2021 MBAs To Watch: Jon Coulter, Penn State (Smeal)

Jon Coulter

The Pennsylvania State University, Smeal College of Business

Determined, innovative problem solver with natural leadership and public speaking abilities.”

Hometown: Pittsburgh, PA

Fun fact about yourself: I was an All-American Inline Hockey player and represented Team USA in the U18 Jr. Olympics.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Carnegie Mellon University; B.S. in Mechanical Engineering

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school?  Intel Corporation; Material Handling Systems Engineer

Where did you intern during the summer of 2020? Dell Technologies; Austin, TX (worked remotely in Pittsburgh, PA)

Where will you be working after graduation? Dell Technologies; Senior Advisor, Global Operations Strategy

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: MBA Association President, Tailgate Crew, Big Ten Case Competition Team (cancelled due to COVID)

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Penn State has a strong drive to foster teamwork among the community which manifests itself in multiple ways from having team assignments in nearly every class to keeping class rankings confidential. However, I had the privilege of a few teachers reaching out to me personally following their course to commend my effort. Considering the top-tier faculty at this school and the experiences they have, having them think of me in such a way and praise my ability was more important than any grade I could achieve.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? While working for Intel, I won an Automation Division award in recognition of my years of effort minimizing automation downtime in the factory in coordination with tradespeople, construction coordinators, and operations managers. This required not only extensive knowledge of the automation system, but also the ability to negotiate with multiple parties to come up with unique, innovative solutions. I have always been proud of my ability to marry technical knowledge with communications and I feel that award was a symbol of my accomplishment in this area.

Why did you choose this business school? While working as a Systems Engineer, I spent a great deal of time coordinating with Global Supply Managers and really admired their ability to manage the vendors with whom we worked. Utilizing excellent people skills in business is something I highly value, and felt I was not able to take full advantage of at my position at the time. Thus, I wanted to go to a top Supply Chain institution to pivot my career in this way, and Penn State Smeal is the pearl of that expertise. The opportunity to work with some of the top minds in supply chain management was crucial to my decision and I could not have made a better choice.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? My favorite MBA professor was Don Hambrick for my Strategy Implementation and Organizational Change course. I took his course after getting my offer for Dell’s Global Operations Strategy group in an effort to better prepare for my career, and it was invaluable in shaping how I perceive business strategy and exacting change. Don is not only one of the top minds in organizational consulting, but with clients all over the industry spectrum, his experience provided a realness few others could imitate. Every story was relevant, every topic was engaging, and every class was inspiring.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? My favorite MBA event was our hosted tailgates during the football season, and the reason is not as obvious as it would seem. It’s no secret that Penn State has a massive culture around the football team, and the MBA Association smartly takes advantage of this for the betterment of the students. Firstly, it provides a place for the community to get together on almost Day 1. People who are apprehensive from moving to a new place with new people immediately have a warm, welcoming community eager to bring them into their circle. Secondly, the MBA Association allows businesses to sponsor tailgates so it can double as a networking or recruiting tool. This not only gives students employment opportunities, but teaches the valuable skill of balancing professional and personal life when engaging clients, vendors, and bosses. All of these are essential to what you get from an MBA at Smeal outside of the classes themselves: community building, networking skills, and social savvy.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? I don’t have any regrets regarding my time in the MBA. However, being MBA Association President during a global pandemic really put my resilience to the test. The community is so important at Smeal, so the MBAA Board and I had to essentially rewrite a playbook that had been successful for decades. Hindsight is 20/20, but we stopped all in-person events to comply with social distancing, when in reality we should have focused more on how to make in-person events safe. When we realized this and shifted our mindset, the community was able to flourish.

What is the biggest myth about your school? I think the biggest myth is that Penn State Smeal is just a supply chain school. While we have top faculty in that area and an incredible research department, my experience in the management consulting and finance courses was exceptional. The professors all have deep, relevant experience and incredible resumes.

