2023 Best & Brightest MBA: Joi Ebele James, University of Michigan (Ross)

Joi Ebele James

University of Michigan, Ross School of Business

“I’m a product of my ancestors’ grit & determination and my younger self’s wildest dreams.”

Hometown: Brooklyn, New York

Fun fact about yourself: I treat my dog like she is my first-born child.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Syracuse University – Dual Degree: Forensic Science and Psychology

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Detroit Program Fellow, The Kresge Foundation

Where did you intern during the summer of 2022? Bain & Company, Chicago

Where will you be working after graduation? Bain & Company, Chicago

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

  • Vice President of Wellness, Full-time MBA Council
  • Founders Fellow, Business + Impact Studio
    • Founder: finding joi, LLC.
  • Co-President, The Black Business Student Association

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I am most proud of founding and launching my social venture, finding joi. What began as a vision for more educated and psychologically safe workplaces for Black womxn and femmes*, soon came to life through a fellowship with the Business + Impact Studio.

Throughout the pandemic and the societal impacts of the murder of George Floyd, I was confronted with a harsh reality; I was both a product of systems of inequity while working to decrease its impact and taking care of my community at the same time. I soon realized that Black womxn across a range of industries were often going above and beyond their mental and physical limits for their occupations, families, and communities due to historical stigmas of toxic strength. This reality led me to found finding joi, a learning community for Black womxn and femme-identifying folks to find collective and individual joy within their personal, professional, and academic lives. finding joi also aims to educate employers on how they can create more physically and psychologically safe workplaces for their Black womxn and femme employees.

With the +Impact Studio’s mentorship and $1K per semester in financial support, I was able to research and prototype market assumptions, hire a graphic designer to develop marketing materials, build a company website, and plan a launch event and membership-based digital content strategy. As someone who would have never considered entrepreneurship, I am looking forward to working with my Michigan Ross peers to prototype and scale finding joi to different industries in the coming years.

*Black womxn and femmes: Includes Black people that identify as women or feminine non-binary regardless of sexual orientation at birth

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Given the socio-political climate in 2020, I worked with the Kresge Foundation’s CEO and Place-Based programs to design a three year, $30M grantmaking initiative to provide resources to BIPOC community organizers. I had the opportunity to lead the foundation’s grantmaking developing strategies to provide solutions for the short-term needs in communities of color as we dealt with the impact of the COVID-19 crisis and racial justice movement.

Over the course of eight weeks, I identified over 30 Detroit-based and national BIPOC-led organizations and supported the creation of a simplified 4-question application process to ensure efficient and urgent distribution of funding. In addition to identifying organizations, I was able to co-create a national network of nearly 60 organizations working across issues of health, housing, technology, LGBTQ-rights, crime, and multicultural healing.

Why did you choose this business school? I chose business school because I began to recognize the impacts that large corporations had on Black communities, whether it be from the foods that are available in the Black community to the injustices we were experiencing on a national scale. This recognition led me to want to better understand how market economies worked but how I can persuade companies to think about the negative externalities that they had been imposing upon Black communities. In this process, my goal was to deepen my knowledge of the key economic factors and operational principles that could construct more just economies. Michigan Ross was the perfect intersection of a rigorous business program with a community committed to issues of DEI and direct proximity to other top Masters programs that would build upon my work in the city of Detroit.

More important than what I learned here was doing so in a way that showcased the importance of healthy and empathetic leadership. I am grateful that my time at Michigan Ross administration has allowed me to utilize positions of leadership such as VP of Wellness to partner with and highlight companies such as Headspace Health. In the process, I have been able to provide discounted memberships to students, facilitate design-thinking sessions on healthy academic spaces, and hear from the expertise of Dr. Wizdom Powell as keynote in our annual Wellness Week. I am proud to be leaving a legacy at Ross that showcases that you are able to make effective change and take care of yourself and others while doing it.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Dr. Christopher Rider: Thomas C. Kinnear Professor and Associate Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

Coming from a background of urban policy, nonprofits, and place-based philanthropy, I naturally took Dr. Rider’s Equity Analytics course. Most notably, I am honored to have learned from someone who is shaping significant dialogue regarding disparate impacts and differentiated outcomes in Black-representation in the NFL.

In addition to sharing his expertise from his ongoing research on the Rooney Rule, Dr. Rider was intentional in bringing in guest speakers from his networks across a range of fields. I believe Dr. Rider represents a large reason that many people attend Ross. Particularly, a passion for transforming business systems through a social justice or DEI lens. Dr. Rider’s work and facilitation of the Equity Analytics course helped me return to my north star of strengthening my quantitative skills at Ross that would help me identify ways to shape a more just economy long-term.

What was your favorite course as an MBA? Leading Inclusive Organizations taught by Dr. Valerie Myers was unlike any course I have taken in business school. Overall, the course focused on organizational perception utilizing arts and creative practices to challenge strategic perspectives and developing inclusive teams. As a Black woman that grew up in a predominantly white area, I have had difficulties with my perception of self while navigating spaces often built for those that do not look like me. Throughout my career, I quickly transformed what I thought was a gap or weakness in my skill set into a passion for supporting the generation of Black leaders in recognizing their power. Due to this, I am committed to destigmatizing conversations about mental health in professional spaces. Leading Inclusive Organizations helped me think about the ways in which I perceive people’s abilities and how these perceptions mold executive teams that are tackling some of toughest challenges in corporate social responsibility today.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? My favorite MBA event at Ross is the annual Alfred L. Edwards (ALE) Conference hosted by the Black Business Student Association (BBSA). The ALE Conference is Ross’ longest standing conference and is led by Black students for Black members and alumni of the University of Michigan and broader business community. As both a member of the Consortium Graduate Study of Management program and co-president of BBSA at Ross, ALE had always been a large part of why I wanted to attend Ross. As a prospective student, I had attended ALE virtually and was amazed by the power of student leadership and their ability to bring incredible Black speakers to expand the network of their peers.

