2017 Best MBAs: Christian Johnson, U.C.-Irvine (Merage)

Christian Johnson

University of California-Irvine, Paul Merage School of Business

Fun fact about yourself: A fun fact is that I taught myself to play the ukulele and have written over 30 songs. I performed the ukulele live at Challenge for Charity Stanford Weekend Battle of the Bands my first year of MBA to over 800 MBA students from schools such as Stanford, UCLA, USC, UCI, and Berkeley. I bought my first ukulele in Oahu, Hawaii.

Age: 26

Hometown: San Clemente, California

Undergraduate School and Degree:

  • UCLA: B.S. Environmental Science & Sustainability | Premedical
  • USC Keck School of Medicine: M.S. Global Medicine & Healthcare Management

Where did you work before enrolling in business school?

  • PVTI Healthcare Consulting – Director of Operations (full-time, 2014 – 2016)
  • Seed Consulting Group – Co-Founder & Chief Development Officer (part-time nonprofit, 2014 – 2016)

Where did you intern during the summer of 2015? Edwards Lifesciences, Irvine, California

Where will you be working after graduation? Edwards Lifesciences, Strategy Leadership Development Program

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School (Include school awards and honors)

  • TEDx Speaker: Delivered first TEDx Talk called “Why I Didn’t Go To Medical School”, a talk focused on helping youth determine their purpose.
  • Accepted into the Forbes Nonprofit Council – an invite-only council of Forbes consisting of 150 nonprofit executives worldwide. Members can publish articles monthly on Forbes.com as a Forbes contributor.
  • Co-Founded and served as Chief Development Officer of Seed Consulting Group – a 501(c)3 nonprofit which has grown to 120 consultants and provided over $1,000,000 in strategic support to over 25 environmental and public health nonprofit organizations. I founded the Orange County chapter of Seed at the beginning of the MBA program, grew the chapter to 35 consultants, then transitioned a new president and leadership team before becoming Chief Development Officer on January 1, 2017. (Present)
  • Elected by 880 graduate students to serve as President of the Merage Graduate Student Body Association, the graduate governing body of the Merage School of Business.
  • Accepted into and served as an ambassador for PTTOW! – an invite-only CEO and CMO summit.
  • Accepted into and served as an ambassador and captain for WORLDZ – an invite-only CEO and CMO summit.
  • Accepted into IVY – an invite-only network for entrepreneurs, artists, and innovators.
  • Founded the 1st Annual UCI Sustainability Symposium – event featuring 3 distinguished speakers in sustainability. 130 students, faculty, and community leaders attended the event.
  • Elected by 70 full-time MBA students to serve as a Section Representative. The purpose of the section representative is to serve as a diplomat between the student section and the program administration.

Honors & Awards

  • Recipient of the MBA Peacekeeper Scholarship – awarded a full-ride scholarship to conduct two projects in Cuba: 1) a healthcare market research project, and 2) a renewable energy project for a hospital (2017)
  • Honored as a Merage Fellow, the highest scholarship and distinction awarded to an incoming graduate student at Merage in honor of leadership and merit. (2016)
  • Honored by the Lord Mayor of Perth, Australia for leadership development of Australian and American Youth (2016)

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? The academic achievement I am most proud of during business school is the honor of receiving the UCI Peacekeeping Scholarship. I was awarded the Peacekeeping scholarship because of my role in leading the first multi-university and student-led global project in Cuba. The Peacekeeping scholarship provides me the opportunity to travel in March to Cuba to implement an academic renewable energy project, lead a healthcare market research project, and serve as the principal UCI student ambassador to academic, business, and government officials in Cuba.

