Christina Peña’s goal is to “innovate in the sphere of education.” Mission-driven with a passion for education technology, she arrived at MIT Sloan without a background in business, excited to dive into data analytics and entrepreneurship—and even start an EdTech venture of her own. Focused on giving back to her community, Peña serves on the leadership team for the Hispanic Business Club as VP of DEI Admissions. After Sloan, she plans to address the inequities in the education system and build products that support teachers, schools, administrators, students, and families.
When you graduated from undergrad, what did you see yourself doing? And how did that compare to what you actually did?
My parents emigrated from Mexico to the United States and had very distinct career paths in mind for me—becoming a doctor or a lawyer. So, when I began at Duke, I was set on taking prerequisites to apply to medical school. The first semester was a big culture and academic shock and I struggled quite a bit, which ultimately led me to become a Teach for America corps member because I wanted to give back to communities that looked like mine.
At the end of my commitment in the South Bronx, the plan was for me to go to law school. But I ended up falling in love with the work that I was doing in education, and that’s what led me to the work I’ve done thus far as a teacher, school leader, and EdTech operator.
Why did you decide to apply for an MBA?
After teaching for a few years, I joined an EdTech startup called LightSail Education, which had a literacy app with the goal to help students fall in love with reading. I started off working with New York City middle schools, but my work expanded to schools across the United States, Mexico, China, and South Africa. I saw that when products were implemented best when there was a strong school leader who had a vision not only for the school but also for what technology could look like inside the classroom.
As a result, I ended up training for three years to be a school principal but ultimately saw after a year and a half of remote learning that I wanted to return to EdTech. I didn’t have a background in business, so that’s when I started looking at MBA programs that had a strong relationship with technology, were driven to solve problems, and make a real impact. I wanted to understand entrepreneurship at a different level—and that’s what MIT Sloan is all about.
What types of challenges do you see EdTech helping to solve in the near future?
One of the biggest problems is differentiation. Some children are struggling while others are thriving; some need reinforcement but others require an individualized education plan. Meeting all those needs as a teacher—and doing it effectively in the moment—is so hard. I believe EdTech can solve this critical problem for schools.
EdTech also encompasses products for higher education and the future of work. How do we help support people when they’re inside a company or in college? How do we prepare them for what jobs will look like in the future? Those are big questions I see EdTech solving.
What classes or resources does MIT Sloan offer to students interested in pursuing EdTech?
There are a lot of Sloanies, both current students, and alumni, who are interested in EdTech. I’m a part of On Deck EdTech, a community of people passionate about reimagining education. It’s so inspiring to see the different paths of business leaders and entrepreneurs in education and I’m also excited to take EdTech focused classes through the MIT Media Lab, or cross-register at Harvard next semester.
What kind of skills are you hoping to develop at MIT Sloan that will help you be successful in your career?
A huge part of why I chose Sloan was because I knew that I was going to be able to fill the gaps in my professional experience. I majored in English, so I feel comfortable with the humanities. But unlike some of my classmates, I don’t have a background in engineering, econ, accounting, or data analytics. Sloan’s core semester has given me a strong foundation in business fundamentals.
I’m so excited to be pursuing the Business Analytics certificate to learn how to work effectively with different types of data. I’m also taking digital product management, which has been helpful as a primer into a potential career path. As part of that, I was able to do a lab with Strava a fitness app, and get firsthand experience in elements of product management and product marketing. I wouldn’t have had that opportunity without the relationship that Strava had with MIT Sloan. It is also exciting that Sloan just launched the Digital Product Management certificate!
What has surprised you about your journey so far? What did you anticipate about the experience, and how has that changed over the last year?
I knew coming in that it was going to be challenging, and that I was going to be pushed to think differently. I was really excited about that growth opportunity and haven’t been disappointed. What’s been surprising to me is how supportive and collaborative the Sloan community is.
I wouldn’t have been able to get through the core semester without my core team. We each brought different strengths to the table and were able to learn from one another. It was also such a huge contributing factor for me in choosing Sloan, because every single person that I talked to was just so kind, humble, and willing to help.
The URM (underrepresented minority) community at Sloan—while small and growing—really made me feel comfortable from the minute that I was accepted. They shared all kinds of resources in these chats, and it was great to see that also translate in person.
You also serve on the Hispanic Business Club. What has your HBC experience been like?
One community that has been central to my time here is the Hispanic Business Club. People like Claudia Moreno and Renzo Hidalgo, who are the current HBC presidents, have worked hard to build a strong, supportive community. Before joining, I also spoke to Jessica León and José Ramos, who were the presidents then. They were a huge part of my decision to choose Sloan because they were so willing to share their knowledge through both virtual events and personal calls.
As VP of DEI Admissions, my role is to make sure that we’re attracting more diverse candidates to the program. In collaboration with the Black Business Student Association and the Africa Business Club, I’ve put together webinars for prospective students to help them through the Sloan application process, from putting their application materials together to nailing their interviews. Having a community of people who are cheering you on is so important.
HBC members are responsible for launching a pre-MBA scholarship, More Than Ready to help support Latinx applicants. Can you talk more about that?
HBC is all about giving back, and this is the second year that we have the More Than Ready scholarship, which is designated to ease the financial burden for Latinx MBA candidates. I know firsthand that it takes a lot of money—and that can prevent people from applying to top MBA programs.
Through the More Than Ready scholarship, students are assigned mentors who help support them through the application process. The financial support also includes access to Target Test Prep to help students prepare for the GMAT, Applicant Lab, and IVY Advisors to make sure they’re receiving the resources that they need. The fact that HBC started this and is continuing it forward to give back to the community is huge.
What are you looking forward to most in your next year at Sloan?
I have a long list of classes that I want to take at Sloan, and I’m also applying to the Harvard Kennedy School. So hopefully, I’ll be adding on a dual degree. I love to learn and just soak in all the knowledge. I’m taking a lot of business analytics classes and am also pursuing entrepreneurship and tech-related classes.
I’m excited about the potential of maybe starting my own EdTech venture while I’m here because there are so many resources at Sloan to help support students interested in entrepreneurship. I’m dipping my toe in there now with my New Enterprises class, where I’m working on a project focused on soft skills development for first-time managers.
The different paths that my classmates had leading up to this point are amazing. One friend is interested in sustainability and energy work, and a colleague in fintech is making sure we’re democratizing access to financial resources. There are so many people at Sloan who are doing incredible work, and I’m thrilled to get to know them better and learn alongside them.
Any advice for students or people pursuing education technology?
A lot of EdTech products out there aren’t effectively addressing the needs of the end-user. So take the time to understand the actual problems that teachers, students, school administrators, and families are facing.
There’s a lot of work to be done, but it was a benchmark year for venture capital and investments in education technology. People are paying attention, and lots of cool things are happening in the space!