Apr 10

Gies MBA fueling Nieves in shift from finance to tech

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: An MBA was always on the bucket list for Angel Nieves, who began his career in finance before pivoting to tech. For him, an advanced business degree represented a way to become more well-rounded and stand out in a highly competitive sector. At Airbnb, Nieves applies what he learned to make it easier and safer for consumers to book properties by category and ensure guests and hosts can travel and connect with greater peace of mind.

When did you decide to pursue an MBA?

Education was always a high priority in our family. I grew up in Logan Square and went to Lane Tech High School and Loyola University. Getting an MBA was always on my bucket list and something I knew could help advance my career – but with a career and three kids, how could I make it work? When the pandemic hit and I no longer had to commute or run my kids to practice, I saw an opportunity.

I started out in asset management at LaSalle Bank and then went to work for a hedge fund before pivoting to a career in tech. I was looking for an entrepreneurial culture and found it at a digital mapping company based in Amsterdam with roots in Chicago. I was surrounded by people with computer science backgrounds who were also adept at strategy and finance. I was fascinated by how people with diverse backgrounds could work together to create cutting edge products.

How did you evaluate MBA programs?

I explored every avenue. I looked at the top-tier residential MBAs based in Chicago, but I was intrigued by programs that had a strong reputation and offered more flexibility. It needed to work for my schedule post-pandemic. Cost was also a factor. All the activities for three boys add up quickly.

Gies stood out amongst online MBAs because of its reputation as an innovator in online education. It draws learners from all over the world, so you’re getting a global perspective in every class. My project partners were based in Singapore, Australia, India, and all over Europe. I found a community of techies based on the West Coast, and we were able to translate the language we use day-to-day to group projects. Many have turned into connections I can now call my friends. The college also hosts an optional, annual event on campus for students and alumni called iConverge, which strengthens those bonds.

How did you balance work and family with pursuing an MBA?

Halfway through the Gies iMBA program Airbnb recruited me to work on product strategy and planning for their Trust & Safety team. I’m learning a new culture and managing a team with a whole new set of responsibilities while traveling for the job. Time management and the ability to compartmentalize became critical. My family knew I needed late nights and part of our weekends to study. My wife and family really stepped up to support me.

Flexibility in the number of hours per semester was also key. Some of my classmates have some seasonality to their jobs, and this program made it easy to adjust without taking extra time to graduate. You don’t need to lose your momentum by dropping out for a semester. I finished in a little over two years and some of my colleagues finished in three years.

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

With my job, there are a lot of moving parts. I’m managing my team, stakeholders, and cross-functional partners. Selling new ideas and processes requires leadership and negotiation skills. I immediately applied what I learned in class about strategic innovation and organizational management. With one of my concentrations in business analytics, I learned how to use advanced data visualization strategies to track the progress we’re making on projects. I also brushed up on financial concepts to better convey the importance of leveraging profit-and-loss statements to prioritize which programs to advance to impact the bottom line.

What are your long-term career goals?

One of my long-term goals is to provide mentorship and guidance to fellow Latinos and underrepresented minorities who are rising in my organization and the industry. Wherever I can, I’d like to be a voice for marginalized communities. I will also always be an evangelist for continuing education – being an eternal learner is something I preach to my sons and model for them as well.