Living a Full Life
Tionna Cunningham, Eller MBA ’15
By Liz Warren-Pederson
Tionna Cunningham was born in Chicago, but lived in seven different states growing up. “I loved moving and believe that I have learned how to be highly adaptable as a result,” she said. “My parents were the smartest, wisest and hardest working people I knew growing up – I aspire to be just like them.”
Her father passed away when she was just a freshman in high school, and when the time came for Cunningham to choose a college, she stayed close to home. She earned her business administration degree and minor in nonprofit management from Pepperdine University.
“It was the perfect school for me,” she said. “I worked simultaneously as a resident advisor, athletics event staff, and campus bookstore associate. In addition, I had incredible experiences including attending Wimbledon during a summer in London, being a contestant on Wheel of Fortune, juggling basketballs during halftime of home games, taking golf lessons with an ocean view, volunteering for Junior Achievement, attending weekly Bible study at the school President’s house, enjoying an ocean view from every one of my dorm rooms, and so much more.”
Cunningham said she is most proud, though, of becoming the first college graduate on her mother’s side of the family. “I feel a deep sense of purpose to ensure every generation that follows goes beyond me,” she said.
Following graduation, she began working at a faith-based nonprofit in the San Fernando Valley focused on volunteer and community outreach efforts. She oversaw the afterschool program. “Through a grant, I worked with a team to rebrand and rebuild the program into the LaunchPad Youth Program,” she said. “We combined weekly small group mentoring with an Apple technology lab, allowing young kids to enjoy iPad arts and crafting, create movie trailers, and make music on GarageBand. The lab also featured iMac computer loaded with everything from typing software to LogicPro music production software.”
A few months after graduating Pepperdine, Cunningham and her mother found out that her sister and kids were living in a homeless shelter. “We have had guardianship of the kids ever since then,” she said. “Looking out for the emotional, physical, and spiritual needs of these children has been both tremendously difficult and tremendously rewarding.”
Over the past seven years, she said, “I have witnessed the miracle of first steps, played the tooth fairy, held hands as we crossed the street, bandaged gross wounds, ‘helped’ with school projects, attended recitals, replaced lost lunch boxes, read stories at night and so much more.” But she said the intangibles are more important: “My commitment to these children is to teach them how to serve others, how to give, how to love, how to take responsibility, how to be respectful, how to be inquisitive, and how to live a good life.”
Cunningham and her family relocated to Tucson after her season with the nonprofit, and she began working on nonprofit consulting projects. “I believe nonprofits will be forced to rely on revenue-generating streams of income to be sustainable,” she said. The MBA program is giving her the broader view she needs to help manifest that goal in the nonprofit sector. “I felt drawn to Eller’s emphasis on communications and entrepreneurship, as these are key components of both personal and professional life,” she added. “What I have discovered is an amazing network of very dedicated and talented professionals that provide such sincere support to an extent I would not likely have received that another MBA program” – especially as she also manages her significant family responsibilities. “My peers at Eller are quite understanding and accommodating, and we use great tools like Google Hangouts to meet regarding assignments,” she said.
Cunningham is preparing for her summer internship with PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division. “I am excited to learn about marketing from the corporate side and continue developing the skills needed to make a meaningful impact,” she said. Though she would love to work in community outreach for the National Basketball Association, she said, “I am not tied to any one career path, but I am more committed to adding value to my family, my community, and my profession.”
She said that her family – #TeamCunningham – has made a lot of sacrifices. “But they hold me accountable to do the same things we stress at home – pray often, work smart, laugh abundantly, do your best, prioritize, and remember, it is not the destination but the journey.”
Top photo of Team Cunningham courtesy Tionna Cunningham.