Balancing Act: MBA and Motherhood

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For Onyi Okeh and Carolina Gabbai, the key to life is balance – balance between cultivating their professional success and raising young children.

And the two have mastered this balancing act beautifully.

Their MBA experience at the Tepper School of Business began with having children, Gabbai during the admissions process, and Okeh just before the start of classes.

“I had my third child, Chinny, on August 19, 2014, and classes started on August 25. And I don’t know what I was thinking, but I showed up,” Okeh said.

They juggle child care with classes, studies with family time, internships with everything. Gabbai brings her 13-month-old son, Mateos, to school for a few meetings and in between pushes his stroller down empty hallways so he can get much-needed sleep. Okeh has been balancing a busy class schedule and job search with raising two school-age children – Adaku, age 7, and Zara, age 5 – in addition to Chinny.

Okeh, MBA ’16, moved from Nigeria to Florida at age 16 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, followed by a master’s degree in management information systems, both from Florida International University. Last summer, she interned with Hewlett-Packard’s Supply Chain Finance group in Houston, Texas. After graduation comes a family move to Atlanta, where she’ll start a new position in Ultimate Software’s Post-MBA Leadership Development Program.

The Tepper School helped to provide a roadmap.

“Caring for a newborn, as well as my other kids, I knew I had challenging times ahead of me. But I’ve been very impressed by how supportive the community has been,” Okeh explained. “The Tepper School’s Student Services team is very accommodating of students with families… and when you’re working in teams and groups, they are supportive and helpful.”

“… And I’ve found with group projects that, at times when I don’t have anyone to watch my kids, I’ll invite the group to my house. People are very flexible in that way,” added Gabbai, MBA ’17, who likewise lauded the empathetic, accommodating community.

“For me the most impressive thing, and the most wonderful thing, is how supportive my classmates have been. There have been times when I have to bring my kids to school, and everyone has been very helpful… they’re all happy to play with the baby,” Gabbai said.

Gabbai, originally from Sao Paulo, Brazil, earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Barnard College and a Ph.D. in molecular biology and biochemistry from Weill Cornell Medical College. She worked as a research scholar at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, also in New York City. She and her family moved to Pittsburgh last fall and her husband, Harma Turbendian, accepted a UPMC Fellowship in Cardiac Surgery.

She concludes her MBA first year with a family getaway to London, then returns stateside to head to Mylan for her summer internship with the Chief Strategy Office, which handles the company’s five-year strategic plan.  

In addition to fulfilling their duties as mothers and students, these women also are heavily involved outside of the classroom. Okeh has been an active member of the Graduate Finance Association, the African Business Collective and the Class Gift Committee. Gabbai is engaged with the Operations Club and serves as a Forté Foundation Ambassador, along with doing pro bono consulting work for the foundation.

So what is the secret behind the school-family balance? For these women, it’s all about organization and prioritization.

“I have a very extensive scheduling system, and I make sure to have childcare set up for two nights a week so that I can study or meet up with groups,” Gabbai explained. “And then I also try to plan ahead as much as I can, and do my work as quickly as possible.”

“A tip that I learned very early on is to schedule everything, even down to catching up with friends outside of business school… and I stick to my calendar,” Okeh added. “It’s also important to seek help as soon as possible whenever you need it.”

As part of these busy, yet well-organized schedules, the two make sure to highlight family time. In addition to bringing their children to various events on campus – such as the Spring Carnival and the Tepper School International Festival, a personal favorite of Gabbai’s 4-year-old daughter Sofia – the two also found Pittsburgh to be a wonderful home for their families.

“My kids love the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum and the playground,” said Okeh, whose husband, Victor Okeh, works as a Hospitalist Physician at Washington Health System. “Also, the Graduate Students Association on campus hosts a weekly parent and child yoga class… and they totally love it!”

Why were these two inspired to go to the MBA route in the first place?

“I knew I didn’t want to run my own lab or keep doing basic science research, so I was trying to figure out where I’d go next, and I thought that a business degree would help me transition into the business world and then be able to meld my science background with business,” Gabbai said. “So I’ll probably keep working in healthcare after my internship.”

“I came into business school with 10-plus years in IT and computer engineering, and I knew that in order for me to move up to the top, I would need to diversify my skills,” Okeh said. “I also wanted to give myself more options and build upon my leadership skills.”

Leadership beyond the family circle, of course.