CGS summer intern Kay Gomes Saul chose the New York City campus of Pace University for her undergraduate education because she thought it would offer her a lot of opportunities. She also wanted to stay in a major metropolitan city. Saul spent the majority of her childhood in South America, moving to New York during high school, and she feared the discrimination she could face if she moved to a less diverse city.
Double majoring in English and sociology/anthropology, she planned to attend graduate school to earn a PhD in either sociology or anthropology, but her plans were upended. “I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease called Keratoconus,” said Saul. “So, I was slowly going blind during undergrad, and I eventually went completely blind at the start of my junior year. I was fortunate to have two corneal transplants, and I started to think about medical school as an option, but I realized it was not the right fit for me.”
After interning at a few non-profits, Saul received a job offer in the private sector right before graduation. She worked with several small businesses and started to notice a significant lack of leadership. “I was motivated basically by having really bad bosses. I realized how many small business owners were looking for direction. A lot of them were first-generation entrepreneurs from immigrant populations, and I saw an opportunity to help guide them with strategy and project management,” said Saul. “The lack of empathy in leadership started to get to me.”
Saul began working for a business that implemented upward evaluations. This meant that the 10-person team she managed had the opportunity to give her feedback. “It was an interesting experience. I scored pretty low on EQ, and I realized that I was contributing to the same problem I had identified in my own managers. I didn’t have a mentor in the workplace to teach me how to be a more empathetic leader. I started reading books on leadership, took a ‘leading with EQ’ course, and really invested in being a better manager and leader. The curiosity grew and inspired me to pursue an MBA. I chose the University of Illinois – Gies College of Business because of their mission to democratize graduate education and make MBAs more accessible.” From Saul’s perspective, being an expert in a field is very different than leading people in that field. “It’s like the difference between knowing something and teaching something. Leadership is all encompassing; it’s teaching and learning to relate to others. It’s also about being vulnerable and willing to put the needs of your employees ahead of your own.”
When Saul graduates with her MBA from the Gies MBA program, she hopes to work for a larger company. “I want to help corporations expand internationally in ways that are socially and environmentally sustainable. There are enormous opportunities in other countries, but business expansion should avoid exploitation of the people and the land at all costs.”
Saul says her best advice for prospective graduate students is to find a mentor you can relate to, someone who you see aspects of yourself in. “I went through undergrad and most of my career without that, and I think about how my life would be different if I’d taken the opportunity to find a mentor who I saw myself in. I’m multiracial, multicultural, and an immigrant and I felt I was really different from everyone else for a long time. I had a very complex racial identity, and I didn’t know where I fit. If you see someone you admire, tell them, and don’t be afraid to ask for guidance.”
In addition to pursuing her MBA and working, Saul is a competitive power lifter. She’s faced additional health challenges in recent years and says she’s learned lessons from being a competitive athlete that she’s applied to her work and her studies. “Part of my recovery was rebuilding strength, which led me to power lifting. My coach is an extraordinary leader, and he’s been very influential. Watching his leadership in action helped lead me to pursue my MBA and has helped me learn to set small, achievable goals.”
Saul credits her ability to self-motivate with getting her though all the adversity and obstacles she’s faced. “When you realize tomorrow isn’t promised, you feel this internal drive to do more and be better. I look forward to the day when I feel content.” Until then, Saul will be finishing her MBA, working part time, serving as a board member of UIUC’s Students Advising Graduate Education (SAGE) and as a course assistant (CA) for the MBA program, volunteering, and she hopes to be an MBA-program mentor next spring. “From my perspective, leading doesn’t have anything to do with being the boss.”