This story is the 14th in a series called What I'm Doing with my MBA, which examines how MBA, EMBA and HBA graduates are using their business degrees, often in nontraditional fields.
Many people don't really know what goes through the mind of a world-class athlete. So they make assumptions.
One is that athletes remain locked in competition mode, even after they retire, that they approach second careers in, say, business with the same blinkered determination that they had brought to their sport. Unswerving, without self-reflection, maybe to a fault.
Another is that athletes don't have a thirst for learning.
These assumptions grossly misconstrue athletes' abilities, on and off the field or race course. It even misreads the very nature of competition.
As a former alpine skier, now an MBA graduate working up the corporate ladder at energy giant BP PLC, Emily Brydon knows the biases that get attached to sportspeople. Sure, athletes have a strong work ethic. But competition on the international level is as much about openness, learning and discovery, as it is about sheer drive.
"I always had an ambition to be more than just an athlete," says Ms. Brydon, 37, who was raised in Fernie, B.C., then competed in three Winter Olympics and had nine podium finishes on the World Cup circuit over her 13-year racing career, before retiring in 2010.
Her life after ski racing seemed, at one point, to miss a turn, when she found herself, in her early 30s, returning to undergraduate studies at the University of Calgary, sitting in classes surrounded by teenagers. It's like that anxious dream so many of us have, the one in which we have to go back to school, in order to make up for some missed grade or unwritten test.
"It was such a shock. I had gone from competing in the Olympics to sitting in a classroom with 17-year-olds," she says. "I really struggled. You're at such a different point in your life."
She realized she needed to take a different course of action, but also found how limited the academic opportunities for former athletes can be. She credits her network of business connections, close friends and family around her for pulling her through that process.
"I had business sponsors who became friends. I had childhood friends that I had known forever, who knew me for who I was, and not necessarily this sports person," she said. They helped ensure that although she lost her ski racing identity with retirement, she wouldn't lose her fuller sense of self.
"I was talking with my best friend, and she had done sports also. She had gone on to play professional soccer and then went for her master's [degree]. She was, like, 'Emily, you should go for your MBA.'"
Yet, the lack of support out there for athletes to pursue an education that takes into account the wealth of life experience accumulated through years of competition surprised her. "It's getting better in Canada. But I would say that when you retire from a sport, no one cares about the value and the lessons you get from sport," Ms. Brydon says.
It's a great omission on the part of schools and employers, she believes. Athletes will "bring something different to the table, if you're looking for diversity."
She was fortunate though. She wound up pursuing her MBA at the Imperial College London in Britain, graduating in 2012, and London-based BP happened to be recruiting from her school. She applied despite her lack of corporate experience and was accepted into their management program. She has since risen up BP's corporate rungs, living in Shanghai, San Francisco, London and now Chicago. The rotation through different positions in different parts of the world "was like a continued MBA."
When she applied to BP, "they were, like, 'Well, what's your story?'
"So, I told them, and I got invited to go to their assessment centre, where they hired 26 of us from around the world from a large amount of applicants. I don't really know why, because I'm not the typical person that they would hire," she says. "But that's what the [management] program is all about. They wanted people from different backgrounds who would add a different perspective to the company and a different way of thinking."
Meanwhile, as her career flourishes, she also helps run, with her mother, her own non-profit, the Emily Brydon Youth Foundation, which raises about $60,000 a year for children's and community programs. She started the foundation in 2006 while still competing.
It takes up "probably less than half my time, honestly, but it's all of my love," she says.
Ms. Brydon sees it as a way to give back to the community in and around Elk Valley and Fernie, and as a way for her to give her ski racing extra meaning. Ms. Brydon didn't come from a wealthy skiing family. She didn't have lots of racing equipment as a kid. She showed up to one of her first ski events in a homemade downhill suit. She appreciates how a lack of opportunity can shut the door for less-fortunate kids.
"I was given this amazing gift to be a ski racer and to travel the world. I wanted it to mean something. I wanted to use that platform to make a difference."
Her interest in life after sports "allowed me to also feel a little less guilty about being an athlete, and to feel a little more empowered, because I knew that that was just one part of my life."
Her interest in business originally came from her interaction with sponsors. "When I was an athlete, being exposed to sponsors and basically running my own business, I really enjoyed it. I found it interesting to find out how to market yourself. And running my own foundation was a really good opening into business."
Still, away from skiing, she found it impossible to suddenly drop the work ethic that had been ingrained in her. In skiing, she was never the perfect mould for a ski racer. There was never one obvious physical attribute making her a natural. She was also taller than most. She simply loved it and had a strong network supporting her.
"I think I had something to prove throughout my career and education. I wasn't the underdog, but I always had a little more to prove. And so, for me, there was a lot of naysayers out there: 'Oh, you can't do that.'"
Work ethic on the slopes and in business aren't the same though. "There is a big dose of humble pie." But rather than making her entry into business just about her own work, another motivation has crept in. She's thinking about attitudes and opportunities for athletes.
It's about convincing corporations "to take a chance on athletes, and not to just watch them on TV one minute and not hire them the next."