Owl Have You Know

Patra Brannon-Isaac '11 talks about the process of being admitted to Rice Business, the impact her MBA has had on her career trajectory, and her involvement in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at the school.

Show Notes

Patra Brannon-Isaac '11 talks about the process of being admitted to Rice Business, the impact her MBA has had on her career trajectory, and her involvement in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at the school.

A transcript for this episode is available here.

What is Owl Have You Know?

Owl Have You Know is Rice Business’ podcast created to share the experiences of alumni, faculty, students and other members of our business community – real stories of belonging, failing, rebounding and, ultimately, succeeding. During meaningful conversations, we dive deep into how each guest has built success through troubles and triumphs before, during and after they set foot in McNair Hall.

Christine Dobbyn:
Today on Owl Have You Know.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
The Rice Business MBA pushed me to think more broadly and more strategically. And all of the things that you would think an MBA should do, but not having that, I'm sure I would grow my career, but I wouldn't have been exposed to higher level thinking and even higher level career path.
Christine Dobbyn:
A self-described poster child for being uncomfortable. Find out why, as we hear from Patra Brannon-Isaac, Rice Business full-time class of 2011. She also details her work on the Rice Business task force on equity and social justice and her travel goals, post pandemic. Well, today on Owl Have You Know, we have Patra Brannon-Isaac joining us, MBA full time class of 2011. Patra, thank you so much for connecting with us.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
Thanks for having me. I'm really excited.
Christine Dobbyn:
Well, I want us to start with, you have had a career in several different industries and that might be maybe a little unusual for someone who comes to Rice Business. A lot of people have worked in one industry. I know you've worked in corporate auditing, executive recruiting, even HR. Can you talk a little bit about your journey and working in different industries?
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
Sure. Yeah. I think it's always a fun thing to reflect on. I think a lot of my classmates in the past, or just people who come to business school, they maybe have had one or two careers, but I think my entry point I had had two. So really that's about average. But when I think about what I've done since then, it's just been this winding road of fun in different experiences. But yes, before business school, I was a corporate auditor. I've worked in banking, I've worked for a really cool technology company. And then I did executive recruiting with a really small boutique firm. And those are really great experiences to kind of build my technical skills and kind of develop an acumen for detailed observation and awareness for the work I was doing. And then when I became a recruiter, that was really great because I had never had a sales role, but that really taught me just strong relational skills and sales skills dealing with people, right?
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
Listening to what their actual needs are and trying to match that up with an actual job and not forcing that down people's throats, but really understanding what is it going to take to make you happy in your work. And so that was a really, really great experience that I still draw on today. And then I went to business school and that was really funny because I wrote about not ever going to work for anyone ever again. And I would do my own thing. And I was just like, "Yeah, I'll just have a career being an entrepreneur, kind of a serial entrepreneur." And so far that's not happened at all. Everything I wrote about in my admissions essays were focused on entrepreneurship. And so again, it's funny to look back at that and see how convicted I sounded back then.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
So anyway, I get to business school and I was open to focusing in a new area, kind of having a background in finance and internal audit, which is still pretty general and broad. But knowing that I wanted to pivot to something, I don't know that I guess I connected with more. And so in business school, I kind of found this passion for human capital and human capital management. And that was kind of the sexy way of saying HR, but it actually really did open my eyes and horizon to other roles that were more strategic and not just kind of what you consider traditional hiring and firing in the HR department. And so that was really great. So I became the HR lady, I think, during that time and kind of got other classmates interested in that field and space and kind of opened up a path, a new path for recruitment at the Jones School during that time.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
