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Innovator Article

Joanna Zelaya Blazes Ambitious Path in HR Leadership
Bay Area MBA Student Helps Client Firms Succeed

By Joanna Corman

Joanna Zelaya’s parents fled an imminent civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s and settled in Los Angeles. They instilled in their California-born daughter a respect for education and a fierce ambition.

“They pushed education so much,” says Zelaya, a second-year student in the Bay Area MBA program. “They come from the camp of ‘Nobody is going to help you. You have to help yourself’.”

Zelaya started her career as an animal hospital nurse while attending California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and worked up the ranks to management, eventually overseeing a group of emergency and critical care veterinary nurses.

After eight years in animal medicine, she decided to switch careers and in 2009 joined as a consultant at TriNet, one of the nation’s largest professional employer organizations. The $200 million-a-year, San Leandro–based human resources outsourcing firm has 5,000 mostly small-business clients servicing 80,000 employees in a wide range of industries, including technology, high-tech, biotech, financial services, professional services and health care. The company works with its clients on a variety of HR matters, including payroll benefits, worker’s compensation and employer’s practice liability insurance.

Looking to take on leadership responsibilities as a human resources executive, Zelaya says the Bay Area MBA program is sharpening her skills and providing a well-rounded and deep knowledge of business. Her goal is to become a trusted adviser and business partner who can be consulted on all business-related questions, not just HR issues.

“I am very ambitious and I’m driven,” she says. “As a manager, I want to push myself more and manage in larger and larger settings.” Zelaya has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, an interest in science and a love of business, which make her career goal an ideal fit, she says.

At TriNet, Zelaya gives her clients, including many Silicon Valley start-ups, expert guidance about industry best practices and regulatory compliance on topics such as sexual harassment claims and termination. They want to know what is legal, how to reduce their risk of litigation, or how to improve employee morale, for example.

The experience helping Silicon Valley ventures prompted Zelaya to join five other UC Davis MBA students at the Ignite Entrepreneurship Conference in Boston from March 1–3 to tour area start-ups and venture capital firms, and to hear successful entrepreneurs share their experiences.

Back in the Bay Area, she says her MBA courses are teaching her how to read financial statements, which she uses to help clients strategize about their budgets for benefits and compensation. Her negotiations class is helping her learn how to best present difficult ideas to clients.

When Zelaya managed veterinary medicine nurses, she took the initiative at one hospital when employee morale was at an all-time low. There was gossiping, too many absences and internal conflicts. She persuaded administrators to hire an anonymous third party to interview employees and find out what they wanted to change. With that information, the administration formed quarterly focus groups with a list of items to address.

“We saw much more collaboration and much more cohesion,” she says. “It was a step in the right direction.” Looking back, she can see what other changes she would have made. “Thanks to the MBA program, now I have the skills and know-how to apply those tools.”