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From Mental Health Advocate to Risk Professional

By Linda Barrett

January 30, 2023

Vicki Villarreal holding her notebook from her MBA program

Vicki Villarreal (MBA ’18) has always been a helper. Knowing that her life’s purpose was to assist others, she studied a typical helping-type sociology undergraduate major, and then supercharged it and ultimately graduated with two bachelor’s degrees by tacking on pre-law, law, and criminology. She began her career as a mental health advocate, serving incarcerated people who struggled with substance abuse issues. Transitioning then to a law firm and focusing on elder care law, she continued to work in the mental health space while helping abused and neglected elders navigate the sometimes complex world of insurance. She found great meaning in her work yet felt called to serve on a larger scale.

It was during Vicki’s research to see what would come next in her career that she came across Wisconsin’s Risk Management and Insurance (RMI) MBA. Through introductory conversations with faculty, she learned how much insurance opens doors for people all over the world and discovered that the program would lead her to help others on a new level. Vicki was animated and exclaimed, “It was not just a usual boring MBA program. There is so much meaning and purpose behind the education and behind the work. This program is it! It’s the one!”

The Wisconsin alumni network assisted with Vicki’s career placement. RMI MBAs are introduced to the members of their Advisory Board, among other professionals. A member of that board, Christy Kaufman, quickly became one of Vicki’s mentors. RMI MBA mentors have many roles: information, networking, career development, encouragement, motivation, friend, and more; Christy and Vicki explored all of those roles. Vicki contacted one of the professionals from Christy’s network for an informational phone interview, and the call took a pleasantly surprising turn—a job offer as a Strategic Risk Consultant through Marsh. Vicki served in that role before her current position supporting the Operational Resiliency Team at Freddie Mac, helping drive efforts to provide liquidity, stability, and affordability to the U.S. housing market. 

When asked which class Vicki thinks about the most, she responded without hesitation: Principles of Risk Management. Sensing my confusion at her responding with an introductory undergraduate course, Vicki explained that she was a teaching assistant for the course. “Teaching vs. being a student is a completely different experience. The students’ questions are so good! They kept me on my toes and made sure I understood the material.” Vicki had to explain concepts in a way that students could receive them, and that was challenging considering the types of students taking the course included international and non-business students. She recalled one student whose native language was not English and who was having difficulty understanding the concept of Lloyd’s of London. Vicki said, “I put it in terms that were easily understood, like shopping for an outfit. We buy different pieces—shoes, purse, top, bottom, accessories—at different stores and it comes together beautifully as a single outfit. That is what Lloyd’s does for insurance.” (Perhaps Vicki’s next career will be teaching?!)

In a conversation that took many interesting directions, the one that was the most fun to hear was about a book. As a student, Vicki was known for carrying around a notebook and writing everything down during lectures and MBA events. Vicki explained, “All of my classmates will remember this book! Anytime I am stuck, this is the book that I open. It is full of wisdom. It grounds me.” She keeps the book on her desk and held it while we were talking.

In summary, Vicki is making the RMI MBA program extremely proud. She is a fiercely grounded professional, reminding all that we are here to help one another in many varied ways.