to New Paths

For Ryan Fleer, getting laid off was just the impetus he needed to shift his career trajectory.

After years working in financial services, first as an equity derivatives middle office analyst at a large French multinational bank, Fleer knew a change was in order. “I was frankly not enjoying my job at the time,” he says. “I just felt that it wasn’t the right job for me, but I had no idea what I wanted to do.”

A new position as an associate at Emigrant Partners — “a capital and advisory services partner that makes non-voting minority investments into wealth managers to help achieve their goals,” Fleer says — helped point him down a promising new path: consulting. “I realized that I wanted to do something more transaction oriented, client facing,” Fleer says, noting that he wanted to work with companies on “improving strategic operations within their businesses.”

Enter COVID-19, and by the end of May, Fleer found himself without a job and forced to pivot his career sooner, and more suddenly, than expected. Now, this finance professional turned wannabe consultant is a first-year MBA at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s (UNC) Kenan-Flagler Business School. He recently spoke with The Consortium about his quick transition to business school and offered advice for other professionals facing similar circumstances.

What initially drew you to financial services?

My initial interest in financial services was very much rooted in a family friend. My mother’s best friend, who was her college roommate, worked at Goldman Sachs and had been a managing director in their compliance division for over 20 years. Also, growing up in the tristate area, financial services is one of the largest employer industry functions in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Financial services surrounded me, so I always felt kind of set up to go into the industry but didn’t fully understand why until I attended college at Tufts University. I had taken up two majors, economics and international relations, both that had some financial components — the reason being that finance touches everything in the world. I realized going into finance would be a really great way to gain a better understanding of the world we live in.

I was an economics and international relations major … and was studying abroad in Paris, France. I was also taking French in school and was very interested in French business. Therefore, I thought it would line up well if I could find myself in an internship at a French financial institution. I was able to obtain an internship at Societe Generale Corporate and Investment Banking, a French multinational bank, and while I didn’t actually have a background in finance, I knew that I could leverage my two majors to launch a career in financial services. As many people know, you don’t need to have a background in finance to excel in it. I didn’t realize how much I learned working in financial services until now, as I participate in Kenan-Flagler’s Analytical Skills Workshop.

Tell me about your experience getting let go from your job. Was that a result of the pandemic and economic downturn?

My understanding is that it was COVID-19 related. We were investing in businesses that were dependent on people’s investments in the economy, and obviously the economy tanked in March, so their revenues decreased substantially. Naturally, our investment model was throttled as a result.

It was definitely unexpected, and it was a very dramatic day in my life because I was actually moving apartments. My friend was moving to go to business school and had this gorgeous one bedroom in New York that I really wanted. I finally got the apartment and went to sign the lease that morning. I had been packing up my other apartment and was going to buy limes for margaritas that afternoon, because my friend was coming over later in the evening, when I received a call from HR saying that I had been laid off. I suddenly was like, “Oh, my God. I just signed a lease on an apartment.” Not sure what to do, I reached out to my friend — the same one whose apartment I was taking — to discuss my situation. She told me about the GMAT and GRE waiver many business schools had recently adopted as well the extended application deadlines due to COVID-19.

Because I had gone to the ROMBA Conference, [the world’s largest gathering of LGBT+ business students and alumni,] a number of years ago as a pre-MBA, I had been receiving emails from all these business schools, but I was ignoring them because I had a job. My ultimate plan was to attend business school a year or two from now — stay at my job for another year or two because it was a new company. When I was laid off, I thought about [applying] for this upcoming fall and decided to give it a shot. I figured if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just look for a new job, and the good news was that I would at least be receiving unemployment during that time.

So, in summary, my decision to go to business school was the result of a chaotic weekend of me trying to figure out what I wanted to do while in the midst of moving my stuff from one apartment to another. Once the move was completed, I went home to my parents’ house in New Jersey and immediately started applying to schools. It took me about two weeks to get all my applications in.

When did The Consortium come into play?

I have known about The Consortium for some time, but since I applied so late to business school, I was solely focused on the low-hanging fruit of simply completing a school’s application. I think The Consortium is amazing and always knew it was something I wanted to look into, but I thought I missed the deadline. Then, Kenan-Flagler sent me an email probably two weeks after I was accepted informing me that The Consortium’s final deadline was coming up and that I should apply. I was thinking about what I’ve done over the years to support the mission, and I realized this was something that I really did want to partake in.

I knew The Consortium was right for me because when I was writing my essay, I didn’t feel like I was struggling to find things to talk about; I realized that this was exactly what I supported all along. I already felt like I belonged even though I wasn’t a member yet.

What attracted you to Kenan-Flagler?

