21 Jul 2021

Socioeconomic Inclusion at HBS Profile Series: Alexis Jackson (MBA 2021)


by Shona Simkin

Alexis Jackson (MBA 2021) has a tattoo that reads “hakuna matata,” but it took the upending events of this past year, and a deeply personal loss, for her to fully embrace its “no worries” sentiment.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, PA, Jackson was drawn to challenges and motivated to get a degree in an industry that would bring financial and job security. An aptitude for math and science led to an engineering scholarship to Penn State, a major in electrical engineering, and a position at a multinational oil and gas corporation after graduation. She moved to Louisiana with her mother and dug into her engineering role. At the back of her mind, though, was a nagging sense that engineering might not be right for her. Was she good at it? Yes. Did it offer a path for advancement, challenges, and secure income? All a resounding yes. But she wasn’t happy, despite achieving the markers of success for which she had worked so diligently. “Even though I enjoyed the company and people, I began to realize that it wasn’t a good fit for me. I had ambitions to explore a variety of industries and technologies. I also wanted to approach innovative challenges that created another layer of problem-solving depth,” said Jackson.

A few of Jackson’s colleagues participated in Management Leaders for Tomorrow (MLT), a training, coaching, and networking program aimed at increasing diverse representation in business schools and leadership roles. While it sounded interesting, and those colleagues encouraged her to apply, leaving a lucrative job for a business degree didn’t make much sense to Jackson. But, always looking for a challenge, she figured she could give the program a try while she continued to work. The six-month program of networking, seminars, and coaching, she said, opened her eyes to different career paths and possibilities.

“There was a real momentum, being with people who have a dream for themselves that is bigger than one company and one goal,” said Jackson. “MLT’s focus on knowing your own story, what's important to you, and what you're trying to accomplish—those were things that no one had really asked me about until that point in my life. I just knew that life was bigger than what I was experiencing.”

With newly broadened horizons, Jackson decided to apply to business school and narrowed down her list through conversations within the MLT network. HBS became her number one choice after a campus visit—the casual classroom environment and enthusiastic, welcoming students from the African American Student Union (AASU) and the Latin American Student Union (LASO) made her certain that it was where she’d be supported and could grow.

Upon being accepted and receiving her financial aid offer, the decision then became one she described as “heart versus head”—her heart was set on HBS but her financial aid package was less than those from other schools.

“From my college major to my first job, every decision I’ve made has been from a financial security standpoint because I understand that my finances are more than myself,” said Jackson. “I’m there if my mom's retirement doesn't work out or if there's a financial shortage in my extended family. But the financial aid equation looked at my last three years of income rather than my broader financial circumstances, or how my financial responsibilities influenced my choices. I'm not saying it's a privilege to choose an arts major or to work for a nonprofit, but for me it was.”

She again accessed her MLT network for advice, spoke further with the Financial Aid team, and confirmed her acceptance to HBS. “Everyone was telling me to choose the school that could offer me the most flexibility in the future, not just for my first job after graduating. For me, that was HBS. Once my head aligned with my heart, coming to Boston was pretty easy,” said Jackson.

As soon as she got to HBS, she dug into her Required Curriculum (RC) year and decided to run for AASU co-president.

“Being a part of Black groups has always been a part of my identity,” said Jackson. “I knew early on that I wanted to be AASU co-president because I believe in Black excellence and the power of the community for support and inclusion. Students from AASU and LASO were always willing to let me knock on their doors, to give me mock interviews, and to talk. It's a network where you always pay it forward. I think I'm here because of them, and I wanted to be a positive influence for the incoming class.”

Then, in the spring of 2020 came not only the pandemic, but the sudden death of Jackson’s brother. It was the first time, she said, that things were not going according to her plans or expectations. It also led to her greatest lesson—which was tattooed on her shoulder all along: Don’t worry.

“I've always worried about what's next—I always have an answer and some certainty for the next step,” said Jackson. “Losing my brother made me realize that bad things will happen—it is the worst thing that has happened to me, but I am still here and have to live my life. I went from a person who didn't cry much to crying weekly, from someone afraid of failure to someone who embraces it.”

Jackson focused her grief on this new embrace of risk, and in the face of additional trauma and unrest following the murder of George Floyd, on making a difference for her community.

In June of 2020, Jackson and her AASU co-president Bukie Adebo (MBA 2021) partnered with HBS administration to advance racial equity and diversity; efforts that laid the groundwork for the HBS Anti-Racism Task Force and the Racial Equity Action Plan. Jackson joined the task force, lending her own experience to guide efforts to reduce barriers faced by prospective students of color. Recommendations from her workstream led to two significant changes: In December of 2020, MBA Financial Aid announced an expanded financial aid formula to include socioeconomic background, addressing intergenerational wealth differences. In June of 2021 MBA Admissions launched a need-based application fee waiver.

Jackson is heading to New York City for a consulting position with Bain, and is excited for the exposure to a wide variety of industries and experiences. For her, it’s another embrace of challenge and the unknown.

“Over the last year, I’ve realized that we don't know what the future will bring,” said Jackson. “I’ve learned to be ok with that uncertainty and the failure that may come with it—to live in the moment and be present in every way possible. I think we'll remember taking the chances and the leaps more than the slight hiccups along the road.”

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