Bringing classroom concepts to the boardroom, in real time

For Heather McMann, MBA’12, learning at Heller meant bringing the classroom to the boardroom.

By Daniella Fernandes MBA/MASID'19

At the Heller School, group projects are infamous. Students pore over problems presented in case studies, using collective skills to produce possible solutions. For Heather McMann, MBA’12, who was promoted to Executive Director of Groundwork Lawrence just as she started her time as an MBA student, classroom concepts and real world problems needed her equal, undivided attention—so she found a way to balance both.

“I created Groundwork Lawrence’s first fundraising plan in David Whalen’s fundraising class,” she says, adding, “I also redid our budget process in our financial management class and reworked our strategy in Carole Carlson’s strategic management and social entrepreneurship class.” Since 1999, Groundwork Lawrence (GWL) has been making change happen in Massachusetts. Through its environmental and open space improvements, fresh food access programs, youth and adult education and employment initiatives, and community programming and events, GWL has been creating the building blocks of a healthy community, and empowering Lawrence residents to improve their quality of life.

Choosing to wait 15 years after finishing undergrad before pursuing her MBA at Heller, McMann already had a considerable amount of experience in the non-profit sector. However, she felt the ecosystem at Heller was equipped with the resources she needed to fill in any gaps in skills she had mostly learned on the job. She says, “At Heller, I began using different parts of my brain. I would be sitting in class and realize that I could apply what was being taught to my current projects with Groundwork Lawrence.”

“Amazing or crazy,” McMann says of the two-and-a-half years she spent as a full time professional and part-time Heller MBA student, taking both day and night classes. McMann feels her time at Heller helped her grow personally and professionally. She says, “We both went through a growth spurt at roughly the same time. Groundwork Lawrence, however, moved from a small, struggling non-profit to a more mature organization.”

McMann’s team consulting project, a graduation requirement for all Heller MBA students, was also with Groundwork USA. Along with her team, she built a dashboard, mapping the different organizations that made up the Groundwork USA Network, which included roughly 23 organizations. They were able to measure each organization, identify and understand their strengths and weakness, checking the pulse and the health of the network for the very first time.

Today, as the board president of Groundwork USA, McMann is cognizant of the many steps she has taken to reach here. She says, “I purposely chose to do the MBA, it is a type of degree people understand. Now, as I sit on a board with bankers and other professionals with technical backgrounds, what I have learned really matters. It helps me lean into my own voice.”

For current and future students, McMann has some excellent advice. She saved all her coursework on a separate hard-drive, ready to dip into, if needed. Appreciating the diversity that Heller provides, she urges students to take advantage of the skills each classmate brings. She says, “It didn’t matter that I had more experience over the next student. Even with a few years of experience, they were able to look at solutions from a perspective I did not have.”

Lastly, McMann urges professionals to consider the MBA program at Heller. She says, “When I first applied to Heller, I had no idea how in-depth the network was. The ability to focus on social entrepreneurship and social impact was key to what I was looking for. I encourage professionals to take advantage of the resources and flexibility Heller provides.”