2021 MBAs To Watch: Neesha Pinnaduwage, University of Washington (Foster)

Neesha Pinnaduwage

University of Washington, Foster School of Business

Former engineer turned wealth manager interested in expanding the diversity and impact of finance.”

Hometown: Knoxville, TN

Fun fact about yourself: I’m terrible at downhill skiing – absolutely awful, to the point where I shouldn’t even be allowed on the bunny slopes. I’ve been sticking to snowshoes this winter!

Undergraduate School and Degree: Princeton University, Chemical & Biological Engineering

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Honeywell, Senior Process Engineer

Where did you intern during the summer of 2020? Goldman Sachs, Seattle

Where will you be working after graduation? Goldman Sachs, Associate in Consumer & Investment Management Division

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

  • MBA Association President
  • Finance Society Board Member
  • Dean’s Scholar 2019-2020
  • Forté Fellow
  • Finance Society First Year Representative
  • MBA Association First Year Section Representative
  • C4C (Challenge for Charity) volunteering 60+ hours during MBA
  • Albert O. Foster Fellowship Recipient and Michael G. Foster Students First Scholarship Recipient

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I’m most proud of being elected and serving in the MBA Association as President. Honestly it started with being elected as First Year Section Representative – those elections happen very early on, when all the students are still getting to know each other, and it was very hard for me to push myself out of my comfort zone to run for a position. I was terrified of public speaking and nervous about being new to business and to the area. My classmates were so supportive, though, and I absolutely loved serving as their representative to faculty and staff. That experience gave me the courage to run for President, and again I was blown away by the encouragement and trust placed in me. Looking back on the past year, I never could have guessed that my entire tenure would be fully virtual, with so many different challenges, but I’m proud of myself and my team for maintaining a strong Foster community, including increased awareness of wellness and DEI.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? About a year after graduating from college and starting work at a chemical manufacturing facility in Louisiana, I was given ownership of a major project that would expand our highest-demand product line. I served as project liaison between the corporate team and site employees. Despite being the youngest in the room (and often the only woman), I mediated conflicts, helped set schedules, and often gave final approval on completed steps. The first time I had to speak up in a meeting to correct someone, my voice shook. But months later, when I refused to sign off on unsafe piping, my voice held firm. I was transferred before official completion of the project, but hearing from coworkers that everything was up and running smoothly, I felt proud of not only the end result but also everything I had learned along the way.

Why did you choose this business school? Foster stood out to me for several reasons, but the most important was culture. Especially as a non-traditional student who’d never had anything to do with business before, coming back to school full-time for something I knew nothing about was nerve-wracking, and I wanted to be able to learn in a supportive environment. The collaborative, welcoming atmosphere at Foster has been crucial to my success.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? There are so many names I could list here, but I’d have to say Ed deHaan was my favorite professor. Although he himself would wryly say that none of us were here just for accounting, he made sure we all knew the real-world applications of what we were learning and went above-and-beyond to make the class as accessible and fun as possible. As a First Year Section Representative, I could tell that he always listened intently to what we had to say and visibly, genuinely cared about us. As we moved on to other classes and eventually went virtual, he stayed engaged with Zoom coffee chats and DEI initiatives. Overall, I’m grateful for his kindness and humor, especially during that first stressful fall quarter!

(I’m going to cheat and also mention two other names: Jennifer Koski, who could make anyone love finance and challenged us to always think beyond just the numbers; and Ryan Fehr, who reminded us that business ethics is not an oxymoron and is, in fact, a constant work in progress.).

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? We unfortunately didn’t get a chance to experience all of the traditions this past year, but I’m so glad we were able to do our annual trip up to Whistler in December 2019! It was a great combination of getting outdoors, hanging out with friends, and exploring new places. Hopefully this winter the tradition can resume!

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? I wish I had connected more with the community earlier on – I spent a lot of my first year focused on academics, recruiting, and basically the world within the Foster School of Business. Although I volunteered and did some case competitions, I didn’t take full advantage of other experiential learning opportunities or engagement programs.

What is the biggest myth about your school? I had heard a lot about how student-driven Foster was, and after being involved in student leadership I realize that it’s very true, but in different ways than I expected. There are both pros and cons to the amount of student authority we wield – we can craft much of our own experience, but also with full leadership turnover each year it’s hard to fully transfer knowledge.

What surprised you the most about business school? I hadn’t realized just how diverse my fellow students would be, across all dimensions – birthplace, education, career, hobbies, etc. I’ve learned so much from them in such a short time, and I will miss them greatly!

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? One of the first things I did when I knew Foster was my top choice was to call the admissions office and talk with them about my goals and my options. I was very honest about the type of MBA experience I wanted and asked them questions about the “Foster fit” and what their opinions were. After I better understood how their priorities might match mine, the application process didn’t seem so intimidating.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Claire Herting has been a rock star throughout our MBA program! She’s involved in so many different activities and gives them all 100% – as MBAA EVP of Communications, co-President of Diversity in Business, board member of Out in Business, board member of Level Up, a Fritzky Fellow… Her enthusiasm and kindness have made a huge difference to many people, and I admire her greatly for being so openly herself in everything she does. Walmart is very lucky to have her, and I’m looking forward to staying in touch even after she heads to Arkansas!

How disruptive was it to shift to an online or hybrid environment after COVID hit? I give all the UW Foster faculty and staff a huge amount of credit for the shift that happened right before spring break last year. Our winter quarter professors pulled off the last week of classes on Zoom without too much difficulty, and then a lot of preparation happened over the break so that we could hit the ground running in spring quarter. I wouldn’t call it disruptive so much as just difficult – it was hard to go from seeing hundreds of people each day — sitting next to your classmates and interacting with them constantly — to sitting by yourself in your apartment in front of a screen. Personally, I think that’s been the toughest part, especially for as close-knit a community as Foster.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? I’m very grateful to my mom, for believing in me and pushing me when I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to pivot into business. Honestly, the single biggest influence was probably a former boss of mine. From his successes and mistakes, I learned a lot about what happened when an engineer took on a leadership role without any sort of background or training, and I recognized that I wanted more of a foundation to build on.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list?

  • Build a diverse book of business within Seattle
  • Be able to serve as a mentor for other women in finance, particularly women of color

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

“Rarely do you see students give back to the community to the extent Neesha has done these past two years. One of her goals for her MBA experience was to take risks and to develop her leadership style. After serving as a first-year representative, Neesha did that by running for the MBA Association President and stating, “I learned I don’t want to go back to anything comfortable or easy.”

Little did she know in six weeks, the MBA experience she and her classmates were expecting would not happen, and the world we knew was dramatically going to change. Neesha worked quickly and tirelessly to voice concerns, ease tensions, suggest solutions to unexpected challenges as we transitioned to an entirely virtual program and an ambiguous environment. Neesha made students feel their voices were heard while partnering with the Foster administration to build space for student’s concerns to be expressed. As an empathic leader, she inspired her classmates to continue to lead, stay engaged with the community, and prioritize wellbeing as we sheltered in place for three months.

Additionally, Neesha worked with student leaders across the full-time and Foster MBA programs to prioritize Diversity and Inclusion. She worked with student leaders, faculty, staff, and administration to prioritize building an inclusive community in program development, teaching practice, and student recruitment. More impressively, Neesha took the time to continue her own understanding racial inequities through independent education, reflection, dialogue, and listening.

Finally, Neesha played an active role in welcoming new students to the Foster culture, connecting them to resources, and continuing the Foster community legacy. Under her leadership, she inspired the next generation of student leaders at Foster and leaving the culture thriving.”

Norah Fisher 
Director, Full-time MBA Student Affairs



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