2021 Best & Brightest MBAs: Austin Ward, Stanford GSB

Austin Ward

Stanford Graduate School of Business

“Business and policy leader, healthcare innovation enthusiast, amateur chef, wannabe author, Schitt’s Creek fanatic. “

Hometown: Modesto, California

Fun fact about yourself: I have a twin sister, and growing up in California, my parents put us both through child acting school. Show business didn’t pan out — but I was nearly cast in a movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer.

Undergraduate School and Degree: University of Chicago, BA in Law, Letters, & Society and in Economics. Concurrent Master’s in Public Administration at Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Consultant at BCG and Associate Strategy Officer at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (on assignment from BCG).

Where did you intern during the summer of 2020? Playground Global, an early-stage, deeptech venture capital firm based in Palo Alto, where I focused on life sciences investments.

Where will you be working after graduation? After graduating from Stanford GSB, I will complete my final year of graduate school at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: Healthcare Director for the GSB Impact Fund, after participating as a member of the investment team in my first year. Served on the Admit Weekend Committee, helping to organize one in-person and one virtual series of events for Class of 2022 admits. Design Thinking Lead for Stanford Africa Business Forum. Recognized as a Siebel Scholar.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? The GSB Impact Fund has been the highlight of my business school experience. After serving on the healthcare deal team last year, I was selected to direct the team this year. I feel honored to lead such a talented team of people who are passionate about pushing investment toward improving social outcomes in healthcare and other sectors.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? While working for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on assignment from BCG, I co-led a project on improving health sector planning – capturing better data to inform more efficient and effective health delivery. As the capstone for this effort, my colleagues and I designed and facilitated a week-long conference in Rwanda with over 40 government and policy leaders. When the week ended, our participants walked away with concrete ideas to improve healthcare in their countries at a systemic level. Investing effort in this important but thorny issue and contributing to a new strategy for both governments and donors to follow proved to me the impact that public-private partnerships can deliver, and I was proud to play a small part in it.

Why did you choose this business school? While I was attracted to Stanford’s entrepreneurship and leadership offerings, the distinguishing factor for me was the emphasis on social impact. The Center for Social Innovation, including the GSB Impact Fund, offers a wide range of opportunities for students interested in social innovation. For example, as part of my MBA, I am able to pursue a special Certificate in Public Management and Social Innovation. These programs assured me that I could complete a well-rounded MBA experience while staying strongly connected to the social impact world, especially in health.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Although very difficult to choose, my favorite would have to be Katherine Casey, Associate Professor of Political Economy. Professor Casey’s course on non-market strategy provides a powerful way for MBA students to think about government and the public sector – an important but often underappreciated issue. Beyond our shared interest areas, I appreciated how much energy and commitment Professor Casey brought to her class, evident even over Zoom!

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? Everyone advised me ahead of time that I need to be careful about prioritization given all the opportunities available in business school. Still, I fell into the trap of taking on too many commitments and becoming too fragmented. Ultimately, the onset of COVID brought an end to some of my extracurriculars (e.g., the Africa Business Forum was canceled). If I could start my MBA over again, I would have focused more on a smaller set of commitments where I could go deeper and really challenge myself.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? When I was preparing for business school, I spoke with a large number of people who had gone to Stanford or considered it so that I could learn as much as possible about the specifics of their experiences. This personal, beyond-the-website research allowed me both to understand how I would fit in there and to convey those granular details and interests throughout my application materials.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Areeba Kamal, who was in my section, is a truly remarkable human being and one of my classmates whom I admire most. In our very first class together, she took risks in sharing comments that really pushed all of our thinking, including the professors’. As I got to know her better and understand her personal story, I admired the tenacity and strength that brought her from Pakistan, to a full-ride for college in the U.S., to Stanford for her MBA, and soon to Apple. She consistently stands up for what is right and speaks truth to power. I believe she can overcome any challenge, and so I can’t wait to see how her life and career unfold next.

How disruptive was it to shift to an online or hybrid environment after COVID hit? When the GSB first transitioned to online classes, our Winter Quarter was almost over, so it didn’t feel very disruptive to wrap up courses online. But once Spring started and we realized we’d be fully online, both teaching teams and students adapted surprisingly quickly, testing new features such as breakout rooms and figuring out how to best foster virtual learning experiences. While I miss being in the classroom, there are some upsides to the virtual format. For example, you can co-locate with a partner for part of the year, or put together a course schedule that would be impractical if you had to physically move across campus for class.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? After I decided against becoming a lawyer, I forced myself to attend a few information sessions hosted by firms recruiting on campus. At BCG’s session, a UChicago alumnus and partner, Brad Henderson, shared his rationale for pursuing business and his post-college trajectory. I recognized a lot of my own values of intellectual curiosity and civic impact in his personal story and decided to try out business, starting with consulting (and ended up in the same office as Brad!).

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list? First, I want to gain more experience living and working abroad. I’ve carried out projects internationally, but want to spend a year or two really embedding myself in another country and culture. Second, I’d love to try entrepreneurship in a few years. As my classmates pursue their business ideas after graduation, I look forward to watching their progress and seeing how I might contribute.

What made Austin such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2021?

“While there are many ways in which Austin Ward is an invaluable addition to the Class of 2021, the one that stands out for me is his commitment to the nexus of business and public policy.  He sees the role of the firm in a holistic way that accounts for the myriad impacts firm actions have on society at large.

One can see the roots of this commitment in his educational choices—during undergrad at the University of Chicago, he doubled majored in Economics alongside Law, Letters and Society; and he is currently pursuing Masters degrees at both Stanford GSB and Harvard Kennedy School—and in his professional experience, where he was seconded from the Boston Consulting Group to support the Gates Foundation’s work on public healthcare in Nigeria.

Here at the GSB, Austin was an absolute joy to have in my class on firm strategy with respect to public institutions, finishing at the very top of the grade distribution across more than 220 first year MBA students. It goes without saying that he is super smart, and importantly, exhibits leadership in the classroom: his comments lead the discussion forward, lift up other classmates, and demonstrate respect for the lives behind the numbers in the cases we study. When times got tough, which they inevitably do but boy did they ever in 2020, Austin was one of the faces I would seek out in the sea of Zoom squares to help crack a hard puzzle, bridge a heated debate, or surface issues that needed to be discussed, and to do so with care and empathy. And for that, I am grateful.”

Katherine Casey
Associate Professor of Political Economy
Stanford GSB


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