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They mean business

Wake Forest recruits ex-athletes to its management master’s program

By David Pickle

Like many student-athletes before her, Tahirah Williams had the grades and the skills. What she needed was the test score.

She fell short on her first try, and then again the second. And then the third. And the fourth. But on her fifth attempt, Williams got the result she needed.

Williams’ test was not the SAT or the ACT but rather the General Management Admissions Test, and the objective was not the opportunity to play college sports. Instead, Williams was pursuing a spot in Wake Forest’s prestigious Master of Arts in Management program. 

Here’s the twist: Williams got an extra look from the faculty because of her experience as a student-athlete. The repeated test-taking? That was less a sign of failure than evidence of the tenacity needed to complete the program.

The Wake Forest management M.A. program is rigorous. Faculty member Melenie Lankau called it a “10-month boot camp” that demands the most out of students, many of whom come from liberal arts backgrounds with no business experience. Competition is encouraged, and effective teamwork is rewarded. 

Steve Reinemund, dean of the Wake Forest School of Business, knew from his 30-year career that the field of business is not far from the field of play. Rather than waiting for student-athletes to find his postgraduate management program, he has chosen instead to actively recruit them.

“It was really the first student that I had an experience with here that made it very clear to me that the athletic experience was more than relevant,” said Reinemund, a former PepsiCo CEO. “It’s very hard to take a smart and talented student who has not had that kind of experience and make them competitive if they have not by nature been competitive.”

The student who caught Reinemund’s attention was Williams. She had lettered four years as a member of the dominant Connecticut basketball team from 2005 to 2009, earning a degree in mass communications along the way. She performed poorly on standardized tests and never took a single second of business as a Connecticut undergrad.

But Williams did make good grades, possessed great interpersonal skills, and displayed an astonishing willingness to work and succeed – all of which were noted in the screening process. While the faculty looks at indicators such as GPAs and GMAT results, the professors also ask behavioral questions about teamwork and experiences with adversity. 

“One of the things we’re looking for with students who don’t necessarily evidence a cognitive aptitude is a hunger,” Lankau said. “They’re hungry to learn, to prove that they warrant a position in the program, that they’re hungry to be successful.”

Such was the case with Williams. In the course of 10 months, she was transformed from a first-time business student to an M.A. in Management from one of the nation’s top universities. Quite literally, she worked the problem, relying on the lessons of competing at the highest level.

“As an athlete, you’re basically pushed to the limit,” she said. Geno Auriemma’s intense regimen was perfect preparation for the academic setting at Wake Forest, where she often arose at 3 a.m. for a few extra hours of study before class.

Current student Eric Plummer took a more traditional route into the program. Though he was a notable athlete, exceeding 60 feet in the shot put, he also was an economics major at Princeton. After graduating, he worked awhile at Under Armour before becoming aware of the Wake Forest opportunity.

He has especially excelled in the “action learning program,” in which five or six students complete a project with a local company. In the case of Plummer’s group (“The Heavy Hitters”), the task has been to help the Winston-Salem Dash baseball team with merchandising.

From the beginning, Plummer discovered his athletics experience was an advantage. 

“Being an athlete, I was used to joining different teams and learning different dynamics,” he said. “As an athlete, you’re always learning a new team environment and new coaches. You have to learn how to adapt on the fly and succeed.”

Also, like the other athletes, Plummer knows that great teams make great individuals.

“A lot of the team experiences that we had coming up through our college careers have really helped us balance our priorities and understand what’s important and not important, to understand the strengths and weaknesses of our teammates and how to leverage them,” he said.

“Even though you don’t use those terms in sports, that’s what you do every single day. You leverage the strength of your teammates, and you look for them to pick you up when you’re weak.”

Plummer is halfway finished with the program, and he hasn’t been weak too often. His action learning team, which also includes former student-athletes Kendra Berry (Furman basketball), Denmore McDermott (Wake Forest basketball) and Blair Smith (Hampden-Sydney football), won two case-analysis prizes in the first semester – the first dual winner in Lankau’s time at Wake Forest. 

Plummer also has exhibited another student-athlete necessity: punctuality.

“Eric has turned in every assignment for my class early,” Lankau said. “This is not a normal practice, but I think for him, being at Princeton and being the kind of star he was in the shot put, ‘only’ going to school is probably easy for him.”

Of the 96 students currently in the program, 14 are former student-athletes. The recruitment of athletes began informally last year and became more formal in 2011. Placement is excellent for all students, but it has been especially good for the former student-athletes.

Williams, the ex-basketball player who willed her way through the program, has been notably successful. She’s now a district sales manager for Frito-Lay who has her sights set on an eventual assignment at the company’s headquarters. The entire experience has exceeded what she would have thought possible.

“I never would have dreamed this would have happened,” she said. “Going to UConn, I was thinking I was going to play for a WNBA team, and now I’m a professional. I’m not an athlete, but I’m a professional at what I do.”


Mastering Diversity

An M.A. in Management from Wake Forest is not only an educational experience. It’s also an experience in diversity.

“This is our most diverse program in terms of race, color and ethnicity of all our business programs,” said professor Melenie Lankau. In the current class, 34 percent of the students are from under-represented groups. In other years, the figure has approached 50 percent.

Understanding of diversity actually becomes part of the education of management.

 “We actually want through this very diverse class composition for the students to be equipped with cross-cultural leadership competence,” Lankau said. “I think the athletes feel more comfortable in the mixed setting and become informal leaders in that respect.” 

Class profile

Class size 96

Female 41%

Under-represented groups 34%

International students 7%

Colleges/universities represented 40