MBA Benefits in Unexpected Experiences: Science, Snowboarding, and Farming

Christine Alix
Christine Alix

Christine Alix is an MBA/MA candidate in Design Leadership at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and MICA, where she is also the President of Design for America. She has worked in branding, advertising and across industries in human-centered design. Before beginning graduate school Christine traveled to 52 countries across six continents. A selection of her work is available at www.Christine-Alix.com.

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Earlier this spring, I was fortunate to attend a roundtable discussion with Carey alumnus Greg Ferrante. Before he was a CFO at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Greg was a molecular biologist. He shared that his science background informs his professional and humanitarian work, emphasizing evidence-based interventions. In his role as Global Policy & Advocacy Program Chief Financial Officer, Greg has developed an innovative financial portfolio and worked to reduce the spread of malaria and other diseases. He quantifies his experience in terms of both financial and humanitarian impact. In the next year, he will help guide the Foundation’s impact with over $5.8 billion and is proud to have helped vaccinate over 30 million children worldwide.

Greg’s work requires him to embody many qualities simultaneously: He credits his path from science into financial philanthropy with providing him the skills to frame communication, gain perspective, and design interventions that can replicate and scale. These benefits have grown from Greg’s path, building upon his scientific experience while also recognizing—as he humorously and humbly shared—that he’d rather “talk to people, than petri dishes.”

Greg’s path is distinctive, but in the Carey ecosystem, he is not alone in his non-linear MBA journey. At the roundtable event, the Carey MBA-candidates’ backgrounds and questions were diverse. Nick Reinke (GMBA), a farmer engaged in the future of food production, probed advocacy and investment for small-holder farmers in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Joel Igu (GMBA), a physician from Nigeria who seeks an MBA to understand “the big picture” of medical impact, asked about globalization and implementation. The value of diverse paths is apparent in conversations, classes, and client work alike; generating interesting solutions and multiple perspectives on any topic.

Like the larger Carey ecosystem, the diverse backgrounds at the roundtable fostered an environment of exchange. Greg Ferrante evolved his Gates Foundation career and life’s work without compartmentalization, leveraging each experience in the context of the next. I’ve strived to do the same, seeking intersectionality with the non-linear experiences I’ve had. In particular, my sense of adventure has amplified my Carey experience. Specifically, international travel has provided the benefit of global consideration while competitive snowboarding trained me in MBA-level ‘game-time’ clarity and power.

  1. In the two years before beginning my journey at Carey, my husband, Scott Magaluk (MSREI, MBA), and I traveled globally. Aside from being incredibly interesting, delicious and off-the-beaten-path, our experiences in 52 countries on six continents have already amplified business school in unimaginable ways. I would not have guessed that learning to make homemade hot sauce on a permaculture farm in Costa Rica would help me land a summer internship with Fidelity Labs. When it came time to make a ‘mad skills’ video for my application, I made the hot sauce and mailed them a jar (I can share the recipe, if you’re interested!)
  2. Further, Scott and I flew on airlines worldwide, racking up more than 200 flights across 175,000 miles. As a result, I’m obsessed with airline business design in Customer Experience. Four Carey projects later, I’ve conducted primary and secondary research and used the opportunity to connect with aviation leaders at companies like JetBlue. The global experience of frustrated hoarding of tiny peanut packets morphed into a research obsession for improved airline experiences, which has, in turn, grown into professional design consulting.
  3. In addition to travel, snowboarding has been a formative experience in preparing for the rigor of creative business and Carey. As a teenager, I competed in snowboarding at a national level. Racing boardercross taught me how to stay focused and clear-headed while making fast, high-pressure decisions. During 100-hour weeks, pitching new business with ad agency Doner and big presentations and exams at Carey, I’ve drawn upon the skills I learned as a competitor.

Just a few weeks ago I leveraged my boardercross decision-making and focus for Professor Panwalkar’s Decision Models’ ‘”APEX Game.” In those moments, the feeling mimicked the packed approach of a banked slalom or the anticipation of a steep drop-off. In the APEX game, technical errors, time pressures and distress rose. In those moments, I worked to both empower and ground my teammates, who were rising to the challenge. Rather than rely on our rigorous mathematical preparation, I turned to snowboarding, symbolically carving at high speeds around obstacles to cross the finish line as a unit.

Remaining open to the unexpected connection and possibility to draft skills, knowledge and awareness from other experiences is worth practicing—especially when you can surround yourself with others who are different from you as you work toward a shared mission.

Carey’s Vice Dean, Kevin Frick, is a champion for non-linear, multi-disciplinary students. His own path to leadership includes pivoting from chemistry into Health Policy and Administration. He challenged the question “You’re going where?” when he moved to Carey after 17 years with the Bloomberg School of Public Health. In reflecting on his own experience, Greg’s talk and the benefits of multi-disciplinary collaboration, Kevin espoused the benefits of diverse teams, unified by purpose. He shared:

While it is important for each of us to focus on our own capacity to contribute, most individuals are part of an organization. Many organizations have a clearly stated mission, a vision, and a set of values. Those who join the team hopefully make the decision to join purposefully with the values in mind. Employees who understand and seek to act on the mission and values of the organization can move the organization toward its goal. For each of us who has a leadership role in an organization, it is important to make the most of the opportunities a unity of purpose creates.

It’s not always clear how an experience will shape one’s journey, but identifying your and others’ value has tremendous potential. As I recognize the significance of my own non-linear experiences, I’m learning to empower it in others; building and unifying diverse teams around a shared goal, rather than shared background. These experiences set you apart, providing the foundation to be authentically, uniquely you in any professional context. In doing so, we’re able to drive specific, meaningful change for clients and colleagues alike.

To echo Greg Ferrante: we must ask, “What is the catalytic role that we can play? How can we drive change? The list of things you could do that would be helpful is unlimited. You have to focus on what you uniquely can positively impact.”

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