From intern to advisor: Kara Merrill’s path from CLA to MBA to launching her career

by Lindsay Lennon,

“The more I learned, I realized this career is my calling. I’m challenged, I’m continuously learning, I get to make an impact on people’s lives, I get to be a business owner, and I get to implement every single subject I’ve learned in business school – HR, marketing, finance, operations, data analysis, strategy.”

When asked about her plans for the future, Kara Merrill – award-winning intern for Northwestern Mutual’s Oregon-Southwest Washington division, and fresh, 2017 Willamette University MBA graduate – says she’s “got it all figured out.”

And to hear her tell it, that’s the way she’s always operated, ever since the day she realized she wanted to pursue a career in finance.

That day came when Merrill was a senior at Crook County High School in the small city of Prineville, Oregon. Before that day, she planned on pursuing a career in pharmacy, simply because “I liked my chemistry class” and her mother worked in the industry, she says.

The lightbulb moment

However, during her senior year, the math teachers at Merrill’s school decided to take the students on a field trip to Deschutes Brewery, where one of the teacher’s spouses worked, to tour the facility and watch presentations from company executives on how they use math in their professions.

One of the presenters, Deschutes’ chief financial officer Peter Skrbek, discussed how he uses statistics in his financing work, and “I found it so interesting,” Merrill says. “I had never heard of this type of work before, and I wanted to learn more.”

So Merrill — 17 years old at the time — reached out to Skrbek and arranged to shadow him at work, have lunch with him, and conduct an informational interview.

“I realized I didn’t want to go into pharmacy anymore,” Merrill says. “(Skrbek) is the reason why I decided I wanted to go into business. He broadened my horizons.”

Merrill further followed in Skrbek’s footsteps by deciding to study economics as an undergraduate at Willamette and then pursue her MBA, just as he did. However, as a first-generation college student, she worried graduate school “would be impossible for me.”

“After talking to Peter, I thought it would be cool to get an MBA, but I already wasn’t sure how I was going to pay for four years of college,” Merrill says.

That wasn’t until she toured Willamette University and learned about the school’s joint BA/MBA program, also known as the 3+2, in which students earn their bachelor’s and MBA in five years.

“Hearing about that opportunity really changed my world,” Merrill says. “Since I was already planning on doing four years, I figured I could do one more.”

Early Career MBA makes sense financially, personally

The benefits of starting her MBA immediately after her BA are plentiful, Merrill says. She won’t have to worry about potentially delaying her plans to marry and start a family. She didn’t have to readjust to academic life after being away from it. She’ll finish school with less debt, while also increasing her overall earning potential by completing her MBA earlier in her career.

Beyond making the choice to start her MBA early, staying at Willamette to do so was perhaps the most convenient decision of the entire process.

“I didn’t have to move apartments, I didn’t have to learn a new city,” Merrill says. “It just felt like another year of school. I have relationships here, in the school and in the community, and I know how everything works. It made the transition a lot smoother.”

Lessons learned

Merrill says the Willamette MBA courses that stand out most for her are the first-year Practical Application for Career and Enterprises (PACE) program, the leadership course in which she is currently enrolled, as well as real estate entrepreneurship — all taught by Professor of Management Practice Larry Ettner.

Beyond the course material and experiential learning, Merrill says the skills she’s garnered from Ettner’s teaching go much deeper.

“One of the most invaluable things (Ettner) teaches us — and he doesn’t teach it directly, it’s indirect — but he teaches us courage,” says Merrill. “I truly believe that courage is a muscle. You have to flex it, practice it, build it up. He teaches us how to practice courage in a safe environment where the risks are low. It’s definitely helped me in my career.”

From intern to representative

In May 2016, Merrill started interning as a Financial Representative Intern for Northwestern Mutual, and was named the 2016 Intern of the Year for the Oregon-Southwest Washington division. Not only did this distinguish Merrill from the 50 other interns in her branch, but she also earned the distinction of being one of the top 100 Northwestern Mutual interns in the country, out of more than 3,000 nationwide.

Her summer internship wound up being extended on a part-time basis into the school year before Merrill was recently offered a full-time position with the company as a financial advisor. She learned of the job after networking with Northwestern Mutual Field Director and Wealth Management Advisor Matt Benjamin at a career fair hosted by the Willamette University MBA's Career Management department, who showed her around the Portland office and encouraged her to apply.

“The more I learned, I realized this career is my calling,” Merrill says. “I’m challenged, I’m continuously learning, I get to make an impact on people’s lives, I get to be a business owner, and I get to implement every single subject I’ve learned in business school — HR, marketing, finance, operations, data analysis, strategy.”

Since financial planning is a job Merrill can do from anywhere in the country, she and her fiancée have decided to move and start their lives in Bend, Oregon, after she graduates in May.

“The flexibility is huge,” Merrill says. “I feel really lucky that I fell into this internship that’s turned into my career.”

Northwestern Mutual is the marketing name for The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company (NM), Milwaukee, WI and its subsidiaries. Kara Merrill is an Insurance Agent of NM.

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Lindsay Lennon is a freelance writer and content marketing specialist.

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