Meet Columbia Business School’s MBA Class Of 2021

Courtney Johnson

Columbia Business School

Fearless, energetic, and genuine former diplomat keen to build innovative solutions for complex global problems.”

Hometown: Blue Bell, PA (outside Philadelphia)

Fun Fact About Yourself: I’ve had an entrepreneurial spirit from a young age. My first job was starting a swim lessons business in backyard pools when I was in middle school (I was a competitive swimmer and water polo player growing up so I was trained for this despite my age).  Another one of my first jobs growing up was running carnival games and doing face paint at Mermaid Lakes Swim Club.

Undergraduate School and Major:

University of Maryland, College Park

Major: B.A. Government & Politics

Minors: International Development & Conflict Management and French

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, Refugee Officer/Coordinator

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: I ended up being the Acting Senior Refugee Coordinator in Turkey part of the first week when the Presidential Executive Order halted the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) in 2017 and oversaw the order’s impact on the ground.

It was a tumultuous time when legal guidance was ambiguous and changing constantly.  The order immediately stranded 150 of the most vulnerable refugees, who had been set to travel imminently to the U.S., and was suddenly left without legal residency, jobs, or homes, and with limited personal belongings.  The order outraged the humanitarian community, and Turkish government officials pressed the Embassy for an explanation and a strategy to resolve the crisis.  I drafted frequent situation reports for the Ambassador to use in high-level political meetings and held daily calls with our refugee resettlement implementing partners to organize the emergency response for those stranded.  Our collaborative efforts succeeded in convincing Turkish officials to reinstate legal refugee protection status for the 150 refugees.  To support their shelter needs, I led the team in building a partnership with Airbnb and a local non-governmental organization (NGO) to provide free housing.  I also guided a Turkish NGO in using private U.S. donations to create an emergency cash assistance fund to provide food, medical assistance, and counseling for the refugees.

A week after the Executive Order, the U.S. Appeals Court ruling resulted in the resumption of the USRAP.  My team and I worked quickly to obtain exit permits for the refugees.  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.  I was proud of my team’s tireless efforts and our collective ability to collaborate, persuade, and innovatively problem solve during the response.   Together, we made a positive impact in people’s lives during this complex crisis.

What quality best describes the MBA classmates you’ve met so far and why? Unique. CBS 2021 is a diverse class both in demographics and prior careers with the commonality that we are all eager to learn both in the classroom and through the myriad of experiential opportunities afforded to us in NYC.

What is the best part of coming to New York City to earn your MBA?  CBS is “the center of business,” but it is also home to the UN and many other international non-governmental organizations and social enterprises I worked with before b-school. I wanted to be able to maintain those relationships throughout my MBA experience and possibly work with one organization in-semester after completing the CORE curriculum. Personally, I’m also very excited to be closer to my family and live in the same city as some life-long friends.

Aside from your classmates and location, what was the key factor that led you to choose this program for your full-time MBA and why was it so important to you? CBS encourages students to take in-semester internships after completing the CORE curriculum and enables students to do so by offering unique block scheduling to make the balance possible while still being a full-time student. I found this to be a unique advantage in comparison to other top programs. In-semester internships enable students to get a variety of experiences throughout the two-year MBA program and also provide the ability to work with organizations that cannot afford to hire MBAs full-time such as social enterprises or early-stage start-ups.

What club or activity are you looking most forward to in business school? For fun, I’m looking forward to joining the ski club.  There is a solid group of avid skiers in CBS 2021 and I’m looking forward to exploring new mountains with my classmates.  Academically, I’m looking forward to the international treks and for getting involved in the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise and affiliated clubs.

What was the most challenging question you were asked during the admissions process? “If you could go back to change a decision you previously made, what would it be and why?” I don’t believe in regrets.  I think you can learn from every “mistake” and use those lessons to make informed choices in the future.

What led you to pursue an MBA at this point in your career? After spending over eight years assisting conflict-affected populations across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia I’ve witnessed how the private sector can help streamline humanitarian and development operations, create sustainable solutions, and stimulate local economies of host nations.  With the escalating needs of the world’s nearly 71 million displaced people and shrinking worldwide government aid, it is essential to develop new ways of doing business.  I believe bolstering private/public partnerships is one way to create innovative solutions in the field to meet the immense needs worldwide.  Pursuing an MBA allows me to quickly gain hard business skills to complement my public sector background.  After graduation, I hope to work in private sector strategy with the goal of effectively creating partnerships between companies and the public sector that expand reach and promote sustainability in humanitarian and development response.

What other MBA programs did you apply to? I applied to four other top business schools that were in line with my selection criteria. CBS was my first choice program and I can’t wait to start next week!

How did you determine your fit at various schools? I reached out to friends who went to full-time MBA programs and used those conversations to meet other alumni to learn more about each school’s culture and unique programs. Ultimately, my decision came down to my desire to be located in NYC for both professional and personal reasons.

What was your defining moment and how did it shape who you are? Working on the Syria and Iraq conflict and response– the most complex humanitarian crises of our time—was undoubtedly the most challenging and transformative experience I’ve had to date.  During my two-year assignment as a Refugee Coordinator, on the ground in South-east Turkey, I managed humanitarian assistance programs that provided the displaced with emergency life-saving assistance such as healthcare and shelter in addition to focusing on combating issues such as gender-based violence, child labor, and limited access to education and employment.

I heard countless first-hand accounts of the atrocities of the Syrian war, ISIL violence, and talked to migrants about the crimes committed by smugglers and the perilous journey across the sea.  Security issues plagued Turkey and escalated throughout my tour; constant terrorist attacks led the State Department to evacuate my consulate of families and non-essential personnel because it was too dangerous for people other than core staff to live and travel in the area.

In the summer of 2016, after the attempted coup in Turkey, the Turkish government declared a “State of Emergency” that granted sweeping powers to the executive branch. The Turkish government used these authorities to launch a massive crackdown on human rights organizations and activists which resulted in the deportations and arrests of humanitarian workers, including many who were employed on programs I was managing.  Working as part of the Syria Transition Assistance and Response Team (START) and with the U.S. Mission to Turkey, UN agencies, and NGOs to fight to keep humanitarian assistance programs alive in Turkey and Northern Syria was extremely difficult and remains a challenge. The fallout of the U.S.-Turkey relationship led to a rise in anti-Americanism, and several Turkish staff members of the U.S. Mission were arrested and accused of trumped up terrorist crimes just because they worked with Americans.

Words cannot describe how all these experiences have defined my life. 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. I stand with all of them and know that what I learn and practice at CBS will give me the skills, knowledge, and experience necessary to rise to senior leadership roles where I will continue to work with partners to create solutions to complex global problems. Bringing the public and private sectors together for change is the best way forward. I feel so privileged to be able to attend the prestigious Columbia University, and I cannot wait to tackle challenging issues with my professors and my cohort and learn from all of them.

Where do you see yourself in ten years? I hope to be at the senior management level in either the private sector leading social impact strategy or in the public sector driving innovative change in foreign assistance programs and policy.

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