2023 Best & Brightest MBA: John Pontillo, University of Michigan (Ross)

John Pontillo

University of Michigan, Ross School of Business

“Stubborn optimist seeking a crew to reimagine financial systems for triple bottom line impact.”

Hometown: Moorestown, NJ

Fun fact about yourself: I technically played semi-professional soccer for a Mozambican team while serving in the Peace Corps, where my teammates and I were paid in Coca-Cola and chicken – but only after we won!

Undergraduate School and Degree: Swarthmore College; BA in Religion, BA in Economics

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? FSG, Inc.; Consultant

Where did you intern during the summer of 2022? Vanguard; Malvern, Pennsylvania

Where will you be working after graduation? Vanguard; Leadership Development Program – General Management

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: 

  • Co-Founder of Michigan Climate Venture, the nation’s first student-led ClimateTech Venture Capital Fund
  • Co-President of Student Advisory Board, MBA/MSc Student Group (Erb)
  • Co-Author of published articles in Harvard Business Review and Management and Business Review about leadership, through interviews with former Unilever CEO Paul Polman
  • Ross Merit Scholarship, Community Impact Scholarship recipient
  • Peter and Carolyn Mertz, Coverdell, and Erb Fellow
  • Member of the first cohort of student participating in Management As A Calling, a course focused on understanding your calling as a professional with Professor Andy Hoffman
  • Graduating with Distinction

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I’m most proud of co-founding Michigan Climate Venture, the nation’s first student-let venture capital club focused exclusively in ClimateTech. I’m most proud of this accomplishment because Michigan Climate Venture has opened doors for students in the Ross community (and beyond) to learn more about venture capital investment and ClimateTech. It has also led to students in other graduate studies departments across the university applying to and joining Ross. I’m proud to be part of a special group of students who have provided a platform for students to learn more about the intersection of business and climate change, and discover new passions and career pathways through MCV, while promoting everything that Ross can offer students.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career?  I’m certainly most proud of the impact I made in my community when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer living in rural Mozambique. During that time, I led an effort with my community to construct and install screens on the windows of over 100 homes in my neighborhood to help prevent Malaria contraction among residents. Not only did the project significantly help reduce contraction rates, but the project was executed by the residents themselves. They included training sessions in basic carpentry; screen construction from our local carpenter; the neighborhood soccer captain organizing teams of workers; local vendors giving us discounts for purchasing materials to improve the public health of their neighborhood; and residents cooking lunch for workers as a thank you for their work. It was a true grassroots program that trained unskilled workers in a skill, brought the community together, and had a 74% year-over-year reduction in the Malaria contraction rates.

Why did you choose this business school? I chose Ross because of its emphasis on action-based learning. I know myself well enough to know that I learn best by doing, and the opportunities available to Ross students are numerous. Most notable is the Multidisciplinary Action Projects (MAP) that all students undertake during the spring of their first year. It’s a fantastic way to get real world experience working with a startup, foundation, or company in a range of industries, alongside your Ross peers, to help your MAP host solve a real-world problem through a structured consulting project. I was fortunate to work with SunFi, a Climate FinTech company based in Nigeria, and learned so much about credit markets, solar irradiance potential, and startup culture in Nigeria from this project. The experience was awesome and I had the opportunity to use skills I developed from the core coursework my first semester.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Professor Gautam Kaul is more than just my favorite MBA professor; he’s one of my favorite people I’ve ever met. He makes finance come to life by providing the best instruction on the technical parts, while helping students understand what it can be used for and why it matters to learn it. It’s not only about finding an NPV figure, but determining how calculating that figure can help you achieve some larger goal related to societal impact. Further, he encourages students to dream big and helps them achieve these goals. He is a modern -day sage who happens to love finance and teaches at Ross.

