2021 Best & Brightest MBAs: Stefy Smith, Cornell University (Johnson)

Stefy Smith

Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, Cornell University

Passionate, dynamic innovator searching to empower communities around me to lead positive change.”

Hometown: Monterrey, Mexico

Fun fact about yourself:  I co-founded a waste management company that currently employs over 250 residents in the central region of Senegal.

Undergraduate School and Degree: St. Edward’s University — Majors: International Business, French; Minor: German // Cornell University — Master’s in Public Administration (dual degree)

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? U.S. Peace Corps, Senegal — Program and Training Leader, Community and Economic Development sector

Where did you intern during the summer of 2020? Apple, Sunnyvale (Remote)

Where will you be working after graduation? Apple, Program Manager

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: The most influential role in my personal development was serving as the Diversity and Belonging Chair for Student Council. My identity — like everyone’s — is composed of many layers. I grew up in Mexico in a multicultural household with an American dad and a Mexican mother. As a lighter-skinned queer Latina woman, I always felt different. I was never Hispanic enough, or queer enough, or ‘x’ enough. The extraordinary people I met at Johnson taught me to embrace my unique self, so I wanted to pay it forward by continuing to make Johnson a place where everyone felt like they belonged.

When I took on my leadership role as Diversity and Belonging Chair, I never anticipated the heightened attention it would receive. The wake of the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter Movement happened during the midst of our MBA internships, but we needed to mobilize and be prepared for the upcoming semester. I have to admit that we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish curriculum changes, additional training, courageous conversations, and mutual understanding if it hadn’t been for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) and the amazing support of the entire school. What surprised me most was how the Johnson community came together to acknowledge there were systemic issues that needed to be addressed. I trust the school, my peers, and the generations to come will continue to move the needle until these conversations of diversity and inclusion are no longer needed.

  • Student Council, Diversity and Belonging Chair
  • Out4Business, Engagement Chair
  • Johnson Admissions Group, Interviewer
  • Big Red Tech Strategy, VP of Education
  • Out Women in Business (Reaching Out/ROMBA), conference organizer
  • Johnson Inclusion Summit Chair

Awards and honors:

  • Forte Fellow
  • Consortium Fellow
  • Emerging Markets Institute (EMI) Fellow
  • Luisa M. Velasquez MBA ’12 Memorial Scholarship
  • Duncan and Gail Russell Graduate Fellowship
  • First place, Integrative Case Competition (2019)— the class-wide Integrative Case Competition serves as a

capstone within the Two-Year MBA fall core. Teams must draw upon their training in critical and strategic thinking, finance, and strategy.

  • Most Innovative Idea, Digital Agriculture Hackathon (2019) — awarded $1500 for the most novel/innovative idea judged on technology innovation, elegance, impact and new capability.
  • First place, C.K. Prahalad Social Innovation Grand Challenge, Ross Business School (2019) — placed first and won $4000 for the social innovation challenge at the Ross Business School, focused on education for the bottom-of-the-pyramid populations in India.
  • Semifinalist, Cyber 9/12 Policy Competition, Columbia University (2018) — selected as a semifinalist for the Cyber Policy Competition organized by Morgan Stanley and Columbia University.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school?  I’m most proud of organizing Ally Week. As shared, I never felt I was ‘x’ enough or that I belonged. The 2020 slogan for Ally Week was ‘Show Up. Show Out’. It was an opportunity for students, faculty, staff and alumni to reflect on how to move from being a bystander and showing up to become an active ally by showing out. It was about creating a space where everyone belonged and understanding we all play an active role in creating community.

The week was packed with exciting learning opportunities — from intersectionality panels, to playing Loteria with the Hispanic American Business Leaders Association (HABLA), to fundraisers with Access Johnson (the first top MBA program club for students with neurodiversity and disabilities). Having some of these conversations required courage, but I am extremely proud of the way Johnson came together to learn about each other and explore how to start ’Showing Out’.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I am most proud of building SEN-ECOKAF, a waste management social enterprise. When I first arrived in Senegal as a Peace Corps volunteer, I wanted to ensure that all projects I engaged in were sustainable. Regardless of my presence in the country, my project partners could lead and enhance what we had worked on. It’s been five years since SEN-ECOKAF was founded and we have grown to over 250 employees.

Kaffrine, where SEN-ECOKAF is headquartered, suffered from over 40 percent unemployment rate and a poverty incidence of nearly 50 percent. Some of this is attributed to the feast-famine cycle and the lack of rain during the dry season. People who engage in agricultural activities (75 percent of Kaffrine’s population) do so only during three months of the year. The other nine months, people are constantly looking for work, but opportunities are scarce, especially for youth (representing 65 percent of the region’s population) and women.

