Introducing My Podcast

Check out my new podcast!

There are some technical difficulties to be worked out (like discovering I have to sign up for the business version of WordPress for my host, PodBean, to have an embeddable player… any sponsors out there???) :-).

It’s not on iTunes yet, or Stitcher, or “any of the places you get your podcasts” as Ira Glass puts it.

But I am still devoting my entire blog this week to it because I have started a new accompanying weekly podcast also called Designing An MBA (you will notice a theme this week if you click on any of my links).

Here’s the idea. As I “put my beginner’s mind to work” to design my MBA over the coming two years, much of my opportunity to do so comes from co-learning with my classmates. So my hope is to interview as many of the “other 43” as possible this year, and then, interview them AGAIN next year, to see how they have grown and changed and their understanding of the MBA process has developed as well.

First up: Yuan Cheng.


Chosen randomly amongst my classmates, I was so fortunate that Yuan came first. Our thirty-minute-conversation found its way to unexpected places, from the work-flow of ants to the inspiration of Philadelphia Eagles great Brian Dawkins to the lessons learned from studying to be a pastor which include “serving my internal & external customers.”


This is the guy that the guy above idolizes. I know, I was a little surprised too. Take a listen!

I’ll leave it there.

Did I mention I hope you listen????


Meditations on a 4-Week Orientation

Our four week-long orientation (technically three, but I am counting the aforementioned “Communication and Culture Boot Camp” week at the top as part of it) came to a close yesterday as the Davis campus failed to defend its inaugural title in the 2nd Annual UC Davis Graduate School of Management Olympics, losing to the part-time students in Sacramento.

I had a feeling the Sacramento campus brought in ringers… just saying… didn’t realize Usain Bolt was enrolled at UC Davis…

FOUR WEEKS. You heard that right. Each time I mention that to friends who have been through graduate school, the response is very jaw hits floor. I get a lot of “I had one day” back to me, which they admit is perhaps too little, but they are quick to jump to the conclusion that four weeks is too much.

Which it is. There was repetitiveness to the curriculum and a serious burn out factor at the end for its participants, who struggled mightily at points in the final week to be attentive audiences (cover photo notwithstanding, an excellent panel on the sustainable energy sector).

But I am choosing, I guess to focus on positives in this blog, in part because I know and am grateful to the fact that members of my class, faculty, and staff read this, but also, honestly, because I think the lessons of the positive are often overlooked.


Here’s a takeaway that I think is a meaningful and powerful MBA lesson. How many of us have started jobs, and found ourselves so knee-deep in actual responsibility within 24-48 hours that any hope of getting “oriented” flies out the window? Perhaps even more direct of a lesson, how many of us, by losing this opportunity, lose a chance to get to know the members of our team in a way that is integral to our mutual success? Do you even know the names of everyone that you work with and interact with on a daily basis after years in the office? How unfortunate is it, on both a personal level, one of human connectivity and mutual appreciation, and on a professional level, one of trust, inspiring innovation, and co-mentorship, that we allow this to happen so regularly?

When I was a boss at my non-profit theater company, this is a lesson I profoundly wish I had made more room for earlier and with more frequency. Note I don’t say it’s a lesson I profoundly wish I had learned but something even worse, in fact. I knew it but I didn’t utilize it. I facilitated it all the time for others, but when it came to my own work… I was busy. I was stressed. I was too awkward or shy or not wanting to step out of place, even as a leader, to value social interaction that didn’t focus on output, and it had the effect, over time, of wearing on my personal enjoyment of a craft whose very success is heavily based on the openness and empathy of its performers.

OK, for those who know this movie, perhaps not the best example of a professional environment, but still, I wonder if this is how your first few weeks of work felt, what it might contribute to your long-term productivity, loyalty, and personal stake in your company’s success.

Because while our orientation ended with the lovely group event of the Olympics, the weekend also featured the following “events”. Friday, from 6:30 pm until late in the evening, many students stayed after the official celebratory end-of-week happy hour, and un-officially celebrated the end of an intense case competition, reminding each other of how much we liked and supported each other despite going head-to-head earlier that day. Saturday, a couple of students announced dinner plans and half of our class ended up going, to the point where we ran out of tables and chairs for our party at the restaurant. Sunday, a classmate held a potluck and once again, a solid block of our class turned up with home-cooked recipes and relaxed chat in the beautiful night breeze.

