Five questions with Paula Fernandez-Baca, MBA 21, who leads with empathy

Portrait: Paula Fernandez-Baca, MBA 21
Paula Fernandez-Baca will join consulting group Bain & Company after graduation. Photo credit: Benny Johnson, MBA 20.

As commencement approaches, we’re interviewing students from different Haas programs about their experiences at Berkeley Haas and where they plan to go next. 

Today we feature Paula Fernandez-Baca, MBA 21, a former educator and fundraiser who worked at Teach for America and KIPP Public Charter Schools in Texas and in the San Francisco Bay Area. At Haas, she served as VP of Community for the full-time MBA Association, VP of the Latinx Business Club, and as a team lead of the Race Inclusive Initiative, a student consulting group focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Fernandez-Baca will join global managing consulting firm Bain & Company this summer.

You began your career in education, taking on teaching and philanthropy positions at Teach for America (TFA) and KIPP. Why did you decide to go to business school?

Going to business school was about setting myself up to make an impact in the long term. I loved working at Teach For America and KIPP because of their missions to help underserved students and communities that mirrored my own. I also admired and wanted to be like the leaders who ran these organizations. I decided to research their backgrounds and realized there was a trend: the vast majority of these people had a business background. So I thought, if I wanted to be like them, I needed to get some business skills. 

What initiative or project are you most proud of as a Haas student and why?

One of the things that attracted me to Haas was its work around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), particularly its efforts to increase the number of underrepresented minority (URM) students on campus. I joined the Race Inclusion Initiative, a student consulting group that works with the administration on DEI issues. I led a team of three, which included classmates Kimberly Mendez and Lupe Manriquez, and partnered with Om Chitale, director of Diversity Admissions at Haas, to create a structured, equitable, and holistic interviewing process for Haas candidates. 

We also worked on a feasibility study to test whether Haas could partner with a test prep agency to offer free GMAT test prep for prospective Haas students. One of the biggest barriers to applying to business school for URM students is the cost of test prep. Last semester, we presented our findings to faculty, staff, students, and Dean Harrison. After our presentation, Dean Harrison wrote to us, expressing her support for the initiative. Doing this kind of work and working with my classmates was incredibly meaningful to me.

What are some of the skills you learned at Haas that have made a difference in how you see the world?

I’ve learned three skills at Haas that have made a difference in how I see the world. One, the ability to make decisions with limited data. In my previous jobs, I always relied on or pushed for data to make the best decisions for my organizations, but I’ve now learned that sometimes, I’m not always going to have all the data that I need. The real world doesn’t work that way. So I now ask myself, how can I make the best decision with the information that I have? 

Two, the power of owning and sharing my story. I took an elective course called Storytelling for Leadership and it was one of the most impactful experiences that I’ve had. Every week, students were tasked with practicing a certain story about themselves and drilling down on what makes a good story. We learned how to draw people in and bring them along on our journey. I used the skills from that class to tell a very personal story during Story Salon, a Haas event where students tell personal and vulnerable stories. 

Three, learning how to manage change. Historically, I haven’t managed change well. But this year has taught me to lean into my experiences, get comfortable with the unknown, and accept the fact that I can’t know everything that’s going to happen in the future. Instead I can make the best decision that I can right now. 

You took on many leadership roles at Haas. You served as VP of the Latinx Club and the VP of community for the FTMBA Association, to name a couple of examples. How did you reinvent these roles during the pandemic?

I loved my VP of community role because it gave me the chance to connect with and support the Haas student community and culture. I didn’t do this work alone. I’m grateful to the Story Salon team and coaches who were absolutely amazing. I’m proud of the fact that we hosted events that were super popular despite the pandemic. Roughly 120 people would tune in to Story Salon and about 150 people participated in Deep Dish Lunches throughout the semester. To have that type of engagement when everyone is Zoomed-out is just not heard of. 

I came into the new role of VP of culture with the Latinx Business Club feeling excited about hosting for the first time a series of events for Hispanic Heritage Month. When the pandemic hit, I was determined to make sure that we were showcasing Latino culture at Haas. Our presence was going to be felt, even if all of our events were virtual. We organized interactive activities such as a Dominican food cooking demonstration and a Latin cocktail demonstration, which was one of the most highly-attended Zooms of the Week.

We also hosted our own “Ask Me Anything” event, inviting Latinx first-and second-year students to share their stories with classmates about what it’s like to be Latino in America. Lastly, we invited Latinx alumni, whom we fondly called our elders, to give career advice to current students. 

What did you take away from doing the MBA program during a pandemic and what’s next for you? 

I’ll be working as a consultant at Bain & Company in Houston, Texas. Bain has a generalist model, so I’ll be working on all types of projects across multiple industries. 

What I’ll take away most from this MBA program during a pandemic is learning how to lead with empathy. It has become so clear to me the importance of dialing in to how people are feeling and to let them know that you’re there with them, especially during times of uncertainty. It’s such a cliche quote, but it rings true for me: “People aren’t going to remember what you know, or what you say, but people will remember how you made them feel”.

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