2018 Best Online MBAs: Grant Small, Carnegie Mellon (Tepper)

Grant Small

Carnegie Mellon University, Tepper School of Business

“What we know matters but who we are matters more.”

Age: 28

Hometown: Portland, OR

Fun fact about yourself: I’m a foster parent to a beautiful, 14-month-old little girl.

Undergraduate School and Degree: University of Oregon – Business Administration; Information Systems and Operations Management. Minor in Psychology.

Where are you currently working? Nike – Supply Chain Technology Consultant.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I’ve been fortunate to work on three separate transformational supply chain programs at Nike; re-envisioning our planning processes, implementing enhanced digital distribution, and designing reverse logistics capabilities. Despite those amazing programs, the work that I’m most proud of is co-founding an internal hackathon competition, #Hack72, for our technology interns.

For the last four years, I’ve been on the team helping recruit our early in career talent and design immersive internship experiences for when they join our world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. Last year we recognized incredible ideas our interns had and created a competition where our entire technology community voted on what they wanted to see built. After selecting three projects, the teams rapidly innovated over two days and built three separate solutions, each with a working prototype. The projects have now been deployed and are in production today. As a result of the program, our team won the Nike Technology award for “We Develop Nike’s Future Leaders”.

This work was important to me for many reasons. To start, mentoring and developing high potential technologists is incredibly rewarding. Seeing them recognize their ability to create meaningful and valuable work so early in their careers is always something I look forward to. #Hack72 enabled each team to discover that feeling in a two-day period and be recognized for their ability to break down barriers and deliver an impact quickly. Next, the support we received for #Hack72 was tremendous. We brought together technologists from all over the company. Each of them selflessly devoted their time and efforts to better our interns. Watching the joy that they took from pouring into others was something really encouraging to see. Finally, the products that deployed were incredible! It was amazing to see what ingenuity our interns came up with. Heading into the second iteration of #Hack72 this summer, we’re excited to see what new ideas are built!

Why did you choose this school’s online MBA program? Before applying to programs, I met with leaders I respected who had received their MBA and asked them what the most beneficial aspect of their program was. Nearly every person noted their network and the friendships that they formed. I knew that forging those relationships was going to be a challenge in a 100% online format. I wanted to be in a program that enabled me to meet with my classmates, to connect with them outside of the classroom, be able to go out for drinks, and still continue to grow at Nike.

At the core of Tepper’s Hybrid program are Access Weekends. These are three day events every eight weeks, across a variety of cities where we all meet up, take finals, start new courses, and visit with companies in the area. These weekends allowed me to create friendships that I never would have expected, and a network that I know I’ll carry for the rest of my career. This also speaks to the size of our program. With just over 50 people in my cohort, I was able to work with and form connections with every person. Not only was I able to learn from their experiences, but I’m confident that if anyone is ever in Portland or me in their city, I’ll have someone to grab dinner with. Tepper was one of the few programs that I knew would foster those types of connections.

While the blended format originally sparked my interest in Tepper, their academic rigor stood out as well. You could say I didn’t necessarily “push myself” in my undergrad program. I really just wanted to finish as fast as possible and enter the real world. When looking at MBA programs, I wanted a challenge. Tepper’s program is long (32 months) and requires 31 courses to be completed. Pairing those requirements with industry expertise and high rankings in Technology, Supply Chain, and Analytics, I knew that it was going to be tough. It certainly was a challenge, but it was important to me that Online MBA didn’t also mean MBA-Lite.

What was your favorite part of being in an online MBA program? First, the fact that I didn’t forgo career development and progression while completing my MBA. I love working at Nike, and I couldn’t have imagined stepping away for any amount of time given all that I was learning and getting exposure to. I wasn’t forced to sacrifice those experiences. It definitely made balancing priorities much more difficult, but in the end, it was worth it.

