Growing up the oldest of six kids in Raleigh, NC, Paige Smith (MBA ’23) stayed true to her home state – and close to family – when choosing where to earn her academic degrees. She received her BA in public policy at UNC-Chapel Hill and her Master’s in education at North Carolina State University. Upon graduation, she served as manager of special projects at Duke University School of Medicine.
Tasked with leading the internal executive search function at Duke, she and her team were trailblazers in the academic space on how to think about evaluating leadership candidates and ensuring diversity in the hiring process. This meant developing a model focused on selecting leaders based on their ability to navigate a complex healthcare environment rather than solely because of their research and clinical accomplishments, a radical change in approach. “To meet the changing leadership profile, we revamped our screening processes and ultimately hired about 20 of the most dynamic leaders that Duke has ever seen. I really believe my contribution made a lasting impact on the organization.”
During this time, Paige found herself inspired by a senior leader. “Before working with her, I was convinced that the challenges facing our healthcare system today were far too complicated for anyone to ever solve,” she said. “Now I realize we need more people like her who are willing to take on hard problems and think outside the box.”
Realizing that an MBA would put her in a stronger position to take on critical business and operational issues, she began looking into business schools, especially those with a strong local alumni network. “All of the programs I looked at had outstanding faculty and a reputation for a strong healthcare concentration,” she recalled. “However, I was particularly impressed by how UNC Kenan-Flagler really walks the walk when it comes to incorporating leadership and diversity into its coursework and culture. They don’t just talk about core values; they actively work to create an environment where everyone’s opinions and perspectives are valued and welcomed.”
Paige was serious about her MBA school research. “I didn’t just talk to students,” she said. “I also talked to employers who had hired MBA grads and asked what students they wanted on their teams. People are excited to hire UNC graduates because they are collaborative teammates who have perfected the balance of grit and collegiality.”
As a lifelong Tar Heel, Paige was delighted to “boomerang back” to her undergraduate alma mater and enrolled at UNC Kenan-Flagler. From the start, she felt a sense of belonging and support. “During your first year, you are paired with study group members whom you work with for the entirety of the core curriculum. In my group, I had a PharmD/MBA who was previously a Division I student-athlete, a JD/MBA who was launching a crypto-currency start-up on the side, and two veterans with deep engineering backgrounds. Every person’s skill set was critical to the five of us making it through the core. That experience transformed the way I think about diversity on a work team.”
Paige was strategic about her academic choices, stepping out of her comfort zone to make the most of her experience. “I had to put in a lot more time than most other students because I was starting from zero knowledge, but I’m proud of myself for pushing through,” she recalls.
Her favorite course was Data Analytics: Tools and Opportunities. “For our final project, we started with a messy data set that was basically an unfiltered export of Yelp reviews and turned it into actional insights that could help a Charlotte restaurant improve staffing and menu choices at each of their three locations. Not only did I learn about data analysis, but I also overcame my fear of ‘breaking’ the data set,” said Paige.
In addition to her coursework, Paige was a project leader in the experiential STAR program, a consultant at the Business Communications Center, a teaching assistant in Global Marketing, both a Forté Fellow and recipient of the Buck Williams Fellowship, and president of the Consulting Club, the biggest career club at the UNC Kenan-Flagler. She also found time to cheer on UNC during the Blue Cup friendly competition between UNC and Duke.
As a summer intern with McKinsey & Company in 2022, Paige put her critical thinking, creative skills and self-drive to work, leading to a full-time offer with the organization. In her new role, she will apply the quantitative, decision-making and leadership skills gleaned from the broad coursework she absorbed during the MBA program. “There are a lot of myths about what it takes to succeed in the business world, but most are out of date,” she said. “Today’s employers are looking for a diverse set of individuals who can think creatively about problems we don’t even know exist yet. The world needs future leaders who break the traditional mold and think outside the box. I want to be part of the solution.”
Associate, McKinsey & Company
Nick Heyward loved his experience in corporate finance, building a successful career and holding a key position as a financial analyst at consumer packaged goods giant PepsiCo. There, he created, launched and implemented a standardized way to measure and evaluate sales across the U.S. The user-friendly, highly functional tool won him an award for its impact. But even with that impressive career highlight, he felt the itch to expand his horizons and explore opportunities in an entirely new industry: real estate. “I felt like I was reaching a plateau and wanted to push myself to reach the next level of opportunities while expanding my network,” he said. “I saw an MBA as my opportunity to do just that, providing the space and time to challenge myself academically.”
