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2018 MBAs To Watch: Benjamin St John, Wisconsin School of Business



Thursday 12 July 2018, by Jeff Schmitt

Benjamin St John

University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wisconsin School of Business

Life-long entrepreneur, son of a horticulturist hippy, and obsessed with expression and empathy.

Age: 36

Hometown: Norfolk, VA

Fun fact about yourself: I spent a majority of my late teens working as a set builder and dresser for a movie studio. If you’ve seen Lifetime or Discovery Channel movies or shows from the early 2000’s, there’s a good chance you’ve seen my work.

Undergraduate School and Degree: BS in Entrepreneurship and Technology Management (2015), Arizona State University; MS in Biomimicry (2017), Arizona State University

Where did you work before enrolling in business school? Before I began business school, I spent over a decade working for USAA, a financial services company. I worked in almost every sector of consumer finance, but my last few years were spent working as an equities and options trader after which I became an internal consultant/subject matter expert.

Where did you intern during the summer of 2017? I interned for Intuit as a Product Manager working on an internal startup. Our goal was to provide loans to small businesses that would help them smooth their cash flows and strengthen them. The underwriting model was based on our internal customer data instead of credit histories, which allowed us to extend credit to companies that had often been in business less than 2 years. QuickBooks Capital has grown exponentially since then and I am so proud to have been a part of their journey.

Where will you be working after graduation? I am currently working on two early stage startups. In addition to that I am also recruiting for Product Management roles.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: I will be graduating with two additional certificates: one in Entrepreneurship and one in Business, Environment, and Social Responsibility. During my time at UW Madison, I was the Co-President of our Net Impact Chapter (a global society focused on sustainability and social responsibility), and I also sat on two committees focused on improving student relations and our program as a whole. Lastly, I had the opportunity to volunteer at several charity events and give back to the local Madison community.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I had the opportunity to give some lectures on Design Thinking, something that I feel is sorely missing from many MBA’s skillsets. Design Thinking helps with communication to our teams (especially engineers and designers) and in building empathy for our customers. It also ensures that we reduce the possibility of wasted time or resources by reminding us to make our decisions with an eye on maximizing value for our stakeholders. Sharing that knowledge was an incredible experience and I hope they got as much out of hearing it as I did in sharing it.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? My most recent experience is the one that I am most proud of. I worked for on the startup for QuickBooks Capital, an arm focused on providing small loans to small business customers of Intuit’s QuickBooks product. Our internal underwriting software was mostly spreadsheet-based, and needed a new UI buildout to help increase productivity.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? My favorite professor was Mark Finster, a professor emeritus in the Operations and Technology group. He’s an extremely knowledgeable and passionate systems thinker who’s focused on sustainability and the business case for embracing it. His passion is contagious and he ignites it in anyone whom he teaches. As someone focused on sustainability education, I greatly appreciate his approach and hope to successfully emulate it.

What was your favorite MBA Course? My favorite course was from this the Fall 2017 semester, Sustainable Approaches to System Improvement. This course was taught by Mark Finster. His decades of experience in Lean, combined with his approach to sustainability, provided me with tools that I will use for the rest of my career.

Why did you choose this business school? I chose this business school not because of its ranking, but because I wanted to be a part of an institution that I could truly believe in. My experiences during the application and interview process really got me excited about joining the class. I felt truly valued for who I was, not just my collection of stats on paper. Also, I was very interested in the opportunity to launch curriculum focused on Biomimicry and possible teach during my second year in the program and UW Madison was the only school that would even consider allowing me to pitch curriculum. While this did not end up working out, I was given the opportunity to lecture several times on Biomimicry and Design Thinking.

What is your best piece advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? Be yourself. Don’t tell admissions what you think they want to hear. They want authentic students who are not afraid of being honest about themselves. Also, be interested in getting to know every single student. Think about what you can do to help others before you help yourself. The program here is geared towards creating a collaborative experience that builds long-lasting relationships.

What is the biggest myth about your school? That students at UW Madison only eat cheese and brats. I can now testify that this, at most, makes up 85-95% of our meals. Really though, there’s a lot of great food on or near campus. We have a thriving food cart and food truck scene here!

What was your biggest regret in business school? I wish I had spent more of my time building and strengthening relationships with my fellow students. There’s so many opportunities to overwork yourself in business school, and I availed myself of most of them. I also spent my first year full-time in a second master’s program and this got in the way of me networking as I had a very full workload. Going back I would tell myself, “It’s not a question of IF you can handle that amount of work but instead it’s a question of SHOULD you handle that much work.”

