For first-generation student Marcia Austin, leaving her entertainment industry career to return for an MBA was among the most daunting decisions of her life. After growing up with limited resources in San Diego, and as the first in her family to attend and finish college, how could she even think about walking away from the business success she’d fought so hard to achieve to return to school?
“My fear of finances was one of the reasons I took so long to make that choice,” says Austin, whose husband, fellow Stanford MBA student Bradford Austin, made exactly the same choice at exactly the same time. “After years of hustle and hard work, I’d finally created a level of stability I’d never experienced growing up. The idea of walking away from that stability and into an unknown future was terrifying.
“I was thinking my time [for graduate school] had passed. It wasn’t until I was helping my husband look into programs, and as a supportive spouse attended a Stanford session for prospective students, that I dove into my personal story. I recognized there was no time limit to investing in yourself.”
You had colleagues and mentors suggest that going back for an MBA was a waste of time.
At the time those mentors and colleagues were talking to me, I was early in my career. They mentioned that if you leave you’ll lose your spot here. Their words sat pretty heavy on me as someone who came from a first-gen background and was unfamiliar with the impact of an MBA. So I heeded their advice.
What was happening in your career at that time?
I had received my third promotion, and I could see a pretty clear path forward in the industry. I’d been thinking about an MBA and had already taken my GMAT, but I was recruited by another company that was doing a large expansion, opening up a unique role. I saw it as an opportunity to stay within the industry and get exposure to media acquisitions and managing teams. This was a job I would not have expected that early in my career, so that was the nail in the coffin of the MBA at that point. It was horrifying to watch my GMAT test score expire, because I remember the tears and the sweat that went into taking that exam.
What made you reevaluate that decision years later?
I recognized that my skill set felt a bit narrow. Technology was transforming the [entertainment] industry, and I didn’t have skills I needed to understand data analytics and strategies behind digital transformations. As someone who values options, it made me pause and assess the holes in my armor. If I wanted to get into the C-suite, what was going to stop me from getting there? I wanted to not only work my way through the ranks as a woman in business, but also learn how I could empower and activate the people around me.
What progress did you see in terms of diversity and inclusion during your years in the entertainment business?
Companies were doing seminars and workshops, but those served only as a facade that masked the deeper gender and racial dynamics at play. I’m part of both of those groups. For example, I saw a tangible difference in how I was regarded after I got married and my name changed from Garcia to Austin. Stanford GSB provides tools to equip leaders to actually bring about change that is so desperately needed in not just this industry, but others as well.
What has been most helpful to you in determining the direction you want to go after graduation?
I’ve taken advantage of the GSB network, especially in the fall when you’re trying to decide where you want to intern and why. I also took advantage of my Stanford email address to email a lot of alumni and just talk. “What has been the most impactful piece of your post-GSB journey? Looking back, what information or skill do you wish you were equipped with that would make a significant impact?” That information is valuable in understanding the path to being an executive.
Any classes, professors, or experiences in the MBA program that have been especially helpful so far?
I took two courses about digital transformation and technological innovation with [management lecturer] Rob Siegel, who expects so much from you. Though to some, the high bar set might have felt intimidating, I found his demand for excellence to be a call to action. Though expectations were high, he also showed up each day providing the same level of excellence demanded.
How does your experience as an Ironman triathlon finisher compare to your GSB experience?
There are a lot of crossovers. Endurance events are not just about the big day, or one big exertion of energy. It’s a multilayered, continual process of daily showing up to task, a consistent dedication to something. Training can be 20 hours a week. With an MBA, it’s a lot of showing up every day even if you don’t feel it, and having a bit of what one of my coaches used to call gumption. I find that so transferrable to this whole process.
What did being named an Arbuckle Fellow mean to you?
It’s a chance to be the first face to welcome the new MBA students. My first fall semester was really challenging for me. Among so much greatness it’s hard to feel like you really belong. Meeting my Arbuckle Fellow felt like a big warm hug. I felt very supported, and to be able to do that for others is a really unique thing.
What clubs or organizations have been most meaningful to you?
I served as the co-president of Women in Management — a club that has a mixture of community, inclusion, and professional development. It’s about connecting, supporting, and empowering — providing opportunities for women to see other women in leadership positions across industries. The First-Gen/Low Income Club was also really important to me. It’s a blend of those who identify with the low-income piece or the first-generation piece. For me that was the first time I ever identified as such, and it was a big deal for me to publicly share that and be proud of my journey rather than be embarrassed or shy about it.
How about outside of school and work?
I was born and raised in a Christian family, and always grew up supporting missionaries and their projects. I became involved with a Christian international relief nonprofit focused on outreach in Alaska. I would carve out a week a year to dedicate to basic humanitarian relief. We flew in food and medical supplies, but I also spoke at small elementary schools. Just sharing my first-generation story about starting school resonated so much with the Alaskan people. They have low graduation rates because for many the path ahead is extremely unclear and finances uncertain. My story is simple, but knowing it impacts others is powerful. That one week a year can affect so many. And it always reminds me how fortunate we are and the resources we have and that the life we live is a blessing.
Photos by Elena Zhukova