MBA graduate shifts from teaching to business career

Friday, December 15, 2023
Heather Johnston makes the leap to entrepreneurial role

During her years as an educator, a Peace Corps teacher trainer, an interpreter and, now, an entrepreneurial business leader, Heather Johnston has seen many people step back from potentially life-changing career moves.

"People are sometimes scared to make the jump, especially teachers or people who are making a jump from an industry like education into something new, because they don't think that they'll be able to bring anything to the table," said Johnston, who in December completed a Master of Business Administration degree at UNC Charlotte.

Johnston empathizes and understands how fear can hold people back — but she also knows how gaining skills and confidence can help people move forward.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in global studies with a Latin American concentration from Appalachian State University, Johnston’s interest in the Spanish language and culture first led her to the Peace Corps, and shortly after that to teaching. While she enjoyed being a Spanish teacher and World Language Department chair at a private school in the Charlotte region, Johnston kept thinking she could have an even greater impact.

Johnston sees connections

"I saw all these connections, of how my job and my education and everything I've been doing could transfer to the business world," she said. "But I wanted a better ability to speak that connection to others. I wanted that confidence and to gain quantitative skills from the MBA classes."

She started the Charlotte MBA program in January 2021, juggling part-time classes with a full-time job and busy family life. Early on, she met with Robin Boswell, Belk College of Business’s associate director of career development, who suggested that Johnston seek an informational meeting with education technology company PSS, to explore how her experiences might be useful in the business world. Johnston and the company’s top leader talked, and later that week she received an unexpected job offer.

"I've been leading the customer success team for 2½ years," she said. "There was not a customer success department at our company prior to me joining, and so I've had the opportunity to help create and build this really cool department where we get to build and maintain relationships with schools." Johnston is now senior customer success manager; she has particularly relished the autonomy and diversity of her work.

Customer success teams are a reasonably new phenomenon, focused on understanding customers’ goals and helping resolve or avoid problems. In Johnston’s case, people at the schools that had purchased the company’s technology solutions sometimes had no idea how to use the products, which meant frustration and wasted money for the schools and lost opportunities for the company. By her proactively reaching out and helping solve problems, everyone wins, she said.

Every day, teachers manage projects, plan, teach and nurture a wide array of relationships, from connections with individual students and parents to interactions with the entire classroom as a unit, to bonds with other professionals in the school.

"There are all these inter-relational aspects that you have to focus on and manage while doing your job of teaching at the same time," she said. "That's so similar to what I do now, because I have to worry about all these business aspects and revenue generation but I also have to worry about our customer base and make sure they have a positive onboarding experience. And so, while the topic that I'm talking about may not be exactly the same as when I was a teacher, it honestly felt really seamless for me to be in this environment."

New career uses knowledge from MBA

As she has grown in her role in an entrepreneurial company, she has applied knowledge gained in her MBA classes to understand company financials, operational management and other aspects of the trajectory of the company. "I would have been more at a loss as to how to look at that information and understand where we are going as a company without my MBA classes," she said.

One entrepreneurship class stood out for the students working together to create a business with a product they sold and for which they developed a business plan. "In the class, it was less about what we were selling, and more about the process and building something with other partners," she said. “I think that, honestly, a very hard part of starting a business is starting something with other people."

This class and other entrepreneurship classes at Charlotte have been particularly helpful as PSS is charting its path. "My experience really helps me have the mindset for everything that we have gone through as a company," she said.

"The people that I work for truly value the experience that an educator brings to the table," she said. "They have experience looking at education from the outside looking in. But they have never been an educator. They really appreciate the insights that I and other educators that have been on our team have brought to the table. Being able to take the business-level knowledge that I have learned from the MBA and also bring in those valuable education insights was what helped them take me seriously and really listen to the voice that I brought to the table."

In the future, Johnston wants to expand her role in the customer success field. “I want to expand my customer success team and transition into a leadership role,” she said.

She is drawn to customer success because of its diversity. "I think it's because it's not just focused on one thing," she said. "My job involves working with every department and identifying areas to drive change. Because it's something that's constantly improving and constantly evolving, I love that, and there’s never a dull moment."

As she reflects on her experiences with the Charlotte MBA program and how she has taken her own leap forward, Johnston thinks of the lesson others could draw from her story.

"I think everybody has something to bring to the table," she said. "That is the value of the MBA, that you're getting to spend time with all these people who aren't from the same background as you are professionally or personally. I want to emphasize and reiterate to people to spend time making connections so they can see where they do bring value. And see how the MBA can really compound on top of their value. It can help drive the change that they wish to make in their personal career or organization."