Reflections on the 2018 Net Impact Conference (warning: inspiration ahead)

I want to keep this short and let my links speak for themselves. My attempt here is to share some highlights and inspiration with you, and allow you to take them in, as best you can, as if you were living in my shoes at the conference. Hope you take a little time to do so – enjoy what took me three days in maybe one hour? Seems like a good deal.

October 25

Opening Keynote speakers highlight – Antony Bugg-Levine, Nonprofit Finance Fund


He convened the meeting that coined the term impact investing. How freaking cool is that. That was only TEN YEARS AGO.

October 26

Opening Keynote Speakers highlight: Stephen Ritz, Green Bronx Machine

This guy broke every rule in the book in his talk and in his life. He’s lost a lot of weight and made a lot of world-changing progress since this talk but it’s still enough to get you close to the inspiration.

Then there was this:


Yup, that was my great addition to the conference. Some aluminum foil and some Play-Doh.

In a breakout session titled “Designing with Empathy at the Base of the Pyramid”, Pact‘s Michelle Risinger took about fifty of us on a journey towards taking the growing “design thinking” movement in the private sector and moving this unique brand of human-centered research, empathetic listening, and prototype building based off building off the needs of a client or customer to those most in need. This was my attempt to provide a better waiting room experience for my partner, including a dance floor, a board game area, and a private booth to facetime with family. She revealed the true project that Pact had covered in the end, which was to take a plain and lonely hallway where patients awaited teenage circumcision as a form of STD prevention, while hearing the screams of the patients in the room right next door, after walking for hours to get there and with no recovery area.

We redid our assignments and thought about simpler needs, placing ourselves in shoes (or lack thereof) very different than our own. Ear plugs, slippers, blankets, going through the procedure three at a time for support, and more

October 27

It was hard to hear about the Pittsburgh shootings, but I was inspired to be able to watch this woman speak immediately after.

Opening Keynote Speakers highlight: Gina McCarthy, C-Change

She reminded me how much I miss President Obama, to say the least, he just had a real knack for finding amazing people to place in important positions, but McCarthy, as former Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, also gives me such hope for the future. Even the future of politics. Please watch.

And next was actually the final keynote I saw, but it was, rightfully so, a bit of a downer. So I’m jumping to it now so I can end on an up note. It’s a downer, but it’s among the more powerful messages delivered in a powerful way that I’ve ever seen. He is the first speaker I’ve ever seen stop the audience from cheering for his success, because he believes, like so many of us in the room, his success was only possible by winning the luck of the draw while others are deprived opportunity.

Closing Keynote Speakers highlight: Adam Foss, Prosecutor Impact

Finally, I am extremely interested in utilizing my MBA to address, well… work. Particularly how low America is in terms of the average happiness of our citizens, and the lack of fulfillment we get from the workplace.

Here are two wonderful resources I learned in great detail about at the same time in sitting in my final session, led by Aaron Hurst of Imperative and also attended by the equally compelling Jeff Hittner of Project X.

Click on these links. The first if you work anywhere or plan to work anywhere, to understand your role in the “purpose economy.” The second if you study anywhere or plan to study anywhere, you can find a way with this “purpose company.” You will be glad you did.

Hope you enjoyed your conference via blog experience! See you next year!


A Response To Harvard Business Review’s Ideacast: The Power of Curiosity, an interview with Francesca Gino

I’m going to do something a little different this week. I’m going to use the entire blog to give a blow-by-blow response to a podcast I listened to a couple of days ago that was tremendously inspiring and triggered many ideas within me.

First, a direct link, for those who would like to listen along:


In 2011, Clara Ma won a competition put on by NASA to name its third Mars Rover.


“People get annoyed by how many questions I ask”, the then-11-year-old says.