I always knew about Kenan-Flagler but didn’t really know where it fit in. When I started my MBA application process, I found the easiest thing for someone who’s LGBT+ to [do] was to reach out to a school’s respective Pride club. That always gave me a flavor for the school. It told me if it was a place I wanted to be. So I said to myself, “If I can’t feel like I belong there for my identity, then academically, career-wise, those things will struggle also.” So I reached out to the Pride clubs at every school, and at Kenan-Flagler, two students replied to me. One them was named Ran. I spoke with him on the phone, and I felt so welcomed by him. But what really went a step further — and this is what told me that people at Kenan-Flagler are so willing to help and that they care about the LGBT+ community — was that after I spoke with Ran on Sunday, Monday afternoon I received an email from the current co-president Stephanie. She was like, “Let’s talk. I’m here for all the questions you have.” That told me that the people at Kenan-Flagler are willing to go the extra mile.

In terms of academics, I think what really sold me on the school itself was the fact that their expertise in the consulting field is unrivaled and not matched at the other schools I was looking at. On top of that, I loved the fact that there is a concentration in consulting and that the consulting-specialized career coach herself actually used to be a consultant. At the side level, I love the state school spirit aspect, which is something I did not get a chance to experience during undergrad.

What made you decide that now was the time to get your MBA?

I have a liberal arts degree. I very much enjoyed going to Tufts — it was great — but I found myself somewhat struggling in my first and second job without having had an undergraduate business degree. I felt that there were terms and concepts thrown around as well as ways things were done or explained to me that might make better sense with a business education. I felt an advanced degree, especially an MBA, would bridge that gap for me.

Secondly, as much as I enjoyed working in financial services, I knew I wanted to pivot out of it at some point. Even if I didn’t know what I was going to do yet, I knew the pivot would be much easier going through a business school program where there’s a structured format and a formal recruiting process. I knew it would be very difficult pivoting while in one industry into another one without bridging the gap in between. An MBA lined up really well, especially if I want to go into consulting. But why now?

I could have just waited for another job, moved on. But I took a step back and looked at what is going on in the world. We live in a world right now where our work has changed drastically in a very short span of time, and as a result, business leaders today need to be re-educated. I felt that there could not be a better time than now to go to school, to talk about how companies have adjusted to current affairs but also to new issues they face in the workplace — to talk about those in a classroom setting, work them out and better understand them. I think everyone wants to have these conversations; it’s already evident from being at Kenan-Flagler for a week now. These are the conversations people want to have now — how COVID-19 and how Black Lives Matter are having an impact on our work environment and our business future.

It’s clear through your volunteering that supporting underprivileged and marginalized groups is important to you. Why are these causes so important to you, and do you hope to use your business acumen for good in this way?

Oh, of course. I recognize the fact that I am a white cisgender male that is part of the LGBT+ community and I have it the easiest, to be honest. Being involved in the community was always something that just came naturally to me. [Even as far back as high school,] I felt the need to be in the community getting involved. When I came into the professional world, I saw that there was a need for me to be involved both outside of work but also inside of work helping my own community. When I was at my first job, the LGBT+ group had been recently organized, and toward the end of my tenure at the firm, when I took on a leadership position, I worked really hard to make LGBT+ employees feel more welcomed there.

My second involvement with the community came as a result of a friend telling me about a program called StreetWise Partners, which works with underemployed, unemployed individuals in the community. Because I love coaching and mentoring people, like [when I had the] opportunity to mentor some interns at my firm. That was really great, but I realized that was the easy mentoring. I thought, “Where is the mentoring where you have to pull people up, people who don’t have the skills, people who need the assistance?” I came to StreetWise Partners and was able to work extensively with three different individuals, all from very different backgrounds, and help project them on their career journey.

When I go back into the business world, what I really want to do is give back to my organization, but I would also hope that the organization I join offers initiatives within the company itself to educate future business leaders to help pull people up. I am particularly interested in working with LGBT+ individuals.

Do you have any advice for other professionals trying to navigate the current economic climate, particularly those who have recently been let go and may be considering business school?

My biggest piece of advice right now [is focused around] resilience. It’s such a powerful word, and it’s such a hard thing to accomplish. I can only speak from my experience, but … it can be so easy to just cop out, just give up. I found that the only way to get myself through it was to keep my head up, be strong and to keep pushing myself forward. So, for those who want to go to business school right now, I say go ahead and do it.

The most unexpected things come when you’re not expecting them. I know that sounds cheesy, but I was not expecting to get laid off; I was not expecting to go to business school, but I let myself be open to the process. If you can be resilient, keep a good head on your shoulders and … try to stay positive, it will work out. I’m a big believer in fate. Fate is the reason I ended up here in this apartment in Chapel Hill, currently with no furniture (it’s on its way!), but I know there is a reason I’m here today.

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