Isela Bahena M.B.A.’04: A Commitment to Equitable Education

March 8, 2019 | by Kyle Simmons
Picture of Isela Bahena

As the eldest daughter of Mexican immigrant parents, Isela Bahena M.B.A.’04 grew up in Chicago, Illinois in a working-class family. Although her parents did not have the opportunity to go to college, Isela was taught to put her education first, and she did very well in school. As a result, she became the first person in her family to attend a university.

A first-generation student, Isela attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign on a scholarship, where she studied economics. “The scholarship eased financial hardship and made the choice of which university I attended easy,” says Isela. “I am where I am today because of financial support and development from organizations that are funded through philanthropy, which furthered my education and work experience.”

After graduating, Isela began working for Bank of America in Chicago in its corporate lending area. She spent a handful of years underwriting credit facilities used to finance mergers, acquisitions, working capital and capital restructuring. Then, Isela saw an opportunity to do more in finance and knew furthering her education would build on her existing foundation.

“I had always known that I wanted to go to graduate school,” says Isela. “When I was embarking on my M.B.A. search, I started talking to friends who had gone through the process.”

One of the friends she talked with about M.B.A. programs was a friend from undergrad. He was part of a corporate-sponsored program Isela was involved with, INROADS, which helps a diverse pool of talented young people find internships. This same friend also happened to be a graduate of The Fuqua School of Business. As she mentions, the rest was history. “He was like, ‘Well, you know you’re going to Fuqua. You know that, right?’”

Still, as part of her due diligence, Isela visited other schools she had applied to. She attended events for underrepresented groups at some of the schools. As a woman in finance, she wanted to get a sense of what it was like going to these business schools. “I went to Fuqua events, and I fell in love with the culture,” says Isela.

The folks she met at Fuqua showed her that Duke was an exceptional environment and she felt warmly embraced.  After her trip to Duke, she knew that it was the school she wanted to attend.

“It was such a meaningful experience,” she says. “Education is one of the world’s great equalizers. Providing access to education for those qualified – including folks who may not be able to afford to do so – is really important.”

At Fuqua, Isela’s favorite experience happened during her first year. For course projects, every Fuqua student is assigned to a team with four or five peers. But the team isn’t self-selected by the students. Instead, students are intentionally grouped with those who have dissimilar backgrounds and work experiences. It requires them to lean on each other’s strengths and find harmony with soft skills as they strive toward emerging goals. “That’s accurate to the way work happens,” says Isela. “It was excellent training for what actually happens in real life.”

Since Fuqua, Isela has seen incredible success and growth at TIAA, a Fortune 100 company and a leading global asset manager, first as an associate, and then as a senior director. Now, she is managing director at Nuveen, a TIAA company. In this role, she oversees a $1.5 billion dollar portfolio of equity infrastructure investments and leads an investment team. Isela takes advantage of the TIAA Serves program that creates meaningful opportunities for TIAA employees to make a difference where they work and live. TIAA Serves provides philanthropic gifts to match a portion of Isela’s contributions to Fuqua.

This influence as a financial decision-maker has given Isela a broader perspective on why now is an important time for women in philanthropy: “In the traditional world, many times, it’s the spouse or the husband who is considered, ‘the donor,’” says Isela. “But I think as we’re seeing greater balance of economic power to women in society, they are taking an increasingly engaged role in how money is donated.”

Since 2004, Isela’s affinity for Duke has never ceased. She has gone back to the Duke M.B.A. Workshop for Minority Applicants – the one which captured her imagination as a prospective student – nearly every year since graduation. She understands how vital it is for students to have the opportunity to experience Fuqua. Isela has also established an endowment fund to provide ongoing future unrestricted support to the school. “Providing equitable educational opportunities for folks irrespective of their economic and social background in the form of scholarships is extraordinary.”

It’s part of what she has found so empowering in being part of the Duke’s Women Impact Network.

“We have an ability to speak with our dollars the way men have been doing for many years. It’s something we should empower ourselves with.”