Meet the MBA Class of 2024: Chris Scanzoni, Columbia Business School

Chris Scanzoni

Columbia Business School

“Tree-hugging, gay, vegan former Naval Officer, driven to lead economy-wide decarbonization and promote regenerative capitalism.”

Hometown: Asheville, North Carolina

Fun Fact About Yourself:  I deferred matriculation to college for one year to move across the country and work as a paid grassroots organizer for a presidential campaign. Not old enough to vote myself, this formative experience honed my skill set in setting a vision, building unlikely coalitions, and achieving an otherwise unreachable goal. This skill set ultimately defined my leadership style as a Naval Officer and will be instrumental in my pursuit to promote a sustainable and equitable society.

Undergraduate School and Major: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: United States Navy, Cryptologic Warfare Officer (signals intelligence and cyber warfare; 9 years of active-duty service). Last Role and Duty Station: Tactical Information Operations Officer, Naval Special Warfare (i.e., Navy SEALs).

Aside from your classmates and location, what was the key part of Columbia Business School’s MBA curriculum programming that led you to choose this business school and why was it so important to you? The world is burning, the solutions are time-bound, and we need a new generation of leaders prepared to tackle this generational crisis. Columbia University – home to the Columbia Climate School, Center on Global Energy Policy, and the Earth Institute – is cultivating a world-leading community of climate-minded scholars, researchers, and decision-makers. Accordingly, CBS is pivoting to integrate principles of sustainable enterprise into all aspects of its curriculum. My experience at CBS will provide me with the critical professional networks, scientific and technical understanding, and resources necessary to make immediate impact within the climate space.

What has been your first impression of the Columbia Business School MBA students and alumni you’ve met so far. Tell us your best CBS story so far. Generous. In my many engagements with CBS alumni, I have found that they exemplify the notion of “doing everything within your power to prop open the door of opportunity for those who follow behind you.” Every alum to whom I have reached out for career advice has rushed to schedule a call with me, effusive to share their stories and connect me with the relevant resources and networks. Donnell Baird (CBS ’13) epitomizes this generosity, as he immediately offered me a pre-MBA internship at his climate tech startup given my desire to ground my interest in the industry with operator experience. I am so honored to join this network of loyal, inspired, and accomplished professionals.

What course, club or activity excites you the most at Columbia Business School? I am most excited to compete for admission to the Columbia Ventures Fellow (CVF) program – an intensive two-year launchpad into the venture capital industry. I have developed a deep admiration for the climate tech community and believe the CVF program is the perfect platform to drive innovation and commercialization of world-saving technologies. NYC is also a burgeoning tech startup hub, so I am excited to leverage CBS and the CVF program to help grow the ecosystem of founders and early-stage companies.

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: I am not certain that I would describe it as my biggest accomplishment; however, I am most proud of leading a team through a challenging personal and professional episode.

Five years ago, I led a division of 40 highly technical engineers. These professionals were operating without direction, having a marginal impact on our mission, and consequently lacking motivation. In masculine work environments, vulnerability and emotions are often conflated with weakness. Moreover, as a leader intent on being perceived as strong, the pressure to hide my gay identity and conform with gender norms was paramount.

Nevertheless, I also knew that our division lacked creativity and focus because we were unable to have hard conversations. In coming out years prior, I learned that strength is a byproduct of honesty about insecurities and fears. To restore morale and spark innovation, I had to demonstrate emotional vulnerability to allow space for others to follow. I facilitated a weekly “retrospective” – a forum to share highlights, disappointments, gratitude, and ideas for future work. As terrifying as it was, I filled the void of vulnerability during the first few sessions, expressing my gratitude for specific teammates and my fears about our work. As the weeks progressed, my division honored my efforts by sharing their own uncomfortable truths.

These hard conversations illuminated key dysfunctions about our project, processes, and organization. As we dug deeper, the retrospectives renewed mutual trust and forged common purpose. Soon thereafter, we articulated a new vision statement, reimagined our product design, and adapted our processes to be more responsive. This episode reaffirmed the importance of empathic leadership in cultivating trust, building teams, and driving lasting change.

What led you to pursue an MBA at this point and what do you hope to do after graduation? While I can articulate a vision for the future of warfare and am a competent leader of cryptologists, my heart in the military was no longer energized. Moreover, the climate community needs more military veterans. We face a time-bound problem (“the critical decade”) with incomplete information (climate models with confidence errors) and limited resources (early-stage technologies). Distilling technical concepts, building coalitions, taking risks with unpredictable outcomes, and executing tactically in support of long-term strategy (economy-wide decarbonization and regeneration) is the core skill set of most military officers.

At business school, I intend to set the academic and professional foundations for my life’s work to hasten the transition toward a decarbonized, circular economy. Specifically, I hope to pivot to venture capital in the climate tech vertical to unlock private investment; scale carbon removal technologies; and implement inclusive, equitable, and actionable strategies to preserve the natural world for future generations.

Over the long-term, my dream jobs include Chief Sustainability Officer of a Fortune 500 company, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, or mayor of an American city. These roles afford wide latitude to not only generate benefits to the natural world, but also the ability to alter incentives structures away from an extractive economy. At the executive level, I will be able to scale renewable energies, preserve biodiversity, re-localize supply chains, and own the full lifecycle of products to contribute to a circular economy.

What is one thing you have recently read, watched, or listened to that you would highly recommend to prospective MBAs? Why? The novel Bewilderment by Richard Powers. Its transformative narrative forces readers to think deeply about the meaning of life and practice gratitude for this big, beautiful, imperiled planet of ours. My favorite quote from the book is an important challenge to rising and current MBAs:

“We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.”

As we embark on career pivots, new friendships, and (hopefully) introspection about creating a fulfilling life, I think we MBAs should resolve to stay curious and be thoughtful. We are the next generation of leaders, and we have a responsibility to humanity to open our minds and engage in substantive inquiry.

What other MBA programs did you apply to? Only CBS.

What advice would you give to help potential applicants gain admission into Columbia Business School’s MBA program?  Know your ‘why’. In every step of the process, it was clear that the Admissions team was carefully selecting its class not only to draw diversity of experience, nationality, and demographics but also to forge a community of varied aspirations. In speaking to my classmates, everyone seems to have a clear purpose or direction, which is so refreshing and energizing.


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.