As he contemplated where to obtain an MBA that would best build the skills he’d need to career-pivot, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s Full-Time MBA program stood out – in particular, for its highly regarded real estate concentration. “UNC Kenan-Flagler has one of the largest real estate programs in the nation, making it the perfect place for me to be exposed to and learn about the industry so that I could be set up for long-term success,” he said.
The cooperative environment that UNC Kenan-Flagler fosters for its students was also a big draw. “Collaboration is strongly encouraged, bringing people with a wide variety of prior work and educational experiences together,” said Nick. “In addition, the opportunities for real-world application of what is learned in the classroom fit my personality and how I’d like to develop as a leader in the business world.”
Nick served as Co-President of the Black Business Student Association (BBSA), Vice President of Community Engagement with The Consortium, a Vetter Dean’s Fellow and a Richard H. Jenrette Fellow. “Co-leading the BBSA was one of the best experiences I had during my time at the school. I was involved in many aspects of the school from helping prospective students with applications to creating social events for students to connect with alumni and bringing Black alumni to speak on campus. Representation is something we are always mindful of, which makes these speakers so important to students,” he noted.
His coursework married his passion for DEI and his thirst for knowledge. Nick’s favorite class was Leading Diverse and Inclusive Organizations. “In that class, we had many tough conversations as we grappled with the nuances related to the struggles of marginalized groups in corporate environments.”
The coursework was so varied, that he expanded his focus on real estate to include energy and sustainability. “The insights on the energy transition, how public policy can support it, and what technology could be developed to address climate change were part of our energy courses,” he said. “As a newcomer to the industry, having the space to ask questions in a welcoming environment was very helpful in my learning experience.”
The many opportunities offered by UNC Kenan-Flagler to broaden his horizons came as somewhat of a surprise to Nick. “Going into business school, I knew it would be a great social networking experience. However, I didn’t expect that experience to be global. Many of my classmates studied in amazing places like Switzerland and Thailand and shared the connections they made. I went on a trip to Rwanda with the Vetter Dean’s Fellows,” he recalled of the immersive business trek.
Now a business manager at NextEra Energy, he hopes to integrate both his coursework, previous work experience and interest in DEI with his new area of focus. “Although I am not going into commercial real estate full-time, I would like to remain active in the industry. In the future, I would like to join the board of a non-profit affordable housing developer. Affordable housing is something I remain passionate about, which ties into sustainable development as well,” he said.
However, his global business experience has left a lasting impression on Nick as he considers the trajectory of his career. “Traveling to a new place is a great experience, but I would love to immerse myself in a new culture over an extended period of time. Ideally, I would like to work on an international assignment where I can live abroad.”
Business Manager, NextEra Energy
Landing a job with Goldman Sachs is at the top of Nora Cruz’s list of greatest professional achievements.
But before finance, Nora was all about basketball, playing in high school, serving as a manager on the UNC women’s basketball team while she completed her undergraduate business degree at Kenan-Flagler, and coaching at the U.S. Military Academy, Emory University and Appalachian State University. She later joined the marketing team for the Washington Wizards before turning her attention to grad school.
“Coaching women’s basketball is an interest and passion of mine but I didn’t want to make it a career,” Nora said. “I knew I wanted two things: to be in and around the financial markets, or finance broadly, and to be in a client-facing position, directly working with and advising clients.”
To achieve this goal, Nora returned to UNC Kenan-Flagler, enrolling in the Full-Time MBA Program, an experience that allowed her to grow personally and professionally. She met her wife Lauren in the program and built strong, lasting friendships. She also met alumni and corporate recruiters, who helped her discover that private wealth management was a field that would allow her to work in finance and have a direct impact on clients.
Nora credits the School’s strong alumni network for helping her land her dream job. “Don’t underestimate the importance of networking,” she noted. “I’m not certain there was any other path for me to have successfully changed careers without the strength and support of the Kenan-Flagler alumni network.”
One of the reasons Nora loves working at Goldman is that she’s continuously challenged. “Every day when at work, I am pushed to grow and develop by the people around me, by the strength and intellect of the people at the firm, and the passion my colleagues exude in providing excellent advice and service to our clients,” she said. “I am naturally curious and I enjoy being challenged by the many people around me who are experts in their fields.”
Nora Jabbour Cruz
Vice President, Wealth Management at Goldman Sachs