I had the pleasure of presenting the valedictorian address to my class mates at our recent graduation from the Richard Ivey School of Business EMBA program on June 5, 2015. The speech might not have much to do with veterinary business on the surface, but since a number of people have asked me about the value of an EMBA I thought I would publish this speech for those who are interested. It also points out my bias towards a classroom EMBA, rather than an online version. The price is significantly higher with a class EMBA than the other, but the value of learning with other people is worth far more than the dollar value. Like veterinary medicine business involves other people. Its one thing to learn how to diagnose feline diabetes, but the real skill and art of vet med is being able to communicate this to the cat owner and have them trust the diagnosis and comply with treatment recommendations. The same thing apples with business. If you can’t lead or work with other people you won’t get far.
In any case I hope you enjoy the read. I got a very satisfying reaction from my classmates. They laughed when I hoped they would and I heard there were many moist eyes towards the end. I also added footnotes to give context to the inside jokes and mentions of people. Let me know what you think in the comment section.
My name is Mike Pownall. I am thankful for the honour and privilege of being selected as our class valedictorian. It is especially meaningful because unlike a typical valedictorian this one was not selected based on the highest grade in the class. Rather I was selected by my classmates to represent them as we celebrate the finish of our EMBA. It is one of the great honours of my life. I hope that by the time I finish, our guests will have a better appreciation of the incredible people in our class, what our 17 month EMBA journey was like, and hopefully my fellow classmates can take pride and satisfaction in our accomplishment.
Unlike most stories I am going to start at the end, because knowing how we ended up helps us appreciate where we started. During our last class Professor Tony Frost[i] asked each of us to come to the front of the room and answer a simple yet hard to verbalize question – If I take away nothing else from the Ivey EMBA experience, I will always take away this….. and for the next 2 hours we all got up in the front of the class and answered that question as best we could.
It was one of the highlights of the program for me because after 17 months we were close enough and comfortable enough with each other to share our personal and intimate answers. There were laughs, and there were tears, and several times there was an emotional hush in the room as we told our stories.
As a class we learned things about each other that many of us had only shared with a handful of other classmates. I am sure I am like many in that my respect and appreciation grew even more for my classmates as I understood the individual challenges we all took to get here.
From that session there were two themes that came through from all of the stories
The first was personal transformation. 51 individuals learned a lot about themselves over the 17 months and unexpectedly changed how they view themselves, their relationship with other people and the world around them. They realized that they can be more successful when they work with the complimentary strengths and skills of others. They don’t have to do it all themselves.
The second was the profound appreciation we all had for our families and friends for the support they gave us through the program. Several of our classmates mentioned that their career aspirations have been scaled back because of how much they valued their family after all of the time away from them.
So how did we get here, different people from when we started 17 months ago? I think it helps to go back to where we at the beginning in August 2013 to the Pre-EMBA accounting class hosted by Murray “a wine label is not just a wine label” Bryant[ii]. Accounting? Excel? For many of us these were not words in our vocabularies. We approached that day like it was our first day of kindergarten. That was how nervous we were.
Personally, after reading the bios of my new classmates I was blown away by their accomplishments and careers. There was no way I belonged here. One moment in particular resonated with me. We were discussing the Caribbean Café case and trying to project the profit over the next several years of a young internet café company in Jamaica. We had to figure out the NPV, or net present value of the projected earnings? NPV, what is that? Murray “rugby is a metaphor for everything in life” Bryant[iii] asked if anyone had figured it out and Deborah raised her hand and walked us through the Excel formula she used in her calculations. I was blown away. I had never met a person who could work a spreadsheet like that. It was magic. I knew then that we were going to learn a lot in this program.
Lets jump ahead 2 weeks to our first week at Spencer. Professor Peter Bell, who taught us analytics[iv], explained to us that there were two kinds of people in the world; Quants and poets. Quants were those who used data in the analysis of everything; their world was easily figured out by numbers and formulas. And then, he said with what seemed like pity, there were poets, who had feelings and saw the world as uncertain and needed to explore the feelings of themselves and their co-workers so everyone could move on together. Quants were easily recognized because whenever we had a spreadsheet exercise in class they would stop playing with their phones in boredom, they would sit up straight, and you could see the faint crack of a smile as they navigated around a spreadsheet.
Sammy was so happy he would even stop watching football highlights, while Renee would shake her head in disapproval.
Many of us in the class were poets and although we didn’t understand Quants we were happy that there was one of them in each of our Term1 learning groups. And we were thrilled that they were willing to help us incompetents learn Excel. Thank you Omar and Michael Benvenuti for organizing after hour sessions for the class. Your selflessness was a sign of things to come.
The first couple of days at Spencer were intense. One person just upped and left the program on the second day. That night, many people were shell shocked, some in tears, others ready to quit because of the challenges of analytics and accounting. But it soon became clear that the quants were challenged too. They were facing situations in Leadership and Marketing that weren’t explained with a formula. For example, we learned in our marketing class with Professor Mark “give me an answer now” Vandenbosch[v] that it is ok to begin an answer with “it depends”. Nothing is black and white.
