Meet the MBA Class of 2023: Sam Plotkin, University of Washington (Foster)

Sam Plotkin

University of Washington, Foster School of Business

“An energetic and endlessly curious mission-driven problem-solver.”

Hometown: Huntington Woods, Michigan

Fun Fact About Yourself: Since 2016, I’ve run seven 50K ultramarathon trail races in Michigan, Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. The second 50K I lined up for, the Grand Island 50K, circumnavigated the namesake island in Lake Superior and I took first place.

Undergraduate School and Major: B.A. Social Relations and Policy, Michigan State University; M.S. Environmental Studies, University of Montana.

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: For the past four years, I’ve worked as a Project Manager for The Trust for Public Land out of the Seattle, WA office. This summer, I was fortunate to secure a pre-MBA internship with Birch Infrastructure where I’m working as an Acquisition and Development Consultant on the Powered Land team.

What makes Seattle such a great place to earn an MBA? For me, it comes down to the outdoor recreation and food, indulgences that MBA students can enjoy when we’re not making slide decks and spreadsheets. The geography out here is fantastically dynamic. We live in the Mountains to Sound Greenway National Heritage Area. On the same day, you can ski exceptional terrain at Snoqualmie Pass and then nosh on some Hood Canal oysters. You can enjoy world class beer at Reuben’s Brews and take a day hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Or maybe you’d prefer to paddle some mellow rapids on the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River and then chow down at the Crawfish House. Seattle can’t be beat.

Aside from your location and classmates, what was the key part of Washington Foster’s MBA programming that led you to choose this business school and why was it so important to you? The Foster program is small by design. This framework catalyzes networking and promotes relationship-building amongst students. Smaller class sizes also allow students to more frequently directly engage with faculty. As a student looking to pivot my career into a new field and industry, I wanted an MBA program that valued collaborative learning and would provide me opportunities to build lasting and meaningful connections with my diverse cohort. I’ve certainly found that at Foster.

What course, club or activity excites you the most at Washington Foster? I learn best when my education is grounded in my work and one of the reasons I chose Foster was because of its emphasis on experiential learning. “Learning by doing” is a driving philosophy of the program and is built into the curriculum. I’m particularly excited about the Applied Strategy Project, which is available to first-year MBA’s during the winter quarter. Students collaborate with their colleagues on a given project and apply coursework directly to real business problems for renowned companies like Boeing, REI, and Microsoft among others. I’m looking forward to the opportunity and challenge.

Washington Foster operates off a philosophy of We>Me. Give us an example of how you’ve incorporated that approach in your career. The work that I’ve dedicated my career to is in the field of land use and conservation. It is inherently community-focused and heavily dependent on coalition building. At The Trust for Public Land where I worked as a Project Manager, our mission was to “create parks and protect land for people.” Moreover, a successful conservation project involves community organizing and development, navigating complex relationships across public and private sector partners, and coordinating disparate interest groups. My projects were most successful when I took a holistic view, recognizing the value of We>Me.

In 2019, I closed the first phase of the Raging River Quarry conservation project in Fall City, WA. This involved the purchase of 25 acres of pristine forestland from a private landowner mining for sand and gravel along the Raging River, a priority stream for salmon and steelhead restoration. After purchasing the property and conveying it to our public sector partners, the property is now forever protected, open, and available for public use. This project would not have been possible without collaboration with a cross-functional and diverse team. While I ultimately closed the transaction, an active citizen group brought the project to the community’s attention, engaged politicians advocated for project financing, and local government stepped in to serve as the property’s ultimate owner and long-term steward. I know the value-add that cooperative thinking and collective action can bring because I’ve seen its impacts first-hand. Undoubtedly We>Me. Plotkin

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: The most significant accomplishment of my career was closing the Bergsma project in Issaquah, Washington in 2018 while I worked as a Project Manager with The Trust for Public Land. The project’s goal was to purchase 46 acres of forestland slated for a residential development on the north side of Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park. It is one of the most popular urban wilderness parks in the area, which is highly visible and sits adjacent to the Issaquah Valley floor. Both the City of Issaquah and King County were eager to purchase the property – the largest remaining privately-owned and undeveloped forested parcel on Cougar Mountain – and make it open and available for public use. As the project manager, my job was to direct this transaction from start-to-finish, from negotiation and financing to closing and conveyance of the property to my public entity partners. Along the way, I also navigated complex relationships with vivacious community activists, educated the Issaquah City Council – the primary decision-making body on this transaction – on the nuts-and-bolts of conservation real estate transactions and developed a debt-financing instrument unique to this project.

