May 14, 2021 By Dave Hendrick,

Aja Sae-Kung headshot

Class of 2021: Juggling a Law Career and an MBA Program, and Making It Look Easy

Aja Sae-Kung attended Darden’s Executive MBA program while working full-time as an attorney – and still found time to pursue creative projects on the side.

Aja Sae-Kung knew that earning an MBA while working full-time as the in-house attorney for a Washington, D.C., utility would be a heavy lift. Previous experience also taught Sae-Kung that she could more than manage.

As an undergraduate, Sae-Kung went to George Mason University’s evening program while working full-time for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and juggling the demands of being a new, single mother. One year after graduation, Sae-Kung enrolled at Georgetown University Law Center, where balancing work and school – and editing a law journal – meant her young son typically came to class with her.  

“He learned how to handle the Socratic method very early on,” said Sae-Kung, who will graduate from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business on May 23. “He learned how to read cases in the case law books. He’s been on this journey with me from the very beginning.”

Indeed, Sae-Kung’s son, Shawn, started his undergraduate studies at Xavier University on the same weekend Sae-Kung began her Darden career in 2019.

“It was emotional, and a challenge, to send my child off to college and turn around and be focused, but I had great, supportive friends who had to deal with my emotional week of learning,” Sae-Kung said.

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It helped that she found herself very busy, very quickly. In addition to juggling her work with Washington Gas – actively litigating major cases, working to mitigate risk and devising land-use agreements with businesses across the city – Sae-Kung threw herself into the Darden community wholeheartedly – engaging in the classroom, but also building community and pushing the program forward.

Sae-Kung said that the executive MBA program built new quantitative skills in areas like predictive modeling and accounting ratios, but said the “bigger-picture leadership skills” gelled throughout the program.

“That leadership component has become so much more integral in my life, that it’s almost second nature, and it’s easy when something becomes second nature to assume that everybody has it, too,” Sae-Kung said. “But I’ll have these moments where I realize, ‘Oh wait, I do have a skillset that is unique and extremely valuable in the business world.’”

People who have reached the upper echelon of the legal field are often assumed to possess exemplary leadership skills, Sae-Kung said, whereas many highly skilled attorneys have never been taught the learnable skill set of a leader.

In addition to the core Leadership and Organizational Behavior courses in the program, Sae-Kung took on a leadership role with the Black Executive MBAs student club, serving as co-president with Michael Long during what Sae-Kung described as period of “racial reckoning.”

The club, which had essentially served as a supportive network for Black students in the program, fortified its support function, while expanding its scope and goals throughout the 2020-21 academic year.

After the killing of George Floyd sparked energized calls for justice and racial equity, BEMBA leadership challenged the executive MBA program to make a number of changes, including instituting a new experiential leadership course on diversity, equity and inclusion issues. Sae-Kung said program leaders took the requests seriously, and as a result, fall 2021 included a new course taught by Darden professors Martin Davidson and Laura Morgan Roberts, an EMBA Diversity Committee and a new series of diversity dialogue videos, among other initiatives.

“That was incredibly important for us as students to see the program be so responsive, and it was incredibly powerful,” Sae-Kung said. “It was incredibly empowering and it built a great sense of community. It was really a transformative moment in my life.”

Sae-Kung, who credited the previous members of the BEMBA club with helping to jumpstart her journey to Darden, has tried to do the same for the next generation of students, facilitating virtual happy hours and networking sessions with prospective students, for instance.

Sae-Kung recalled meeting two prospective students at a Washington coffee shop for an informal admissions Q&A session. When a member of the Darden Admissions team was unable to attend at the last minute, Sae-Kung said she realized both that she was an ambassador for the program and that she believed in the power of the Darden MBA journey.

“I spent an hour talking to these two women I had never met before about the program and what to expect, but also the great things I had experienced to that point,” she said. “I’m glad to be done, but I love talking to people about my experience.”

Outside of work and school, Sae-Kung maintains a series of serious creative pursuits, with a craft room overflowing with fabrics destined for hand-made clothes, yarn for knitting and tools for papercutting, among other outlets. Plus, she does lots of baking.

“I’m pretty much known for sweet potato pie, carrot cake and pound cake,” Sae-Kung said. “I make a lot of cakes – everything from scratch.”

Sae-Kung said she thinks future creative and entrepreneurial ventures may include a long-dreamed-of event-planning business, and she also sees a future helping individuals and organizations navigate the legal cannabis industry with a focus on equity. If there are barriers of entry to either, Sae-Kung’s experience has taught her they can surmounted.

Said Sae-Kung, “Honestly, [after] finishing law school, I felt like there wasn’t much I couldn’t accomplish, and finishing Darden has renewed that sense of ‘Oh, I can pretty much do anything I set my mind to.’”

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