Cristiana Torres' great-grandfather built a textile mill in Barcelos, Portugal, a family business that her father ran, her brother worked for, and Cristiana was expected to join. Midway through her undergraduate years, however, the business succumbed to intense competition from China and closed. "It changed everything," Cristiana says. "Everything I had taken for granted was over. I was forced to redirect my priorities."
Cristiana resolved to "learn from the best. In previous generations," she explains, "we went straight from college into the family business. I think one of the reasons the business failed is that we didn't have a broader perspective on running it. I realized it's important to have the broader view before you funnel your perspective into a specific business."
Intent on expanding her range, she took her first job with a nonprofit consulting firm, FEP Junior Consulting, while she was still in school. "It was an escape from the very theoretical learning system that you have in Portugal," says Cristiana, "and a way to start having a true impact."
Upon graduation, she talked her way into a unique part time position at a telecommunications firm, Optimus (which would become NOS), so that she could pursue graduate studies in business at the University of Porto. Both experiences proved valuable—and at Optimus, Cristiana assumed responsibilities unusual for someone so young—but she felt she needed more. "Everything seemed too comfortable," she says. "I'm a planner, but I need to be challenged. A career change only made sense after a break from my career and my life in Portugal; I needed contact with more diverse people."
Planning who she wants to be
An MBA abroad seemed the logical next step. Cristiana was accepted by both Stanford and HBS, but she chose the latter. "I was searching for a general management education that would bring access to a broad range of industries and people," she says. "At HBS, there's a diversity of cultures, backgrounds, and nationalities that you just can't find in Portugal. There's nothing artificial or superficial about it—it becomes a part of your everyday life."
For Cristiana, the most surprising part of her HBS experience is the program's emphasis on the personal. "They make you think about what you want to be as a person, not just as a leader. You have to have a plan for who you want to be before you can become an effective leader. The curriculum makes you balance personal and business ambitions."
As she completes her first HBS year, Cristiana's ambitions are taking a more concrete shape. "It's clear that I want a family and I want to be in business. So which becomes a priority first? For me, I want to stay in the United States for two to three years to get the raw materials I need to start my own business back home, in Portugal."
In the summer, Cristiana will gain more general management experience by assuming a generalist role at McKinsey. "I told them: give me anything but telecommunications! I want to get to know as much as I can before I focus."