That term was once reserved for the socially awkward and physically inept. Dorks and dweebs, geeks and goofs. Nerds could master Python and pull straight A’s, but they couldn’t land a date or catch a fly ball. Then along came Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg. Suddenly, nerd took on a new meaning. They were committed and creative, unconventional and unafraid. More than that, they wielded the most powerful tools on the planet: technological and scientific know-how.
MIT has sometimes been called “Nerd Nirvana.” It has been the home of nearly 100 Nobel Laureates – not to mention 59 National Medal of Sciences winners. Founded on the eve of the Civil War, MIT – short for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – has been responsible for advancements like the internet, radar, and nuclear fission. And their alumni have formed companies like Hewlett Packard, Dropbox, Intel, Genentech, Buzzfeed, and E*Trade. Indeed, MIT is hardly an ivory tower where ideas are buried in forgotten journals. Instead, it is a haven for change agents who are driven to develop and share ideas. This extends to the Sloan School of Management, a business school that mirrors MIT’s demand for academic rigor, love for interdisciplinary exploration, and bias for action – a place where MBAs are given the flexibility to do their own thing while being pushed to their limits.
NO NEGATIVES IN NERDY
This climate certainly attracted Jana Parsons. An analyst with the Brookings Institution, Parsons joined the full-time Class of 2022 to pivot from researching to doing, gaining deep exposure and hands-on experience in a variety of industries and issues in the process. Thus far, she would use the “nerdy” cliché to describe her classmates – but in the best possible way.
“I’ve never thought of nerdy as a negative term and I wanted to go to a school where intellectual curiosity was valued and encouraged,” Parsons writes. “In connecting with my future classmates, I’ve been so impressed by the passion and enthusiasm they have shown for their work and learning new things. A really wonderful side effect of the intellectual curiosity is a collaborative nature that permeates student interactions. When the goal is learning for the sake of learning, collaboration gets you there faster.”
That collaboration acts as a force multiplier at MIT in general – and Sloan in particular. Parsons, for one, notes that MIT “brings together the world’s smartest minds to tackle the world’s toughest problems.” You could say that MIT is predicated on imagination and innovation, with a culture and community geared towards long-term, global impact. Trendsetters, yes…but also nimble, organic, data-centric, and humble, adds Nagela Nukuna, a Google program manager and figure skating instructor. In 2020, she watched MIT Sloan practice what it preached, reinventing itself as a virtual power during a pandemic. To do that, Nukuna observes, the school drew upon its team-driven approach to create the best experience for MBAs.
“Though initial execution may not have been perfect, they acknowledged any prior errors, actively sought out student feedback in the creative ideation process, and designed a detailed and thorough fall plan complete with mitigation options. Ultimately, this is the type of management style I hope to emulate: humble service to the community, thinking through difficult problems in a nuanced and research-focused way and corralling help from those most proximate to the task.”
MIND AND HAND WORKING TOGETHER
And Sloan can count on help from across the larger MIT ecosystem too. After all, innovation is rooted in being inventive, adaptable, collaborative and action-driven. In fact, the school’s motto is “Mens et Manus” – Latin for “Mind and Hand.” It is a philosophy that values real world application and value creation – a mindset where new ideas and classroom lessons are only as good as the labor that students are willing to put behind them. That’s one reason why Sloan is such an integral part of MIT: It is the place where engineers, scientists, and mathematicians can go to commercialize their visions.
“Engineering, technology, and innovation are the first things that come to mind when I think of MIT,” explained
Albany Mulholland, an engineer and mining executive, in August. “I have yet to start the program but have already received numerous emails about opportunities to be involved with start-ups and collaborate on projects with other graduate students across the university. I have no doubt that once the semester is underway there will be even more exciting projects to be a part of.”
That’s not to say the Class of 2022 hasn’t already taken some pretty exciting paths. Take Riley Foreman. Before business school, she led ESPN’s women’s basketball research department before taking over as the public relations director for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. The O. Henry twist? Foreman has never played basketball…in college or even for fun. However, her work has served a larger purpose. Noting that women make up 40% of athletes and 4% of sports media coverage, Foreman has sought to shine media attention on women. She considers her biggest achievements to be the small wins: “providing quality data and information often leads to more stories, more beat writers, more highlights on SportsCenter, and higher TV ratings.” Though MIT Sloan, Foreman intends to take her crusade to another level.
