2020 Best & Brightest MBAs: Christopher Lee Owen, University of Michigan (Ross)

Christopher Lee Owen

University of Michigan, Ross School of Business

“Tea-loving, growth-minded, life-enthusiast on an exciting adventure of relentless self-improvement and scalable positive impact.”

Hometown: Marshall, WI, home of the Fightin’ Cardinals and three farms on Main Street.

Fun fact about yourself: In 2017, upon returning to the U.S. after serving in the Peace Corps for three years in Ecuador, I completed the 4,300-mile TransAmerica bicycle race from Oregon to Virginia. For 28 straight days, I pedaled over 150 miles per day self-supported, navigating through America’s backcountry guided by laminated paper maps. I camped along ditches, under highway overpasses, and hidden in rural post offices. I blew up my knee in Wyoming, lost feeling in my hands in Colorado, fell asleep while riding across Kansas, and outsprinted a pack of dogs in Kentucky. After surviving Appalachia via the magical powers of Pop-Tarts, I arrived in Yorktown, Virginia, starving, sleep-deprived, and willing to trade my bicycle for a paperclip. It was a dream-come-true and I was arrested only once.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Marquette University, B.A. (Theology, Philosophy, and Psychology) I studied theology, philosophy, and psychology at Marquette University with the expectation of becoming a pastor. Then, during my senior year, I co-founded an urban community garden and a collegiate triathlon club. I’ve been a lost cause ever since, having hopelessly been bitten by the entrepreneurship bug.

Graduate School and Degree: University of Michigan, School for Environment and Sustainability, M.S. (Behavior, Education, and Communication) I am a dual-degree student with the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise here at the University of Michigan, where I specialize in organizational behavior and sustainability. My research explores how organizations can leverage the skills of their people strategy professionals to embed sustainability and triple-bottom-line decision-making across functions, leading to long-term growth, internal organizational resilience, and positive external stakeholder engagement.

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Regional Leader and Business Development Consultant, United States Peace Corps, Ecuador

I was a business development consultant in the natural resource program with the U.S. Peace Corps in Ecuador, where I traveled from the Amazon rainforest to rural Andean villages helping community-owned organizations develop management, marketing, and finance strategies. In general, I had no idea what I was doing, so I mostly just listened, which was made easier by the fact that for the first six months of my service I couldn’t speak Spanish. This resulted in endless laughter and countless friendships. I so enjoyed the adventure of speaking at a fourth-grade level that I extended my service for the third year as a regional leader, which is where I discovered my passion for people strategy. I trained and mentored new volunteers in the art of not knowing things, which, it turns out, is the most effective way to actually connect with communities and respectfully co-create positive impact. At various times, I was also a high school camp counselor, art teacher, gardener, and a national park guide. I never had to catch my own chicken for dinner, though we did eat a lot of guinea pigs.

Where did you intern during the summer of 2019? Microsoft Corporation, Redmond, WA

As an internal people strategy consultant at Microsoft, I collaborated with 20+ vice presidents and Diversity & Inclusion leads within the department of Corporate, External, and Legal Affairs (CELA) to craft a diversity and inclusion strategy for FY20, scale a mentoring program for under-represented high-achieving CELA employees, and develop an equitable compensation system for members of our paralegal team. Based on primary research I conducted, I co-presented recommendations for the D&I strategy and mentoring program directly to the president of Microsoft, which were approved. Did I ask for a selfie after this meeting? Yes. I mean, I am a millennial after all.

Where will you be working after graduation? Microsoft Corporation, Redmond, WA

Despite not owning a smartphone until last year Christopher Lee Owen and being somewhat terrified by Excel, Microsoft generously extended an offer to return full-time upon graduation this next spring.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

Community Work

  • Co-Founder, Casa Maria Amor Women’s Entrepreneurship Empowerment Center (Ecuador)
    • With financial support from the Erb Institute and 25 generous donors, I co-launched a women’s entrepreneurship empowerment center in collaboration with a women’s shelter in Cuenca, Ecuador. We furnished the empowerment center with business ideation materials and six computers, and I designed and facilitated a multi-day, hands-on business education workshop using a design-thinking methodology.
  • Open Road Fellow
    • As an Open Road Fellow, my team and I traveled 4,000 miles through 14 states over the course of four weeks to serve four social entrepreneurs. We identified 80 growth opportunities for a childcare facility in Detroit that serves low-income families. We generated a sales funnel strategy and calculated financial projections to position an Arkansas-based edtech start-up to secure venture capital. And we conducted stakeholder interviews for an Asheville-based staffing agency that served marginalized community members. My Open Road teammates are now my best friends from Ross.
  • Dow Distinguished Masters Fellow
    • As a Dow Masters Fellow, I created a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis for evaluating the ROI of using trees as vegetative buffers in Detroit to improve public health and increase property values in heavily industrialized neighborhoods. Our team also conducted secondary research on legal ordinances pertaining to sustainable landscaping in cities comparable to Detroit, which were published and presented at a community town hall event to a local councilwoman.
  • William Davidson Institute of International Impact Fellow
    • As a WDI Global Impact Fellow in Madurai, India, I created the framework and content for the launch of a business coaching program that combined online enterprise development tools with the personal guidance of an experienced business coach. This customized coaching program equips entrepreneurs and business managers in emerging economies as data-driven decision-makers who leverage the power of “high tech, high touch” to grow. After field-testing this program with 28 entrepreneurs in Madurai, this program is now being scaled nationally.