So we didn't have recruiters really coming to the school for HR back then. I just started cultivating relationships with recruiters that I knew at Chevron and at Exxon Mobil, because they had fellowship programs focused in human capital management. And when it was all said and done, I mean, we had Exxon coming to recruit in that space for the first time. And we had a couple of folks who landed jobs in that career field. So I thought it was great to bring attention to that. And I left Rice going to work for Exxon Mobil as a Human Capital Advisor in the production company. And so again, this was all really great until a professor called and said, "Hey, we need someone with some fresh HR talent to go work for a nonprofit." And really he was saying in the public sector, there was an opportunity to lead talent acquisition and for a big nonprofit.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
And so once he sold me on the role, then he told me what the organization was. And it was HISD, which is the seventh largest district in the country and a very large employer here in Houston. And I was kind of sold. I thought, "Oh, this is... I care about education and students and their trajectory and all of that." And so I just went for it completely different obviously than from Exxon Mobil. And so that was kind of the start of this really crazy road, but that was my foray into education. And since then, I've taken on another role, getting a nonprofit started in Houston. It was a regional role for building civic capacity, with people in all different industries to better understand the public school system at a policy and system level, and even to kind of garner support for people to run for office at the school board level.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
And so that was a really great experience. And from there, I think one of our funders just kind of reached out and said, "Hey, would you like to consider a role in philanthropy focused on education initiatives?" And that was probably the best job I ever interviewed for. Never presented a resume, just had coffees with different people. And that's how I got my current role. So anyway, there's a lot of micro stories within that, but I just, I think I look at all of that and say, do your work, do your job that you currently have the best you can, really build trust and relationships while you're doing it, no matter how technical the role, because you just never know who is watching and who is creating affinity for your work and kind of how you're even building trust for someone to just offer you a position and into a very unknown space. And so I think that's kind of my biggest reflection on all of this is building trust through your work.
Christine Dobbyn:
You've described yourself as a potential poster child for being uncomfortable. Is that a result of the many industries that you've worked in or describe what you mean by that?
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
I guess I just... When you think about jobs that you take on, you generally thinking that you do that one or whatever set of skills really well, and that's what you're going to get hired for. And I just gotten hired for things that I have not done before. And so naturally, I think there's, there's a desire for me to embrace those kind of roles. But when I get into them, I feel really uncomfortable. And it's mostly because I feel like, "Okay, this is just completely different than the role I previously had or had ever had in my career." And I had a kind of a colleague tell me that I always think, he's saying, I'm always thinking that it's a sign of me doing the right thing or on the right path when I feel uncomfortable, because that really pushes me to do my best work.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
And so I embrace it from that standpoint where I feel really uncomfortable, which means I know I'm going to mess up. So I'm not naive to think that there won't be mistakes made because of unchartered territory and kind of figuring things out. But I'm increasingly comfortable with that. And I think over time, I've just sort of said that I'm a career generalist. I'm not a person that has this skill that I've done for 20 years and do it in my sleep. I'm actually someone who is open to new experiences. And so because of that, I realized that there's just going to always be this discomfort because I want to do my best at something and not really sacrifice the integrity of that work.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
And so that's really what I mean by that. And it's really helped me navigate when things feel really tricky. I really lean on the fact that, "Hey, I'm supposed to be here. It's okay that it feels uncomfortable. Pause, reset, and do what you feel like you can do best." And it usually always turns out fine. So that's what I mean. It's just one of those things. I think it's the nature of being a generalist in your career. You kind of have to get used to that feeling.
Christine Dobbyn:
That's great advice. Great, great experience.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
Yeah. I don't know if I'd recommend it for everyone. Because I would love to just kind of do the work in my sleep, come home and then have a glass of wine and watch all the reality TV that I could possibly take. But that's just not always what's happening in my life.
