2018 MBAs To Watch: Sara Axelrod, University of Texas (McCombs)

Sara Axelrod

University of Texas, McCombs School of Business

Honolulu-born, Colorado-raised, farmers market frequenter, vegetable enthusiast, searching for the perfect French fry.”

Age: 28

Hometown: Denver, CO

Fun fact about yourself: Growing up, I was a competitive synchronized swimmer.

Undergraduate School and Degree:

The George Washington University

BBA International Business and Art History

Where did you work before enrolling in business school? The Glover Park Group, a leading strategic communications and government affairs firm in Washington DC. As a Senior Associate at GPG, I focused on integrated communications and rapid response strategies designed to achieve both reputational and legislative goals on a range of issues including food, farming, energy, nutrition, sustainability, and climate change for Fortune 100 companies, industry-leading NGOs, trade associations, and principals.

Where did you intern during the summer of 2017? Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN, the newest Land O’Lakes business unit focused on promoting conservation solutions in the food system, located in Minneapolis, MN.

Where will you be working after graduation? Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN, Sustainability Marketing and Innovation Manager

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

Net Impact—Vice President of Career Development: As the VP of Career Development I worked to expand the recruiting process and placement of McCombs graduates within the CSR/sustainability and impact space.

Social Innovation Initiative—Founding Member and VP of Marketing and Communications: As a founding member of the Social Innovation Initiative, I worked to promote the initiative and integrate the goals of the initiative into the McCombs ecosystem including Career Services and curriculum as well as the broader Austin social impact community.

Texas Venture Labs (TVL)- Fellow: TVL is a campus-wide initiative to accelerate startups in taking their innovations to market and to transform graduate students into entrepreneurs and business leaders. As a fellow, I consulted with an Austin-based peanut butter start-up company on their go-to-market strategy.

Edible Magazine—Contributor: Contributor to local food magazine with pieces focused on sustainability in the food system.

No Kid Hungry – Volunteer: I volunteer with No Kid Hungry, a national organization focused on ending childhood hunger.

MBA Scholarship Fund Recipient

Pat and Homer L. Luther Jr. Endowed Presidential Scholarship Recipient

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Making it through Valuation? In all honesty, a big driver in my desire to attend business school was to strengthen my quantitative abilities to then apply them to an industry that is still working on developing comprehensive quantitative frameworks for measuring sustainability and assessing value creation. While quantitative analysis was sometimes a struggle for me, I intentionally pushed myself beyond my comfort zone to garner skills I needed to succeed. For a person who has spent her career in strategic communications, completing that first discounted-cash-flow felt like an incredible achievement.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? A couple years ago, I had a food client that encountered a labeling challenge with the Food and Drug Administration. The client wanted to put the word “healthy” on the label but because of the high-fat content in the product, it did not meet the FDA’s definition of “healthy.” The “high-fat” content came from the naturally occurring healthy fats from almonds in the product—where by the then FDA standards “low-fat” cookies were considered healthy. The client wanted help raising awareness about the changing dietary guidelines and to create a national conversation on how we define “healthy.” By the end of the engagement, the FDA publicly announced that, in light of evolving nutrition research and forthcoming Nutrition Facts Labeling final rules, they believed it was an opportune time to re-evaluate regulations concerning nutrient content claims for the first time in over a decade, including the term “healthy”. This client engagement sharpened my perspective on the vast impact that corporations can have if and when they act responsibility—and ultimately pushed me to go to business school.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? There were two professors who were essential to my business school experience. Dr. Laura Starks is a phenomenal professor who teaches Environmental, Social and Governance Investing as well serving as the Executive Director for Social Innovation at McCombs. She is both a distinguished financial practitioner and responsible for driving social impact initiatives at McCombs and in the broader community. Additionally, I was incredibly lucky to take a class on world food systems with Dr. Raj Patel, one of the most noted names in global food activism today.  Dr. Patel’s perspective on advocacy and social justice fundamentally changed the way I think about the food system and will continue to shape my work in the food space for years to come.

What was your favorite MBA Course?  Environmental, Social and Governance Investing was my favorite MBA course because it gave me a quantitative framework to demonstrate something I always knew but could never prove—doing good can be good for business. Responsible or sustainable investing has evolved from a limited universe focused on screening objectionable exposures to a range of innovative solutions to achieve sustainable outcomes widely applicable to a variety of industries and systemic problems. Today, I am utilizing the learnings from Professor Stark’s class to guide innovative financing solutions that support environmental outcomes in agriculture within the Land O’Lakes cooperative.

Why did you choose this business school? Unlike many people who apply to business school, I came to business school with a set career path in mind. While I loved consulting in sustainable food and agriculture, I wanted to work in-house for a leading food company to help drive long-term impact in the food system. Too often as a consultant, you create great initiatives that, once delivered to the client, are never seen again. I wanted more. McCombs prides itself on a well-rounded community filled with passionate individuals exploring a wide range of diverse interests. I knew this was the place where I would not only get a great education but also have the support to blaze my own path.

What is your best piece advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? Do not be afraid to be authentic. Business school is one of the few times in your life where you get to dedicate complete attention to your needs, career ambitions and life goals. It is crucially important your choice in MBA program reflects such a commitment. McCombs wants to know and support YOU, not just your amazing credentials.