This reminded me of another idea I had heard earlier this year. That as we grow older, in school, we are rewarded more for having answers than for having questions. I recalled memories I hadn’t really delved into in years, in studying the trees in my backyard with my mom. As a person who became an artist, I like to shock people by telling them my parents were scientists. But then I quickly follow up with stories of my grandmother taking me to Broadway plays, of my mom changing careers mid-stream to design jewelry. That’s why I turned out so creative, I tell people.

But not one minute into this podcast, I have a realization that ties my art career to my MBA experience and my professional desires more clearly than ever previously. Maybe I wasn’t just creative.

Maybe I was curious.


Let’s introduce this person. Francesca Gino.


She wrote this article.


She notes that curiosity peaks at the age of 4 or 5 but then declines from there. She talks about her children and how the questioning never ends. “Why is the sky blue?” She tells a story about how she encourages, rather then shuts down, her children. 6 am in the kitchen – opening up cabinets, making a mess. But now she joins in, in the exploration, asking them questions.

First, of all, way to parent Francesca! But secondly, I have yet another epiphany. What a tragedy this is. What a challenge we have as humans that the thing that advances our society, that makes us special, is something we start losing so young. I think about how I have been interested in trying to help others be better empathetic listeners, at various points in my life, most recently in developing a prototype for a worksheet in my class with Ideo U. I think about an exercise we had at the orientation for the UC Davis Graduate School of Management. How we were supposed to listen to our partner and only respond with prompt questions of “Who, What, Where, Why, and How” to help them dive deeper into a topic.

And it hit me. The only word that matters (OK slight overstatement but go with me here) for an empathetic listener is… WHY. In my own frustrations in conversations in which I don’t feel listened to, I was never able to put my finger on what would bother me. It’s WHY. Why helps us understand. Why gives the gift of allowing a person to dive deeper. Why allows them to explore uncharted territory. Why encourages the thing we are slowly losing. Curiosity.

If you are someone who would like to be a better listener, try something next time. Be a three year old. Just keep asking why.


She aligns her fear that her children would make a mess with the worries leaders have that they will make a mess. “You have to be willing to clean up the salt”, Curt Nickisch responds. New life quote. Thanks Curt!



We are learning about “opportunity costs” in my Microeconomics class taught by Brett Saraniti. In essence, this is the loss of a potential gain in other alternatives when you choose to invest in something. Gino talks about how “costly” it is to shut down curiosity. She talks about Intuit, and how it gives failure awards that give important learning opportunities to the team. The employees even get a failure party. It made me think of Intel (come on, they are similar names, easy jump) who came in and gave us our first “case competition” during orientation. I can tell you first hand that they had inquisitive, satisfied employees. We were abuzz with dreams of interning there after they left. If you measure the cost of lack of curiosity by whether or not MBA students are excited about working at your company… well, I think it’s a halfway decent measure, is it not?


She points out how curiosity is not talked about as often as creativity and innovation. Bingo. But it is KEY to creativity and innovation. So instead of fostering creativity and innovation in your organization, foster curiosity. Not everyone can just be innovative. But we can all be curious. I wonder, if you have been worrying about this in your own MBA journey, what would happen if you boil it down to asking “why” more often.


“I’m much more likely to ask questions” is an outcome she mentions. Bingo. But she crystalizes it further. “I’m much more open to a different view on the same task or problems”, she notes. Curiosity allows us to have a more open mind towards finding a solution. It makes us better at taking others perspectives and encourages us to see how someone can have a different viewpoint. It improves our decision making.

Putting on my “systems thinking” hat here, which I am prone to do, Gino is not just proposing a solution to making companies more effective, she’s got the world on a string. I get my progressive education now. Wow. Thank you Park School of Baltimore. Thank you all my teacher friends fighting to encourage better citizens of humanity. What would happen if we were all encouraged to see how people can have a different viewpoint?


This is where I got to go to school every day. I am so grateful.


There is no evidence that when you allow curiosity to stay alive in organizations, efficiency becomes an issue. The notion of “curiosity killed the cat” is raised, or more accurately the embarrassing humorous image of a cat with a tissue box on its head is pointed out.


