Leading in a digitally driven world requires agility and adaptability
Fiona Ciliotta is a Full-time MBA student at UCI Paul Merage School of Business, a Merage Student Ambassador, co-president of Merage Women in Business and executive vice-president of the Merage Marketing Association. Prior to her MBA studies, she worked for Coca-Cola as director of Field Execution, where she led the profitable growth and development of the Venturing & Emerging Brands portfolio in the Maryland and Washington DC metro area. She is pursuing her MBA to sharpen her leadership and analytical skills.
How did your professional journey evolve between your BA in Political Science and Print Journalism and your MBA studies? What is your career destination after MBA graduation?
My political science background took me to Washington DC to work for a partner company of the Department of State, giving me a glimpse into what it was like to work in the government sector. However, after about two years in that role I found myself more interested in the business side than the policy side of the job, and decided to pursue a career in the corporate world instead. In pursuit of this new path, I landed a role at Coca-Cola as a sales representative, and worked my way up until I became director of Field Execution for the Venturing and Emerging Brands (VEB). This is the role where I discovered my passion for brand building and consumer insights and when I realised I needed an MBA to better hone the necessary skill set to succeed in that field. After graduating with my MBA, I aim to pursue a career in Brand Management in the CPG industry.
How is the Full-time MBA equipping you with the skill set, mindset and network for your desired career?
Having completed my first year, I can say that the MBA coursework has taught me the skills I need to make more effective use of data and has also provided me with frameworks to help structure my thinking and be more strategic in my decision-making. While we do have small classes at Merage, being a part of the larger UCI network has connected me to a wide range of alumni and professionals in my target function, both in Orange County and throughout the country.
The 2020 pandemic irrevocably transformed the world into a digital place almost overnight. How is this reality reflected in your MBA studies, particularly with the UCI’s focus on Digital Technology?
At Merage, we are taught that leading in a digitally driven world requires agility and adaptability. These skills were certainly put to the test when we were forced to switch from a greatly interactive and high-touchpoint learning environment to a fully remote setting overnight. Our Spring 2020 quarter was held via Zoom, through a mix of curated, pre-recorded content and live, synchronous online sessions. Fortunately, UCI already had the technology and expertise in place to adapt to this new normal and deliver the course content virtually. Through our digitally driven curriculum, we learn the managerial tools that other MBA programmes teach, while also exploring the new practices that digital and technological innovations lead to.
The way that Merage integrates digital transformation in our curriculum is a unique aspect of the programme. All of the core classes address how technology impacts the various functional areas, such as marketing, finance and operations. Leading in a digital world requires different strategies and practices and the curriculum teaches us how to analyse this change and effectively leverage digital technologies to succeed in it. With my background primarily in the traditional CPG industry, this digitally driven curriculum has added a huge value to my skill set. CPG companies have historically depended on the traditional bricks-and-mortar market, but to remain relevant in this new era they must win over digital shoppers. The Merage curriculum has made me more digitally savvy and gives me a unique edge to help bring solutions to CPG companies new to e-commerce.
Did you factor in the location when choosing UCI, and how are you maximising the potential of the business environment and culture for your career progression?
Location was definitely in UCI’s favour when choosing an MBA programme. The campus is in Orange County, which has perfect weather year-round and is just a few miles away from some of the most beautiful beaches. When picking a programme, I also looked into which companies had a relationship with the university and where alumni from the university now worked, and analysed whether that aligned with my long-term goals. It is through events, connections, and career fairs set up by the university that I have been able to maximise the potential of the business environment and expand my network. Merage is known for its collaborative culture and tight-knit community and I have been able to lean on my cohort and the alumni network to aid my professional development.
With one more year in the programme ahead of you, have you already taken advantage of the MBA career services on campus? What has been most helpful so far and what’s on your list before graduation?
When I committed to pursuing a full time MBA programme, I made it a point to take advantage of as many resources as possible during my time here. With my first year behind me I can say that I have done a good job of that so far – I have met with my career services advisors on a consistent basis, attended Day in the Life seminars to learn about different industries, networked with alumni and current students, participated in a case competition, joined the Executive Mentorship programme, become a student ambassador, and joined the boards of two clubs on campus. It is difficult to pick which one of these resources has been the most helpful because the value of each is much greater when combined. However, I would say that the case competition was probably the most challenging learning experience I have had so far. On my to-do list for my second year is to be a part of The Executive Committee (TEC) on campus, participate in another case competition and continue strengthening my relationships with my classmates.
How has the pandemic affected your overall MBA experience and career prospects? What were the unexpected lessons learnt?
The pandemic has affected my overall MBA experience in a lot of ways, but most obviously in the physical distancing from my cohort. We are a tight-knit group that works very collaboratively, so having to learn and interact remotely has been unusual to say the least. We have had to work harder to come up with creative ways to maintain the relationships and networks we have built thus far. Alas, my internship offer was rescinded so I have had to re-evaluate my career prospects. Will there be opportunities in my desired function and industry once I graduate? Should I pivot to an industry that is more likely to thrive in an economic downturn? I have posed these questions to myself and to the professionals in the industry. While there is still uncertainty around the future, I am optimistic that I will be able to reach my career goals because this experience has taught me resilience and what a great leadership trait that is.