What was your favorite course as an MBA? Finance 621 with Andrey Malenkoi was a case-based course that put the student in the position of CFO. It had us consider what the optimal decision set is for companies at various stages in their respective growth cycles to maximize shareholder returns and stock prices. But it didn’t stop there! We considered stakeholder capitalism, public relations, and policy and macroeconomic conditions that could affect the outcome to gain a comprehensive understanding of capital allocation and downstream effects. We also kept up with current events and I took this course when Elon Musk was considering buying Twitter in fall of ’21, which provided great fodder for discussion.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? The annual Follies show, a sketch-comedy act created and executed by Ross students, is so awesome. Sure, there are so many clubs through which students are able to showcase their talents. However, Follies is my favorite because students offer this great opportunity for the student body to gather and joke about the often-intense experience in business school! The clever humor is a great way for everyone to enjoy a collective laugh and to remember that though getting an MBA is intense, it’s also kind of absurd and it helps us not to take it too seriously.

What is the biggest myth about your school? The biggest myth is that it is lonely and cold in the wintertime. Yes, it is Michigan, and the winter is long, but there is SO much to do through student groups and at Ross all year. And, Ann Arbor is alive with arts, culture, and sporting events all year long. The community is strong and there is so much to do!

What did you love most about your business school’s town? I love the range of activities and proximity to the outdoors. You can view a concert from a world-renowned musician on a Thursday, hit the cross country ski trails on a snowy Friday morning, then enjoy delicious Spanish tapas downtown on a Saturday night. Whatever your interest, you’ll find it here in Ann Arbor or nearby.

What surprised you the most about business school? The intensity and pace! Before business school I worked in social-impact consulting, so I felt prepared for the kind of culture it would be given the exposure to the consulting lifestyle. And while it wasn’t a shock to experience it fully, it was more intense and faster than I expected. But you get through it all with great classmates and friends with you along the way!

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? Ross really values community and seeks individuals who aim to contribute to the community. During the process, I made it a point to talk to as many Ross Ambassadors as I could to understand what the community was like, and how I could see myself both fitting into and contributing to it. I do think that putting the time into having conversations with lots of folks gave me a slight edge in showing my commitment to Ross and its community.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Olivia Rath. She’s one of the smartest, most driven individuals I have ever known. She is committed to enabling zero-carbon transportation. She is constantly saying yes to things that improve her ability as an individual to enable the transition, and knows when to say no to things that do not serve that purpose. She does not shy away from engaging those that do not think like she does and seeks to understand how she can learn from their position to improve her own. Further, she commits to making her weaknesses her strengths. She’s a rare combination of an extremely intelligent person with a dogged determination working on challenges that serve humanity. More than her professional attributes, she’s a remarkably empathetic person who knows how to make anyone feel special, is a great friend, and a gifted triathlete. When you meet Olivia, you can tell immediately she’s somebody special!

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list? Develop a suite of low-carbon or zero-carbon mutual funds and ETFs that folks can add to their passive 401K that return greater alpha than conventional products AND promote large scale decarbonization.

Establish a locus of gravity for MBAs interested in sustainability to find meaningful work in Philadelphia, a city which, I believe, can become a model city for renewable energy and sustainability in the US.

What made John such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2023?

“John Pontillo is an absolute trailblazer as a dual-degree MBA/MS student, coming to us from Peace Corps service in Mozambique. At the Erb Institute, John is pursuing his passion for innovative financial instruments to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy. John is a quintessential connector. He serves as Co-President for the Erb Student Advisory Board where he provides his trademark leadership to build community among Erb students and alumni.

John is also the Co-Founder of the Michigan Climate Venture Fund, which is a student-run investment fund for clean-tech ompanies. And last but not least, John is always available to share his professional life experiences across different countries with students, perspectives, and alumni. John is the embodiment of the Erb mission “To create a sustainable world through the power of business” and we cannot wait to see what he does next.”

Hannah Swanson
Student-Alumni Affairs Coordinator, Erb Institute  

DON’T MISS: 100 BEST & BRIGHTEST MBAS: CLASS OF 2023

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