2021 Best & Brightest MBAs: James Clinton Francis, Wharton School

James Clinton Francis

Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

Obsessed with building equitable, just, and verdant agricultural and food systems that work for everyone.”

Hometown: Orlando, FL

Fun fact about yourself: As a young child, my mom—a former dancer—would occasionally enroll me in traditional West African dance classes. I distanced myself from this form of creative expression for most of my adolescence and teenage years, but slowly rediscovered it during college. After graduating college, I’ve strived to take weekly classes in the cities in which I lived. In 2019, I had the privilege of traveling to Guinea to intensively study not just dance, but also hone my drumming skills and learn how to play a xylophone-like instrument called the balafon. I’m looking forward to getting back in the studio once we beat COVID-19!

Undergraduate School and Degree: Columbia University; B.A. African Studies, Political Science

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? The Kraft Heinz Company, Senior Associate Brand Manager

Where did you intern during the summer of 2020? J.P. Morgan, Corporate & Investment Banking, Consumer & Retail Group

Where will you be working after graduation? Before I start law school at Columbia this fall, I will spend this summer continuing to build my company – the Chicken Haus – which is a fast casual, bone-in fried chicken restaurant concept. The Chicken Haus is committed to radically modernizing bone-in fried chicken meals by building racially reparative poultry supply chains, reviving heirloom produce varieties, and reducing community-level microeconomic inequalities.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

Agribusiness & Food Security Club (President)

Out for Business (Co-Vice President), Dance Studio (Director)

Joseph P. Wharton Fellow; Director’s List.

I’m also a member of the African-American MBA Association, Finance, and Restructuring and Distressed Investing Clubs.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of in business school? At the end of my first year, the Agribusiness and Food Security Club looked like it was about to disband –no one had stepped up to lead the organization. After being nudged by fellow board members, I decided to take the leadership helm of the club. Along with my rock star chief of staff, Laura Zaim, we expanded our executive board of 11 and built on the strong brand established by the club’s founder and former co-presidents. We’ve modernized the club’s message to make the industry—which can be quite technical—more accessible to our peers by speaking the language of entrepreneurship and innovation, diversity and inclusion, as well as sustainability. Despite the challenges posed by a completely virtual MBA experience this year, I’m proud to say that we launched two new flagship speaker series events, doubled our operating budget, and more than tripled club membership.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? During my time at Kraft Heinz, I worked in a business unit that had failed to fully commercialize a new product in almost a decade. When I joined the organization’s foodservice platform in 2016, I recognized my cross-functional team’s deep expertise, but knew that I would be challenged to inspire the business, which had just gone through a major reorganization, to innovate. Through a combination of vision setting, a lot of trial-and-error, and hard work, my team was able to pen long-term supply agreements and launch a number of new-to-the world products with leading dessert and snack manufacturers, as well as a major full-service restaurant chain.

Why did you choose this business school? As an undergraduate who pursued a very untraditional course of study for an MBA, I wanted to get formalized training in accounting and corporate finance. I knew that for what I wanted to achieve professionally, I needed a firm foundation in these subjects. Specifically, I was drawn to the course offerings on distressed investing, restructuring, and turnaround management. Given my experiences at Cargill and Kraft Heinz, I witnessed the challenges and opportunities presented by deep transformational change strategies. While I knew the coursework would be the most intellectually challenging for me, I held firm to my belief that growth happens in places of discomfort, even if it meant that I wouldn’t be at the top of my class academically.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? My favorite professor at Wharton has been Regina M. Abrami, who taught a course on how businesses manage and compete in China. I spent my summers as an undergraduate, as well as the first third of my pre-MBA career traveling to and working on issues related to investing across sub-Saharan Africa. Given China’s involvement on the African continent, I had developed a view on how China does business within and outside its borders from a very specific vantage point. Professor Abrami not only challenged my views on China, but through her skilled use of cold calling—even in a virtual environment— helped me to broaden my perspective and clearly articulate a more nuanced perspective on China’s economic growth story.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? Dance Studio is one of the largest clubs on campus that puts together a show each spring with hundreds of students performing various styles of dance. The show is a perfect example of Wharton students willing to fully embrace stretch experiences, all while having fun! Even though Dance Studio was abruptly cancelled in March 2020 as the world was figuring out how to navigate COVID-19, I am excited that the club has brainstormed innovative ways to still put on a show while being safe.

What is the biggest myth about your school? Wharton has long been known as a school exclusively for hyper quants who are laser-focused on accelerating their career in either investment banking or investment management. While there are many talented future CFOs at Wharton, I was pleased to meet the number of my classmates who were particularly interested in entrepreneurship, particularly in the food and beverage space. As the resources of Tangen Hall continue to be built out—including a test kitchen—I’m confident that Wharton will be known as the place for food-centric startups.