I am grateful to have overseen the planning and facilitation of Ross’ first ALE conference in person since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 47th annual conference raised over $50K in corporate sponsorship and hosted over 150 prospective students, current members, and alumni. The conference themed ‘The Surge Ahead: Accelerating Black Excellence in Business’ highlighted the amazing strides Black professionals have made in America and provided an opportunity to co-create strategies on how we continue to capitalize on this momentum as a Black community at Ross.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? Looking back, I would have built a strong personal wellness routine into my calendar much earlier. Often times, MBAs compare program commitments to a three-legged stool consisting of social, academic, and professional responsibilities in which you can only realistically focus on two. Throughout my time at Ross, I was able to incorporate a fourth leg that helped balance out the others, personal wellness. ‘Pull Up a Chair’ became a theme for this year’s annual Wellness Week at Ross aimed at changing the narrative from a grind culture to a culture of rest.

What is the biggest myth about your school? The biggest myth about business school is that it is unbearably busy. While there are an unlimited number of activities to dive into while at business school, I have found the biggest lesson to be prioritizing and maximizing your time for the activities that matter most to you. At different periods of my business school journey, reflection was key in understanding what was most important to me in a given week, experience, or leadership opportunity. This knowledge helped me to build both my schedule and personal boundaries around my current priorities. This lesson helped me invest my time in the people and opportunities that could bring long-term value and benefit to what I hoped to achieve outside of Ross, reducing the opportunity costs of spending valuable time on misaligned priorities.

What did you love most about your business school’s town? I absolutely love the access to green space and the outdoors that Ann Arbor provides. As a dog mom and long-time Michigander, I am used to the cold weather but also incredibly grateful for the beautiful sunset views that the hilly University of Michigan provides. I am also very grateful for the proximity to Detroit, the Michigan upper peninsula, nearby Midwestern cities like Chicago, and an international airport 30 minutes away. A highlight of the past year was driving over 4K miles round trip to LA with my partner and two dogs to spend new year’s with Ross friends. A cross-country trip had been on my bucket list for a while, and I was very happy to do so with new long-lasting friendships.

What surprised you the most about business school? What surprised me most about Michigan Ross was just how genuine the community was in empowering and amplifying student success. Cat Johnson, Managing Director of the Business+Impact Studio once told me that the program, “didn’t just care about finding joi but they cared most about Joi, the founder”. It was at that moment that I truly realized the power of a network that cares about what you have to offer the world and who you are while doing it. It was through the support of my peers, mentors, and faculty that I was able to hold two leadership positions, found a company, manage a part-time job, and full-time course load.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? I am proud to have displayed my personal values throughout my MBA application process. The biggest piece of advice that I give to prospective students is that “you are the only person able to tell your story”. More important than what you are able to do with leadership skills is why and how you are going to lead. Within my professional and academic career, I have been able to identify three guiding principles for my life: 1) personal health is collective wealth; 2) co-create and highlight with your community every step of the way; and 3) place big bets on yourself.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? An MBA classmate that I admire the most is my roommate, Stella Minhee Han. Stella and I met at an interesting time in our lives and in the broader context of the world. During a time when both the Black and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities were under attack, we both found a space to vent, cry, create solutions, and find rest often in late night discussions under our Ann Arbor roof. At the same time, we sought to utilize Ross’ student leadership opportunities to make long-lasting change as presidents of the Asian American and Black Business Associations respectively. Throughout my time both living with and witnessing Stella’s greatness in the Ross community, I learned what it looks like to address conflict head on, how to lead with empathy, and the power of the “small things” such as sharing a warm meal. She truly personifies what it means to be a friend and ally.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list? The top two items on my professional bucket list are: 1) Scaling my social venture, finding joi and 2) Holding public office representing the city of Detroit.

Scaling finding joi
Long-term, I am looking forward to building out the consulting services and company-benefits offerings for finding joi. While my venture currently focuses on sharing best practices and resources for maintaining user mental health, it is important to ensure that we are also transforming the inequitable systems and structures that Black womxn and femmes are operating in as the highest educated population in the United States.

Holding public office
Additionally, I hope to follow in the footsteps of Ross Alum Joe Tate as state representative in Michigan. Through my personal and professional experience in community development, I am very passionate about the City of Detroit and supporting its future generations in capturing the wealth maintained by their ancestors. I hope to utilize the next 10 years to hone in on the skills needed to pursue this professional bucket list by capturing expertise on problem-solving within corporate markets and a PhD in Urban Economics with a focus on BIPOC creative economies.

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

“It is difficult to imagine the class of 2023 without Joi James, and it is equally difficult to overstate her impact on the Michigan Ross community. Joi embodies visionary and courageous leadership, and her contributions across the school are far-reaching. Joi fluidly weaves her invaluable expertise and perspective into the spaces she occupies and the many communities she is a part of, and she does so with a voice that is wise, incisive, thoughtful, and kind. This voice, her courage of conviction, and ability to both imagine and build, are incredibly rare.

Her work as Manager for Community Partnerships with BlueConduit has supported the growth, impact, and DEI strategy of the venture, which just announced its partnership with the White House and Biden-Harris administration to address the lead pipe crisis across the country. Her leadership, academic success, and incredible dedication culminated in being awarded the prestigious Community Impact Scholar award at the Ross School. It is an honor to be a small part of helping propel Joi forward in her journey. Her impact to date is astounding and is only a preview to how she will continue catalyzing change to bring that world into being.”

Catherine Johnson
Adjunct Lecturer
Managing Director, Business+Impact Initiative
Impact Design Coach, +Impact Studio

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

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