This, all before our first class has even begun. What is going to happen because of the trust we have in each other during team homework? What will our morale be in the coming year as a whole? How will we handle it when inevitable fractions and fissures amongst our group come our way? How will we work together to manage stress that might inhibit our productivity and the quality of our education?

I have no idea.

But I think, we will look back at this time, even on the parts where we were perhaps coming together by groaning at a presenter we felt was under-qualified or a session we felt was unnecessary, and remember that the school gave us the greatest gift of all. Time. Time to learn how to trust each other, to work together, and to establish our community. And I know nearly every corporation does volunteer events for its employees, parties, and more. But I’m talking about thinking big here. I’m talking about every group of new employees, across departments, having weeks of activities together when they start their new jobs. An interesting thought experiment, at the least.


Excited to see how looking back on photos like these will provide meaning and context moving forward. Ruminating on how infrequently life provides room to build up this level of trust.

But… also… pretty glad orientation is finally over ;-).

And finally, an interesting thing I’m thinking about this week for further research…

This is actually pretty connected to the ideas I’m suggesting chewing on in this article. How to do something that is pretty far from the norm and create a movement behind it. How to take a relatively unique idea of four weeks of orientation, and move it beyond just one innovative campus like UC Davis (saying this with full disclosure that I have no idea how long other full-time MBA programs do orientation).

Anyway, this is the shortest TED Talk anyone will ever suggest you view, so do yourself a favor and take a look…

An Ode to My International Classmates’ Bravery

I’m reflecting this week on international classmates. On their bravery. On their perspective. On their curiosity and desire to learn in not only a foreign language but while simultaneously navigating foreign customs and norms.

I also think I have some quality advice to offer you in this post, particularly if you are an American in an MBA or any other program or business, thinking about how much you would like to break through whatever perceived barriers you think you have to truly getting to know your international teammates.

This weekend, I spent an overnight in Tahoe with three classmates, of which a description of our nationalities sounds like some sort of classic joke.

Two Chinese students, one Indian, and one American walk into a resort…

Except, of course, this was not a joke. This was my real, newly amazing life. I remember discussing with friends before I came to the UC Davis Graduate School of Management that one of the hidden, intrinsic values of an MBA would be growing my worldview thanks to having international classmates. I did not think, however, that included being so connected to them that even before orientation was over we would travel two hours by car, put down our cell phones and our laptops, and spend 24 hours together hiking, watching sunsets, and sitting into the late hours talking about our greatest fears and how we were already changing in our program.

Emerald Bay in Lake Tahoe

That got me thinking about this last week in its entirety. About how the incoming MBAs went to do a team building exercise in a ropes course, and how I watched a bunch of students from China and India and elsewhere take on this very American of ideas, to climb to very high places and jump from them as a way to conquer your fear. In their second language and literally on the other side of the world from where they were raised, where the comfort of their family and friends lay and participating in an activity that is actively designed to be scary and lonely, my peers humbled me with their bravery.

Shout out to the Challenge Sonoma Ropes Course – lovely people and a wonderful day – check them out!

I thought about how another Indian classmate and I met this week to discuss our idea to create a travel opportunity for us and our classmates to go to India and China to visit businesses, listen to panels of speakers, chat with start-ups, and increase the collaboration of our classmates by giving Americans access to the cultural backgrounds of their peers. We want UC Davis and its Graduate School of Management to be on the forefront of uniting not just students in these world economies but their businesses with the potential international employees who can broaden their perspective and deepen their product. We have since added a Chinese classmate to our collaboration. She has entrepreneurial experience. Who knows where this will go next.

Is there anything more universal than a fist bump?

So. How did I get here in three weeks? Here’s some humble advice. It’s what I did to allow myself this experience, and I think it really worked. I hope it might be helpful to you.

