Meet the MBA Class of 2022: Richard Pettey, Harvard Business School

Richard Pettey

Harvard Business School

“Loyal, detail-oriented, and gritty Alabamian just trying to make his people proud.”

Hometown: Decatur, Alabama

Fun Fact About Yourself: My best friend and I became the winningest football coaches in the history of Huey Porter Middle School when we led the Tigers to a 1-5 record in 2014.

Undergraduate School and Major: Auburn University – Finance and Spanish

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: United States Department of Education – Director of Policy and Strategy in the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education

What makes the case method so attractive as a means to learn and become a better manager? As a teacher, I sought to be more of a learning director than a preacher. Given the volume of content teachers are expected to cover and the limited time with students, this is especially difficult. But it is undeniable that my most effective days in the classroom were the days when students engaged in deep conversation with their peers, questioned the things I said before accepting them, and learned collectively from one another. The case method is an extension of this experience for me. At HBS, I will read more than 500 cases and discuss those cases with my discussion group and section. As the professor artfully directs the conversation, I will learn from the diverse perspectives of my classmates. This is not possible through lecture-based pedagogy.

What quality best describes your MBA classmates and why? My classmates are accomplished and ambitious. The mission of Harvard Business School is to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. The reality is that many of my classmates have already made a difference in the world. But despite their accomplishments—for example, designing and flying rockets that further our understanding of the universe, fighting the Coronavirus pandemic on the medical front lines, and defending our country in the military—no one seems to be complacent or comfortable. Instead, they are tenacious and humble. They will go on to do more because they are ambitious in their pursuit to make a difference in the world.

Aside from the case method and classmates, what was the key part of the school’s MBA programming that led you to choose this business school and why was it so important to you? Morgan County, Alabama, where I grew up, isn’t a part of the world that sends a lot of folks to Ivy League colleges. The story is the same for Jackson, Mississippi, where I spent most of my professional life. Because of this, I have long aspired to attend the best business school that I possibly could. I also knew that I wanted to go somewhere that focused more on the quality of instruction and academic components of the program than on the social side of the MBA experience. HBS checked both of these boxes and when I was admitted I knew immediately that it was the school I would attend.

What club or activity excites you most at this school? I’m particularly excited about the Social Enterprise Initiative and the Managing the Future of Work Project. The Social Enterprise Initiative “applies innovative business practices and managerial disciplines to drive sustained, high-impact social change,” and I look forward to combining my professional experiences and the competencies I acquire at HBS as I engage with the Initiative. The Managing the Future of Work Project “pursues research that business and policy leaders can put into action” as they navigate the changing nature of work and the world. I used the Project’s research to inform decision making and program design while working at the US Department of Education, and I hope to contribute to the Project while at HBS.

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: After teaching for two years in a traditional public school, I was approached by a charter school network planning to open a school in Jackson, Mississippi. I love Mississippi, but I believe the consignment of students to failing schools is an enduring and inexplicable injustice. Upon learning about the network’s success in Nashville, I knew that the future school would provide hope to a community lacking successful academic options. In 2015, I co-founded the first charter school in Mississippi.

That year, on the south end of Jackson, our 11-person team opened the doors of Reimagine Prep Charter School to 120 fifth-grade scholars. Last May, I watched that original class graduate from the eighth grade. Reimagine Prep now enrolls more than 500 students in grades 5-8 and is the highest-performing open-enrollment middle school in Jackson. Creating an option for families that deserved a better choice is my greatest accomplishment and I will likely never be prouder of anything.

What led you to pursue an MBA at this point in your career? I have spent my career working to improve lives through public education and public policy. I believe further societal improvements lie distinctly at the intersection of the public and private sectors. I plan to build a career where they meet. My hypothesis is that a graduate credential in business and professional experience in the private sector will complement my existing competencies and better position me as an impactful leader down the line.

What other MBA programs did you apply to? I applied to Darden School of Business at Virginia, Fuqua School of Business at Duke, McCombs School of Business at Texas, and Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

What was the most challenging question you were asked during the admissions process? Unlike the other interviews I experienced, the HBS admissions interview was not blind. What I mean is that my interviewer spent time reading my application submission and preparing for my interview. Because of this, her thoughts and questions were written in advance and very direct. The most challenging questions are always the ones that we are not expecting, and in the case of my HBS interview involved a seemingly insignificant comment buried in a letter of recommendation submitted by a former manager and mentor. The question caught me by surprise and required me to delicately reflect on a tough relationship with a former coworker while balancing introspection and humility.

How did you determine your fit at various schools? Applying to business school was a multi-year, non-scientific journey for me. Stretching the application process out allowed me to spend time on the campus and in the classrooms of the schools to which I was interested in applying. I spent time talking to current students, alumni, professors, and admissions representatives. I was focused on identifying and applying to schools with a close-knit and intimate community (or section experience), a general management focus, and a distinct culture with genuinely happy students. I wanted to go to a school that would challenge me and that I would enjoy. It was easy for me to identify whether schools had these characteristics when I was visiting them and talking with students, and I found them in the five schools to which I ultimately applied.

What was your defining moment and how did it prepare you for business school? When I was 22 years old, I became “Mr. Pettey” to 150 teenagers—none of whom looked like me and most of whom lived below the poverty line. Teaching was the most formative experience of my life and it taught me a number of things that prepared me for business school. I learned how to lead a team effectively, how to cast a vision and work to achieve it in the face of challenges, and how to find common ground with a diverse body of folks and get to yes when it seemed unlikely. It taught me the importance of motivation, persuasion, influence, and sweating the small stuff when leading and working with others. More than anything, though, teaching taught me that relationships are paramount to driving impact and manifesting change.

What is the most important attribute that you are seeking in an MBA employer? I hope to work for an organization that prioritizes professional development and mentorship for employees. People are more successful, and provide greater value for a company, when they have a coach or manager that intentionally invests in their success and is willing to serve as a consistent resource in the early phases of a career. This will be a nonnegotiable component of the search for my post-MBA role.


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