Trash was also prevalent. The only legal waste management system in Kaffrine was both inefficient and insufficient for the amount of waste created — and the waste was commonly disposed in illegal dumpsites, posing great public health threats. The people of Kaffrine were not fully aware of the negative impact of the [uncontrolled] waste disposal that also affected the health of the local livestock that roam the city, such as goats, sheep and cows. These livestock eat plastics and other wastes, and along with wind and traffic carry the trash into local waterways. In a region where water is already scarce, the potential for serious environmental contamination isn’t favorable. The land where the trash was dumped couldn’t be used for other purposes, the soil quality was deteriorating, and it meant less space for growing crops. It also created a desirable environment for mosquito procreation in a zone with malaria prevalence. Waste was putting a large part of the population at risk.

In response to all these concerns, we created SEN-ECOKAF. It was an opportunity to improve the economic, health and environmental settings in Kaffrine through one inclusive venture. The company was divided into three components: trash collection, recycling, and environmental and sanitary education. We’ve now expanded to six different municipalities, and our largest competitor —the municipality— now contracts us to do some of their larger cleaning projects. We’re slowly improving the economic health of the town, and youth are excited to learn about their environment. What I am most pleased with is that we revealed to the community that sustainability and profitability aren’t mutually exclusive. We have ambitious goals at SEN-ECOKAF and we’re headed in the right direction. We’ll continue to make progress — one trash can at a time.

Why did you choose this business school? At Cornell, I saw the strong influence students had in making changes. Johnson is a school that seems to cater effectively to students . What makes it truly wonderful is that staff, faculty and all leadership are always committed to helping students achieve their goals.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? It’s hard to choose among all the professors at Johnson, but one of the most influential ones has been Erica Dawson. She has been my professor in Negotiations and Women in Leadership. She describes leadership in four pillars: knowledge, experience, insight, and courage. The one that resonated with me the most was ‘courage’. First, that’s because it’s focused on multiple types of courage: ethical, moral, sometimes even physical. And having lived and worked in multiple countries, I’ve seen how courage manifests itself differently, but what we often forget is that courage needs to be cultivated. People need to find a reason to show courage and to step into the line of fire emotionally and physically. To do that, we need practice. Professor Dawson provides ample opportunity to explore these questions through a gender perspective and then trains us on how to act courageously based on our individual principles.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? I might be a little biased, but Ally Week was my favorite week thus far at Johnson. People were eager to learn about each other and it provided a space for everyone to ask questions in a safe environment. I can’t wait for this year’s Ally Week!

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? In all honesty, there’s nothing I would do differently! There are a few things I wish I had learned faster, but the process of learning often requires time.

What surprised you the most about business school? The relationships you will build are deeper than you can imagine. At Johnson, we work as a team, so you’ll often find people preparing for the same role at the same company together because we know we’re stronger together — and that’s what has helped us build our culture of excellence.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? I’m asked this question often by prospective applicants and I always answer the same way: be yourself… your full authentic self.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Marisa Werner. It’s hard to quantify the positive impact that Marisa has had on my life. Similar to me, Marisa is also a dual degree, but in the JD/MBA program. What I admire most about her is the positivity she brings to every situation. She listens very attentively and makes everyone feel like they matter. It’s a quality that served her well as Co-Chair of the Student Council. This year was an unexpected one, but she managed to bring us all together, mobilize quickly, and do it all with a smile in her face.

How disruptive was it to shift to an online or hybrid environment after COVID hit? Based on the conversations I had with some of my friends at peer institutions, Cornell had the best transition. We went on break for two weeks while professors were trained in effective online teaching methods. During that two-week break, Student Council mobilized to create daily activities to connect and engage with our peers. A daily newsletter was sent out with all events, including live yoga classes, cooking tutorials, discussions around mental health, industry topics, and many other opportunities to feel like the Johnson community was still present.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue your MBA? In all honesty, I did. My parents had always instilled the value of education in me—despite my dad having majored in Literature and being an entrepreneur and my mom only achieving an associate degree in IT. I always thought I would pursue a master’s degree. When I started searching for options in the Peace Corps, the courses in the MBA resonated most with me and I wanted to ensure my work would be in service to others as well, so the MPA-MBA seemed like the perfect option. I applied without truly understanding the ins-and-outs of corporate America, but I am forever grateful to my classmates who’ve taught me everything they know… and now I find myself at my dream company, with the most amazing team and managers one could’ve hoped for.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list? My biggest dream was to work at Apple, so now that I’ve accomplished this, I am still exploring what my professional goals look like moving forward. My second bucket list item is to continue increasing the number of women in tech roles/companies. I know that we’re headed in the right direction, but there’s certainly a long way to go.

What made Stefy such an invaluable member of the Class of 2021?

“Stefy is passionate, talented, and eloquent, with a killer eye for design.  I worked with her extensively within our Strategic Product and Marketing Immersion (SPMI) on our internal product management project called the Cornell SPMI A.maze app. She was the primary force behind the professional branding, look and feel, and overall design of the app, ensuring her team’s final project became a stellar example of academic rigor meeting real-world relevance, which is a fundamental goal of Johnson’s immersion programs. One of the great joys of my job as a professor is to meet and work with students like Stefy.”

Clarence Lee
Assistant Professor
Marketing and Management Communication



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