I’ll never forget the night when the City of Issaquah voted to approve the property’s acquisition. Council chambers were packed with supporters. When the vote to purchase the property was approved, the community went wild. That was a powerful moment and I’ll remember the feeling of accomplishment that washed over me for the rest of my career. Not only did the project later make the front page of the Seattle Times, but The Trust for Public Land and City of Issaquah were awarded a prestigious King County Green Globe Award for environmental excellence in recognition of our accomplishment, a tremendous honor and a fitting capstone to a spectacular project.

How did COVID-19 change your perspective on your career and your life in general? I’ve been amazed by the resiliency demonstrated by my friends, family, colleagues, and community over this past year. In the face of the immense devastation wrought by COVID-19, in just a matter of days in early March 2020, we rearranged our lives and reoriented how we live, work, and play. Kitchen tables became desks. Commutes disappeared. “Zoom” entered my lexicon for the first time as everything from happy hours to holiday celebrations and board meetings went virtual. We adapted, held on for dear life, and – I’m happy to say, all things considered – fortunately persevered.

That my day-to-day could change so suddenly and dramatically put the fragility of life on clear display; it encouraged me to make two of the most significant and consequential decisions of my career and my life. The first was a career decision. Last spring, I made the decision to invest in myself and pursue an MBA. COVID-19 forced me to acknowledge that I was at a professional pivot point and there was no sense in delaying a decision to make a change. Either I doubled down and focused on my current field of work – at the nexus of real estate, land use, and community development – or I committed to feeding my budding interests in climate tech, infrastructure, and digitization by going back to school. The latter won out, of course, and I’m thrilled that I’ll be heading to Foster this fall.

The second decision I made was a personal one. During quarantine, I found myself at home working side-by-side with my then-girlfriend at our kitchen table. While the circumstances of our isolation wasn’t ideal, the time together certainly strengthened our relationship. I was grateful to have time at home with my best friend. Recognizing the enormity of what we were weathering together helped me to see the true depth of our relationship. If we could get through a global pandemic, we could do anything. Asking her to marry me was one of the easiest and undoubtedly best life decisions I’ve ever made. We’ll be getting married next June back in our home state of Michigan, and I couldn’t be more excited.

What led you to pursue an MBA at this point and what do you hope to do after graduation? I’ve dedicated my career to addressing the climate crisis through my work in land use and conservation across Michigan, Montana, Washington, and Oregon. While I believe deeply in the value of this work, I came to recognize that its impact was largely regionally limited. I want to work towards advancing a scalable, global response to climate change. To have a greater impact, though, it’s necessary for me to pivot my career.

I believe the business community is best positioned to develop and deliver solutions to the worsening climate crisis. This work is well underway, from the recent innovations in grid-scale battery storage to the increasing pace of solar and wind deployments among other advancements across clean technology industries. Developments like these are inspiring and it’s exciting to imagine working for rapidly-evolving companies driving these innovations.

Informational interviews with clean technology professionals helped me recognize that an MBA would provide the dedicated training, applied experience, and network I need to succeed in clean technology. I’m looking for a transformative educational experience that challenges the way I see the world, pushes me to innovate, and dares me to think bigger. My decision to pursue an MBA is driven by my desire to grow personally, develop professionally, and have a greater impact in the fight against climate change.

What other MBA programs did you apply to? In addition to Foster, I applied to the Eli Broad School of Business at Michigan State University and was prepared to submit my application to the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan when I learned that I was accepted to Foster. I didn’t end up submitting the Ross application and I haven’t looked back since.

What advice would you give to help potential applicants gain admission into Washington Foster’s MBA program? Get started early and plan to spend time getting to know current and former Foster students. The Foster admissions staff places great emphasis on intentionally creating a community that is by design small and team-oriented – We>Me. Students and alumni are your North Star. They’re best positioned to provide you a sense of the culture and feel of the program that’ll help you decide whether your interests and values align with Foster’s. Provided there’s a match, you can ultimately channel what you learn into your application. I undoubtedly wouldn’t be where I am today without the generous support and guidance I received from students and alumni alike.


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