Interview with an Expert
Preferred Pronouns: she/her
Tarla Atwell graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, with a BA in political science in 2004. She furthered her education with an MBA degree from Shorter College in Rome, Georgia, in 2009. For 15 years, Atwell was the vice president of Draga Laboratories, where she oversaw all financial and legal matters. Atwell again furthered her education with a JD, graduating cum laude from John Marshall Law School in May 2019. She was a law clerk with the Piedmont Judicial Circuit before entering private practice in Jefferson, Georgia, in 2021. She currently practices criminal defense, family law, business, trademark, and copyright law.
Where did you get your MBA?
Shorter College, Rome, Georgia — now known as Shorter University.
At what point in your career did you get your MBA, and why then?
After I graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, I applied to law schools that offered programs where a law school student could obtain a JD/MBA degree. When I applied to 20 schools and was denied acceptance to all of them, I was forced to take a year off between undergraduate school and graduate school (they now call this "gap year").
During my "gap year", I re-focused and realized that I should work on my MBA first, so that's what I did. I studied and took prep courses for the GRE and GMAT and began to apply to schools that offered MBA programs.
What do you do for your career now?
I was the VP for Draga Laboratories LLC, a family-owned hair care and cosmetic manufacturer in Atlanta, Georgia, for 15 years. I am currently an attorney in private practice in Jefferson, Georgia.
What advice do you have for someone considering pursuing an MBA?
My advice is to prepare yourself for the journey. MBA programs are challenging, so I would definitely advise anyone who is considering an MBA program to go ahead and talk to your employer and ask them if you could start shadowing different departments and try to put into practice some of the skills that you are learning in the MBA program. Getting practical experience while working on my MBA was an invaluable experience.
What's most important when selecting an MBA program? Program prestige, location, cost, something else?
The first thing I believe is important when selecting an MBA program is finding a program that fits YOU.
I believe it is important for you to consider who your classmates will be. For example, will your classmates be working adults with various experience levels or students who just graduated from college? In my experience, I found most MBA programs that I was applying to were group/cohort-type programs, so definitely finding out the "experience" level of your classmates was of great importance to me. Additionally, finding out if your program meets on weekdays, week nights, or weekends.
The second thing I believe is important is to find a program that is convenient to where you work or where you live. Commuting to school for class or to meet your group to work on assignments is a small thing but has a big impact on your time. In my opinion, attending a prestigious program does not matter, but rather what does matter is your commitment to pursuing a graduate degree. An MBA is an MBA at the end of the day.
Finally, while graduate school is costly, the cost of the program should not keep you from pursuing your MBA. Consider the cost as an investment in YOU.
How many programs did you apply to (and how many times did you apply to the same program)?
I honestly cannot recall how many programs/schools to which I applied. What I can tell you is that I attended three different MBA programs before finding a program that fit ME.
I started at Keller Graduate School's Decatur campus and after two semesters, I realized that this program wasn't a fit for me.
I studied and took the GRE and GMAT again hoping to get a better score, which I didn't, but that didn't stop me from applying to the Professional MBA program at Mercer University's Henry County Campus. After two semesters there and the long commute time I endured, I realized that this program wasn't the right fit for me either.
Finally, I applied to Shorter College's Atlanta Campus, where classes met one night a week. [It had a] small class size where a majority if not all of the students were experienced, working adults with families. It was a cohort type program and it was 15 minutes away from where I lived. I had finally found the perfect MBA program for ME.
Any advice for prospective MBA students with less-than-stellar GMAT or GRE scores?
I had low GMAT and GRE scores. I also had a low LSAT score, yet that didn't stop me from pursuing my MBA and eventually my law degree.
My advice is to not let a test score define who you are or who you can become. In addition, do not let an admissions counselor or director of admission nor anyone tell you that you won't do well in school because of your test score. Do not let that negativity manifest in your spirit, but rather allow those comments to go in one ear and immediately out the other ear.
My advice is to stay calm, keep your head up, keep the faith, and believe in yourself, for you can and you will achieve your goal. I know all too well how a "less than stellar GMAT, GRE, and LSAT" score tried to keep me from pursuing my goals. I never gave up, and neither should you.
How has the quality of your MBA program impacted your career trajectory, do you think?
The quality of my MBA program has directly impacted my career trajectory. After graduating with my MBA, it gave me a renewed purpose. My MBA gave me the ability to help make improvements at Draga Laboratories in all areas of the manufacturing business. My MBA helped me with managing my time while working full time and attending law school in the evening. My MBA continues to help me today in running a private practice. My MBA continues to be the most valuable degree that I could have invested in for myself.