Leadership Roles

  • Graduate Student Instructor, Department of Organizational Studies, University of Michigan
    • As a graduate student instructor in the Department of Organizational Studies, I have designed, facilitated, and evaluated five semester-long undergraduate classes that focus on the intersection of business and sustainability.
  • Open Road Leadership Board, Co-Lead
    • I co-led new student onboarding, alumni engagement, and the leadership transition of the Open Road organization after it attained official status as a university student club.
  • MAP Consultant and Coach
    • As the primary research lead for our MBA consulting team on a 7-week project for Fidelity Investments, I designed, distributed, and analyzed a customer segment survey that informed 12 strategic recommendations regarding the future of the financial services industry. I also designed and co-facilitated focus groups which enriched the narrative of our research. My MAP team and I then presented this primary research, our secondary research, and our subsequent strategic recommendations to Fidelity executives in Boston. At present, I am a coach for two of this year’s MBA 1 MAP teams.
  • Human Capital Club Board of Directors
    • I directed all communications for the Human Capital Club, including the launch of a new Human Capital @ Ross blog.
  • Erb Institute Student Advisory Board
    • In collaboration with one of my best friends at Ross, we launched the Erb DEI sub-committee and created the VP of DEI position for the Erb Student Advisory Board after facilitating several student workshops focused on DEI growth opportunities within the Institute.
  • Rackham DEI Certificate Graduation Speaker
    • After successfully completing the Rackham DEI Certificate program as a member of the pilot cohort, I was asked to represent our class at the graduation ceremony as one of the student speakers.
  • Founder, Tea Festivus

Awards and Honors

  • Ross Business+Impact Fellow
  • UNLEASH Innovation Lab Global Talent
  • William Davidson Institute Global Impact Fellow
  • Dow Masters Fellow in Sustainability
  • Percy Community Service Award, Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise
  • United States Peace Corps Coverdell Fellow
  • Mertz Family Social Impact Fellow
  • Dean’s Fellow, School for Environment and Sustainability
  • Erb Institute Recruitment Award for Sustainability
  • Erb Institute Impact Project Award
  • Center for Positive Organizations +Lab Fellow

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Why? I am most proud of the 117 U-M undergraduate students who I have had the honor of teaching as a graduate student instructor for “Business and the Natural Environment”. Based in the Department of Organizational Studies—an interdisciplinary program that explores how organizations thrive and evolve—this semester-length undergraduate course equips and empowers students as analytical, innovative sustainability change agents. In addition to co-designing the curriculum, facilitating weekly discussions, and providing students feedback on their assignments, my favorite aspect of this course is journeying with students as they choose their major, apply for their first internship or full-time job, start their own business, and more. Also, the “ah-ha” moments are simply amazing—seeing students make creative connections right before your eyes, knowing that you may have had a very small role to play in their discovery.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Why? I co-founded five organizations in three years as an early 20-something-year-old: a community garden, triathlon club, boutique financial consulting firm, international NGO, and a small sporting goods resale business. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. But I did it anyway. I was naïve, courageous, creative, careless, and convicted. I earned money, lost money, created communities where there were none, delivered products to people who needed them, made countless crucial mistakes, built leadership teams to ensure scalable growth, and then left it all to become a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. I lived an entire lifetime in those three years—and they have made all the difference. I now realize that those inspirational cat posters are right: the only thing more painful than failing is failing to try. Those three years were messy, unpredictable, and stressful, but they were also energizing character-building and life-altering. I’m so proud of my 22-year-old self who said “Yes!” to all of those experiences and emerged with thicker skin, a softer heart, and even brighter eyes.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? This February, I launched a new tradition at Ross: Tea Festivus. For the past three years, I’ve been hosting pop-up “TeaTimes” with classmates in quiet nooks of the business school in an effort to connect more deeply and authentically with classmates. I wanted to deviate from the traditional, trivial, and transactional script of defining each other by what we’re recruiting for. Wanting to scale the “TeaTime” model and create a community around nurturing deep meaningful connections at Ross, I created Tea Festivus, which has brought together over 50 students who are enjoying 20 teas in 20 days.

Soon, we’re hosting our first group TeaTime called “SustainabiliTEA: From Soil to Soul / The Story of Three Teas” during which the owner of a local tea house will be sharing with us the journey of three teas and the sustainability of their supply chains. Overall, TeaTime and Tea Festivus reflect the broader Ross community which is striving to cultivate an environment defined by authenticity and courage. Based on the initial response to this event, I think we’re on the right track.

