Student Spotlight with Rachel Wolff

OUT WEST: In a sunny lunchroom overlooking the San Francisco Bay, Rachel Wolff toasts with her classmates after turning in their final exam. She officially completed her first semester of graduate school in August. Wolff, a child protection adviser for nonprofit World Vision International, is enrolled in the Wharton School’s two-year Executive MBA program in San Francisco.

QUITE A COMMUTE: She travels from her home in Seattle every other week to make it to the full-day Friday and Saturday classes in the historic Hills Bros. Coffee building, where Google and Mozilla Corp. also share space. Wolff books direct flights from Seattle on Friday mornings, and the earliest flight she can out on Saturday evening “so I can at least see my kids before they go to bed,” she says.

IT’S PRACTICAL: As a nonprofit executive, Wolff knew she’d be funding her own education, and wanted to get the most bang for her buck. A firm believer in the value of a brand name, Wolff was drawn to this particular program at Penn because it has, in her opinion, “the best faculty, the most rigorous curriculum, and the most stimulating classmates.” The in-person experience has been very important, as well. “I think even with digital convenience, nothing can take the place of face-to-face interaction, with your professor, peers, being able to debate the issues, ask questions in real time,” Wolff says. “It also helps me to engage better. I’m getting more out of it; making friends, we’re getting to know each other, building that trust, leaning on each other. To me, it feels like I’m getting the benefits of a normal, full-time program.”

PERFECT TIMING: A few years ago, Wolff started feeling the pressure from family and friends to complete her master’s. “People who cared about me, my mentors, would say to me, ‘Come on, Rachel, you want your master’s, you’re in your 30s now, you should do this.’” But it just wasn’t the right time. She was being promoted rapidly in her job at World Vision, and in 2012 was afforded an opportunity to work in World Vision’s Somalia program. “I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Wolff says. Her husband and kids moved with her to Kenya. Upon their return at the end of last year, she knew it was finally the right time to pursue her MBA.

LOOKING AHEAD: Wolff’s big dream after earning her MBA is to go back overseas and serve in one of World Vision’s country offices in a national director role, managing portfolios of $100 million or so, with many different types of donors, while overseeing staff and working with local governments. “I like the idea of having a variety of challenges and being able to inspire and lead the team to make a difference in that country,” she says.

WORLD TRAVELER: When she was young, Wolff’s parents moved their immediate family to Japan, where she spent the majority of her childhood. “I grew up speaking, thinking, and dreaming in Japanese,” she says. Wolff credits her international experience as shaping “a lot of who I am both as a professional and in my personal life.” She adds, “I think it’s made me a more flexible person, and of course very eager to work and travel and be part of the whole world, not just in my local community.”

PEN AND PAPER: After receiving her bachelor’s degree in international relations and Asian studies from Georgetown University, Wolff worked as an editor for a business magazine and later as a reporter for a Japanese newspaper in Washington, D.C. She was married to her husband a month out of college, and had her children in her 20s. Taking a break from traditional work to be with her young kids, Wolff continued freelancing, leaning more toward marketing writing, which eventually led her move to World Vision.

FORGET CONVENTIONALISM: Wolff is a big believer in following her heart. When she felt the urge to have children young, she didn’t listen to the negative perspective. “I followed what felt right to me at the time and it ended up being wonderful,” she says. “Because, sure enough, when I got to World Vision a few years later and had the opportunity to be promoted and take on some very demanding roles, my children were at a stage where they were old enough for me to feel OK about traveling on assignments for a few weeks at a time. I have learned that as professionals, and particularly as women, it’s very important to listen to our own hearts and not necessarily be boxed in by conventional wisdom.” Now with teenagers, Wolff and her husband—her college sweetheart—have adopted a newborn.

ASK FOR HELP: As a woman as ambitious as Wolff, she’s learned over the years to ask for help whenever necessary—at work, at home, and in her Wharton studies. Ask family members for a hand, hire a babysitter, or outsource home projects, for instance, she says. “I don’t try to be a superstar and do it all myself,” Wolff says.

Rachel Wolff Wharton