  1. Tell your international classmates how brave they are. Not just for jumping from a high place, though you should applaud that too. But take a moment and recognize the truth. Moving from your home to start an MBA in hopes of switching careers mid-stream is scary enough. Can you IMAGINE doing it on the other side of the world and, for many, in a second language? Tell them that. Because they are probably feeling anything but brave as they fumble for the right words and awkwardly try to adapt to a plethora of new cultural norms that we take for granted.
  2. Sit next to them. A few of my wonderful American classmates and I decided to come a week early to a special orientation aimed at and mandatory for International students called Communication and Culture Bootcamp. We found ourselves sitting together the first day, and quickly had an informal discussion and the next day and for the week to follow sat in different places and next to different international students each day, setting a tone that they should consider us a resource to help them bridge a divide that we are lucky to not have to do. A few of my foreign classmates told me they noticed this and were really touched by it.
  3. Call them by their native name and work to enunciate it correctly. If this means having to say multiple times, “hey, can you help me get your name right”, then do it! Volunteer to videotape them saying their name and share it with your peers so we can all practice. Chinese students often come readily equipped with an American name, hearing that Americans will not be able to pronounce or maybe won’t want to try to pronounce their name correctly. My classmates have told me how much they valued that I and others tried to or are still trying to get their name right. Your name is who you are. It is the first thing you tell someone when you meet them. I can’t help but imagine that another person trying to value and validate your name, when you are alone in a different country, can really be meaningful.

And, finally, and this may be obvious to some, but… LEARN FROM THEM. What an opportunity this is! I can’t tell you how many times in the last three weeks I’ve asked “how do they do _____ in China/India/South Korea/Brazil/etc.?” It’s an old adage but a true one: I learned more from them then they did from me.

I knew I wanted to get my MBA, in part, to grow my worldview. I don’t think I realized I might walk away with friends all over the world. That, alone, is honestly worth the price of admission… though a job would be nice too. Maybe… an international one?

And finally, the MBA thing I am thinking about this week, I’ll keep it nice and short because this was a long post…

  • My classmates and I are thinking about trying to start a club at the Graduate School of Management regarding Design Thinking. Before I started my MBA, I took classes with Ideo U and I really can’t recommend them enough. If the term “human-centered” makes you sit up in your chair, go there. I also just want to plug my wonderful assistant teacher/mentor from one of the classes I took, Andy Ball, and his company Cognitive Design Lab. Go to this site. Try not to be inspired. The seed for my desire to collaborate with my international classmates undoubtedly came from my weekly video chats with Andy and people from all over the world working together with Ideo U’s complex and challenging syllabi.

Creating Space for Others to Thrive

I’m getting used to something that has not been part of my professional vocabulary before… “untraditional background.” When you work in the arts, then the arts are traditional, right? Being creative, empathetic, and innovative is traditional. It’s what our funders invest in, the brand we cultivate, and, in the end, the product we sell.

Much of these first two weeks of orientation have been focused on crafting our personal pitch. The personal pitch was previously known as an elevator pitch, but due to a changing business landscape, more diverse perspectives and a sense that leadership isn’t always top down (a literal climb to the top floor in this case), it has been, I think, quite appropriately renamed.


So how do I turn this…

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, written by August Wilson, a production I directed in 2012 at Plays & Players Theatre, where I also served as Executive Director

Into this…


Because, boiled down to its essence, this is why we all come to Masters in Business programs, right? It’s one of the few places left, in America at least, where a good education regularly leads to a good job. And as much as I love and cherish my time as a theater director and non-profit arts leader, it had limitations on my personal economic growth, but perhaps even more significantly, on the economic resources to create impact with my work.

And while I may be one of the few theater directors currently getting his MBA, I am certainly not alone in being “untraditional.” Among my 50 fellow classmates, just to name a few, are a doctor, a lawyer, an active duty member, a tutor, and a martial arts teacher.

Me and just a few of my MBA and MPAc classmates at an outing to the absolutely wonderful and diverse KP International Market in Sacramento. That’s the doctor on my right!

We have been offered multiple well trained and respected instructors’ take on the structure of a “personal pitch”, and they have all been truly quite useful. Matthew Vendryes helped me understand how to include the obstacles I overcame, while Nicolle Merrill helped me drill down to the most essential and memorable elements I needed. So when this past Friday included a “personal pitch speed dating” session, I thought I would barely need to prepare…

Hours of scrawling in my notebook later, some while I probably should have been listening better to my classmates practicing their own pitches, I finally went up to our Career Services Interim Director, Elizabeth Moon, and asked for help. Something was missing, and it felt like it lived in the moment I first shook a person’s hand? How do you say theater director, and not lose the person right off? Thankfully, so many employers today desire an untraditional background, but it’s hard to take the listener so quickly from Point A to Point B without making it clear, right from the top, what the value of your “untraditional background” will provide that few others can offer.

