When Cal Women’s Soccer forward Jordyn Elliott returned to the field this fall after recovering from a hip injury, she did it in style, scoring one of three goals that helped the team defeat Utah Valley at the season’s opening game.
Elliott believes that the same grit that brought her back strong to the field also played a part in getting her admitted this year to Berkeley Haas.
“There are skills required on athletic teams that are required to get into one of the top business schools,” said Elliott, BS 20. “I’m forever grateful for that because when you want to play in college, those skills transfer right through.” Elliott, a native of Hollywood, Fla., is one among the growing ranks of Cal athletes enrolling in the Haas Undergraduate Program.
This year, a total of 32 athletes are enrolled, up from 24 five years ago. And for the past two years, business administration was the top declared major among Cal athletes, up from the #7 slot in 2016 and #14 in 2009, according to the UC Berkeley Student-Athlete Academic Performance Summary.
The undergraduate Class of 2020 alone includes lacrosse goalkeeper Makayla Ward, hurdler Paramveer Chohan, water polo goalie Claire McDowell, track and field sprinter and hurdler Branndon Marion, gymnast Kyte Crigger, water polo player Johnny Hooper, and crew coxswain Cubbie Kile. (The class also includes retired football player Russ Ude and former rugby player Robert Paylor, who is recovering from an injury that partially paralyzed him during a May 2017 national championship rugby game.) They join a senior class that includes rugby player Fawzi Kawash, crew coxswain Riley Brown, football players Patrick Laird and Henry Bazakas, and Collin Morikawa, who is ranked third among amateur golfers in the world.
So why the draw to business?
First off, the undergraduate program is highly competitive; only 13.5% of applicants get in, which makes it a logical program for naturally competitive athletes. “They’re drawn to the competition,” said Bobby Thompson, interim director of Cal student-athlete development. “There’s a low percentage of people who get into Haas, but guess what? There’s a low percentage who make it on to Division 1 teams, too.”
Thompson works closely with Mary Balingit, the undergraduate program’s assistant admissions director, to encourage student athletes—particularly those from underrepresented minority groups (URMs)—to apply to Haas, and overcome their fears that it might be too difficult to get in.
But Sojourner Blair, director of undergraduate admissions, says athletes share many of the characteristics the school seeks in applicants. “They’re extremely dedicated and hardworking team players,” she said. “Many are spending 20 hours a week or more with their sport and balancing that job with a full course load of units.”
Athletes are also drawn to the school’s leadership culture, says Erika Walker, assistant dean of the Haas Undergraduate Program.
“I think our Defining Leadership Principles (Question the Status Quo, Confidence Without Attitude, Students Always, and Beyond Yourself), make a difference,” she said. “They’re easy to transfer from the field to class, and that attracts student-athletes. That connection is natural for them—they think, ‘There might be a place for me there.'”
Another force at work: Steve Etter
Walker said there’s another force at work, too: Haas Lecturer Stephen Etter, who for years has worked closely with student athletes. “He’s a connection,” she said. “He has presence. The students think: ‘There’s someone who is cool, who understands my experience.’ ”
Each fall, Etter, BS 83, and a founding partner at Greyrock Capital Group, hosts “getting into Haas” information sessions to a packed room of Cal athletes. While Etter never played at the varsity level as a student, he said he was inspired to do this work by his Cal mentors and coaches.
“I grew up in a single parent family; just my mom and me,” he said. “Teachers and coaches had a huge impact on my life.”
Etter believes athletes make perfect Haas students: they’re time-management gurus and natural leaders with self-discipline, who have developed great resilience and worked on diverse teams.
“They come to Haas with so many skills built in,” said Etter, who has worked with Olympians like swimmer Missy Franklin, and stars like Laird, BS 18, in independent studies focused on money management, in addition to teaching undergraduate classes in corporate finance. Student-athletes are also valuable assets to the school, Etter added.
“A person sees Patrick Laird and they’re going to be interested in business,” he said. “He’s such a leader and a role model. Jordyn Elliott lights up a room. She’s a phenomenal soccer player. We have such high-caliber people in the program.”
Elliott, who is the daughter of retired San Antonio Spurs All Star and champion Sean Elliott, said after she met Etter freshman year, she started taking prerequisite business courses and joined the Sports Business Group, formed by student athletes across campus who are interested in a career in business.
