Christina Jackson experienced the same struggles that many new teachers go through as they learn to balance curriculum and classroom management. She wants to create a support system that will nurture newcomers.
Sarah Sanchez combined her passion for the arts with a desire to give up-and-coming designers a chance when she cofounded Lamarca, a crowd-funded company that's a partnership with her best friend.
The three women are typical of students flocking to business schools in ever-increasing numbers — those with no interest in careers in banking or finance but who realize they need business skills.
"I have learned to consider important questions, such as how am I going to monetize this idea," said Sanchez, who will graduate from the University of Virginia in May.
Erika James, senior associate dean for executive education at UVa's Darden School of Business, said officials are seeing an increase of male as well as female applicants with non-business backgrounds. She believes that the school's focus on areas such as entrepreneurship and leadership make an MBA a more appealing option.
Darden's MBA class of 2014 is 35 percent female — the highest ever at the school, said Sara Neher, assistant dean of admissions.
She attributes part of it to a decline in legal jobs that makes business school more appealing, as well as a concerted effort at Darden to boost the numbers combined with market demand.
Corporate America needs women for reasons other than filling numbers, Neher added. She recalls a presentation from an oil company executive that highlighted the importance of diverse opinions.
The executive came home one evening and told his wife about a stupid idea someone had pitched — a plan that could cost the company convenience-store sales. His wife pointed out that the idea would have huge appeal to women with small children or who felt uncomfortable out at night.
"It was pay-at-the-pump," Neher said.
Isaac and Jackson said they had to do some mental gymnastics along the way to their MBAs because their fields — theater and education — weren't covered in many case studies.
Both women also said those extra steps made them stronger. Isaac said she has reams of notebooks and megabytes of data from jotting ideas on how to apply lessons learned from other sectors to a theater company. Jackson, meanwhile, often would challenge classmates by asking how concepts could be applied in the not-for-profit world.
Then Jackson wound up working with a nonprofit group — and one with an education angle at that. Her team's challenge: create a strategic plan for the DC Promise Neighborhoods Initiative, a group trying to reach out in the high-poverty Ward 7. The goal was to help students transition from middle to high school. Research shows that 53 percent of students drop out after that change.
The team came up with a service-learning component aimed at getting ninth-graders involved in their community, Jackson said.
The students also created a campaign to reach parents and give them tools to help their children. "There's a big difference between warm and fuzzy middle school teachers and high school, where they're not so much like that," said Jackson, who's taught high school.
For Tayo Jackson, another UVa student who will graduate in May, one of the biggest eye-openers of grad school was realizing that possibilities can come sooner for those with business skills.
One of her projects at Darden was helping Wahoo Fitness develop a mobile app that would synchronize music with a workout. It showed her that with the right marketing strategy, social media campaign and partnerships, entrepreneurism is within reach.
"I used to think it was a longer-range plan, but I'm seeing now that I can do it sooner," she said.
HOMETOWN: Austin, Texas
DEGREES: Will complete an MBA at the University of Virginia this spring; bachelor's in corporate communications, University of Texas, Austin
CAREER GOAL: Has accepted a consulting position with Accenture that will begin after graduation in the spring. Also cofounded a company, Lamarca, that works with handbag and accessory designers in emerging countries.
QUOTE: "I don't have an aspiration to be an investment banker. I'm more into companies that make a difference, that empower communities."
HOMETOWN: Washington, D.C.
DEGREES: Will complete an MBA at the University of Virginia this spring; bachelor's in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins University
CAREER GOAL: Will begin working at Microsoft in sales strategy after graduation. Eventually plans to start her own company.
QUOTE: "Men tend to have the 'just do it' mentality. I want more women to have the courage to jump in there and do it, too."
HOMETOWN: Fairfax, Va.
DEGREES: MBA from George Mason University; bachelor's degrees in economics and theater, University of South Carolina
CAREER GOAL: A leadership position in a theater company.
QUOTE: "I realized that I was not just interested in solving the problem of this play for a month, but in solving problems one, five, 10 years down the road."
HOMETOWN: Charlotte, N.C.
DEGREES: MBA from Marymount University; bachelor's in English, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
CAREER GOAL: Executive director or founder of a nonprofit education foundation.
QUOTE: "I've always worked in education, and I always intend to. It's tempting to look at some of the other options sometimes, but then I realize that there's nothing in those job descriptions that appeals to me."