What she said next, changed everything…

My name is ____________ and I’m passionate about _____________.

What does a theater director do? He creates space for others to thrive. We build a world around our actors that allows them to be honest, truthful, and compelling in their performance. What does a not-for-profit leader do? She creates space for others to thrive. We build a world for employees to feel valued, to care deeply about work that is often underpaid and underresourced, and to believe in the impact that their contribution has to the whole.

My name is Daniel Student and I’m passionate about other people. Offering reflective listening to others, connecting to others, and inspiring innovation in others.

This is why my first career was actually as a theater director specializing in helping diverse casts relate to each other on stage, where I engaged in particularly challenging issues around communication and clarity. I also executive directed a historic non-profit theater company that was really struggling to do much beyond keeping the doors open and the lights on before I became involved. I doubled our operating budget, increased our contributed income by 500% through grants and personal appeals, I rebranded and rewrote our website and other marketing materials, and, most importantly, inspired hundreds of artists from around the city to volunteer their time to revitalize this important community organization.

I want to take this community-based work and blow it up on a global level. And that’s why I am getting my MBA at UC Davis. I want to pair those hard, corporate business skills I will learn with my creativity and innovation from leading artistic and small non-profit teams, to help you inspire your employees towards being better leaders, communicators, and teammates in the global market and the world itself.

Finally, on a somewhat related note, here is something I am thinking about this week…

  • This came up in our diversity training this week with the wonderful professor, Gina Dokko, who I also must credit as a big reason why I chose UC Davis as I was so impressed with her class when I first visited in January. This study wasn’t new to me, but the idea of our implicit bias is a really great way for people to understand systematic racism, sexism, etc. For everyone who claims “I’m not like those other people”, I’m not biased, it’s an important wake-up call. Check it out!

The Journey Begins

We must be willing to give up the life we’ve planned, so we can live the life that’s waiting for us. — Joseph Campbell

I find myself thinking it’s finally time I regularly share my thoughts on the internet.

This is a profound choice for me. I believe in the power of interpersonal, face to face connection. While I have enjoyed posting nature photos on Instagram, I am extremely interested in the empathy we can show each other by putting down our phones and looking into each other’s eyes. Heck, it’s currently the tagline for my website.

This is the first video I posted on the UC Davis MBA Facebook group after our first experiences together this week:

But this is a new chapter for me. After 10+ years in the performing arts, most of it as a theater director and arts leader, running my own company, I have decided to go back to school to pursue my MBA at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management. Hence the quote at the top of this post, which has been pasted on my the back of my front door for about a year, ever since I made this decision.


I, thankfully, decided to make another very good decision to take classes with Ideo U this summer, which reminded me of the beauty of opening my learner’s mind and taking in the world with a desire to understand. To go back to school, admit you don’t have the answers you seek, is humbling. Which also makes it… inspiring.

This week has been titled “Communication and Culture Boot Camp”, the brainchild of a wonderful, hard-working and intrapreneurial woman at UC Davis, Elizabeth Moon. I credit her with the final inspiration to start this blog, as she reminded a group of mostly international students, brave souls who have come from a world away, many in their second language, to launch a new direction for their careers, that our ability to share our insight and support our teammates will make the next two years a success.

So, finally, I’ll end on this. Here are a few ideas I’ve been thinking about that are worth looking into further.

  • Pronoia Culture. The universe is conspiring for you, not against you. What if we tried to turn corporate culture, and, for that matter, all group activity, family activity, political activity, etc., towards this goal. Sociologist Fred Goldner came up with a name for this: pronoia, the opposite of paranoia. The “strange, creeping feeling that everyone’s out to help you.”


  • Gross National Happiness. This is a fascinating political maneuver from the small country of Bhutan. Having recently visited Denmark for the first time, I was struck that they repeatedly come on top in the World Happiness Report. Again, I wonder how we turn this metric towards business, and other cultures of team building. How do we look at our priorities? How do I as a job seeker/explorer, hold this value and make it intrinsic towards my search? How can it become a successful and worthy goal of a corporation?

Check out the great podcast Freakonomics Radio (also a wonderful suggestion from Elizabeth Moon!) for a wonderful discussion about this issue on Episode 345, “How to Be Happy”.

Good luck to all my fellow MBAs as we start orientation this week.