Living Life on Her Own Terms: Shawna Strayhorn Shares Her Journey

By: Divinity Matovu


Earlier this month, we announced Cornell MBA Mama grad Shawna Strayhorn as our November 2021 MBA Mama of the Month and we promised to publish part 2 of her profile. Well life got hectic due to my pending court date for my child custody case and my travel schedule plus the holidays, so I didn't get around to publishing part 2 until today. We also decided to postpone Shawna's IG Live interview so stay tuned for the announcement of when we'll be talking to her live. Better late than never.

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Shawna is a busy marketing executive, wife and mom to baby Damien. She left behind a financially lucrative (but very time-intensive) career in investment banking. She is now the VP, Growth Marketing at Hazel, a venture-backed direct-to-consumer menopause-care brand. Shawna decided to pursue an MBA in 2009, but didn’t ultimately apply years later. She didn't enroll at Cornell until 2013-2014. At the time, Shawna worked at fast-growing start-up Refinery29 leading marketing efforts. Like many other people of color seeking to pursue an MBA, Shawna applied to Cornell University through the Consortium and she loved the experience telling us:

"I applied to majority Consortium schools and was immediately struck by the deep & lasting friendships I was able to forge across schools. From the time we landed at Orientation Program (OP) in Austin, Texas, I just knew MBA was going to be fun. When people speak of business school, they often use the language of “networking.” And, that works for some. My preference and my path was to pursue authentic friendships, bring my whole self to those relationships and see them blossom over time."

After nearly 5 years at Refinery29, Shawna made the decision to apply to an MBA to transition to investment banking and ended up at Bank of America Merrill Lynch on the consumer & retail desk. As we discussed in part 1 of our profile, Shawna pivoted out of investment banking after precisely one year and returned to her first professional path – marketing. Shawna had this to say about her post-banking career pivot:

"My time in banking highlighted for me that my prevailing core value was having time that was my own, and flexibility in how I work. I took a work-from-home opportunity and never looked back, spending the next 2 years in Hawaii, South America, dotting across Europe, and living in the Greek Islands until I finally set up shop in Haiti, my husband’s home country, before returning to the United States in 2018."

Shawna chose Cornell because of the ability to study abroad for a full semester as an MBA. She studied at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and used the time to travel Asia and Oceania and began to learn about vast sinocentric business and political practice. Shawna tells us that her campus activities were limited – and that was by design. 

"I took the time pursuing my MBA to be radically selfish and pursue things that only time could allow for. In the end, I delivered a Ted-talk style session at Cornell entitled, “How to Visit 40 Countries as an MBA Without Taking on More Student Loan Debt.” I delivered my talk during an overnight layover at Singapore Changi Airport. 

When we asked Shawna how her time at Cornell shaped her leadership style and career trajectory, she said this:

"My time at Cornell confirmed for me that I am not a careerist. I reject notions of a “dream job” and patently do not dream of labor - period. Instead, I dream of what my work and labor can bring to my family and my life and how, with the right mix of intensity, luck, savvy, opportunity, and access, I can dedicate more time to nurturing the relationships where I am unequivocally irreplaceable – that is, how I show up for myself and how I show up for my child. These notions inform my career trajectory and leadership style in a few meaningful ways. It means that I prioritize flexibility, reject opportunities and embrace (now and in the future) entrepreneurial opportunities, small teams, and radical candor. There is a reason why I’m invited to the weddings of people I’ve managed, am called upon to write recommendations, and are asked by junior people not only how to navigate work, but also how to navigate life. Authenticity in leadership shines through."

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Shawna had this to say about managing childcare as she has pivoted back to work in the midst of the pandemic post-maternity leave. 

"I am fortunate to have a mother ready & willing to be live-in childcare. My child is 6 months old and I still nurse. Nursing and pumping would be impossible without Damien close to me throughout the day. I work regular hours and prioritize long morning nursing sessions and bedtime routine at night. Pre-pandemic, I worked from home and will continue to do so as restrictions ease – and, will continue to pump while on Zoom calls. My work, home and family life are deeply integrated and enmeshed and I couldn’t imagine it another way at this point. As dynamics change and Damien grows up, I’ll certainly re-evaluate, but – for right now – the small bit of routine we have works for us."

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Shawna's advice for new moms:

"Find reliable childcare. Then, find backups. Communicate to those around you what your boundaries are and normalize the realities of motherhood. And, remember, where you are absolutely irreplaceable and who – should you die tomorrow – would have your job posted by Monday morning."

Like so many other MBA moms in our community, Shawna's biggest challenge at the moment is finding time for self-care and managing fatigue from balancing work, home and community responsibilities. Shawna is working through these challenges and trying to schedule time in the day for self care, treating herself more lavishly, and meal-prepping so the food she consumes is fortifying and she can avoid eating unhealthy fast food options.

Shawna is an amazing example for the MBA Mama community and we're looking forward to chatting with her soon on IG Live on MBA Mama's official Instagram page. Stay tuned for the announcement of the date and time for Shawna's IG Live interview.