Nicole Croft (MBA ’22) came to Darden knowing that though she loved start-ups, she still wanted to explore other avenues. Here, she shares how that desire for learning and staying to true to her passions led her to a summer internship with JPMorgan Chase, and a full-time role as Marketing and Analytics Director for the Darden alum-founded startup, Common House.

Tell us about yourself.

Marketing has always been my passion. While I studied psychology in undergrad at The College of William & Mary, I’ve spent the past five years in various marketing roles — from building a team at an edtech start-up to running global campaigns for product launches at The Motley Fool. I’ve had the opportunity to live abroad (spending six months in Italy), grow a sales team from scratch for a new product, and work closely with c-suite leadership at two companies in my early career.

I knew I wanted to gain a more enterprise-level education in business, which ultimately led me to Darden where I concentrated in analytics. Now post-MBA, I am officially based in Charlottesville and working for another start-up in the hospitality industry called Common House. Though Arlington, Virginia will always be home, I have really enjoyed being a part of the entrepreneurial community here in Charlottesville.

What was your First Year recruiting experience like?

I came into Darden knowing I loved start-ups, but I wanted to explore the other extreme of working for a corporation to validate my hypothesis that going back to an early-stage venture was really what I wanted. This led me to explore a variety of general management, rotational, and leadership development programs at companies including AT&T, American Express, and JPMorgan Chase. I also pursued tech recruiting at Microsoft and Apple — all with the idea that working for a larger, more resourced company would be an eye-opening experience in direct contrast with my start-up experience.

Ultimately, I pursed an internship as a Summer Associate at JPMorgan Chase. I found that I missed the energy, ambiguity, and fast-paced nature of a founder-led venture and knew that my initial hypothesis was correct. Start-up land was where I wanted to return.

How did you approach re-recruiting Second Year?

Going into Second Year recruiting, I did more soul searching and talked with various mentors to compile a list of traits that I wanted in an ideal company. I ended up developing a framework of three things that were the most important to me which I named the three Ps: place, purpose, and people. For place, I knew I wanted to be on the East Coast to stay close to family. For purpose, I wanted to work at a company that shared my values which include integrity, hard work, and intellectual honesty. For people, this was by far the most important factor. I wanted to find a company where I could trust and learn from smart people that I respected and who respected me. When it came down to it, I knew I probably couldn’t get all three Ps, but the people aspect would be one of my non-negotiables.

Special thanks to my career coach, Michele Rankin, Professors Kim Whitler, Andy Wicks, and Everette Fortner, and many of my fellow Darden students and alumni with whom I conducted informational interviews to help me draft a company list. Having an outside “board of directors,” as I called them, really kept me grounded as I recruited a second time.

However, what really made the difference for me during re-recruiting was connecting with Darden alum Ben Pfinsgraff (MBA ‘12). I was intrigued by the concept of co-working and social clubs in a post-pandemic world and had even considered starting my own venture in the space. Ben had already developed a collection of three Common House clubs—with the first local to Charlottesville. After getting connected to him through yet another Darden colleague, Ben invited me to Common House, where he spent two hours over coffee sharing his story. I was sold. Before long, he connected me with the Director of Brand and Marketing, Jordan McConnel, and we co-created an internship for me during the school year to build an email marketing campaign they needed help getting off the ground.

What led you to your role at Common House as Marketing and Analytics Director?

Ultimately, it was this informal internship that led me to my current role. Do not underestimate the power of taking on an internship during your Second Year! It shows a level of commitment to companies you’re interested in and allows both parties to test run the relationship before making things official. After working for Jordan, I knew Common House fit my three Ps. I approached her with a list of the company’s needs as I saw them and the value I believed I could provide, and we co-wrote a job description for me.

I also met with the Art Director and COO to learn more about Common House, and in just a few weeks, I accepted a full-time offer as their Marketing and Analytics Director. I would highly recommend taking on another internship in your Second Year, if only to test out some of the things you learn in the Darden classroom. Worst case scenario, you get to add something to your resume. Best case, you might find your dream job.

What advice would you share with your seeking classmates?

Stay true to what you want post-Darden. It sounds cliché but trying to live someone else’s life or version of success will prove exhausting and unfulfilling. Write down what you are looking for in a company, and don’t leave anything out. Then, take this list and start to pair it down to your non-negotiables. Create your own version of the three Ps. Talk to your mentors.

Remember at the end of the day, this is your life, and don’t be afraid to take a risk. I knew that in 10 years, I would regret not taking this opportunity at Common House. I’m coming in at level where I get to make an immediate impact, which I knew I wouldn’t be able to do at a corporation. I’m a member of the leadership team, and this is exactly what I wanted — even though I knew returning to the start-up world would be the riskier path.

Dig deep and listen to what you really want. This is a unique time to take your education and return to the workforce doing something you are truly excited about. Only you know what that something is.