“As the public relations manager of a WNBA team, my scope was one of few that spanned both business and basketball operations. In a single day, I could pitch a potential sponsor, draft a press release announcing a free agency signing, organize media after practice, and escort a player to a community event or speaking engagement. While this unique exposure and my television production roots at ESPN are valuable experiences to have in the sports industry, I feel like the Sloan MBA will sharpen my financial modeling and give me the negotiation acumen needed to lead media rights deals with either a league or streaming platform.”
FIGHTING THE TALIBAN WITH BIOMETRICS
Ian Culver is pursuing an equally impactful path. In the U.S. Coast Guard, he was an aviator, helicopter flight examiner and training manager who has saved lives, disrupted criminal enterprises, and resigned safety systems and policies. Now, he plans to take his work to a bigger stage through business school. “After a dozen years of flying helicopters and building a strong background in aviation safety, I seek to learn the business skills required to effectively introduce and manage lifesaving technologies and systems within the aviation industry.”
Speaking of public service, the Class of 2022 also features Valerie Kutsch. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, Kutsch was already leading a 40-person platoon when she was just 23. It was an experience, she says, that reinforced that organizations are only as good as their people. And Kutsch brought out their best, one reason why she was elevated to being a U.S. Army Intelligence officer in Afghanistan, where she oversaw biometrics across the entire country…including 13 military bases.
“My team did everything related to biometric collection – from enrollment and training to quality control,” she writes. “I led the initiative to use information from our biometric database to glean relevant data and organize a reporting tool to inform base commanders on current security levels. We turned raw data into actionable information that increased protection for American soldiers. This tool provided information that was critical in informing security decisions that affected hundreds of lives.”
STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND
Along with heavy and visible responsibilities, this year’s class has also notched several impressive achievements. Bo Chan, for one, has developed tech products that are sold at Apple stores and over 1,100 retailers. As a vice president at JP Morgan, Luis Guillermo Vernet grew a billion dollar book of business in Latin America. Sarah Black, previously a BCG consultant, partnered with WWF Australia to deliver a roadmap for reducing the consumption of single-use plastic. Along the same lines, Clare Everts, a former White House intern, produced an analysis that laid the groundwork for a utility’s $900 million dollar investment in solar energy…not to mention the closure of a coal plant.
Here’s something you don’t see very often: Jerry Hong is a commissioned officer in two different military branches for two different countries: The Singapore Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard. In the former, Hong led his ship’s COVID-19 response while also heading response operations to a maritime dispute with Malaysia. At the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, he was the only foreign cadet from Asia. Despite the differences in military practices and cultural mores, Hong took away several leadership lessons that he hopes to build on at MIT Sloan.
“This American military experience eventually helped me realize the power of finding common ground and in becoming a communicative and relatable leader and partner. In my time in the Singapore Navy, I adopted a similar leadership style that emphasized work ethic and communication, never forgetting the importance of influencing and motivating members of all ranks to achieve a collective goal. I believe that this empathetic style of leadership would be crucial in navigating the business school environment, always respecting diverse opinions while forging common ground through communication.”
DIVERSITY BEYOND NATIONALITY
Bo Chan experienced a similar culture shock during her defining moment: returning to Hong Kong so she could “reconnect” with her heritage. While her family had practiced local customs in Canada, she quickly learned just how culturally diverse Hong Kong is – and how she could leverage that to become a better leader.
“Hong Kong redefined my idea of what it meant to live in a multicultural city,” Chan recalls. “The plethora of culture that existed from all corners of the world eclipsed that of anywhere I’d ever lived. At work, I learned to navigate the nuances of varying cultural dynamics while trying to learn the ropes of hardware product management. I had managers, coworkers, and peers from France, Korea, China, India, Finland – and more that brought their unique working styles. Not only did this new setting teach me how to succeed within diverse cross-cultural teams, but it also led me to examine my own identity and values.”
Riley Foreman’s defining moments came over a two year period where she weathered crisis-after-crisis. “In my first year in public relations at the Seattle Storm, I assisted a double-arena relocation and franchise-record sponsorship announcement while also receiving a crash course in crisis communications after our star players were ruled out for the season due to injuries and our head coach received a cancer diagnosis. The following season, the WNBA and WNBA Players Union announced a ground-breaking new collective bargaining agreement just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic postponed live sports indefinitely. I wouldn’t be nearly as prepared for business school or understand the many complexities of the sports industry if I hadn’t worked through those challenges to reach the playoffs in 2019 and maneuver a safe return to play in 2020.”
* To access a dozen in-depth profiles of the Class of 2022, go to Page 3.
* For an exclusive interview with Assistant Dean Maura Herson, go to Page 2.