I am proud of this scholarship because it recognizes the effort we are taking to build relationship between Cuba and the US through global academic partnership. In spring, 2016, I partnered with the Co-Directors of the Center of Global Leadership at UCI to build a team of MBA students and faculty from UCI, the University of Aarhus, the University of Havana, and IBM Watson to support the design, development, and implementation of a micro-grid system for a commercial facility in Cuba. This was the first time a project or collaboration like this has been led, especially by students, in the UC system with a focus on Cuba. I built the UCI team, facilitated meetings, and directed the project.The Cuba project has been immensely challenging and rewarding. For example, we learned to communicate effectively in a remote setting with language barriers; to work through global team dynamic issues; and we faced uncertainty in navigating our relationship with key leadership officials in Cuba in light of administration changes in the United States. This project is so important to me because it is the most entrepreneurial (even in an academic setting), uncertain, and foreign initiative I have undertaken to date. I am excited for the opportunity to represent our school in such a groundbreaking academic feat.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? While I am honored by the opportunities to deliver a TEDx Talk, serve on the Forbes Council, and be accepted as one of five MBA’s in the country into Edwards Lifesciences’ SLDP, I am most proud of the impact the nonprofit organization I co-founded and serve as Chief Development Officer for (Seed Consulting Group) has had on nonprofits and young professionals. Since graduating college, I have aspired to found an organization that serves the environmental and public health causes I care about, and brings fulfillment to those people affected by the nonprofit. We founded Seed for the purpose of bringing together exceptional young professionals to help environmental and public health nonprofits solve grand challenges. No one in Seed gets paid, including leadership.

I am proud of Seed because of the positive impact it has had on people. Since 2014, we have grown to over three chapters (Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Francisco) and 120 consultants volunteering part-time who have provided over $1,000,000 in pro-bono support to organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Sierra Club, UCLA, Cal Tech, and the US Green Building Council. We have helped nonprofits to pass policy, launch development plans, or grow through new expansion strategies that have increased impact. However, the impact that makes me most proud is the impact we have on the young professionals in our organization. We designed Seed to serve as a leadership development program and incubator for young professionals to connect together, develop skillsets, and have an impact on the community. We have observed that our members, called Seeders, are supporting one another outside of Seed in their professional careers. For example, one Seeder who is a partner at a local law firm specializing in intellectual property, is providing free support on trademarking and copywriting to another Seeder who founded a sustainable apparel company. These connections make me proud because I see Seeders acting out our most important value in their daily lives: “Seeders never let fellow Seeders fail”.

Who is your favorite professor? My favorite professor is Ed Fuller, former President of Marriott International. Ed grew Marriott from roughly 16 to over 400 hotels outside the United States. I was privileged to take his Executive MBA Course called Sustaining Growth in a Global Enterprise, and greatly admire Ed for his values as a gentleman, his commitment to leadership development of youth, and because of his global leadership philosophy. I aspire to build and grow social enterprises on a global scale throughout my career in healthcare and sustainability. Therefore, it was a meaningful experience for me to sit down often with Ed and learn from him about how to apply lessons taught in class to real-life as a global executive. For example, Ed taught me lessons such as how critical it is to lead in person rather than from behind a desk; how to respond as a leader in a business to crises – such as a terrorist attack on a Marriott hotel, or in response to a natural disaster; and how to manage globally in alignment with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Why did you choose this business school? I chose to attend Merage because of its focus on global management, innovation, and collaboration aligned most strongly with my experiences and aspirations. For example, I have been fortunate to travel throughout my life to over fifty countries. The experiences I have had abroad – whether living in a rural village of Botswana, providing medical care in Nicaragua, or bartering in markets of Istanbul – have influenced me to pursue a career committed to global social entrepreneurship with a focus on the relationship between human and environmental health. Therefore, I wanted to immerse myself in an MBA program that felt global but was local to the community where I grew up. I loved that Merage accepts relatively more international students than traditional for an MBA program. Over 50% of my full-time MBA class is international. Also, I loved that the international residential experiences focused on emerging markets. This ultimately allowed me to travel to Vietnam, and I will be traveling to Cuba this spring.

What did you enjoy most about business school? The greatest gift of going to business school was having a supportive playground to launch new ideas, goals, or initiatives in a safe environment. For example, I enjoy founding events that help educate and connect people together in meaningful ways. By the fourth week of my program, I was shocked that UCI did not have a sustainability speaker event focused on business. UCI has been credited by Time Magazine and Sierra Club as the most sustainable campus in the country. Therefore, I proposed my vision for an annual UCI Sustainability Symposium to the school. The purpose of the event was to share stories to the Orange County community on how sustainability can serve as a competitive advantage in business. We featured three alumni speakers representing Volcom, IBM, and the Ecology Center. Over 130 students, faculty, alumni, and members of the community attended the event, which was entirely student-led. We will now be hosting a 2nd Annual UCI Sustainability Symposium this year with more speakers, enhanced programming, and greater resource.