What surprised you the most about business school? The thing that surprised me the most about business school was just how deeply I would come to care about my classmates. That is not to suggest I thought that I would be distant from them, but the effort Penn State puts into the small class size and the community as a whole creates extremely strong ties, which will last for the rest of my life.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? I chose to apply to only 4 schools, which I believe gave me an edge in all of them. It allowed me to focus on the culture of the school so that I could best fill out a personalized application instead of doing cut and paste applications. I think people often spread themselves too thin in hopes to get into as many schools as possible, when they should do their own pre-selection and give themselves the best chance at the schools they really want.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I have so many classmates with incredible qualities, but one I have come to respect most is Uzoma Ukaegbu. Uzo served on the MBA Association Board with me as VP of Communications as well as being President of the Diversity MBA Association and leading the teacher feedback group known as “ModSquad”. Her responsibilities were not the most “fun”, per se, but she did them faithfully and to perfection. I could always rely on her for anything I needed, and she did her duties with a poise people spend lifetimes trying to attain. Her coolness under pressure, her humility, and her commitment to her peers are world class.

How disruptive was it to shift to an online or hybrid environment after COVID hit? From an academic perspective, Penn State adapted very well to the requirements of COVID protocol. There were a few classes in fall 2020 that were hybrid, but most were fully online. Personally, I relish the in-person experience, but I feel I got a quality education even with the transition to fully online. From a community perspective, it was very difficult to keep people engaged. Switching from our tight-knit classes where we spent so much of our lives together, to potentially not seeing someone again was jarring. However, we did the best with what we had to stay connected. In the end, the ingenuity from the community and the MBAA Board to create an engaging environment is what ultimately kept our ties strong during these tough times.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? Individually, a former coworker of mine was the biggest influence on me to pursue an MBA. Early in my career, I knew I wanted to supplement my engineering degree with an MBA, but was never entirely sure when to make the step. When I told this to my coworker, he was emphatic that I do it as soon as I hit 5 years at Intel. I had a good job, but it would have been very easy to be stuck there for 20 years and not know where the time went. He said his biggest regret is that he did not go back to school specifically for the MBA to drive his career trajectory. When he said this, I knew I did not want to stagnate and have the same regrets.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list? My top two items on my professional bucket list are more an “either or” than a ranking. If both happen, of course I would be ecstatic. The first is to attain a C-suite level position at an established company, likely COO or CSCO. Alternatively, as I have an engineer mindset, I would love to start my own business from an invention of my own creation. I am constantly trying to find solutions to problems I face every day, and have a small booklet of ideas. It would just take a strong outline of a business model, and a little gumption, to get one of them off the ground.

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

“When it comes to writing in support of someone like Jon Coulter for a P&Q award, here’s my take:  Give the guy whatever award you’ve got. He deserves it.  He’s been a terrific president of Penn State’s Smeal MBA program for the past year, connecting with virtually everyone in the 1st and 2nd-year classes. He’s invaluable. A leader in every sense of the word.

Jon was my course assistant for the 1st-year MBA core course in Managing People in Organizations and he simply could not have done a better job in that role.  Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that course was the first (and I hope only) delivery of that intense, discussion-based course online. Jon helped make it sing. He deftly handled the interactive, virtual discussions (which is no mean feat in a class of over 50 people, most of whom would like an opportunity to join the conversation). He helped get many voices into the conversation – and, on many occasions, more voices than normally participate in the live format. He also had suggestions for improving the virtual delivery and was the resident wizard on Zoom technology. He taught me more than I ever taught him.

Beyond that, he was a great liaison between me and the students, always willing to give me frank advice about what was working (or not). Jon has the highest standards and enforces them.  But, he has this wonderful sense of balance.  For instance, Jon won’t tolerate lame excuses for missing class or late assignments, but he can tell a student that, no, your excuse won’t fly, but tell them in a way that they get it, so they don’t screw up again.  His credibility is obvious instantaneously.  He’s a persuasive guy, too. I suspect that you will see a lot of good candidates for the P&Q award and I’m confident that they are all deserving, but I doubt that you would see a better candidate than Jon Coulter.”

Denny Gioia
Robert and Judith Auritt Klein Professor of Management




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