2016 MBAs To Watch: Debo Aderibigbe, Cornell (Johnson)

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Gbadebo (Debo) Aderibigbe

Cornell University, Johnson Graduate School of Management

Age: 33

Hometown: Melrose, Massachusetts

Undergraduate School and Degree: Duke University, B.A. in Computer Science, B.A. in Political Science, minor in African/African-American Studies

Where did you work before enrolling in business school? Booz Allen Hamilton, Lead Software Architect and Project Manager

Where did you intern during the summer of 2015? VMware, Product Manager (Intern)

Where will you be working after graduation? Technical Product Manager, Amazon

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

Student Council Chair (Student Body President)
Roy H. Park Fellowship
Johnson Leadership Fellow
Johnson Admissions Guide
Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute Fellow
Critical and Strategic Thinking Teaching Assistant

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I’m most proud of being elected and serving as Student Council Chair. It was an excellent platform which allowed me to help make Johnson a better place, serve my classmates, and become an effective and influential leader.

The best part about serving in the role was finding ways to make an impact in improving initiatives that would leave a strong legacy. I enjoyed working with another classmate, the deans, and the registrar, to create a new class that over 70 students enrolled in. I was part of the vision, design, and testing process for a new school-wide intranet, J-Connect. I also helped found a new forum called “JAMA” (Johnson Ask Me Anything) to help bring together faculty, administrators, and students for conversational opportunities. When our council wanted to do something new, we just had to find enthusiastic collaborators and be consistent in our actions and planning. I really enjoyed developing my role and gaining trust and flexibility from my classmates.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Before I left Booz Allen, I enjoyed working on an ambitious software project to transform the process of creating procurement standards for a government agency. I worked on multiple aspects of the project: the initial design and schedule, the software development, project management and leadership, and eventually the deployment and maintenance of the software launch. Over the period of a year, I felt my hard work was tied to the success of the project overall. The best part of the project ended up being consistent visits to the agency and watching them benefit from all our “blood, sweat, and tears.”

Who is your favorite professor? Even before I stepped foot on campus, Johnson alumni told me inspiring stories about Professor Risa Mish. During the first day of her Critical and Strategic Thinking Class, I saw more students raising their hands and responding openly and enthusiastically than I had seen in any other class in my educational career. At first I thought, “How the heck is she doing this?” It seemed like magic, but you just have to watch her present to understand. She makes the truth funny and powerful. She’s a persuasive speaker as well as a detailed and insightful thinker. She has a compelling way of being really encouraging. She loves Cornell (double Cornelian!) and she consistently empathizes with students. The more time I’ve spent at Johnson, the more I’ve come to consider her as a friend, adviser, and mentor.

Favorite MBA Courses ? Designing Data Products, Data Analytics and Advanced Data Analytics, Negotiations, Critical and Strategic Thinking, Market Research, Data Driven Marketing, and Finance.

Why did you choose this business school? When I came to Johnson for both the “Johnson Means Business” visit program and my interview, I really loved it. The people I met had a huge gravitational pull on me, to the point where it was hard to leave conversations. They were humble, confident, welcoming, candid, focused, and creative leaders. I loved the idea of students who let their actions speak for them, from community service to copious amounts of student-to-student mentoring. It was clear Johnson would let me be myself, would allow me to consistently evaluate my growth leadership, and would broaden my perspective of what is possible.

I also love that Johnson is not happy being “just another” business school in terms of opportunity and community. Every year, the leadership is open to learning, evolving, and responding to the needs of both incoming students and the business world. I saw the ability to customize my MBA with classes and programs via other Cornell Schools (including Cornell Tech in New York City) that are either Top 5 or simply don’t exist among other universities. I saw a community so tightly knit that the faculty was participating in student activities like cultural celebrations, fashion shows, and comedic variety shows or skits. Ithaca, NY is definitely “Gorges,” but there’s no doubt its greatest beauty is found at Sage Hall.

What did you enjoy most about business school? My classmates! Business school is like an incredible seven-course meal. Everyone’s nationalities, work experience, educational background and life experience feel like “flavorings” that make the whole thing amazing. I love the fact that I know most of my schoolmates and that I could study for an exam, travel to a foreign country or go grocery shopping with almost any of them on a whim. I’ve done a few of these things. It’s the kind of experience I won’t easily have again. When I leave, I do so with a lifelong network of friends and colleagues that will span the world. That’s a really powerful realization for me.

What is the biggest lesson you gained from business school? I really had to learn to prioritize in a new way — given the overwhelming possibilities of things I could do. At different times, I had to choose between filling gaps in my personal skill set, pushing my comfort zone, learning to lead or to follow, genuinely and deeply interacting with classmates, or, quite frankly, sleeping. Sometimes I really have to tell myself “no” to some things, an obvious fact that’s easy to take for granted. When you know or gradually confirm what’s most important to you, you can figure out how to extract the greatest value out of different experiences.

What was the most surprising thing about business school? The whole business school experience goes by so much faster than I could have possibly imagined. I remember taking a Physical Product Entrepreneurship class where I was learning, over a period of seven weeks, how to take a physical product from idea to launch. Just as I was finally settling in and had two or three ideas for which the classroom would be a great proving ground, the class was already over! I couldn’t believe it. Still, I’m glad I’m not just passively listening and absorbing knowledge. Thanks to having some work experience, I’m questioning, testing, purposefully exploring, and refining ways to make my new skills and knowledge actionable.