What is the biggest lesson you gained from business school? The most important lesson I learned from business school was how to influence a culture towards adopting new behaviors. When I was inaugurated to serve as president of our graduate student body, I set a vision in which philanthropy and community service is more ingrained in the everyday operations of our student organizations. I worked together with my Organizational Behavior class professor, our dean and program directors, and our student leaders to set achievable philanthropic objectives, to communicate this vision and objectives clearly and consistently, and to create a system of intrinsic and extrinsic incentives that influence individuals to adopt the new behaviors. I am proud to share that we have increased funding donated to charity by $2,000, increased volunteer hours by 500 hours, and increased the number of club-hosted philanthropic events to over 15.

What was the most surprising thing about business school? The most surprising aspect of business school was how connected Merage is locally and globally for a young and emerging business school. Whether I was hosting conference calls with the University of Havana and the University of Aarhus in Denmark, meeting with the first government-recognized social entrepreneur of Vietnam in Ho Chi Min City, or presenting at a conference in Montreal, Merage opened up many opportunities for me to pursue my goals towards becoming a more effective and globally-conscious leader and manager.

While I have traveled to over fifty countries, conducted business across seas, have mentors in Australia and Europe, and earned a masters focused in global medicine and healthcare systems, I was not nearly as confident in my global management skills before the MBA program as I am now. I learned from my international residential in Vietnam how to enter an emerging or communist market with characteristics that are different from the United States using strategic alliances, joint ventures, or state-owned enterprise partnerships with the government. I learned from my project with Denmark and Cuba how to manage and influence global teams more effectively when culture is different than in the United States. From my international management and global enterprise courses, I learned from global executives how to more effectively lead a business in compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, to negotiate deals internationally, and how to think strategically about how global political, economic, and social events may affect my business. These lessons are critical, as they have helped me to reevaluate and improve my strategy to expand our nonprofit outside of the United States, and will help me to launch and manage medical devices globally at Edwards Lifesciences.

What was the hardest part of business school? The hardest part of business school was balancing serving as president of both our graduate student body and as president of my nonprofit, Seed, at the same time – while also working part-time at Edwards Lifesciences. I have never in my career served as president of two organizations at the same time. Developing the vision, executing objectives, and fostering relationships across two very different organizations was incredibly challenging not only in time commitment, but in mental commitment. I was never taught how to constantly switch back-and-forth, hour-by-hour, between hosting meetings, taking action, or making decisions that affected two different organizations. One hour, I may be in a meeting with the Dean of the business school gaining his support on key initiatives. The next hour, I am in a meeting with the President of the John Wayne Cancer Foundation scoping a strategy consulting project for Seed.

This balancing act became physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging, especially when fires arose in both organizations. I had to sacrifice many personal hobbies and fulfillments in order to lead both organizations. However, this challenge taught me to seek the help of my teams in a more meaningful way, and to empower our boards to take greater ownership in leading the organization. I learned how to lead by serving as a visionary and by coaching board members towards a vision rather than taking on all the execution myself. This was exciting because my role became more about helping my team succeed rather than myself to succeed. While this was an incredibly difficult challenge, it is the greatest learning opportunity I experienced in business school.

What’s your best advice to an applicant to your school? The best advice that I can provide to an applicant is to choose a school not based off its ranking but based off how well the school’s culture, structure, and objectives align with your personal purpose, goals, behaviors, and beliefs. I could have attended a higher ranked program in California. However, I chose to attend Merage because I believed its entrepreneurial spirit, its international FTMBA class structure, its proximity to southern California biotech and healthcare industry hubs, and its family-style culture best reflected the values I wanted out of an MBA.

I can learn business skills at any MBA program. What I cannot necessarily earn out of an MBA is an experience that is already built to support my aspirations. I believe UCI Merage has supported my personal and professional goals because my focus on entrepreneurship, innovation, and community service align so strongly with the values of our current administration. Therefore, I don’t believe an applicant should settle on pursuing a school just because of its ranking, but instead on how much fulfillment and support the school can provide towards the student in support of his or her personal and professional aspirations.

I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I co-founded a healthcare clinic during my master’s program at USC. The startup, called BrixClinic, was developed to re-purpose used shipping containers into sustainable healthcare clinics. These clinics could be deployed off-grid in developing countries to provide improved medical care in tough urban or rural environments where patients rarely receive care, such as Mumbai, India. The clinic was inspired by a medical mission I had participated in Nicaragua during my senior year at UCLA.