Christine Dobbyn:
So you mentioned when you went to Rice Business, you focused or you thought you would focus a lot on entrepreneurship. Take us back to what brought you to Rice Business initially.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
So I majored in finance and I went into internal audit mostly because I did not really know how I wanted to focus with my finance degree. And so internal audit was one of those broad career paths that you could do a lot of different things and learn a lot about something and create that breadth of experience. So I did that for about four years in two different organizations. And then in doing that, I pivoted over to executive recruiting as well. But then at some point it was like, "Okay, what else is out there? And how do I figure out other career paths that aren't so obvious to me?" And so that's really when I started seeking out an MBA degree and really Rice was just, it was interesting because I'm from Houston, born and bred here all throughout high school.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
And then I go off to college in a very remote town and state. Iowa State University, which was really great. It was a unique experience for me. I cherish it for many reasons, but I said that I wanted to do my MBA in an urban city, a large city. I just kind of overlooked Houston because I'm from here and I knew I'd come back or I felt that way. So I really didn't look at Rice so intentionally. And it wasn't until I went to this world MBA tour. And one of the staff members there in admissions was just really nice. He was the only one at the table at the time. I was just... I walked up and talked to him and he was so friendly and there was just this huge amount of warmth that came from his conversation.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
And I know that sounds really cheesy, but that mattered to me because I had been talking to other institutions representatives and I kind of felt like a number. And so I think that said a lot to me then, and I immediately put Rice on the list and pretty close to the top of the list at that point. And then it was just kind of a cultivation thing at that point. They were really great about reaching out.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
I enjoyed the experiences that they created for diverse students at the time, being able to see other people that looked like me in a very prestigious university was really important. And so they just... By the time it was all said and done, I think one of the funniest things I remember is I had gone to the admissions office so many times, or just asking questions or just having a nice sit down. And I don't think it was overkill, but it was enough to where they were like, "Oh yeah, Patra." So one day I came in the office and I think the admissions director, I heard her say "Is that Patra out there?" Because she recognized my voice and I was like, "Okay, I hope this leads to me getting admitted, because this is hilarious that she..."
Christine Dobbyn:
You were infamous before you even started.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
Maybe infamous is the word and that's... Yeah. I just, I appreciated the way that they went through the process of selecting people who had really brought a real holistic thought leadership type of energy to this school and not just kind of, "Oh yeah. They're all these smart kids, but they're all just kind of... They have the highest GMAT or the highest whatever." And there's not a lot of substance. And I really felt like I was in a class of individuals who had such diverse experiences and perspectives and just a great group of people. So that's one of the best decisions I ever made in my life to go to Rice.
Christine Dobbyn:
When you look back on the experience, you've had time to reflect now 10 years, what are maybe some of the highlights that you found were really transitional in just helping you both professionally?
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
That's a great question. I'll start with professionally because I think it's brought me a lot. One, I will just say perspective in thinking. Some of my favorite courses are marketing research. I mean, I really love that class because one, we had an hilarious professor who just was great at making things... Just dumbing things down to the point where you're like, "Well, sure. That's why you need to really focus in on creating a survey this way." He just talked about market research in such a really tangible and palatable way. And that was great. And so in the work that I do in community now, I mean, everyone's surveying people and you can survey people all day and still not be able to use the data in a meaningful way. And I just remember things from that class.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
I remember my communications class. So it was another one where a lot of students kind of downplayed the impact that that class would have. I have found that over the years, as you move up in your career, communication skills are really core to moving the needle on the work, any type of work that you do. And so I've really drawn a lot from that class and just really perspective on business and that it's not a one size fits all. And just the Rice Business MBA pushed me to think more broadly and more strategically. And all of the things that you would think an MBA should do. So I reflect on that. That's how it's really helped me professionally, because be not having that, I'm sure I would grow in my career, but I wouldn't have been exposed to higher level thinking and even higher level career paths, the way that I did while there.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
I think personally, I walked away with amazing friendships and a family and a network that I feel like I can always go back to. And I've been really connected to the Rice community, but also to friends that I met. We're on group meets, WhatsApps all day. We've celebrated milestones together and that makes me feel really great. I loved my undergrad experience but I didn't walk away with the same network that I have through Rice. And so that's why it's meant so much to me on a personal and professional level, but that personal one really stands out because it's a small network, but it's a mighty network. And I just feel fortunate to be a part of it.
