2022 Best & Brightest MBA: Ryan Blackwell, Northwestern University (Kellogg)

Ryan Blackwell

Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management

“Hard-working, dynamic team leader with a passion for growth in people, teams, and organizations.”

Hometown: Birmingham, AL

Fun fact about yourself: I play 5 instruments and sing. I’ve had the honor of travelling the US and opening for musical greats like Frankie Beverly & Maze, McCoy Tyner, Andy Grammer, Judah & The Lion, and more.

Undergraduate School and Degree:
Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and Business Minor
Auburn University, Auburn, AL

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Frito-Lay (PepsiCo), Site Operations Manager

Where did you intern during the summer of 2021? Procter & Gamble (P&G), Brand Management Intern

Where will you be working after graduation?  Alvarez & Marsal, Consulting (Consumer & Retail Group) in Dallas, Texas

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:
Kellogg Christian Fellowship, Co-President
Kellogg Black Management Association, Co-President
Kellogg Bands (Captains of Industry), Keys & Vocals
Special K Revue, Trumpet
Kellogg Student Admissions Committee, Interviewer
Kellogg Impact Consulting Club, Member/Consultant
Annual Kellogg Super Bowl Ad Review, 2022 Participant
Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc., 2013 Theta Delta Initiate – Evanston Alumni Chapter Member

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? One extracurricular achievement I’m especially proud of is a recent event with my fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. In Evanston, we have a local chapter of Kappa’s high school mentorship program called Kappa League. This February, I designed, hosted, and moderated a panel of graduate and undergraduate fraternity members educating young Black men on the importance of continued education (college, university, trade school, etc.) and provided them with tips to succeed in applying and enrolling.

Growing up, I was blessed to have had parents and advisors who helped prepare me for the transition from high school to college, but even with this support, I was only aware of a handful of jobs (Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer – I chose the latter). Being a Kellogg student has opened the aperture through which I view careers and this event was special because I got to pay that experience forward. Together, we helped these young men (who come from a wide range of backgrounds) get excited about their next step, but also exposed them to a variety of ways to find achievement in every field of human endeavor.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Prior to Kellogg, I worked in Operations for Frito-Lay at their largest plant located in Kathleen, Georgia. While there, I had the opportunity to lead 120+ cross-functional front-line employees in the manufacturing of our various billion dollar brands (Lays, Cheetos, Doritos, Fritos…and all the other O’s). It was an amazing experience and while my efforts certainly drove business growth (e.g. double-digit decreases in machine down time, waste, and other outages) I am more proud of the personal growth that each of my team members experienced. My goal was always to ensure that my teams went home each day feeling better than they did when came in the door by reminding them that they were more than capable, well-supported, and valued beyond their work product. It wasn’t always easy, but together we worked safely, set new business records, and made the world’s best products for the world’s best consumers.

I still keep in touch with a lot of the team and it’s impactful to hear how appreciative they were of those efforts and that my leadership really made an impression on them.

Why did you choose this business school? I chose Kellogg because of the high impact, low ego, collaborative community. I always knew I would need an MBA to reach several of my long-term goals. However, I wanted to ensure that the two years weren’t spent solely becoming a better businessperson, but becoming a better person. Being surrounded by this diverse body of students, staff, and faculty that supports one another at this level and offers the latitude to learn, experiment, make mistakes, and get back up stronger is not something I take for granted – it truly is a special culture.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? My favorite professor is Dr. Nicholas Pearce – a well-known Kellogg superstar. I first met Dr. Pearce in our Leadership in Organizations core class and have since taken multiple courses with him, including an independent study where he and I helped develop strategy for a prominent non-profit organization. Dr. Pearce is such a force in my life because as an engineer-turned-businessman, CEO, professor, pastor, author, mentor, husband, and father, he’s the first person I had met who embodied every one of my life goals and passions in a single career – and he looked like me. In a world where representation matters more than ever, it was inspiring to know that it could not only be done, but it could be done well. If he could do it, so could I.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school?
My favorite Kellogg tradition is CIM (Culture is Made). CIM is an orientation of sorts for Kellogg’s incoming students. At CIM, we are introduced to the Kellogg culture and values, learn more about our classmates through small group (called pods) events. We’re also introduced to our respective first-year sections, which we spend organized time without throughout the Kellogg experience. This year, I was afforded the privilege of serving as one of the ‘Poet’ Section leaders (575!) and it was amazing to watch first-hand how students went from being total strangers to lifelong friends….winning a few section competitions along the way doesn’t hurt either!

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why?
It’s very hard to think of something that I would do differently. Kellogg has a strong “choose your own adventure” culture and has afforded me a lot of opportunities to do things I would have never imagined professionally, academically, and socially. I suppose if I had to choose something, I would have travelled more with my peers. I think it’s neat to visit a new city or country with a good friend who may be a native of the area who can show you both the tourist and non-tourist sides of the region. Although it may be more difficult to coordinate post-MBA, I look forward to setting up more trips like that.