BrixClinic was featured by the Clinton Global Initiative and Hult Prize as a top 150 of 10,000 worldwide social startups at the within the first year. The experience of working towards starting a business was extremely difficult but fascinating. Amidst the adrenaline rush of starting a small social enterprise and receiving great credit, we failed many times and eventually dissolved the clinic. Amidst the failure, I learned many incredible startup lessons and knew I wanted to improve my business knowledge by earning an MBA.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…in medical school. I made the tipping point decision to pursue business instead of medical school during my M.S. degree because I loved the startup experience of BrixClinic. Three years before starting BrixClinic, I began to debate whether I truly wanted to go to medical school. I took a risk, went with my gut, and dropped out of medical school applications. This was the best decision I made in life. Now, at Edwards Lifesciences, I get to partner with physicians and nurses to do exactly what I want to do in developing innovative products to improve patient care. I get to bring all of my business skills back to the bedside to support patients suffering from structural heart disease with innovative heart valve and critical care medical devices. I may not be a doctor, but I can still apply what I have learned in business to care for patients at the bedside. While I desire to pursue a career focused in social enterprise, I am thrilled to join Edwards because the company embodies a strong entrepreneurial spirit driven by its commitment as a global leader toward innovating medical devices that improve patient lives affected by heart disease.”

Which executive or entrepreneur do you most admire? The executive I admire most is an unknown entrepreneur who has helped pioneer an emerging bioproduct industry. I have professionally supported Bert Herring, Founder and President of BioFiber Solutions (BFSI), for five years as a business development consultant. Bert founded the first office supply product company that produces biobased office supply products sold to the Department of Defense.

I admire Bert greatly because I have watched him achieve great feats as an entrepreneur. For example, a supply chain didn’t exist when Bert founded BFSI. Bert used his 30+ years of relationships in the office supply industry to bridge pulp and paper mills, manufacturers such as SMEAD and Roaring Spring, distributers such as Office Depot, and customers such as the Department of Defense, to build a supply chain for BFSI and other bioproduct companies. This development of the supply chain took more than five years, millions of dollars, and over a thousand closed doors. Bert, an elder gentleman in his later 60’s, has demonstrated more entrepreneurial spirit, faith, and persistence than any twenty to thirty year old entrepreneur I know. After five years of struggle, Bert and I have met with the US Secretary of Agriculture, were featured amongst Coca Cola and Ford in the 1st Annual Bioeconomy Report to Congress, sit on the Secretary’s bioproduct board, and have spoken at five congresses.

What are your long-term professional goals? My long-term professional goals are focused in the fields of global innovation and social entrepreneurship in healthcare and sustainability. My purpose is to help influence a cleaner and healthier world through innovation, education, and inspiration. While I am open to any opportunity that helps to fulfill this purpose, I have outlined a few long-term goals below:

Service and Philanthropy

  • By 2025, I have helped Seed Consulting Group grow to over one thousand active consultants across twenty-five chapters in the United States and internationally. By this year, Seed has provided over $15,000,000 in pro-bono support to global environmental and public health nonprofits.
  • By 2020, I have raised one million dollars for Seed Consulting Group.

Career & Profession

  • By 2023, I have curated my first TEDx event and delivered my first TED Talk.
  • By 2021, I serve as Vice President of an innovation-driven healthcare company where the initiatives I lead impact one million patients per year.
  • By 2020, I am recognized as a Forbes 30 Under 30 in either healthcare or social entrepreneurship.
  • By 2019, I have written and published my first book on leadership development for incoming university students, where 10% of proceeds are donated towards merit scholarships for university students for global projects.

Health & Fulfillment

  • By 2019, I complete a half-Ironman.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? I thank my parents most for my success. At four years old, I told myself I was going to be an emergency room doctor. Why? Because my father, uncle, and cousin are all emergency doctors. At a young age, it was the only profession I knew. As a result, I convinced myself for fifteen years I was “fated” to become a doctor. To my surprise, my interests began to gravitate more strongly towards business during my junior year of college when I became president of an on-campus organization with a $600,000 annual budget. I became fascinated with managing a budget, creating and executing strategic initiatives, raising funds with our board to launch $50K improvement projects, and meeting with local Los Angeles influencers to co-host events. By the time I applied to medical school, I could no longer full-heartedly answer the question: “Why do you want to become a doctor?” For three years, I was terrified to abandon my “dream” of becoming a doctor. I became depressed. I lacked a desire to learn more about medicine and pursue medical school. I felt trapped. I was scared that people would no longer treat me the same way if I chose to abandon my dream to become a doctor.

