Meet the MBA Class of 2024: Ian Patrick Cairns, Cornell University (Johnson)

Ian Patrick Cairns

Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, Cornell University

“I am a culinary professional determined to solve the complex problems surrounding our food system.”

Hometown: Santa Barbara, California

Fun Fact About Yourself: My last name is plural for piled rocks. In a more philosophical sense, a cairn is a landmark, a meeting place, or a sign that one is on the right path. Nearly every culture has some important variation of a cairn (e.g., Stonehenge or Himalayan burial grounds), but we most commonly see them marking hiking trails or as artistic expressions. Every time I travel or make a significant accomplishment, I collect a rock to remember that part of my journey and add it to one of my cairns.

Undergraduate School and Major: Virginia Tech, Environmental Science and Horticulture, Army ROTC; The Culinary Institute of America – BPS. Culinary Arts and Culinary Science

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Simple Feast (Plant-based food innovation company), Product Development Manager

Aside from your classmates, what was the key part of Cornell’s MBA programming that led you to choose this business school and why was it so important to you? The residential MBA stands out as the most robust program that supports my ambition to positively impact food systems (e.g., reducing food waste, increasing accessibility to healthy food and strengthening food resilience). Along with the other two schools in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business — the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration — there is an interdisciplinary theme of the business of food that synergizes action-based coursework and research from leaders in food and beverage management, retail and agricultural economics. Additionally, the MBA program provides flexibility to take courses outside of the business college to become more well-versed in the science and policy affecting the food industry.

What course, club or activity excites you the most at Cornell? The opportunity I am most excited about at Cornell is the year-long eLab student accelerator, which attracts entrepreneurial students from across the university to refine ideas into viable businesses. Students are paired with mentors within their chosen industry and pitch ideas to investors to obtain funding for their startups. eLab aligns with my goal to launch a mission-driven food business post-graduation.

What excites you the most about living in Ithaca and the Finger Lakes region? I have found that Ithaca is an incredible place for food and nearly anything outdoors, which happen to be my two favorite things. I look forward to attending the Apple Harvest Festival in autumn and anticipate being a regular at the local farmers market. I also intend to explore all the local trails surrounding the gorges.

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: While a culinary director at a restaurant group in Los Angeles, I led the team that overhauled the company’s operations and culture. I worked with the executive team to fully staff the organization and foster collaboration and accountability. In less than a year, the team codified the cuisine and implemented three original menus; revenue increased by 35%; Yelp ratings improved from 3 to 4.5 stars; and Lukshon was named the fourth-best restaurant in Los Angeles.

What is one thing you have recently read, watched, or listened to that you enjoyed and would highly recommend to prospective MBAs? Why? I recently read Ask! The Bridge from Your Dreams to Your Destiny by Mark Victor Hansen and Crystal Dwyer Hansen. The book shares detailed accounts of individuals who have made substantial and highly successful life transitions by having the courage to ask questions not only of themselves, but of others — and of the spiritual power of their understanding. The book also provides exercises encouraging the reader to activate their innate curiosity. Pursuing an MBA is a journey, and it can be made easier when people define their purpose and ask for help when they need it.

What led you to pursue an MBA at this point and what do you hope to do after graduation? When COVID-19 hit, it was viscerally apparent that many restaurants were neither resilient nor sustainable enterprises. I took this time to reflect on my culinary journey and to pivot away from the restaurant industry toward food research and development. I was fortunate to join Simple Feast, a plant-based food innovation and meal kit company and a certified B Corporation — a designation that reflects outstanding social and environmental performance. At Simple Feast, I became increasingly aware of the complex factors affecting our broken food system and new business models that could address them. There is an urgent need to innovate social, environmental and economic practices within the food industry. I intend to build upon my culinary skills and, upon graduation, lead a food business that tackles these issues and positively impacts food systems.

What other MBA programs did you apply to? Stanford Graduate School of Business (Stanford University)

What advice would you give to help potential applicants gain admission into Cornell’s MBA program? Reach out and reflect. It is remarkable how open and helpful the Cornell Johnson community is in sharing insight and experience of the MBA program. Reach out to a professor who conducts research or teaches a class that aligns with your career goals. Attend a virtual coffee chat with a student representative to learn about their journey. During these conversations, I would also encourage prospective students to share their intentions for enrolling in Johnson and be open to feedback. After speaking with the community, reflect on how your unique experience can add to the program and what opportunities you plan to take advantage of to accelerate your career goals.


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