Why did you choose this business school? I chose Ross because it wanted all of me—my failures, my incoherent professional narrative, my side hustles, and my grassroots global experiences. They saw that I was messy, unfocused, and unrefined, but they also saw that I was hard-working, hungry, and growth-minded. They didn’t invite me to Ross because of what I had achieved, but because they believed in what I could achieve. Also, when I expressed my interest in becoming a thought-leader at the untraditional intersection of people strategy and sustainability, other schools told me, “We don’t do that here.” Ross, on the other hand, replied, “Chris, how can we help you do that here?”

What is your best advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? Own your awesomeness and don’t let the application process define you. Also, bring your full self to Ross and take pride in what makes you unique. All of you are welcome here.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? I would have been more intentional about immersing myself in the international community at Ross. We bring the best minds—the best people!—from around the world to Ann Arbor. I wish I would have prioritized attending a few more international events and joining our amazing international student clubs. Undoubtedly, as an alumnus, this is an area in which I intend to focus—connecting with the Ross global community.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Michael London and Keely Bosn. Both Mike and Keely are US military veterans, leaders within the Ross community, and…parents! Mike became a first-time father last year and Keely has four children, two of which she adopted while at Ross (needless to say, Ross is a partner-friendly, parent-friendly community). I am continuously amazed by how Mike and Keely remain fully present as parents while embracing the rigorous demands of grad school. They and their families enrich the Ross community with their strong sense of self and ‘true north’ orientation. They remind me to never forget what is most important in life. Of course, their respective partners—Leslie and Ross—are also heroes behind the scenes.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? Most certainly my parents. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Both of my parents courageously started their own small businesses. I saw up-close the trials and tribulations of being an entrepreneur, but I also saw the blessings of business and how it can create a lasting positive impact on people’s lives and entire communities. Ultimately, I didn’t come to business school to learn how to start a business—my parents and my own failures taught me that. I came to Ross to find others who want to join me on this journey of creating scalable businesses that positively impact the world.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list? Prioritize the career of my future spouse so that she can always pursue her dream job. Stay humble and never stop learning—become a Chief Learning Officer. Write a book that inspires at least one person to live their best life. Start a family foundation that promotes gender equality in STEM. Start a successful B-Corp. Then grow a family of B-Corps—creating a symbiotic ecosystem of triple-bottom-line businesses that empower entire communities. Launch a consulting firm that equips and empowers emerging leaders as triple-bottom-line decision-makers. Teach at a university and mentor students as sustainability change-agents. Learn French or German and work in Europe with leading sustainability companies. Get a doctorate just because I love learning. Join the U.S. Peace Corps again as an encore career. And last but certainly not least, never compromise my values or stray from who I am in pursuit of these bucket list aspirations.

Wait, seriously, I can only choose two?

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? Chris loved and lived deeply—he was fully alive and filled those around him with life.

Hobbies? I’m currently section-hiking the Appalachian Trail and section-canoeing the Mississippi River, having completed about half of each. This May, I’ll be crushing a 500-mile section of the AT in Georgia and North Carolina with two siblings (birds of a feather flock together in our family). Also, I love abstract art, especially Kandinsky. One day I’d like to go beyond doodling in notebooks to pursue abstract painting in earnest. Fortunately, one of my sisters is a professional artist, so I need not go far for guidance. Lastly, I love riding my bicycle. It keeps me forever young (though my growing collection of grey hairs tells a different story). I’m excited to explore the Pacific Northwest on two wheels during this next life phase.

What made Chris such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2020?

“Chris Owen is an extraordinary business school student who adds immense value to the Business School and to his classmates. He is a learner and a creator, sharing generously with others as he forges new paths at the intersection of business and sustainability. For example, Chris has charted a unique and important new path for students interested in Human Resources and Sustainability built from his ambitious honors thesis and participation in the joint program in Business and Sustainability. His interest in Sustainable Human Resource Management traces back to his Peace Corps experience and builds from a commitment to being a cutting edge learner and teacher of others. While completing his  Masters, he has designed, self-directed, and completed multiple independent study courses on DEI and the outdoors industry, women’s empowerment through entrepreneurship in South America, the future of private wealth management and the financial services industry, and improving public health and carbon sequestration through the use of vegetative buffers in industrialized urban neighborhoods.

Beyond being an avid learner, Chris turns these learning experiences into effective action. He is an impactful co-teacher for multiple sections of an undergraduate course on business and sustainability. As a Global Impact Fellow with Aparajitha, Chris created the framework and content for the launch of a business coaching program that combined online enterprise development tools with the personal guidance of an experienced business coach. This customized coaching program equips entrepreneurs and business managers as data-driven decision-makers who leverage the power of “high tech, high touch” to grow. After field-testing this program with 28 entrepreneurs in Madurai, this program is now being scaled nationally.  In sum, Chris Owen exemplifies the best of what a business student can be through generating and disseminating new human-centric knowledge and putting it into action in domains of business that will have a lasting positive impact.”

Jane Dutton
Robert L. Kahn Distinguished University Professor Emerita of Business Administration and Psychology


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