One MBA, three very different paths: Carolyn Niehaus

This blog is the second in a series on One MBA, three very different paths. The first post features Jessica Ferrell and her leadership in the PSU and corporate environment. The third post features Molly Radany and her combination of scientific and entrepreneurial pursuits.

A tenacious hospitality manager ready for a change, an introspective nonprofit professional looking to advance, and an evolutionary biologist turned entrepreneur. 

Jessica Ferrell (‘16), Carolyn Niehaus (‘17) and Molly Radany (‘18) are all graduates of The Portland MBA, but their backgrounds and goals couldn’t be more different.

In a series of three stories, each alum will share how The Portland MBA fit their career aspirations, interests, and perspectives and catalyzed their next steps.

The systems thinker: reflecting deeply on skills and values

Carolyn Niehaus loved her nonprofit’s mission and felt good about helping people, but the next steps felt limited. She had researched some graduate degrees in nonprofit management but felt those too were narrow for her.

She decided that an MBA would help her bring business strategies into nonprofit environments, but she didn’t want a program that was too traditional. Niehaus learned more about what she was looking for when speaking with graduate school recruiters. For one program, the conversation opened and closed quickly: “they asked, ‘Which box do you fit in?’ And I said, ‘None of them.’” But the story was different with Portland State. “I work for this nonprofit, I have no business experience, I was an English major,” Niehaus told the recruiter. “So, she gave me a list of things to do to prepare for the MBA. I appreciated that PSU considered me as a whole person. I didn’t have to cut off a part of myself to be there.”

During her time in The Portland MBA, Niehaus experienced a surprising shift in perspective: embracing for-profit business. She says, “I figured out early on that it wasn’t going to serve me to use a nonprofit lens all of the time. In the process of trying that on, I learned that business can be a force for good.”

At the same time, Niehaus supplemented her MBA with a certificate in computer modeling in System Dynamics with the Systems Science program at Portland State University. In addition to providing a lens for her professional life, it offered a set of tools for Niehaus to live her values of sustainability. “We are all interacting and everything we do has systemic impacts, some we can see and others we can’t,” says Niehaus. “I am excited to keep learning about all the tools that are out there that increase how much of the different systems that we can see.”

Before taking a full-time job, Niehaus did project-based work with organizations including adidas and Mercy Corps. Even though she felt internal pressure to find a full-time job, she looks back on that time as a beneficial period of exploration and development.

Niehaus now works for MetaSkills Consulting Group, which provides leadership development, executive coaching, and organizational development services. As a senior consultant, she manages projects for clients, conducts data analysis and report writing, and provides support as a coach in leadership development contexts. To perform her coaching functions, her employer sponsored her continuing education at a coaching program that uses an integral methodology, a holistic approach that is well aligned with Niehaus’ systems outlook.

Her education and work experience have empowered Niehaus to lead using a systems perspective, which means looking beyond the immediate impacts for every decision. Niehaus also emphasizes that redefining business means reflecting on why we do things the way we do, or our purpose, and what doing things differently would offer. What is out there but still unknown? Niehaus believes the business community has a responsibility to learn.

If you’re interested in exploring some of the ideas that have shaped Niehaus’ career path, she recommends reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Leadership and the New Science, Organizational Culture and Leadership, Immunity to Change and Self-Compassion

Karen Lowe is a 2020 graduate of The Portland MBA. She manages marketing and strategic partnerships for The Give Bin and writes regularly for Portland State’s Graduate Business Blog.

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