What was the hardest part of business school? The hardest part of business school was becoming a full-time student again. The first couple of nights, I kept having dreams that I was a cast member of “Saved By the Bell.” Free time appeared at odd intervals. I had to seek out certain information, and other students suddenly surrounded me nearly all the time. I felt I had the right amount of excitement and enthusiasm! After many years away from school, being comfortable in a classroom takes some adjusting to new routines, creating time for things that make you happy, and learning once again to be disciplined. It’s entirely worth it, but I’d recommend taking a class before entering to get acclimated quickly.

What’s your best advice to an applicant to your school? Take some creative approaches at self-reflection before you apply. Start journaling. Communicate with friends and family. Take an exploratory trip. Think about what you’re good at and what you’re not — and what accomplishments you’d like to be remembered for. Then, find students at Johnson who are on those paths that lead there, or are at least exploring them. There are so many more opportunities at Johnson than one person could ever do — Johnson becomes a much richer experience when you have an idea, coming in, of things you’d like to try, do, and achieve.

I knew I wanted to go to business school when… in the fall of 2011, I was chatting at a bar with a friend about his career. He had gone through a lot — being in the military, being laid off, traveling the world, and more. Still, he kept lauding business school as one of his most pivotal experiences, including helping to land his current job as a high-level executive at a commercial tech company in Silicon Valley. He really made me sit down and evaluate a lot of my life goals. I thought about how robustly I could achieve those goals if I stayed on my then-current path. I ended up doing a lot of research. When I found that a lot of people I admired had forged some great paths in the tech industry after getting their MBA, I decided that it would be a smart move for me.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be… continuing to work in a software architect role. I have worked previously trying to kick down some doors of the commercial technology or commercial technology consulting industries. I’d probably also be further exploring personal analytics and behavior modification with mobile applications, using an increasing amount of my personal time to explore entrepreneurial ideas.”

Which executive or entrepreneur do you most admire? I really admire the late Steve Jobs. He was no-nonsense. Despite the tougher sides of his personality, he had a seriously uncanny way of leading design, development, and marketing of products that people love. He built Apple from the ground up in a very passionate, detail-oriented, and imagination-capturing way. His vision and drive influenced thousands to work with or for him, and millions to change how they use technology every single day. There are so few people in history who could make those claims.

He’s also given some of the best advice I’ve ever heard: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. … Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. … Stay hungry, stay foolish.”

What are your long-term professional goals? I want to become an integral part of building and selling products that dramatically increase a person’s potential. I’d love to become CEO of a company that develops educational technology products that drive under-educated children to achieve in STEM subjects. Business school has already expanded my thoughts on even more types of products and industries that I can build or influence. I look forward to tackling them right away upon graduation.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? I’d like to thank my parents, so many teachers and professors, and the organization Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT).

My parents have been outstandingly supportive my entire life. As I’ve grown up, they’ve consistently rewarded faith, discipline, excellence, curiosity, and creativity. They gave me the confidence to try many things without fear of failure. Several of my elementary school and high school teachers also believed in me so much that they spent significant personal time to challenge me, mentor me, and connect me with others — and for that I’m truly thankful. Finally, MLT is a life-changing organization for underrepresented minorities interested in business careers. Not only did they help me thoroughly explore career interests and the B-school application process, but they also still continue to connect me to other empowered minorities in business. MLT has also connected me to people and opportunities might not encounter otherwise across a number of different industries. Thanks to all of these people, I look forward to dedicating a significant portion of my future to paying it forward.

Fun fact about yourself: I really should thank Levar Burton and his long-time show “Reading Rainbow” for an early childhood attachment to many of my hobbies — but origami is probably the most unique one. After almost a lifetime of loving and studying origami, I can make roughly 300 different origami models from memory!

Favorite book: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.

Favorite movie: The Matrix, Inception, The Usual Suspects.

Favorite musical performer: Miles Davis — the man is a timeless legend.

Favorite television show: “Game of Thrones” and “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”

Favorite vacation spot: Put me anywhere in France, and I’ll find ways to have fun and/or relax.

Hobbies? Cooking, cycling, hiking, reading, origami, mentoring/tutoring, mobile app development, dance, traveling, bowling, intramural sports, following tech trends, and … Netflix.

What made Debo such an invaluable addition to the class of 2016?

“Debo Aderibigbe is a techie, an MBA, and a leader. He joined Johnson School with a background and interest in the high-technology industry. He has sought to develop his own path to MBA education in many ways, such as participating in the development of a new digital technology curriculum in Johnson School. Among the highlights of his work was taking on a challenging role as a liaison between Johnson School and the Cornell School of Computing and Information Science to identify the core issues in technology that are important for MBA students. Besides pursuing his passion for technology management, Debo was elected by his fellow students as chair of the Student Council. In this role, he has served as a positive, friendly, and persuasive voice for important topics such as diversity, inclusiveness, and student workload. Debo is a tireless worker for the good of the community, serves in various roles, and is greatly respected by his fellow students and faculty. He is headed post-graduation to Amazon.com for a career in the high-technology industry.”

Vishal Gaur
Associate Dean for MBA Programs
Cornell University, Johnson Graduate School of Management

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