Swing for the Fences

By Maria Del Toro

Booth alumna Maria Del Toro '19 reflects on her business school experiences in the selected excerpt below from her forthcoming autobiography, Just Like Sonia, due to be released in 2040. 

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Like many Boothies, I came here because my learning experience was largely defined by my ability to explore individual curiosities, and I wanted to be in an MBA program where that could continue. My studies were always a vehicle for reconciling my passions, often resulting in somewhat unusual, but thoroughly fulfilling hybrids. My undergraduate senior independent study for my psychology major was “The Artist and the Viewer: A Neurological and Psychological Perspective” which I designed with the director of my university’s Neuroscience Program, and examined how the brain and sensory systems interface during the creation and perception of art.

It was important to me to use the flexibility of the Booth curriculum allows to explore and integrate subjects I love.

I LOVE baseball.

I grew up in the Bronx, and we have this sort of famous team with a history of winning a lot. Baseball is home.

So when I was taking Strategy & Structure: Markets and Organizations last spring, I knew immediately what to propose to my group for our final project – Major League Baseball. Perhaps they humored me because of my passion or because of their pity, but they went along with the idea, and we focused our project around MLB’s potential strategies to address attendance declines. When we presented our final paper, it resulted into a lively, engaging cross-cultural conversation around Cricket2020 (a sport I knew nothing about) and the parallels around evolving sports and sports business models.

I eventually presented that paper alongside Melody Johnson at the Transcending Boundaries graduate research symposium – wearing team jerseys and giving out cracker jack boxes to anyone interested in learning more about our project.

WWSD

The guiding principle of my life is, “What would Sonia Sotomayor do?”

Before she was sworn in, President Barack Obama asked Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor promise something – to stay connected to her community.

I bought that promise with me to Booth.

My proudest accomplishment during my time at the University of Chicago was writing the Pilot-Something grant to establish a campus-wide Hispanic Heritage Month celebration. After the funds were awarded, I recruited a committee, and together we enlisted key stakeholders around campus, identified key partners like International House and the Center for Identity + Inclusion, and hosted the events.

The pilot was so successful that Vice Provost Melissa Gilliam renewed the funding for the initiative not only for 2019, but also for 2020, ensuring that it can become an annualized part of university programming. We have already onboarded a new committee of students and staff that span the entire university- the college, the medical school, SSA, Booth, Harris, even the libraries.

I helped create a space for students like myself to find a community when they arrive at the University of Chicago each fall. Which is exactly what Sonia would do.

It’s only a big deal if someone puts cream in the carbonara.

I had the extraordinary privilege of studying abroad during my second year at Booth. I ventured over to SDA Bocconi in Milan (cue hair flip). I also had the opportunity to visit a number of other countries as a result – Belgium, Austria, Switzerland and France. These are more countries than

I had visited in my entire life.

While in Italy, there were many times when the visiting students would become frustrated over, say, it taking multiple days to do something simple like reset an email password. We hypothesized that the IT guy must send passenger pigeons from his office to another office, probably after going out for another cappuccino and brioche.

One day, over aperitivo, an Italian classmate explained to us that there was simply a different culture around what was considered urgent. Very few things warranted getting worked up over. Email resets? That leak? A lingering smell of gas in your apartment? Relax.

That is, unless someone puts cream in the carbonara. Then all bets are off. Heads will roll.

But why, I asked? I was answered with a stern glare from across the table. You just don’t do that. There must be some boundaries around how things absolutely have to be done.

Know what your carbonara is. Few things are as rigid or formulaic as the real, perfect carbonara recipe. Recruiting, assignments, and networking are all important, but keep the carbonara in perspective. If there’s no cream in there, everything is probably going to be ok.

If you can understand 50%, you’ll be just fine.

I was a nontraditional candidate at Booth, with a social justice nonprofit background that spanned women’s leadership, civil rights, AIDS awareness, and educational opportunity. Even baby micro was a struggle for me.

Yet, by the time I was picking my classes for second year, I was bold enough to sign up for Pricing Strategy with JP Dube. I had second year swagger and was delirious with bid points to blow, so I enrolled in it.

I loved that class.

I learned this lesson again in a much more practical way during my time in Italy. I am a native Spanish speaker, and Italian felt like a small stretch as another romance language. Still, I struggled. There were plenty of false cognates that left me very confused – like burro being butter. I only understood about half of what was going on in every conversation, and that was enough to piece together the rest.

My proudest Italian victory: I was once trapped in a restaurant bathroom stall after the lock jammed and understood it would take multiple hours to get someone to unlock it for me from the outside (see #3 around urgency and the cream in the carbonara principle.) I was able to understand the instructions well enough to free myself.

Whether stuck in the bathroom or at a new internship, if you understand about half of what you need to understand, have confidence that you’ll figure out the rest.

There is more to the University of Chicago than Booth…

The University of Chicago is more than Booth. Much more than Booth. Tap into it proactively and don’t underestimate what we have to learn from our counterparts in other programs. I cultivated a group of friends from the Law School, Harris, SSA, and even a PhD candidate in the neuroscience program. Their passion and drive are inspirational and help me think harder and broader about how our work intersects.

There are events outside of coffee chats and corporate conversations, if you just walk out of that winter garden and into the academic wild.

Last year, Natalie Jaresko of Puerto Rico’s Financial Oversight Board came to speak at the Institute of Politics for an event called “Puerto Rico’s Financial Future” where she was talking about PROMESA. I had just covered the visiting students for my first article as an editor of this publication, and attending that event was important to me – but I almost didn’t make because I wasn’t on the IOP mailing list. It made an extraordinary difference that I did. I met several of the friends who would become instrumental to my U of C experience as well as one of the leaders of Chicago’s Puerto Rican Agenda.

…And there is more to Chicago than the Loop.

I live in Hyde Park and no, I am not 1) a dual degree candidate 2) a parent or 3) a double maroon. Living in Hyde Park allowed me to have access to the broader university and colleagues at the other schools. (see above...)

This year Booth actually had to incentivize students to leave the Harper Center with the “Fresh Air Funds” that they could use at other places on campus. Coming from the Bronx, it was hilarious to me that living in Hyde Park bought me street cred at Booth. I understand if you all want to live together in an MBA commune or pay $2,000+ for a luxury studio downtown (actually, I really don’t) but in any case, remember that there is a world outside of the loop and the Harper Center. I mean this beyond just Wicker Park or Logan Square where you go out for brunch. If you get worked up about the Bucket Boys playing outside the building, then yes, the rest of Chicago may be way too urban for you.

Otherwise, try venturing over to Humboldt Park to see the steel flags and eat some mofongo. This city has so much to offer and so do Chicagoans – meet them, and not just while swiping.

Onward

While I was working on Hispanic Heritage Month communications, I often signed my emails “Pa’lante” meaning onward. I received a scathing response from one alum who felt that this was reducing a phrase to improper Spanish slang used by local communities who are not actually well versed in the Spanish language.

My local community is the Bronx. See promise above.

Pa’lante,

Maria del Toro