People who change the world tend to be unorthodox, mavericks who flout premise and practice. They don’t check all the boxes, let alone stay in their lanes. You’ll find that mindset alive-and-well in Columbia Business School’s Class of 2021. They are a class of musicians, television producers, and doctors as much as financiers, consultants, and entrepreneurs.
As students, they graduated from programs ranging from Yale to Weber State, with careers that span everything from McKinsey to the Rockettes. Some are seeking to change careers. Others are looking to bring business fundamentals to their passions and pursuits. They’ve endured heartbreak and produced heroics. In the end, the class brings a certain courage – a willingness to buck the safe-and-sanctioned to take a leap of faith into the uncertain-and-unprecedented.
“One of the first people I met at Columbia Business School started the CBS podcast because he always wanted to be a host and bring people together and just decided “hell yes” I am doing this,” writes Jessica Rosner, who operates a furniture and home design center. “It was one of the reasons I loved Columbia and the idea of being surrounded by people who aren’t afraid to go after their dreams.”
COLUMBIA’S MBA CLASS OF 2021: PROFILES OF MAVERICKS
This high risk and high reward mindset is just one part of the Columbia MBA community. I loved how everyone was a “work hard, play hard” type,” writes Yu Shimada, a 2019 MBA graduate. “Every day, we would try to go out together. Every week, I had soccer practices with the team and some days, we would try to pull an all-nighter. I appreciated the balance we had between socializing and working, which gave me energy and helped me thrive in the two years. And, at the end of the day, my classmates and I were dedicated to working hard and trying to learn.”
From Warren Buffet to Sallie Krawcheck, Columbia Business School has a knack for molding raw talent into business royalty, including the current CEOs of Morgan Stanley, Fannie Mae, and Viacom. Not surprisingly, these graduates often bring a certain flair to their work. Case in point: Robert F. Smith, a billionaire investor who made headlines by paying off the student loans for all Morehouse College graduates after delivering their commencement address. Of course, many CBS alumni were already quite colorful when they arrived at Morningside Heights. Jamie Kern Lima, for example, was a former Ms. Washington USA, Big Brother contestant, and university class valedictorian when she started at Columbia in 2002. She left as the class speaker, meeting her husband in stats class and eventually founding and selling a $1.2 billion dollar cosmetics line.
“This story of ours is really a fairy tale,” she told a Columbia audience in 2018. “But it is a fairy tale of fearlessness and a lot of that is part of the Columbia culture. It’s being fearless, not afraid to take risks and do things differently.”
A STATE DEPARTMENT EXPERIENCE
The Class of 2021 is already following in Kern Lima’s fearless footsteps. It is a class that has already made a difference amid the era’s most contentious issues. Courtney Johnson personifies this impulse to fearlessly engage and influence. For the past eight years, she has worked at the U.S. Department of State, helping on conflict prevention and humanitarian assistance in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. She supported the American government response to conflicts in Syria and Iraq, both from headquarters in D.C. and during her two-year post in South-east Turkey where her consulate was declared an “unaccompanied post” due to unrelenting terror attacks in the region. Such threats didn’t stop Johnson from working on the ground with refugee communities in Turkey across the Syria border, where there were frequent terrorist attacks. After a failed coup attempt, she persevered as Turkey began arresting and deporting humanitarian colleagues.
“Words cannot describe how all of these experiences have defined my life,” Johnson writes. “I am humbly inspired by the resiliency of the Syrian refugees who fought against all odds to flee Syria and rebuild their lives in a new country. I am equally in awe of my Turkish colleagues who continue to fight for human rights and for a democratic Turkey.”
During the early weeks of the Trump Administration, when an executive order halted refugee admissions from seven nations, 150 refugees slated to enter the U.S. were stranded in Turkey. In response, Johnson worked closely with the UN, NGOs, and U.S. Embassy teammates to provide emergency shelter, healthcare, and other assistance. Shortly after the Executive Order was announced a U.S. Appeals Court issued a temporary restraining order to block the administration’s action. She collaborated with the Turkish government, UN, and American embassy to reissue exit permits and restart the U.S. refugee resettlement program for the affected nationalities. Through intense collaboration with the Turkish government, UN, and NGO implementers, nearly 600 refugees were resettled from Turkey to the U.S. within the week after the court appeal.
SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER
Complex Issues have spurred the wars and migrations that Johnson has witnessed. From her experience in the humanitarian sector, she believes the private sector can play a big role in alleviating this suffering. “With escalating needs of the world’s near 71 million displaced and shrinking worldwide government aid, it is essential to develop new ways of doing business and I believe bolstering private and public partnerships is one way to create innovative solutions in the field to meet the immense needs worldwide. I decided to pursue an MBA to quickly gain hard business skills to complement my public service background. After graduation, I hope to work in private sector strategy to more deeply understand how to bring together both the public and private sectors to effectively create partnerships to expand the reach and promote sustainability in humanitarian and development response.”
Lonnie Wishom is another profile in courage from the Class of 2021. From 2012-2017, he worked in the U.S. Senate, moving from lowly intern to legislative aide who drafted labor, education, and small business policy. He even authored the Congressional resolution honoring the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali after his death. However, Wishom’s moment of truth came when he confronted his boss, a senior member of Congress, to withdraw his support for a candidate who was the antithesis of his own values. It was a painful conversation, as this Congressman had bucked his party many times – drawing the ire of his peers and constituents in the process. Although Wishom’s boss agreed with many of his positions, he stood his ground on endorsing this candidate. It was a decision, Wishom says, that ultimately motivated him to leave the U.S. Senate on principle – one that likely cost him a job in the new presidential administration as well.
“I realized it was not sufficient for powerful people or institutions to care about me; I had to fight to make sure they cared about the communities that molded me,” he writes. “It was a pivotal moment in my life because it helped me understand that I had the strength to do what I believed was right, even though it was hard, and gave me the confidence to know I don’t need to compromise my values for professional advancement. To be sitting here a few weeks from embarking upon my MBA journey at my dream school is an amazing confirmation that I made the right choice.”
A GRAMMY WINNER AND A ROCKETTE
Often, the Class of 2021 brings colorful backgrounds to campus as well. In this class, everyone has a story to tell. In high school, Katy Obr competed in international competitions as part of the French synchronized figure-skating team. Her love for personal expression and entertaining eventually led to a different outlet. At Yale, she accepted an invitation to produce a play – despite little experience in the theater. Fast forward a decade and Obr was serving as a senior development executive at SLAM Films. A British television and film production firm, SLAM’s content has been streamed on both Netflix and Sky Arts. Her biggest accomplishment thus far?
“Finding and championing diverse, female-led untold stories, then securing the rights and getting the projects into development with major broadcasters,” she writes.
Obr isn’t the only artist in the class. Joy Payton-Stevens collected “a few” Grammys when she played with the Seattle Symphony. At the same time, Kristin Jantzie delivered eye-high kicks alongside her twin sister at Radio City Music Hall as a member of the Rockettes. While Jantzie was performing, Tony Lashley was behind the scenes in the music industry. He comes to Columbia while heading up marketing and operations for Blonded — a music label started by songwriter and producer Frank Ocean — and after working at Spotify. In his role at Spotify, Tony worked to increase support for emerging hip-hop artists. It was a long way from grade school when he’d hawk his home-made Caribbean lunches for money that he used to buy his first iPod!
Anna Tsilidou is another groundbreaker in the Class of 2021. At the University of Macedonia, she was the first student to ever land internships at McKinsey, the Boston Consulting Group, or Procter & Gamble – ultimately landing jobs at BCG and later McKinsey. Sure enough, Tsilidou made quite an impression as an “ambassador” for the university, with several graduates landing jobs at these firms after she left. That was hardly the last “first” she would achieve in her young career.
Go to Page 3 for a dozen in-depth profiles of the Class of 2021.
Go to Pages 2-3 for a Q&A with Assistant Dean Amanda Carlson