2021 MBAs To Watch: Brian Aoyama, Stanford GSB

Brian Aoyama           

Stanford Graduate School of Business

“Unabashed idealist. Loves learning from scratch. Passionate about finding better ways to learn.”

Hometown: Darien, CT

Fun fact about yourself: Before business school, I lived in Southeast Asia and travelled constantly for work – a lifestyle that feels worlds away during the pandemic. At one point, I had meetings in five different countries in a single week!

Undergraduate School and Degree: Davidson College, B.A. in East Asian Studies (Phi Beta Kappa)

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school?

Migo (Taipei, Taiwan)

Head of Strategy and Business Development

Where did you intern during the summer of 2020? Learn To Win (San Francisco, CA)

Where will you be working after graduation? Undecided

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: Siebel Scholar (Awarded for academic achievement and demonstrated leadership), Arbuckle Leadership Fellow, Peer Tutor for Optimization and Simulation Modeling, member of Social Impact Club, Tech Club, and Asian Business Student Association.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I’m most proud of my work as an Arbuckle Leadership Fellow. In this role, I led a squad of first-year students in the MBA1 Leadership Labs course and served as a personal leadership coach during the second half of the year. It was powerful to realize that even in a virtual environment, it’s possible to create experiential learning spaces for classmates to ‘try on’ new leadership behaviors and explore their own answers to the question, ‘Why would anyone follow me?’ The pandemic upended many of our traditional ways of building community at the GSB, so these coaching relationships felt particularly meaningful this year.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? In the years before business school, I helped lead a startup building affordable broadband technology for developing countries. I’m most proud of how we built a mission-driven team, from early concept stage to operating with over 100 people in Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. My personal highlight came from seeing the team members I had recruited and trained become experts in their own right and negotiate deals successfully with seasoned industry insiders.

Why did you choose this business school? I wanted to go to Stanford for business school much more than I wanted to go to business school in general. The leaders I knew who had graduated from Stanford were qualitatively different: they were skilled at bringing out the best in their teams and were also people I admired as human beings. I was drawn to the GSB because its curriculum and community challenge you to grow as a whole person – in concrete analytical skills, in self-knowledge, and in leadership capacity.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Rob Urstein, who teaches a class called Disruptions in Education. He combines deep expertise, and practical experience as a leader in the education industry, and a genuine commitment to helping us learn and grow in his class. During the first 2 weeks of the quarter, Rob scheduled 1:1 meetings with every student, and he used those conversations to draw students’ past experiences and interests into class discussions. Every week, he hosted education innovators like Rachel Carlson (CEO of Guild) and Jeff Maggioncalda (CEO of Coursera), so that we learned first-hand how they were grappling with the ways that the pandemic has altered (and accelerated) their businesses.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? Setting aside the obvious (“travel as much as possible before March 2020!”), I’d take it a bit easier on myself the first few weeks of school. Everyone enters business school wanting to ‘make the most’ of the experience. That desire comes from a good place, but it’s easy to overcommit early and spread yourself too thin. If you enter knowing what’s important to you, by all means focus on that – but leave space for exploration and the surprising discoveries that just come from being surrounded by curious and driven peers.

What is the biggest myth about your school? I remember someone describing Stanford as ‘small’ relative to other business schools. The reality is that I’m still meeting classmates for the first time, and it’s the back half of my second year!

What surprised you the most about business school? Since the accomplishments and previous experiences of my classmates are so impressive, it would be easy for people to rest on their laurels. But what surprised me at the GSB was how open people are about the ways they’re hoping to grow. Everyone here wants to graduate a better, more capable person than they were when they started. This shared commitment to growth has made it easier than I expected for me to seek out coaching and support from my peers. I’ll treasure that 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? When I was applying to Stanford, I knew that I didn’t fit the mold of a typical MBA applicant. Rather than shy away from the unusual elements of my path to business school, I embraced them. As I went through the application process, I built my own conviction that I’d bring a different, and valuable, perspective to my class.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Andrew Powell (Class of 2020). I got to know Andrew through ‘Touchy-Feely’, one of the signature classes at the GSB. In a 2020 twist, this class took place completely online, and Andrew and I didn’t meet in person until months after we first became friends. Even over Zoom, Andrew struck me as someone who radiates a deep sense of purpose. I’m continuously inspired by his passion for driving innovation in education and building a more just society. He exemplifies the combination of character, substance, and purpose that characterizes the people I most admire at the GSB.

How disruptive was it to shift to an online or hybrid environment after COVID hit? It was extremely disruptive, for the same reasons it was disruptive everywhere else: the shift was sudden, and constantly changing public health conditions made it difficult to plan for the future. People adapted to a difficult situation: many professors experimented with novel approaches to online and hybrid teaching, and students found creative ways to fight Zoom fatigue.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college?  In my last year of college, I read a magazine feature about Barrett Comiskey that described the business that Barrett was building in Asia after getting his MBA at Stanford. Barrett inspired me with his belief that too much of the world’s innovation energy is focused on a tiny sliver of the world’s population. I concluded that business is the field most suited to finding creative, lasting solutions to the world’s most intractable problems. Barrett became a lifelong mentor to me, and after 3 years at Bain, I moved to Asia to help him build Migo.

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

  1. Build a mission-driven company dedicated to expanding access to education
  2. Establish a scholarship and leadership development program focused on civic renewal

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

“Brian has been an amazingly engaged and active student in the time I have known him as a student in my course “Disruptions in Education”. Not only does Brian push himself and his own thinking for greater understanding, but he uses that understanding to push his classmates and our class as a whole to think more deeply, more rigorously, and more thoughtfully about the ideas and issues we are studying together. Always respectfully, Brian is both willing to challenge a classmate’s reasoning or thinking—but also willing to discard or modify his own position or way of thinking if one of his classmate’s reasoning or thinking is better. This is a trait that will extend far beyond the walls of the classroom, and is something both needed and necessary for great leaders of any organization.”

Lecturer in Management
Stanford Graduate School of Business





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