Christine Dobbyn:
I totally agree. And that's a good point really looking at undergrad versus the graduate relationships and network and the way that everybody's still very cohesive. And I know interviewing different people in the podcast, even different classes, but it's almost like within the Rice Business, alumni network, nobody meets a stranger and you can have two alums that don't know each other, but a common friend and say, "Hey, you guys need to connect because of this or that, that you have a shared interest." It's wonderful.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
Yeah. Yeah. It really is. And I'm sure many schools have that, but I think to have that in the city that I grew up in and I will remain in, I think for the rest of my life is just, I think that's even more important for me. So...
Christine Dobbyn:
I want to ask you, you have mentioned that you've served on the task force on racial equity and social justice at Rice Business. Can you talk a little bit about that experience and what it meant to you?
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
Sure. So I should probably start by saying I don't... Well, as I move up in my career and just kind of engage with other leaders, there's so many people on so many task force and boards and all of that. And I really try to be selective about which ones I join because I just want to be able to make some type of impact. And when the Dean was seeking different voices for this task force, I certainly said yes, because I care about the Rice school and the work that it continues to do. And I said, sure, I'll join and figure out how I can contribute meaningfully. And I once heard someone remind an audience to be your authentic self, your narrative is unique and necessary. And so sometimes I wonder, "Okay, well, if I see all these other really smart people, what different perspective am I going to bring?"
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
And I sort of had a little bit of that thought on this task force, mostly because I haven't really served on higher education boards or task force in the past. I think for me, when I joined, I just really hope to use my voice to try to lift up and share a perspective on what I've seen work, what I haven't seen work. I mean, this has been an incredibly difficult time to have this conversation. I'll just pause and say I appreciate any organization and institution who has been working a long time to elevate equity work. And I mean, equity in addition to diversity and inclusion, because there is certainly a difference and I think more people are becoming aware of what that difference is. And so anytime to focus a conversation on equity is the right thing to do and the right time.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
But in this moment, it was incredibly difficult after all of the things that happened in 2020 and being courageous to share your voice because there's a lot of different thinking out there. Everyone is not thinking the same way, even when they're coming together under a common purpose. And so I just use this as an opportunity for me to speak my truth and never be afraid to do that. And so I did that at times on the task force and I felt really good about it. So if I didn't walk away with anything else, but to know that I shared a perspective that might not have been shared, had I not been on a call and I think that's important for all of us to lean into. For me, one of the biggest things that I wanted to see and there's a lot that I would love to see the Jones school move towards in embracing more equitable practices and I would want that for any institution.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
So it's not just the Jones school, but one thing I really hope to see was just the alignment of resource to the priority that the Jones school said it would place on this topic. We all know aligning time, people, money speaks volumes about the priority that you have around something. And so I think while the Jones school has done great work to elevate diversity, one opportunity was to elevate the role of an equity leader directly to the Dean. And that was one of the major recommendations I know I spoke out about, others spoke out about as well, and I will say that it, it was really great to see the Dean take action on that in a very short period of time after receiving those recommendations.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
And so I just appreciate the Jones school elevating attention to racial equity, what that means while being a student and also on faculty even, and also as an alum. And I'm just looking forward to how they will approach this work in more intentional and impactful ways. And so the task force was kind of a defined period of time to bring some thought to this work and support the Dean in making some decisions. And so I appreciate that time. And now I'm looking forward to how the new leaders take on this work.
Christine Dobbyn:
Well, thank you for your important work on that task force.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
Thank you for acknowledging it.
Christine Dobbyn:
Patra, you've shared just a wide variety of experiences and industries that you've worked in. There are a lot of students who come to Rice Business with maybe a pivot or a transition in mind, but they may find when they submit their resume, a potential employer looks at it and says, "Well, you've only had experience in this industry. Why would I consider you for a different industry or position?" Given your experience, you've had so much success in pivoting and moving into different roles. What advice would you give to someone who is wanting to transition into something different?