What surprised you the most about business school? This February, I decided to share the thinking that led me to decide to launch my company with the Storytellers Club. My story is deeply personal to me, but I was surprised at the equally emotional support I received from my classmates. This reception shattered my belief of the completely stoic and resolute business student, along with giving me the confidence to press forward with growing my venture.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? Conventional wisdom suggests that during the application process, the focus should be on first studying for the standardized tests, then filling out each school’s specific application, and finally writing the personal statement. I completely reversed this process and found that writing my essays first helped confirm my application timing, as well figure out which schools were the right fit. Closely researching schools and speaking with current students and alumni during the essay writing process helped narrow down my application list. It also saved me money on application fees!

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I most admire Nicole Allain-Stockton, a fellow second year who truly exemplifies the ethos of “lifting as we climb.” Nicole was one of the co-chairs of the 47th annual African-American MBA Association’s Whitney M. Young Conference, the largest student-run event on Wharton’s campus. As with most events, the conference was held virtually, but she and her team were able to pull off a conference that felt intimate and personal. Moreover, I deeply respect her work in coaching many first years throughout the investment banking recruiting process—especially those from underrepresented groups—with the ultimate intention of diversifying the highest ranks of corporate finance.

How disruptive was it to shift to an online or hybrid environment after COVID hit? I found two silver linings in the shift to online learning. First, I quickly noticed that both professors and students were more organized and concise in lectures and discussion. Sometimes during in-person classes, I found that the classmates who were naturally more talkative, or had expertise in the topic of discussion, could dominate discussions. With class moving to Zoom, I found that the raise hand function encouraged more diverse voices to be heard. Second, the virtual environment allowed most clubs to invite speakers who normally would not travel to Philadelphia, to present and interact with students.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? Between my sophomore and junior year of college, I had the opportunity to intern at the American Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Here, I was able to interact with Ambassador Mark Green and Dr. Jendayi Frazer, two senior ranking diplomats who have spent much of their careers working on issues of international development and national security across sub-Saharan Africa. They both encouraged me to pursue my MBA after exploring and advancing the ranks in an industry I was most passionate, as an MBA—and not just a JD—would add a powerful depth to my plans to impact agricultural and food systems. While it took almost a decade for me to fully accept their advice, it was ultimately their message that influenced my decision to sequentially pursue an MBA and JD.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list? My family is descended from enslaved Africans who, after gaining freedom, built small farms across the American South, only to be threatened with violence, chased from their homes, and forced to migrate to Midwestern and Northern cities. While their quality of life was marginally better, many of my relatives ended up cooking in homes and institutions that didn’t accept them because of their race. When I reflect on the myriad injustices of the current food system—and how many of the same issues of land ownership, fair wages, and cultural appropriation and stereotype my family faced persist among recent immigrants and working people of all races—I feel compelled to do something about it.

As such, I’d like to use my company as the vehicle to eradicate these many wrongs so future generations—regardless if they live in small, rural towns or large, urban cities—can thrive. I’d also like to serve in some civic capacity where I can further plant the seed for my vision of agricultural and food systems change.

What made James Francis such an invaluable member of the Class of 2021?

“More than any Club leader I’ve worked with, James has impressed me with the level of ownership he’s taken to transform the Agribusiness Club into a body that provides a more meaningful and engaging experience for its highly passionate and growing membership base – notably in a sector that is fairly new and less developed in the MBA careers landscape. Early on, James developed a thoughtful, comprehensive strategy to elevate the quality of the Club’s programmatic content, including plans for a thought leadership speaker series, a “How I Grew This” entrepreneurship series, and hands-on learning opportunities with both budding entrepreneurs and established enterprises across the food value chain.

Last spring, neither COVID nor his former co-president deciding to take a fall leave of absence (and therefore a lesser leadership role in the Club) derailed or slowed him down. This has indeed been a transformative year for the Ag Club, despite the challenges of being virtual. James continues to stay on the pulse of what members want and need, serving as an advocate with School administrators to garner new services and support – especially important for a less-trafficked industry that could fall more under the radar than larger ones like consulting, banking or tech. I feel it’s also worth noting that it’s rare for a student to lead a Club as the sole President (most Clubs have 2-3 Co-Presidents), while also managing a full academic course load. An example that stands out most for me was James’ leadership in the wake of the initial George Floyd protests. In a powerful message to the Ag Club community, he took a stand to acknowledge and educate his peers on the systemic racial inequities that exist across the food value chain, providing further information and resource links for students to learn more and hopefully be inspired to effect change. The message was detailed, motivating, and a shining example of the kind of leader we hope all of our students aspire to be.”

Sugirtha Stathis
Director of Student Programs and Communication, MBA Career Management





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