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Finding her voice

MIT Sloan student looks to merge successful music career with new business skills
Vanessa Kafka, MBA 12, peforming at her CD release party in Boston.
Vanessa Kafka, MBA 12, peforming at her CD release party in Boston.
Linxio Chen

The next time you are on Pandora — the Internet radio that suggests songs based on listeners’ music preferences — type in an artist such as Natalie Merchant or Matt Nathanson, and you may hear one of MIT Sloan School of Management student Vanessa Kafka’s original recordings stream through.

Kafka, MBA ’12, grew up in Tolland, Conn., and holds a bachelor’s of science in management information systems from the University of Connecticut. In addition to her role as a full-time Sloan student, she has a successful recording career as a singer-songwriter, and performs throughout the Northeast.

Her sound has been compared to artists such as Suzanne Vega and Natalie Merchant, “with traces of the mournful intonations of Sarah McLachlan,” according to “The Ripple Effect,” a music blog that reviews up-and-coming artists. Kafka plays guitar and sings original songs with deeply emotional lyrics.

Getting in tune

Growing up as the daughter of immigrants from Peru, Kafka was surrounded by many types of music — everything from country to folk to South American music. As a child, she sang karaoke to pop stars such as Mariah Carey, and entered local talent shows. “The only reason I knew I had a good voice was because my fourth-grade teacher told me so, and my mom said, ‘I knew that!’” Kafka says.

Kafka started guitar lessons in the sixth grade and by sophomore year of high school, she was penning her own songs and performing them at school functions. “My classmates were super supportive,” she says of her early years. “That was important because I was such a late bloomer. Music was an outlet for those ‘awkward years.’”

Although her parents praised her musical talents, they encouraged her other interests as well. “In high school, I became obsessed with playing music. I could play in front of people and it was such a confidence booster. But, I had very realistic parents, and I am so happy they kept me grounded. They told me not to put all my marbles in the same jar, and they told me to have a ‘Plan B’ because it’s a very tough industry to succeed in,” she says.

She followed their advice, and enrolled in the University of Connecticut to study business as an undergraduate. She found a way to merge her music and schoolwork when she wrote a thesis on the impact of technology on emerging artists, a project that included analyzing traffic to her music web site.

After graduation, Kafka began working at the professional services firm Ernst & Young in Boston, but was promptly sent on a three-month assignment to Portland, Maine. She used the opportunity to play within the local music scene, but the instability of work travel and the unfamiliar environment took its toll. “I was traveling a lot, and I went through this weird phase of feeling very lonely … that first year, I wrote a lot of songs,” she says. Kafka was later transferred back to Boston, and her bosses were flexible and gave her time to play music.

In spring 2007, Kafka decided to record a new album. With the help of a friend, she found a producer, a record label, and a band, and recorded a studio album titled “Into Place,” released in 2008. “That by far, has been the thing I am most proud of. I had a great team of people and it was such a huge step for my career. I invested a significant amount of dollars and time into it,” she says. Kafka then took a leave of absence from work to go on tour in the Northeast. Although the tour was successful, by the end Kafka was “burned out” from playing so much. “I wasn’t 100 percent committed to the vision my label had for me and I needed time to myself,” she says. She told her record label she wanted to be on her own again.

Guitar and pen

Kafka was ready for a change and business school was the next logical step. “I had considered an MBA for years,” she says. “I wanted to find a program that allows me to combine my own interest in music, and maybe push that career forward, or perhaps get the skills to succeed in the entertainment industry or even find something new. I love music, but I’m still not entirely convinced that I’m ready to make the sacrifices involved with pursuing it full time,” she says. MIT Sloan has provided her with the entrepreneurial spirit she had been looking for. She knew she had made the right decision after she had been here for two weeks and felt like she had gotten her “soul back.” Her songwriting picked up and she felt in control of her future again.

Kafka is not sure what she will pursue once she completes her MBA, but she hopes it will eventually involve music. “I am interested in companies that are creating innovative solutions to the music industry’s issues, whether it’s web-based tools to help artists find opportunities, or new companies that can make music lucrative again. Obviously, MIT is huge for technology,” she says.

Although coursework took up most of her time last semester, she still found a few opportunities to perform. She played a solo set for an event through the Sloan Joie de Vivre Club last fall, something she thoroughly relished. “We had 30 or 40 people there and it was the first time I had played to a new audience in a very long time. I was excited to play and I unexpectedly sold a few albums, too,” she says.

In addition to the Joie de Vivre Club, Kafka is a member of Sloan’s Entertainment, Media and Sports Club and the Marketing Club, and is a co-coordinator for the Ambassadors Program. She may attempt an independent study next year where she can incorporate some of her own music and the skills she has learned from her class 15.846 (Branding) into a project.

Although she has no gigs lined up until summer, Kafka is still writing songs and is looking forward to performing in the upcoming months. In the meantime, her music can be heard on her official website, — and, of course, on Pandora.

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