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? My peer and friend Harleen. She’s an incredibly intelligent, talented, and kind human being, and a poster child for why we should not be afraid to let immigrants into our country. She embodies the traditional “American Dream” spirit, traveling half-way across the world from India to chase her dreams of working in technology. When she was told that she would not be hired for an internship at a major technology company as they did not plan on sponsoring, she kept networking, doggedly seeking a path to her dream. Her efforts were rewarded when she was hired as an intern and she will be returning to that same company this fall as a full-time hire. I am so thankful to have her in my circle of friends.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? My grandparents were the largest influence on me. My grandmother taught me real empathy for others and that empathy has helped me be a better designer as I can relate with my customers. My grandfather started his own small business after returning from World War II and forged a life for himself despite the hardships that he overcame from his childhood. Both of them have been in the forefront of my thoughts throughout my career and in its current culmination, attending the Wisconsin School of Business.

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…on the lookout for an opportunity to be as impactful as possible. Business school seemed to offer the best path to this but there’s always a plan B and I would have found another way to get where I wanted to go.”

If you were a dean for a day, what one thing would you change about the MBA experience? I would work to influence professors to be more agile and responsive to their marketplace. The companies hiring their graduates should be seen as their customers, and I would reach out to those companies and have active discussions about what problems they had that needed solving and what skills are needed to solve those problems. With that information, I could help the school make informed decisions about curriculum.

What are the top two items on your bucket list? I would love to visit Scandinavia and see the Northern Lights. Much of my genealogy traces back to Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, so it would be awesome to see where they came from. I also want to do something valuable enough that it lets other kids that come from at risk situations and households know that they can be something more than the sum of their parts as well. That’s a big driving force for me.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? “Ben, the quirky designer who led Dungeons and Dragons games for the other MBAs, stayed true to himself and chased after his passions.”

What is your favorite movie about business? I am going to go off the deep end a bit here and pick something slightly out of left field, Be Kind, Rewind. The movie follows employees at a movie rental store who had failed to pay attention to the market, stocking only VHS when most of their potential customers had fully embraced DVDs. The owner’s solution is to try and copy successful stores that only rent DVDs, despite the fact that it is a crowded marketplace and it is unlikely to succeed. Instead, the employees end up pivoting and making their own films based on customer demand and this creates an explosion of local support. Letting the marketplace inform you as a business is often better than trying to inform them.

What would your theme song be? I have such a strong relationship with music. Most of the people in my family were musicians, and their tastes were incredibly diverse. As such, I’m going to choose an instrumental. It was the primary score for a movie called Beasts of the Southern Wild. The song, by Dan Romer & Benh Zeitlin, is called “Once There Was a Hushpuppy.” Growing up poor in the wetlands and swamps of southeastern VA, I was exposed to a bright, vibrant culture focused on doing more with less. This song, with its gradual crescendo, feels like my life. Ups and downs. Sometimes bright smiles and sometimes tears, but all building, building to something. This experience in business school is another stanza in the song of me.

Favorite vacation spot: My favorite vacation spot is California. It is such an incredibly diverse state, full of different biomes, cultures, weather, and climates. Driving from one end to the other guarantees a feast for the eyes, the body, and the soul. Some of my best memories are from time spent in California, particularly the southern half of the state. Seeing the Salton Sea, a place full of heart-breaking desolation dotted with colorful, passionate folk art can’t be related properly through pictures. You really have to see it for yourself.

Hobbies? My new hobby is flying drones. I recently received my Commercial Drone Operator’s license as a part of a class I took this semester (Spring 2018) and they are unbelievably fun. I also continue to make art and have been shown in the past as a mixed-media artist. Lastly, I love writing and performing folk music and while I took a hiatus to pursue higher education, I plan on performing and touring again.

What made Ben such an invaluable addition to the class of 2018?

“Benjamin St. John has been an outstanding member of the Wisconsin FT MBA, Class of 2018. From the time he arrived to campus, as part of our New Admit student weekend, Ben demonstrated an innate curiosity and enthusiasm to embrace his MBA studies and contributions to the MBA program.

Ben has been a student in the Erdman Center for Operations and Technology Management, where he has maintained a 3.52 cumulative GPA while also being extremely involved in leadership development opportunities. He served as the co-president of the Net Impact chapter at the Wisconsin School of Business. Net Impact focuses on Social and Environmental impact initiatives.

Ben has also expanded his academic knowledge through obtaining a master’s degree in Biomimicry in 2017, which coincided with his first year of MBA studies. Other volunteer activities include participating in the Together Forward MBA committee and the Graduate Marketing Network club that coordinates the annual marketing case competition for MBA students. He received the best speaker award at the 2017 graduate marketing case competition.

During his second year Ben was a teaching assistant for Sustainable Approaches to Systems Thinking course, and also conducted lecture sessions for other courses on the topics of business sustainability and biomimicry. During his two years he conducted three applied learning sessions on topics of biomimicry, applied design thinking and agile product development.

Additionally, Ben was participated in the annual arts showcase and international night activities. His willingness to go above-and-beyond outside of the classroom is what defines Ben and why his classmates respect and appreciate his contributions. For example, his efforts to coordinate game nights for classmates to create an inclusive environment.”

Steven Boeder
Director, Erdman Center for Operations and Technology Management
Wisconsin School of Business

 

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