This story is the seventh in a series that features students and graduates who are using their MBAs and EMBAs in unique fields other than the traditional ones of finance or consulting.
Natasha Penzo-McIntosh left a promising career in public relations to hammer out a new path as the co-owner of a home construction business.
The plan was to enroll in an MBA program to gain the requisite smarts in running her own business and also to join forces with her younger brother, Luca, who at the time was at George Brown College studying building.
Urban Blueprint, which they launched in 2014, specializes in the design and build of residential properties located in urban centres such as Toronto, where the company is based. The designs are done in-house, saving the client the cost of an outside architect or other designer, and all the finishes are custom. The company also does construction and property management.
The siblings – she is 30, he is 25 – grew up in Toronto, the offspring of parents in the housing industry, and her career move felt like a natural progression.
"I was constantly on job sites as a kid, watching my father liaise with trades," Ms. Penzo-McIntosh says. "My mother was a real estate agent. They had a real passion for it."
She wanted to follow in their footsteps straight out of high school but, after studying political science at the University of Toronto, a competing interest in fashion led her to join a fledgling PR company with a growing roster of clothing and beauty brands as clients. It was an education it itself.
"It was a very small agency, with only four people," Ms. Penzo-McIntosh relays, "so it gave me the opportunity to watch a startup grow."
From there, she took a job at Hudson's Bay Co., joining the marketing and PR department in 2011. In Toronto, the Canadian department store had begun a renovation of The Room, a 22,000-square-foot showcase of high-end and emerging designer fashion, and Ms. Penzo-McIntosh again found herself at the receiving end of instruction that would prove invaluable to her future career.
"The Room was relaunching itself as a premiere fashion destination when I was there in 2011 and 2012 and it was pretty exciting. Working in a corporate environment like that made me realize I needed to get an MBA if I were to one day to start a business. I was missing some valuable skills."
Specifically, she lacked an understanding of financing and accounting principles and was hopeful that the MBA would make her more proficient with numbers.
She applied to the Schulich School of Business at York University, and was there from 2012 to 2014, enrolled in a program that was definitely outside her comfort zone.
"I focused on courses I knew I wouldn't get straight As in but that would increase my business savvy, subjects like venture capital, private equity and behavioural finance; it was a real learning curve," Ms. Penzo-McIntosh says.
She also took "a multitude of entrepreneurial courses" that exposed her to a diverse group of people from different industries and business backgrounds. She loved every second, despite often feeling like a fashionista out her element.
"It was an almost all-male classroom," she says, "and many of the students were from overseas, so we didn't always have a lot in common. On the other hand, being surrounded by guys ended up being helpful for what I do today. Construction is male-dominated and so are the trades I typically deal with, so it prepared me well."
Ms. Penzo-McIntosh graduated in May of 2014, and one month later she and her brother were in business.
Their first project was a three-bedroom property in Toronto's Summerhill neighbourhood. The circa-1895 Victorian row house, measuring just four metres wide, was in rough condition when they purchased it for themselves as a test case for their newly minted business.
They gutted the house and underpinned the basement before rebuilding from the ground up. While they hired trades to complete much of the work, Ms. Penzo-McIntosh installed a new kitchen with designer appliances while her brother added new hardware flooring and installed the light fixtures his sister had sourced from stores around the city.
They had purchased the building for $895,000 and later sold it for $1.295-million, scoring a profit on their first venture.
"That was a great boost," emphasizes Ms. Penzo-McIntosh. "It showed people that we're not just building a home for them to live in. We're giving them a lifestyle."
On reflection, Ms. Penzo-McIntosh says that it is possible she could have started the business without the MBA. She knew all along what she wanted to do and was willing to learn on the job. But would she be as successful without it? She doubts it.
"I now feel comfortable sitting in on meetings with mortgage brokers and potential investors, with lawyers and buyers. I have an understanding of what they are speaking about. I guess it is possible to teach yourself those things if you are really motivated. But I do think that having an MBA makes you feel more confident. It certainly has made me feel smarter."