An Interview With Columbia’s MBA Gatekeeper

Columbia Business School. Courtesy photo

You got out of the music business in the late 1990s. Why?

I started at Columbia in 1999, and that was right before Napster. Pretty much the year I started, the industry started to decline dramatically. I always say that this generation listens to more music than any other generation, but they just don’t want to pay for it. So it’s a lot more complicated in terms of business model.

After getting your MBA in 2001, did you join the Columbia admissions team right away?

I joined the following year. I graduated during the recession that started in 2001, and I was working in media strategy for Panasonic and ended up losing my job. Initially, I thought I would do a short stint in admissions until I figured out what my next step would be, and 16 years later I’m still here. I love what I do, and more importantly, I like talking to young people and helping them figure out what the next step is in their life.

I don’t consider myself a gatekeeper, I’m just part of a team that is ably led by (Assistant Dean of Admissions) Amanda Carlson, whose leadership style empowers people. She doesn’t mind who gets the credit.

What else has kept you in Columbia admissions so long? 

Michael Robinson, right, with Jamaican artist Shaggy. Courtesy photo

I wear a social justice lens on my sleeve. Many of the people I worked with in music, it was the first time they had made money legally. When their popularity started to wane, some of them started to do things that they should not do. So you learn that access to opportunity is not broadly distributed. But you all learn that talent is everywhere. The fact that here  at Columbia I have some sort of voice in trying to provide more access to opportunity is something that really keeps me grounded, and it comes from a place when I was a young person and saw lots of young people who were very smart and very driven, the most ambitious people I’ve ever met, and still it was very hard to make it. So hard.

But again, they were mostly outside of the educational system, and without music they just didn’t have anything else. So I keep that as part of my makeup. And one of the things that has happened in the time that I have been at Columbia — and this has happened at all the top schools as well — is that there is a growing social sector in terms of social entrepreneurship and social responsibility. That’s a growing piece of what we do. So I get excited when I hear someone say “I want to use the MBA to help transform education,” or, “I want to use the MBA to transform the way healthcare is delivered in the country where I’m from, because I grew up in rural name-the-country and I lost a parent or aunt or uncle because of inadequate healthcare because of things that people in the West think are relatively simple.” Things like that keep me going.

What do you tell people about Columbia who are inclined toward roles with social responsibility? 

I try not to say “Columbia is the right choice for them,” what I tend to do is explain what our values are. I explain our value proposition, and then I listen to them, and then hopefully there’s a meeting of the minds. In the end, you want that young person to become their best self as a leader, and if they decide that we are the right place, that’s a wonderful thing.

To build on what I said about the social sector, I think one of the key things that has happened in recent years with the Tamer Center (for Social Enterprise), is there has been more funding through that family, so it’s possible to get up to 10 years of loan forgiveness. The reality is, our kids are graduating with about $100,000 in debt, right? So that limits your choices. So then what does the institution need to do to make outcomes more realistic for people, where they can have a good life and pay their loans back if they borrowed to go to school? So we have to act as well. And I think we have.

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