Most people would think that completing an MBA at one of Europe’s top business schools is stressful enough. However, Nicole Pense, MBA ’19, decided that her 16 months at the HEC Paris MBA would be the perfect time to earn her degree and start a family. She graduated on time with both a job offer from Facebook and an 18-month-old son, Rowan. We asked Nicole why, at 5-months pregnant, she and her husband, Tim, chose to move from Arizona to start a new life in Paris.
“It sounds completely crazy, I know,” Nicole says. “I was considering going back into consulting at the time, but I knew those unpredictable hours would be a problem with a newborn. Studying for an MBA, I knew at least I would have regular classes, and be home in the evenings. Tim could do full-time childcare. So the timing was all part of our equation.”
Nicole adds that studying in France seemed like an unmissable opportunity. “I think the decision to quit your job and start an MBA is bold for anyone. I thought, ‘Since I’m doing something this big, why not also do it in France?’ I have always loved the French language, the culture, the architecture, the history… and the food. So if I can go to a prestigious school that also happens to be in a place that I love, that’s surely the perfect combination!”
Baby Rowan was due to arrive December 9th, right in the middle of first-term finals. By a combination of luck and a mistranslated due date, he was actually born two and a half weeks later, on Christmas day. Nicole spent Christmas break with her new family, and the first two weeks of Term 2 studying from home.
“A wonderful experience”
Nicole didn’t let a little thing like a firstborn child hold her back from participating in every aspect of MBA life. During the program, she took part in the 2-day leadership seminar at Saint Cyr military academy, completed an 8-month exchange at Yale, and even choreographed a hip-hop routine for the MBA Tournament.
Although a military training center might not seem like the ideal place for a nursing mother, Nicole says the mentors there were “100% accommodating.” “They were determined to help me and make sure everything was okay. At one point we were about 3 miles into the woods on an exercise, so I had to pump underneath a tree. One of our leadership mentors had to carry that bag of breast milk to a refrigerator. That’s the kind of memory that will stick with me forever.”
As if moving to France wasn’t adventurous enough, Nicole also took advantage of HEC’s double degree program, and spent 8-months studying at Yale. Between her studies at HEC Paris in France and Yale in Connecticut, Nicole interned at a Facebook data center in Iowa. “While at HEC I became really curious about tech,” she says. “Facebook just seemed like a perfect fit. There are a lot of parents there, which was a big factor for me. They’re so good to moms and babies.” In August 2019, Nicole started as an Operations Program Manager at Facebook’s San Francisco office, receiving the full-time job offer even before her graduation from HEC Paris.
“The right support”
Between moving from Arizona to Paris to Iowa to Connecticut, it’s easy to wonder how Nicole managed it all. “I was often nursing with one hand and highlighting my case book with the other,” she admits. “It was intense, but totally doable, as long as you have the right support, and you accept that some nights you’ll be up at 2 AM.”
Nicole describes how the HEC Paris administration “bent over backwards” to help her throughout the MBA. “They made sure I knew that I could take as much time off as I needed. Once I went to a Financial Markets class and I could not sit down because I literally could not fit in the desk. Within three minutes, they had found me a special desk. They were just so incredibly accommodating, and it really helped make my pregnancy so much better.”
She adds that the community of students at HEC Paris was incredibly supportive. “There was a point while I was choreographing the MBAT dance routine,” she says, “when I couldn’t keep coming back to campus to practice. So the whole group came to Versailles, where we were living at the time, and we practiced the routine in a beautiful park in the city. Whether it was offering to babysit or dancing in Versailles, everyone was so happy to help us.”
In fact, Nicole’s favorite memory of the HEC Paris MBA involves the community of friends she made. “I was sitting in a class before Rowan was born, and a group of students came in and said they had a very important announcement to make. They presented me with the book Where The Wild Things Are. They’d all signed it in languages from all over the world, with the kindest messages for Rowan, wishing him a happy entry into the world. It was the sort of moment where you think, ‘This is my family. These are my people and they really care about me’.”
Nicole is no less grateful to her husband Tim, who became a full-time, stay-at-home dad while she studied for her MBA. “He really went above and beyond a million times. When people would say ‘It’s incredible that you’re doing this,’ I would just point at Tim and say ‘It’s incredible that he’s doing this.’”
“I’m not going to decide”
So what is Nicole’s advice for women who want both an MBA and a family? “Many women start thinking about doing an MBA about the same time they are also ready to have children. It’s presented to us as this decision: ‘I either do my MBA or I have a child.’ And I just thought: ‘I don’t want to decide. I’m not going to decide. I’m going to do both.’ It is hard. It is intense. There’s a lot of work, and tears, and lost sleep, but it’s also incredibly rewarding.”
“I want women to know that it’s entirely possible to do both.”