One day, my parents pulled me aside and gave me their full blessing to pursue a career in business. I never told them about the internal struggle I was experiencing. Somehow, they knew I wanted to pursue business instead of medicine. I remember almost every word of this conversation. I have never felt such a greater sense of relief and excitement in my life. I immediately withdrew from the medical school application process and got a great job with PVTI Healthcare Consulting. At first, people said I was crazy to abandon medical school. I asked myself often if I was crazy as well. Looking back, this was the best decision I have made in my life. Three years later, I would never have imagined I would be able to say I have shared this story in a TEDx Talk; would help grow a nonprofit to over 120 consultants; would join the Forbes Council; and would receive the national and international accolades I have. These achievements simply reaffirm to me that I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing, and I owe all of that to my parents for always supporting me and believing in me for who I am and what I am great at as a human being.

Favorite book: My favorite book is Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill

Favorite movie: My favorite movie is Saving Private Ryan.

Favorite musical performer: My favorite musical performer is Jack Johnson.

Favorite television show: My favorite television show of all time is Lost.

Favorite vacation spot: While I love any tropical island with a surf spot, my favorite vacation spot is the Madre de Dios Region of Amazonian Peru. I spent a week in the Amazon of Peru at a research station more than five hours from the nearest village. While there, I spent early mornings and late nights trekking through the tropical jungle or boating up and down the river to learn about ecological systems, environmental conservation, and the relationship between environment and human health. This trip inspired my business interests in environmental science and public health.

Hobbies? I am an avid world traveler, extreme sports enthusiast, and musician. I have traveled to over fifty countries; I am a surfer, snowboarder, and water-skier; and I play the ukulele and guitar. I also love writing short stories and am writing a book.

What made Christian such an invaluable member of the Class of 2017?

I am writing to recommend Christian Johnson for a “Best and Brightest” award from Poets & Quants. I had the privilege of meeting Christian as a student when I was his instructor in the core Management of Organizations course. I have also gotten to know him as President of the Management Student Association (MSA) in my role as Associate Dean for Masters Programs at the Paul Merage School of Business.

I would like to begin by noting what other students say about Christian, drawing on my hallway conversations with students in the last few weeks as I have asked them about Christian’s leadership of the MSA. To a person, they praise the boundless energy he brings to MSA and all things Merage. As you will see from his own statement, the breadth and depth of his involvement in activities inside and outside Merage is remarkable. His classmates also praise his smarts, which he devotes to thinking about how to improve the student experience, the school, and the world. Although I expected to hear positive comments about Christian, I admit that I was a bit taken aback by the strength of positive impact he has made in his classmates’ experience during their MBA. One of the best comments I heard, which I believe encapsulates Christian’s leadership approach, is that he is not content with leading from the top. Instead, he is one of the most regular participants in the activities that others in the class organize, whether it is a club activity, a social engagement, or a study session. A fellow classmate noted, “Christian is everywhere, and that makes a difference.”

In addition to the accolades Christian receives from his classmates, I would say that he is likely one of the top (or the top) MBA students I have seen in my 20 years as a faculty member. Not only did he excel in class, but as an institution builder he has consistently displayed the right level of patience and impatience needed to advance students’ agendas in a university setting. He has pushed the administration to respond to concerns, but also to engage students actively as we plan the future. I have been personally struck by how he is always concerned with improving what is in place to make a better place for everyone, whether it is student activities, clubs, or interactions between faculty and students. Although Christian’s time at Merage has been relatively short (by the standards of a tenured faculty member), his influence has been transformational. Through his leadership of the MSA he has contributed to changing the way clubs and students enrich students’ lives, but also the way in which they sees themselves. This, I believe, is Christian’s greatest accomplishment at Merage.”

Gerardo Okhuysen

Professor, Organization and Management

Associate Dean, Masters Programs