What is the biggest myth about your school? The most prevalent myth I heard before arriving on campus was “If you go to McCombs, you will end up working in Texas.” This could not be further from the truth. While McCombs absolutely has a strong Texas contingent and many graduates do stay in the area, it is certainly neither a given nor a requirement. The Texas network is broad and strong around the world, opening up a wealth of opportunities for graduates both in Texas and beyond. No matter where you end up—once a Longhorn always a Longhorn.

What was your biggest regret in business school? Not having enough hours in the day. Both McCombs and Austin have countless amazing opportunities and two years was not enough time to fully embrace everything I wanted to.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I am a big believer in the adage “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” My classmates are amazing and constantly affirm I picked the right room. It is hard to chose just one because as a collective whole my classmates are rock stars, continually challenging me, teaching me and broadening my perspective. I’m in awe of classmates like Julia Brannan and Jillian DiPhillips who approach every day with the most positive can-do attitude; Joey Martin who seems not only to do it all—school, student government, family, consulting—but excels at everything; and my international classmates like Paulino Canseco, who came to pursue a graduate degree in a foreign country and in a language not their own—and still had the patience to help me learn statistics.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business? My parents. I have had incredible mentors, teachers, colleagues and experiences, but at the end of the day it was the example my parents set for me and my sister to actively pursue our passions and “make good choices” that led me to business school. My parents, both leading professionals in their respective industries, taught us that to have an impact you have to understand both sides of the coin—the qualitative and the quantitative, the Poet and the Quant so to speak. To help companies “make good choices,” I needed to understand more than just the policy—I needed to learn the business drivers, the consumer marketplace and the financial implications and then utilize that knowledge to influence something more.

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…continuing to fight the good fight at Glover Park Group, one set of talking points at a time.”

If you were a dean for a day, what one thing would you change about the MBA experience? I would encourage and create additional opportunities for cross-functional collaboration amongst students and facility. It is easy to get siloed based on function (finance, operations, marketing, etc.) and the moments at McCombs where I learned the most were those where I was working with people who had completely different backgrounds and skillsets than I did.

What are the top two items on your bucket list? To visit 30 countries before I turn 30 (I’ve currently visited 26) and to eat Franklin’s BBQ before leaving Austin.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? I hope my peers will remember me as thoughtful, trustworthy, with a little sass and hustle and as someone who actively worked to create meaningful impact in the community.

What is your favorite movie about business? Apollo 13 not exactly a business movie but excellent business lessons—1) Persevere, 2) Seek Creative Solutions, and 3) Acknowledge a crisis but do not let it paralyze you.

What would your theme song be?

At GPG, when work got crazy or we needed a break, we had a tradition of the “30-Second Dance Party.” Complete game-changer, so in that vein—“Just Dance” by David Bowie.

Favorite vacation spot: North Shore, Oahu

Hobbies? Have I mentioned I like food? Cooking, farmer’s markets, new restaurants, writing about food, traveling to find new food.

What made Sara such an invaluable addition to the class of 2018?

“Sara Axelrod has certainly left significant footprints during her two years in the Texas McCombs MBA Program given her many contributions that will remain after she has left to pursue her career goal of changing the food industry for the better. The first contributions of hers that I would like to mention were in the classroom, which is where I first met her last year. Sara is highly motivated, extremely bright, and filled with passion. She was an outstanding student in terms of her classroom, project, and exam performance. Further, I could always count on her to generate meaningful discussions among her fellow classmates, providing important insights into the topics under discussion. In addition, I found that watching Sara collaborate with her teammate to develop the research for their course project was a true pleasure. She would consistently work to improve the project and would come in enthused about her new ideas. Further, she went far beyond expectations in fulfilling the project requirements.

Sara’s contributions in the extracurricular parts of McCombs have been not only impressive but also quite extensive. She has given a large amount of her own time to make a difference, not only for the current students but for future students. She has been highly important in bringing about the recent successful launch of the Social Innovation Initiative@McCombs, whose “goal is to inspire and educate future generations of leaders to create economic value for their organizations while also creating positive social and environmental impact.” This new initiative has benefited greatly from Sara’s passion and dedicated efforts to see it succeed. As another example, as an officer in Net Impact, Sara worked to provide more career opportunities for McCombs MBA students in positions focused on corporate responsibility, sustainability, and impact. As part of this objective, she established the first recruiting event for Net Impact.

Sara’s passion for changing the food industry and her dedication to excellence are also reflected in her other contributions to McCombs and the community. She was selected to be a fellow for Texas Venture Labs, a highly selective position, in which she helped an Austin-based peanut butter company start-up. She was a volunteer with No Kid Hungry, which is dedicated to ending childhood hunger. She even wrote pieces on sustainability in the food system for a local food magazine, Edible, an independently owned, community-based bi-monthly publication. Given her passion and interest in the food industry, Sara was excited last year about the prospects of having an internship with Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN, which is described as “a partnership between farmers, companies and Land O’Lakes that aligns and harmonizes on-farm conservation and company-wide sustainability targets to maximize the positive impact we can have on the environment, in our communities, and for our customers.” This fit what Sara wanted to do and she came back from the internship excited and motivated to make a difference through her career as the Land O’Lakes Sustainability Marketing and Innovation Manager. I look forward to seeing how she will indeed fulfill the UT Austin mission by changing the world.”

Laura Starks
Professor, Finance
Social Innovation@McCombs, Co-Executive Director