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
So I think that's a really great question. I spend a lot of time talking about that to people, especially because people still think of me as the HR lady. And so they come to me for that kind of advice. And I would say first and foremost as you think about the kind of work you want to do or something that peaks your interest just really spend time trying to get closest to that work and as close as possible, right? So it might not be the thing that you do as a nine to five, but it certainly can be where you spend your volunteer experience and time doing something that you're really passionate about or that you want to really learn more about before deciding to work in that profession or space full time.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
And so I think that's advice, number one, because then certainly you can put that type of experience on your resume, through the form of leadership experiences and activities and you can talk about it and of course it comes down to sometimes packaging that on your resume in a certain way. And so I'll get to the advice around that in a second, but yes, I'd say get close to the work that you want to do some kind of way, whether it's your nine to five, whether it's volunteer experience, board leadership experience, or just starting your own kind of side hustle to dabble around in it. So that's number one. I think another thing that has really helped me is seeking out mentors and sponsors, and there is a difference there too. And actually just, even before you do that, tell people what you want to do, because you just never know who's going to remember that and call you out of the blue and say, "Hey, I thought of you when this opportunity came up."
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
And so I think it's important to talk about what you think you might want and yes, seeking out mentors, people who do that, and also a sponsor who may not be a person in that space, but just a leader or someone who has connections and is willing to vouch for you. That's especially important when you're working for an organization or an institution and you develop relationships with leaders who really recognize your potential or not even just potential, what you're actually doing in the moment. I think that's really important because a lot of times that can make the difference or really just kind of catapult you before anything on your resume or cover letter would. And so I have, like I've mentioned earlier, I think received jobs just because of that. And the resume was kind of a check the box.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
It was more about the conversation and kind of the experiences I had that I could talk through in an interview, but that really weren't glaring on my resume. And so that was also because someone opened the door as a sponsor or a mentor who was willing to reach out and kind of put in a good word. So I think that's a huge piece. And that really just comes down to building relationships with people and always kind of exploring with people what's out there and what you'd like to do and making that known to people. I think for folks who have done all that, or they're getting ready to do that, but they really still need to get that resume in order, try to get some help, ask people to look at your resume.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
So many people still don't do that. And I'd say it's worth a lot of times seeking out some professional help to repackage, especially when you're making a huge pivot. And you feel like that resume is going to speak volumes to try to at least get you in the door. Because especially as you get into your career and you have a lot of different sets of skills and no one really can pull a lot from a chronological resume. So you really need a different packaging. And sometimes that's really hard to do. Most times that's really hard to do yourself. I'd also say networking, I already said it and I'll again, but just LinkedIn and anything you can do to really get closer to the people who are doing the work and show up in those spaces, you just never know where it leads.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
I love hearing stories where people receive opportunities out of the blue. And it was really because they showed up somewhere and they just kind of struck up the conversation or continued to show up to this place to help. I mean, that's really, I think where a lot of people get to reinvent themselves and it's an easier path than just doing it based on resumes. So I think the biggest thing is carving out time to do that. Because I know it can be tough when there's so many other competing priorities, but I think over time, if you're really in tune to what you want to pivot to, I think you can find that organically you'll get there if you stay persistent with some of those recommendations, I just mentioned. So great question.
Christine Dobbyn:
You have mentioned to me that you really enjoyed traveling and you had a lot of really amazing experiences up until Rice Business and then post COVID, you're looking forward to having some other experiences. And one of your goals is just travel more. Can you talk a little bit about some of those past experiences, how they have enhanced your love of travel and maybe what are some of the things you'd like to do as we return to life as some kind of a sense of normalcy?