Not exactly a tissue box on a head moment, but couldn’t resist an excuse for a cute kitten photo!

As I’ve noted in my podcast previously, we had an opportunity to decide what animal we were in orientation, and what animal a partner was. Cats were often mentioned for their laconic-ness, their even-keel, independent nature. For being hunters and going after what they wanted. Curiosity was pretty much ignored. Small but powerful nugget there about what we are encouraged to value in each other.


“Yes, and.” OK, Francesca. You have my heart now. For anyone from a performance background, those words ring loud and strong. It’s what you learn in your first improv class, the core concept of creating a new world from scratch.

The idea is that to build a world you have to accept and agree with whatever your partner decides to be true. Disagreement becomes immediately confusing. If I say “that was a good game of catch, Dad” and you say “but I’m not your dad, I’m your sister, and that wasn’t a baseball, but a penguin”… sure that’s funny at the moment, but what the heck do I say next. If you say “thanks, and I’m so glad your Mom finally mowed the lawn so we had room”, that sets up some funny potential for my partner as to where the scene could go next and gives more information to play with.


But what she points out about all of this is it starts with a point of acceptance. Then she brings up Pixar. One of my dream organizations. What are you doing to me Francesca!! She says they call it “plussing.” Build on top of each other’s ideas. Don’t shut down exploration before it begins.


I also like to refer to improv as we experiment with working in teams at the GSM. I brought up an idea a few weeks ago about choosing team leaders, and whether you should have a top-down approach in teams or a collaborative approach. The thing that I love about improv is that every choice that is made is in service to the team. Someone has to step out first. But you don’t do it because you think you are the best or you deserve to lead. You do it because… in order for the team to succeed, someone has to. And then someone has to step out next because, in order for the team to succeed, you need someone to talk to. Every step, including leadership choices, are in service to the team.


leader med
Ha, I totally had this hat as a kid!


Aaaaannnddd… I’m going to leave it here. I have homework to do. And if you have read this far, I applaud you and imagine you probably are interested enough to listen to the podcast now, if you haven’t already. I left about half of it for you to take in on your own.

Thanks, Harvard Business Review, and Francesca Gino. Hope this blow-by-blow wasn’t a little much. I appreciate you all helping me process my thoughts here, and do also hope it was useful to someone out there in good ol’ cyberspace.



How I Had Ten Informational Interviews In One Week

Spoiler alert: I didn’t.

Not in the traditional sense at least.

But if you would allow me a humble brag this week, to veer away from my usual outward-facing style of blogging, I would like to take you through something I think I do pretty exceptionally well. It is my “designing my MBA” expertise if you will. And I found that the majority of my classmates have really benefitted from seeing my approach so I want to pass it on to whoever else may be reading this.

OK, let’s begin here. What are the desired outcomes of informational interviews? I can simplify what would probably be a long list into two buckets.

  1. Make a good impression on someone who you may want to hire you.
  2. Learn something about a potential job or industry that is of value to you (the often overlooked informational side of the interview.)

Why is this the most important and effective way to get jobs in America? Because bucket #1 allows people to be invested in you and #2 allows you to be invested in them. And it’s also, not this…


So, without further ado, my week of 10 informational interviews…

October 1

-I released a podcast I started in which I interviewed a different classmate every week. Yup, your classsmates. Do they fulfill both #1 and #2, at least in the long term? You bet they do. And podcasts also go out into the world, where potential employers hear your informational gathering, analytical, and listening skills.

-An email follow-up exchange with a couple of students on another campus that I had visited when considering where I wanted to go for my MBA, led to an offer to add me to an inter-campus collaboration conference call on design thinking, a topic I’m extremely interested in. That’s right, did you consider following up with students and staff you met at schools you weren’t accepted to/decided not to go to? That’s, I believe the industry technical term is.. a “baller move.”

