Nate Carlson (Class of 2023) resides in Birmingham, Alabama, where he is the owner and operator of several local eateries and coffee shops. Carlson’s background in small businesses and entrepreneurial companies helped him realize that he was looking for an active and hands-on learning environment once he was ready to take the next step in his business education and pursue an MBA, sharing “the case method style of teaching appealed to me because I knew I would learn best in a participatory environment.” Carlson and classmate Sarah Boschung were recently elected as President and Executive Vice President of the Executive Student Association (ESA).  Student leaders in the ESA and other student organizations work with their classmates and Darden leadership to meet the needs of working professionals and enhance students’ academic, social, cultural and professional lives.

Carlson shared insights on how his entrepreneurial mindset has been a helpful tool during his MBA program so far, as well as his best advice for prospective students.

Q: What is your current role? What is your professional/academic background?

A: Owner/operator of Real and Rosemary and Caveat Coffee in Birmingham, Alabama. We currently operate four units in the Birmingham area. Real and Rosemary is a fast casual concept serving real food with a focus on fresh seasonal ingredients. Prior to starting Real and Rosemary with my wife I worked at a fine dining Japanese

Nate Carlson, Class of 2023

concept called Jinsei Sushi. Jinsei was a lot of fun and I learned a lot. We had the largest LVMH champagne selection in the Southeast, and we paired our champagne selection with fish flown in daily from the Tsukiji market in Japan. I started as an hourly employee and worked my way up to becoming General Manager then as we expanded into a second location my role grew into Director of Operations, overseeing day to day operations across both units. I graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in Public Relations. While I was at UA, I also played football under Coach Nick Saban and was fortunate to be a member of two National Championship teams (2009 & 2011) while I was there.

Q: How did you decide to pursue an MBA?

A: I have only ever worked in small businesses and entrepreneurial companies. The great thing about working in companies like that is that I have gotten to see and have my hands in a lot of different components of a business from strategy to accounting to investor relations. Given none of this was my background (again PR major), many times I found myself lacking the baseline knowledge to grapple with a lot of the concepts or hats I was being asked to manage and execute. I thought for years about going back to school to get an MBA because I truly love business and I knew it would help fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge, but there was never a convenient time.

Fast forward to March 2020, we had just opened our second Real and Rosemary in Birmingham and the world was being shut down because of COVID-19. It became apparent quickly that the growth we had been gearing up for as a company was going to be greatly affected by the pandemic so my wife and I talked and it seemed like now might be a good time to look at getting an MBA.

Q: What led you to Darden?

A: Darden made sense for me for a lot of reasons. What I looked for in a program was accessibility, a more hands-on learning approach (at the time I didn’t know this was called case method), faculty that was there to teach first not research then squeeze in some classes around their research, and somewhere I could expand my network out of the current footprint I had been living and operating businesses in. Darden quickly made a ton of sense because it checked all these boxes. Washington, D.C. is accessible from anywhere in the country and it is a two hour direct flight from Birmingham to Reagan National Airport (DCA).

The case method style of teaching appealed to me because I knew I would learn best in a participatory environment. I also hoped this type of learning environment would allow my “non-traditional” experiences to shine through and enrich the learning environment for others. I had two very good friends who graduated from Darden, and I saw first-hand what a transformational and trajectory-altering experience it had been for both of them. They raved about the faculty and just how bought into your success as a student each member of the staff is.

Lastly, I recognized that the world and business in general, post-pandemic, was going to be vastly different than it had been prior to COVID-19. Dean Beardsley spent a lot of time talking about the options an MBA from a world-class institution like Darden can give you. As an entrepreneur this really resonated with me. I think options help you make better decisions and an MBA from Darden gives you options.

Q: What has been the impact of your Darden experience so far?

A: In short, overwhelmingly positive! Darden Admissions and the entire Executive MBA program team have been extremely intentional about building rapport among the cohort even prior to our matriculation. I think this has allowed our group to form deep bonds quickly which is remarkable given the short time we have been in the program.

The great thing about the Executive MBA program is that everyone is working while in school, so we are all taking learnings from the classroom back to our current jobs and roles and trying things out then coming back to class and comparing notes and sharing our experiences. All of this fuels an unbelievably tight-knit community and a rich learning environment.

Q: What is your best piece of advice for prospective students?

A: First, ask lots of questions. As a prospective student you are on a fact-finding mission and you need to know if this or any other program you are evaluating is a good fit for you.

The good news is the admissions team is aligned with you in that process. Join the informational meetings, listen to the ExecMBA podcast, ask if there is a current student or recent graduate in your field you could be connected with to ask a few questions.

I cannot speak for every MBA program but what I can definitively speak to is that, at Darden, people are passionate about helping other people. We want great people in our classes because it enriches our learning experience, and we want it to be a good fit for you if you decide you want to join us here at Darden.

The last piece of advice I would offer is to take inventory of the key stakeholders in your life who will be a part of this journey with you and build consensus and make sure they are ready to do it with you. This is a big decision for you, your spouse or significant other, bosses, kids, etc. Make sure everyone is up for it because at times it is a lot and you will need support.

The classes are demanding and the program moves quickly, and you need to be able to commit to and pour yourself into the experience to get the most out of it. Our classrooms are participatory by design so you will want to be prepared and ready to engage with the material and your classmates. I hope you join us at Sands Family Grounds – you won’t regret it.