Etter advised Elliott on the Haas application, encouraging her to open up and tell her personal story. “They want to know who you are,” she said. “I went to a predominantly white high school as a black and quarter-Asian girl. He was a huge help to me in getting me to open up about my background, and mentoring me through the entire process.”
After graduation, Elliott said she’s considering a career in sports entertainment or sports management. “I definitely want to work for a pro sports team,” said Elliott, the youngest of three siblings. “I grew up in a sports-oriented family. I feel like I’ve been behind the scenes at so many sporting events. I’d love to have that as my job.”
Mentors lead the way
Having a critical mass of student-athletes at Haas has helped to build momentum—and older mentors help, too.
Crew coxswain Riley Brown, BS 19, remembers when her teammate Hannah Christopher, BS 18, found out she had been accepted to Haas mid-way through a practice in 2016. “I always looked up to Hannah,” Brown said. “We went to the bathroom to check her phone and she screamed bloody murder when she got in.”
Last year, when it was Brown’s turn to check on acceptance day, Christopher looked over Brown’s shoulder and tackled her to the ground over the happy news. “Everyone at practice was like: What the heck is going on?” Brown said.
While Christopher and her Haas crew teammates provided inspiration and advice, Brown said Etter helped her figure out what set her apart.
Spending so many hours on the crew boat, Brown felt she lacked the internships and the career background of other applicants. But by then, Brown had won two NCAA championship titles, both in her individual boat as well as contributing to the overall team championship. That success freshman year as a crew coxswain led her to believe she could do anything. On the boat, after all, she was already the boss.
“The team is going down this skinny, straight race-course blind,” she said. “We might be two seats from being in the lead of a 2,000-meter race that takes seven minutes. I’ll say ‘Here comes our move!’ and it’s something we’ve planned and I tell them how we are going to accomplish it.”
Business, as it turns out, was not Brown’s childhood dream major. As a child she decided she would be a doctor, a goal strengthened after an accident left her father visually impaired. She also had her own medical challenges due to a very rare hormone deficiency that impacted her growth and organ development. When the drug company that made her medication went out of business, she was devastated. “That was huge in my life,” said Brown, who said she celebrated when she reached 5-feet, which is the perfect coxswain height. “I wanted to know: How do we fix this? How do we get drugs to people who need them and people who can’t afford it when they’re facing diseases like diabetes? How do we get them cheaper medicine?”
At Cal, she pivoted her major of choice from pre-med to business, where she has decided to focus on improving the healthcare system. “Business is about making an impact,” she said. “I could put my leadership skills to use.” Brown is also now mentoring younger students who are looking to apply to Haas.
Dreaming of business—and pies.
Claire McDowell, a Cal water polo player, from Miami, Fla., knew she wanted to study business by second grade, when she made her first ice cream pie.
“I made flyers advertising the pies and put them around my elementary school,” she said. “I kept doing it in middle school, and in high school I started an Instagram account for it.” The Instagram account helped expand her business, and by sophomore year she was selling a pie a week, with a graham cracker, Oreo cookie, or chocolate chip cookie crust.
McDowell was initially reluctant to charge for the pies, but her parents grew wary of the supermarket bills and told her that her hobby was getting too expensive.
Last year, when McDowell applied to Haas, she reflected on her pie business, deciding that it was never about the money for her. “For me, business is about what problems need to be solved, how can I help others?” she said. “With the tools you get from going through Haas I’ll be able to solve problems better. I tried to get that across during my interview. Even with my pies, it wasn’t my idea to start the business. I just gave the pies to my friends and teachers. Anyone who wanted a pie got one. I wanted to make my friends and everyone around me happy.”
Today, as a Cal athlete, McDowell makes time to make an occasional celebratory pie for friends and teammates. She says her schedule is exhausting, but it’s something she’s adjusted to—because it’s always been demanding.
“Learning to work hard is something that you gain by being a Division 1 athlete,” she said. “All of us go to practice every day and, you know, it’s not always fun, but we put in 100, 110 percent all the time to get the results. Athletes have already been through hard, exhausting schedules since the beginning. We can deal with the huge workload or pressure. We’re not slackers.”