October 2

-I listened to Learn, Educate, Discover. What a world we live in! There is a podcast that does the informational interviews FOR US! Their mission is literally:

Podcast with interviews of people from different professions. Learn about different careers, what each is all about and how to get in if you wanted to.

This one was titled “How I Got My First PM Job in 5 Weeks” with Nitin Julka, Group Product Manager @Linkedin. Which was based on…

This post on LinkedIn. That’s right if you are more a reader than a listener, info interviews can happen that way too. You aren’t getting to “impress someone” but you are learning. But also… what happens when you do sit down with a Product Manager or someone at LinkedIn. It’s perhaps quite impressive if you can reference Nitin Julka and this post. It’s now in your “toolkit.”


I come to all my informational interviews with a little something in my pocket that clarifies that I’m out there gathering information outside of this. The great news is that often saying “I met so-and-so at so-and-so and they said” is an outcome of an informational interview that helps you make an impression in further informational interviews. In other words, they feed into each other. Don’t see them as happening in isolation – it’s a snowball rolling downhill.


October 3

-Meeting with a professor. Discussion about a topic I (and in this case, a couple of other students) want to learn more about. Note, how five “info interviews” in, none have been the traditional “hey person who works at company X who I know through person X, do you have half an hour to chat?”

-“Hey, person X who I know through person X”… finally, I do a thirty-minute video chat with an alumnus recommended by my career development staff (shout out, Elizabeth Moon), in the rooms at the Graduate School of Management set aside for these types of things. But here’s the unique element of this. I actually was notified earlier in the day that another informational interview scheduled for that time was going to have to be postponed, which allowed me to schedule this one and leads me too…

-A “postponed” info interview is an info interview unto itself. Or at least half of one. Did you learn something about the industry? No. But did you make a good impression if you are gracious…? Actually, you get a two-for-one deal here often. Not only are you gracious to the info interviewer, but you are gracious to their scheduler. Don’t think that matters? Have you never had a casual chat with your co-worker about how you liked the energy of the person who just came by the office? That matters too.


October 4

-I go to meet with a professor (in another department outside the business school by the way, which opens up a whole new world of potential resources for you) during his office hours and guess what? The student who has arrived at the same time I have, I graciously let him go first, and what do I overhear…? He’s an entrepreneur with really interesting ideas. I end up joining their conversation. Put yourself in the position and info interviews can happen at any time in any place.

-I go to San Francisco in the evening to attend “Inside The World of a Tech Entrepreneur”, hosted by WSJ+ (Wall Street Journal Plus). Check out their world-wide calendar. I find out about this event through a classmate. I am NOT a tech-interested person, but I am, on the other hand, NOT NOT at a tech-interested person so why the heck not? We have a fun road trip on the way there and back, so what’s to lose (OK it cost $ but other than that.) I end up asking a question to the panel about organizational culture, which I am very interested in and get a wonderfully complex answer. I go up to the panelist after and ask to LinkedIn connect.

I also want to say, because it’s just a lovely thing you can offer your classmates, if you DO have a networking instinct, I have found myself literally pushing my classmates forward to talk to people when they are confronting their own shyness in these situations. My classmate who I pushed, in this case, was beaming the rest of the night, having made a big breakthrough to find the courage to approach.

October 5

-I have another more traditional phone informational interview. A key note on this one – this person never replied to my original email. I reached out again two weeks later. THAT DOES WORK. Not every time, but a lot of it comes down to busy people sometimes miss or forget things. That makes them human. And, again, if you follow up, politely and empathetically, well it actually can cast you in an even more worthy light than if you had just gotten the interview on the first try.


That’s ten, one bonus for good measure?

-I attend a club happy hour. My efforts to engage myself and my classmates have been noticed by a second-year-student. Without my asking, he tells me he has someone he would like me to meet and does an email-intro over the weekend. I respond with some dates for this week…

And the cycle starts all over again.

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!