While professionals tend to begin their careers in roles well-suited to their formal training, it’s not uncommon today for many to discover that their roles have shifted over time—or the broader business environment has evolved—and their formal training no longer provides the framework to understand the problems they encounter each day.
This is what brought Junzhou Cui to Graduate Student-at-Large: Business (GSALB) at the University of Chicago, a program that gives working professionals top-tier business school experience and a competitive edge in their application to the University Chicago Booth School of Business and other MBA programs.
Having grown up in China, Cui came to Chicago for her finance masters at DePaul University. Enamored of the city, she decided to stay after she found a job working for the Zhou Agency, a boutique financial services firm.
“When I joined, it was a small female-, minority-owned business focused on accounting and insurance,” Cui says. “Partly from my own suggestion, we saw an opportunity to reposition the company, so we moved our office from Chinatown to downtown and we expanded into real estate. This broadened our client base and many other aspects of the business.”
Despite lacking a background in real estate, Cui built the firm’s real estate department from the ground up.
“Real estate became a true passion of mine,” Cui says. “I love learning about it. But the more I learned the clearer it became that I needed to have a framework, a way to think about things strategically in the long run. That’s the reason I wanted to pursue an MBA—and Chicago Booth had always been a dream of mine.”
Taking actual classes at Booth through GSALB lets you see if you’re up for the challenge, but it also lets you know if Booth is the right fit for you. It’s a great way to test the MBA.Jojo Cui, GSALB student
From GSALB to Chicago Booth
GSALB was the perfect solution for Cui for at least three reasons:
1. It clarified her career goals: Cui says that one of the real joys and benefits of being a GSALB student was working with Esther Pandian-Riske, GSALB program director, whose guidance through monthly mentoring meetings gave her the confidence she needed to tell her story.
“Esther showed me that I have a unique story and that it was just a matter of telling it in the right way,” Cui says. “We both put our minds together and she helped me find my niche. I don’t think I would’ve been able to finish the whole process without Esther’s help.”
2. It tested her capacity: With a full plate of responsibilities at the Zhou Agency, Cui wasn’t sure she’d be able to balance her full-time job and also dedicate herself to getting her MBA.
“Another reason for my enrolling in GSALB was that I wanted to test my capacity and see if I’d be able to keep up my performance at work and succeed in the program at the same time,” Cui says. “Taking actual classes at Booth through GSALB lets you see if you’re up for the challenge, but it also lets you know if Booth is the right fit for you. It’s a great way to test the MBA.”
3. It gave her practical lessons: Even if Cui had not gone on to Chicago Booth after taking her GSALB classes, she says the lessons she learned through the four classes she took were enormously valuable in their own right. She highlights a real estate class she took in particular.
“It gave me the framework and big picture I needed, while also expanding my vision,” Cui says. “I’d always been focused on Chicago, but after that class I really started to think about Chicago in terms of other markets and what its competitive advantage might be. That class was money well spent!”
It was really Esther's warmth and individual guidance—and my overall experience in the GSALB program—that gave me the confidence to start envisioning a plan that would increase diversity in the commercial real estate industry.Jojo Cui, GSALB student
A pathbreaking platform
Ultimately, GSALB did more than secure Cui’s acceptance to Booth and demonstrate that she was up for the challenge of being a student there. Through her discussions with Pandian-Riske, Cui was also able to concretize some of her long-term career objectives. Given her passion for real estate, it’s no surprise she wants to extend her passion to others.
“I feel like if you’re a woman in commercial real estate, especially a woman of color, it can be very challenging. That’s why it would be my dream to inspire and even mentor others like me to have better opportunities to climb the ladder. That’s what my ideal future looks like.”
In pursuit of this, she envisions a technology platform that would serve as a base for investing and learning about real estate investment opportunities. More than just a financial advisor, Cui hopes to provide her clients with an education so that they can make their own decisions about investing in real estate.
She also envisions a funding program specifically aimed at immigrant women that would enable them to continue their education and progress into leadership roles within the commercial real estate sector.
“The most important thing is that I want to create an educational community where new Asian immigrants can learn about those concepts and be informed about real estate,” Cui says.
“In the end, it was really Esther's warmth and individual guidance—and my overall experience in the GSALB program—that gave me the confidence to start envisioning a plan that would increase diversity in the commercial real estate industry by enabling opportunities for mentorship of minority women.”
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