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
Definitely. I was just talking to a friend about this because I just recently turned 40, which is still hard to say at times, but I'm still embracing it. And so of course you can imagine you did a lot of reflection on, "Oh my gosh, well, I've had my whole twenties and then my thirties." And when I think about that, I feel really fortunate because my twenties, I mean, they were amazing and they were fun. I love the different jobs I had, but I also got to travel and that was starting in college. I did a study abroad in Italy and it's not like I had my heart set on that. And I'm so glad I went, but I spent six months in Northern Italy and it was just the most amazing experience. And it was during a time where I kind of needed to regroup.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
I had just broken up with a boyfriend, I think, in college. So that was the perfect reason for me to just leave the country.
Christine Dobbyn:
That'll do it.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
And I really had a lot of time to get to know myself. I also got to know another culture. I never traveled out of the country and I really developed an appreciation for how other people live, not in the US. And I mean, it's very different. And I love when I can share an experience with people who've been to Europe, because this isn't just the case in Italy, but just the level of patience you have to develop when you're over there.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
Because we used to try to go to the Tabbacchi, which was like the corner store and they'd leave for lunch and say they'd come back in an hour. But sometimes they wouldn't come back until like three hours and we needed to get groceries immediately before we went to our dorm. And we were just sitting there waiting for the store to open again and it was just because that was the culture of over there being really present with family and friends and whatever they were doing in the moment. And it wasn't so business centric and that was just very different. So I carried that with me a lot just for a number of reasons. So anyway, that was a great experience. And then when I was an auditor, I worked for a software company here in Houston, but it was during the time that Enron collapsed and everyone in finance and finance departments would be focused on the Sarbanes Oxley legislation and just trying to develop stronger internal controls.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
And so anyway, I was working for this software company that had shared service centers in Amsterdam and Australia. And so I think I was on the job a month and they were like, "Can you go to Amsterdam?" And I was like, "I think I can, I can." And so I think it was supposed to be for a two week trip. It turned into two and a half years and yeah, it was...
Christine Dobbyn:
Oh my gosh.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
I didn't live there, but I'd stay over there for eight weeks and then we'd come back and regroup and then go back again because we were just an uncovering so much. It was just a crazy time, I guess, to be in that profession and try to figure it out alongside your other colleagues.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
So that was just, that was great. I was traveling in my twenties for free for work and experiencing another culture in Amsterdam. And I got to go to Australia and just a lot of different places in Europe. So I just, when I reflect back on my twenties, I've had some really cool immersive travel experiences, little less on the leisure side. And so during your thirties, you're trying to continue to establish yourself and sure you're having fun, but other life things are happening too. And so I was just reflecting back on, "Okay, now that I feel like I'm in a good place with maybe career and other parts of life, I just want to get back to traveling again." And yeah. So another friend's turning 40 and I kind of pushed through my fears of COVID and traveling and just booked a trip.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
So I'm excited about that because I really have wanted to get back to seeing other places that never seen before. And so I am excited about 2021 and all of what the next decade brings. I'm also an avid snatcher of itineraries. So if I hear someone went on a great trip and I really don't want to think about planning it, I just want to get their itinerary and book the same thing. And I have done that several times before and will be glad to do it again.
Christine Dobbyn:
And what's your first destination in 2021?
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
It's just Playa Del Carmen Mexico. It's an obvious one for a lot of people, but surprisingly I've never been so it'll be fun.
Christine Dobbyn:
Well, we hope it's a great trip.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
Thank you. I do too. I hope I come back in one piece.
Christine Dobbyn:
Well, we want to thank you so much for joining us on Owl Have You Know, Patra Brannon-Isaac, full-time class of 2011. Thank you so much for sharing your insights and your experiences at Rice Business and since graduating.
Patra Brannon-Isaac:
Thank you again for having me. This was a pleasure.
David Droogleever:
This has been Owl Have You Know, thanks for listening. You can find links and more information about our guests, hosts, and announcements on our website, business.rice.edu. Please subscribe to this podcast wherever you find your favorite podcast and leave us a comment while you're at it and let us know what you think. Owl Have You Know is a production of Rice Business and is sponsored by the Rice Business Alumni Board. The hosts of Owl Have You Know are myself, David Droogleever and Christine Dobbyn.