What is the biggest myth about your school?  Kellogg is so much more than “a marketing school”. Yes, our marketing department is amazing, but the statement somewhat minimizes a lot of Kellogg’s other core competencies. Nearly a third of the last class entered Consulting, roughly a fifth went into Finance or Financial Services, and another third was split between General Management, Tech, and Marketing. Further, with eight majors, eleven pathways, and now the addition of our latest program (MBAi), it’s hard to refute Kellogg’s effectiveness in producing leaders in a variety of industries.

What surprised you the most about business school? I was surprised by the wide backgrounds and interests that are present across the students, faculty, and staff as well as the freedom with which they share their network. It’s always funny to me when someone posts in Slack asking if anyone knows a person with experience in [insert very impressive or niche subject matter here]. I always think hope is lost, but inevitably a fellow student has that experience or has someone in their network who does and they’re always willing to connect. That’s something that I’ve really appreciated – not only are Kellogg students and alums impressive, but they’re very responsive and collaborative.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? I was unabashedly myself. I think many prospective students spend more time than they should trying to tell schools “what they want to hear”. Having spoken with many former, current, and prospective students, I’ve found that each of us has our own unique angle, our own specific motivation, our own “secret sauce” that makes for a good B-school candidate. Stay true to that. I was candid about my own life experiences and, in particular, how my Christian faith plays into my decision to drive change in both the for-profit and non-profit worlds. I think Kellogg appreciated that honesty and authenticity. This school has a special way of looking at the whole person, getting a 360-degree view of their experience to date, bolstering their weaknesses and polishing their strengths to create brave leaders with a passion changing the marketplace and surrounding communities.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Mohamed Mohamed is a fellow Kellogg student in the class of 2023. First, I have immense respect for all international students who uproot themselves and relocate far from family to a location where the language, customs, and culture may be different from their own – that’s a tremendous feat in and of itself. Yet in Mohamed’s case, the journey to Kellogg was extremely difficult and his story of determination and dedication is very inspiring to me. He is smart, funny, and perhaps the nicest person I know (which is really saying something at Kellogg). I hope to grow to be more like him (both figuratively and literally as he is more than a foot taller than me).

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? I’ve always known I wanted to earn an MBA. In fact, when I was five, I took a piece of green construction paper, drew myself in a suit (which ended up looking more like Wizard Kelly from Disney’s Proud Family), and wrote the phrase “I will be a Fortune 500 CEO” over it. That construction paper still hangs in my office today. While it remains to be seen if that five-year-old’s prediction will come true, I know that level of aspiration stems from watching my father work his way up from a mechanic in the shipyards of Norfolk, Virginia to the business leader he is today. His tenacity and passion for growing people, teams, and organizations has and will continue to inspire my career journey.

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

– Long-term, I want to use the learnings from Kellogg and my career in the public and private sector to open a consultancy helping non-profits and small family businesses grow.

– I think returning to Kellogg as a professor would be an amazing way to pay it forward and to hopefully shape and inspire future business leaders.

How has the pandemic changed your view of a career? Working at as an essential worker at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and attending Kellogg throughout the subsequent years really impressed upon me the importance of transparency and communication. Regardless of the industry, we were all met with some level of fear and uncertainty. However, I’ve noticed that, in crisis, the best leaders were those who could give a transparent update, let you know what they did or did not understand, and how they would all work together to move forward. They showed empathy and concern for their teams, customers, and consumers. While I hope that no crises arise soon, I know I will harness courage to have brave conversations, and express that same sense of honesty and transparency in my own work moving forward.

What made Ryan such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2022?

“Ryan exemplifies all that it means to be a part of Kellogg’s pay-it-forward ethos. He is a dogged champion and advocate for pushing the Kellogg community to live up to its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion by modeling inclusive leadership in all the spaces he occupies from Kellogg’s Black Management Association (BMA) as co-president to Kellogg Bands and beyond. Ryan balances creativity with commitment, while approaching challenges holistically. He understands that impact comes from both a combination of increasing awareness, education and systemic change. From prospective students, current students, to alumni, Ryan is known. He is always ready to jump on a call with a student considering Kellogg, courageously and empathetically leads BMA, and is a connector across the student body through many other avenues.

Ryan doesn’t lead only when it’s easy, popular, or convenient. He is an inclusive leader all the time, even when it’s difficult, deftly navigating conversations across stakeholder groups – students, administration, and faculty – with ease. He’s not afraid to ask the hard questions, while also providing creative and intentional solutions. At the same time, he understands the delicate balance of knowing how and when to push, but also when to leverage compassion, empathy and care. Ryan not only thinks about the big picture, but also the details –for example, remembering and wishing happy birthday to admitted students. Ryan has paved the way and set the bar high for the students that follow the same path.”

Minya Nance
Managing Director and Assistant Dean for Student Experience Strategy 

DON’T MISS: THE 100 BEST & BRIGHTEST MBA GRADUATES OF 2022

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