As important was that my family’s life wasn’t radically changed (outside of the long nights!). My wife runs her own successful business in Oregon, we were foster care certified here; I can’t imagine uprooting all that we have established. The flexibility of taking the courses in the evening and working over the weekend made for a perfect fit for where I was at in my personal and professional life.

What was the most surprising thing about an online learning environment? The pressure! Tepper’s Hybrid program leverages a video conferencing software, Vidyo, for all our live classes during the week. When you speak, you become the main presenter for the rest of the class. In our first couple of sessions, we had a professor who thoroughly enjoyed cold calling and putting us on the spot. The prospect of not only messing up the material but also being “on display” for the rest of the class made the nerves even more intense! I’ve never prepared more for class in my life. There’s something about the social obligation to contribute that was unexpected and surprising for an online format –most presuppose that it’s entirely independent; not the case!

How did your online experience compare with your in-the-classroom experience as an undergraduate student? It’s counterintuitive, but more so than my undergraduate experience, I felt like I was seen at Tepper. In class, despite the online setting, professors knew who was engaged, whose interest piqued on a certain topic, and when they needed to pivot to a more resonating topic. It could be the format for how they teach – in a studio staring at a massive screen and collections of faces, but I always was confident that the professors knew me. That wasn’t always the case in my undergrad amid hundreds of students trying to figure out what they wanted to do.

The other difference that most would recognize is the flexibility. I sat in on classes from a beach in Maui, hotels across the country, airplanes and airports, boats, planes, coffee shops, and everywhere in between. As long as there was access to internet, I could be in class. In undergrad, if you missed class, you’d better have hoped someone could take good notes for you. At Tepper, I never felt limited by my life and obligations.

What is your best piece of advice to an applicant for thriving in an online MBA program? Buy in, don’t be passive, and pour all that you have into it. You need to make an effort to create those life-long connections; they don’t just materialize by logging in and out of class. Jump in and participate in every opportunity that you are given – you’ll never get this chance again in your life, so why not give everything you have to get the most out of it? I would also encourage that you do your best to get to know your classmates for more than just a project team member. I’ve been fortunate to meet people that I’ll be friends with for life; incredibly bright, social, funny, and loving people. We’ve shared career changes, moves, breakups, engagements, children, and amazing successes. You are only fortunate enough to have that type of experience when you make an effort to connect. Don’t look back and wish you would have tried harder.

How has your online education helped you in your current job? One of the underrated aspects of an online program is the immediate application of concepts you can use in your current job. Each class that I took had some form of relevancy for the work that I was doing. Not only that, but whenever I was struggling with a course (looking at you, Finance) I could come back to work and connect with someone to see how Nike was doing things. Doing that always helped make what I was learning more concrete and real.

Tactically, I’ve continually leveraged learnings from courses like Big Data, Statistical Decision Making, Management Game, Modern Data Management, Optimization, Negotiations, and Managing People and Teams. Each has provided me with the skills to be more effective in my role as an internal consultant.

If you had to do it all over again, would you? Why? The last night of my program, I was texting with my classmates. We all were excited to be done, but there was a sadness as well. We recognized that this was the end of an amazing experience. It’s the tension of knowing it’s time to move forward, but also enjoying so many aspects of where you are at. We’re already looking to plan when the next times are that we can all get together (two weddings this summer; one between people who met day one of our program!).

In the days since finishing, I’ve continued to reflect on how much I’m going to miss our program. It’s a strange feeling leaving work and not having class or homework to run off to. It was incredibly challenging yes, but the challenge also made it enjoyable. In a lot of ways, it was like running a marathon – difficult miles, but at some point, the endorphins kick in and you can enjoy the experience for all that it is.

I would do it again in a heartbeat. Tepper has been one of the greatest periods of my life.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I love seeing people succeed. I enjoy helping unlock potential and providing guidance for how to be more effective. Any role that allows me to continue to do that, regardless of the topic, I’d sign up for.

Being COO of Nike would be pretty fantastic someday too…