Apr 05 Alumni Business Administration

Poyser turns Gies MBA into brand leadership role

In this series, four graduates with diverse backgrounds share how they changed the trajectory of their careers by pursuing an online MBA program (iMBA) from Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Interview: Abby Poyser, who works in marketing at a medical device company, began exploring MBA programs as her job responsibilities grew. She was looking for a graduate business degree that offered specialized coursework on digital marketing and leadership along with accounting and finance fundamentals.

What’s your educational background?

I translated my love of music, French, and psychology as an undergraduate into master’s and doctorate degrees in Audiology. I was drawn to the intersection of music, language, and helping others. After completing my residency in Washington D.C., I joined the sales team of Phonak, the leading global manufacturer of hearing aids.

Why should a successful professional with a liberal arts background consider pursuing an MBA?

I transferred to corporate headquarters in Aurora, IL, and my supervisor encouraged me to shift from sales to product marketing. The company valued my communication skills and my background as a former customer, but I had a bit of imposter syndrome at work, both within the worlds of business and marketing. I had never taken a course in finance, accounting or economics and found myself in meetings where colleagues were using financial acronyms and terms I didn’t understand.

When did you decide to explore MBA programs?

When the pandemic hit, I started taking classes on Coursera to occupy my brain, including one on the Science of Happiness taught by a professor at Yale. Ads for MBA programs regularly popped up – including one for Gies College of Business.

What did you prioritize when evaluating MBA programs?

I didn’t want to take the GMAT. Once you’re out of practice for standardized testing, it’s hard to go back. I looked at executive programs in downtown Chicago but wasn’t willing to commit to weekly commuting from the suburbs for in-person learning. Ultimately, I applied to Gies and began earning my degree in Fall 2020.

How did you apply what you were learning to your job?

Our parent company owns a number of hearing aid brands, and my responsibility was our premium brand. In the Marketing Management course with Professor Hayden Noel, I learned about segmentation, targeting, and how to position a brand. It all clicked for me -- how I could understand my customers better and reach out to them more persuasively.

How did you adapt to working online with fellow students across time zones?

The professors would often ask us to role play or discuss a concept in breakout sessions. It was such an engaging way to learn. I’d encourage anyone considering an online program to commit to a high level of participation – that’s how you build a community that will live far longer than the length of a course.

Are there networking opportunities?

In my cohort, there were a number of people in medical device sales and in the healthcare industry – everything from providers to healthcare systems to electronic medical records. Many of us continue to connect via LinkedIn and chat regularly. There are also a number of scheduled meetups throughout the Chicagoland area and an optional annual iConverge on campus where more than 500 students and alums are invited to a weekend of programming, networking, and a football game. Thanks to Gies, I’ve made connections who I’m grateful have turned into lifelong friends.

I found the program’s diversity of ethnicities and geographies refreshing. We were all from different backgrounds, but with a common goal of improving our knowledge of business. The range of learners in the Gies iMBA erases that misconception that business is a bubble for bankers and financiers who wear suits every day.

How did you balance the demands of the program with the demands of your job?

The flexibility of the program drew me in and kept me engaged not only with the content but also with my classmates. I never missed a live session – even with a full-time job, a husband, and two small children. Each class is taught multiple times, and if there’s a conflict, it’s recorded for viewing at a time that fits your schedule.

As the pandemic eased, my job turned hybrid. I am fortunate to work for a company that values higher education, not only from a financial standpoint, but they also understood when I adjusted my schedule a bit to study for an exam.

How has earning your MBA impacted your career trajectory?

I applied some of the concepts from a course on organizational management to my own career. Since earning an MBA from Gies, I’ve carved out a new role for myself within the company. As Phonak’s first Senior Brand Manager, I’ll develop and position its brand identity, keeping consistency across industry events, brand-building campaigns, advertising, and public relations. My long-term goal is to evolve this into a North American and ultimately global role.

What advice do you have for anyone considering earning an MBA online?

Remember, you are in control of your path and how things are going to turn out for you. Don't feel limited by what you don't know or classes you haven't taken. Be a lifelong learner. Start by taking one course that’s interesting to you with credits that can apply to an MBA. Explore and find the right fit for you.