How else did the changes within each of us begin? How did 51 Type A personalities, a group of
aids to Federal ministers,
small business owners,
(and this is just what Ajay[vi] has done so far in life) veterinarians,
experts in heavy manufacturing,
and even mustard learn to work together? Easy. Break them up into groups of 6 and have them pretend they are survivors of a plane crash in the wilderness of Labrador and have them answer – Stay and wait for help, or walk to civilization?
Welcome to the first lesson in our first learning team.
Regardless of the answer we all learned that what we thought we knew to be right might be wrong, so it might be time to listen to and work with each other to get to the best possible solution. The road to personal transformation had begun.
The EMBA is a great equalizer. No matter how smart we are, how poised we are at work, how well we dress, or how successful we are the EMBA program is guaranteed to make each of us feel like an absolute idiot at one time or another. How many times did you raise your hand with the certainty that you knew the answer that would break open the case, guaranteed to get you 95% in class participation, and the everlasting admiration and respect from Simon, Lyn, or Tony[vii] and the only thing that came out of your mouth appeared to be absolute gibberish? We all had those moments, but we felt comfortable enough with each other to try again. We became each other’s biggest cheerleaders, because we wanted each other to succeed.
Our educational voyage concluded with our trip to India where we saw a collision of extremes; exciting entrepreneurship and smiles on the faces of child street beggars, gut wrenching poverty and over the top opulence, women dressed in rich vibrant colours and grey smoke from coal fires over Agra. Our eyes were opened to the opportunities and collective ambitions of economic and social progress in India. Thank you Michael Rouse for introducing us to this memorable opportunity and thank you to Matt for organizing our meeting with the Canadian High Commissioner in India.
Meanwhile we weren’t just changing personally, we were also changing as business people. I knew that the EMBA program had done what is was supposed to do when during one of our company meetings in India our team looked at each other and realized we were able to add value to an international company. We weren’t terrified of the challenges, or doubting our ability like we were 17 months before; we had become business people with the skills, knowledge, awareness and confidence to add value wherever we chose to apply it.
So now we are done. Truly done. It first hit me one Sunday in February when I woke up and I realized I had nothing to do that day. Nothing. No cases to read, no projects or tests to write. My wife, Melissa, and I discussed what we could do that day and we had no idea. We had to learn what normal people do with their free time?
And now that we are done I like to think back on the EMBA and tease myself with some questions.
For example, when I am home in the evening, or during a weekend I sometimes ask myself could I now spend 20-30 hours a week working on the EMBA. Absolutely not. Could you? I don’t know how we did it for the 17 months.
I think of the things we never want to see or experience again: Murray “ I know more about your business than you do” Bryant questioning us about the companies we work for, being Vandenbosched, demand curves[viii], 5 hour take home exams, demand curves, studying inside on a beautiful day, supply curves, sitting in class at Spencer on a holiday Monday………
Then I think of the things we want to see and experience again and all I can think of are the learning and intellectual challenges that came with all of the above. It was tough but our minds were so alive.
I used to think that the EMBA gave the best return to small business owners like myself, because we could apply what we learned right away., or we could use our businesses for projects. By the way thank you to all of my learning teams; our business is doing great because of your help. I felt that those who worked in larger corporations would have to wait until they moved up the corporate ladder to directly apply their knowledge.
I have since come to appreciate that my classmates in larger companies or organizations are in the best position to fulfill the Ivey mission of being business leaders who think globally, act strategically and contribute to their communities.
As a small business owner I can directly impact a small group of people but that can be magnified by the hundreds, thousands and 10s of thousands as some of you progress in your careers. Your ability to make significant and positive contributions to your business, your employees, your industry, your community and society are profound. Don’t forget our lessons, our cases, and the clarity of how things should be that was so fresh in our minds just a few short months ago. You have a gift of knowledge and skills that will keep on giving.
In closing I would like to thank some of the people who contributed so much to our Ivey experience.
Melanie and Karim for organizing our social activities. We were not always the easiest people to please, but you did an exceptional job helping us blow off steam.
Thank you to Anusha for putting together our yearbook. She has been working tirelessly the past few weeks to get it done for today.
Thank you to our charity committee of Sayma, Anusha, Melanie, Ritu, Marcy, Selwyn and Sonal. They helped the class raise almost $10000 for Asha Education Canada[ix], a charity whose goal is “to catalyze socio-economic change in India through education of underprivileged children.”
Melanie also arranged to bring $1500 and 10 suitcases full of clothes, shoes, school supplies and toiletries to the Missionaries of Charity orphanage, in Agra[x], founded by Mother Theresa. To some, visiting the children in the orphanage was the highlight of their India trip.
Charity doesn’t have to stop now. I am sure we can think of something we can do as a class, or as part of the Ivey community to continue our interest in helping others. I have some ideas so anyone who is interested let me know. Lets see what we can come up with.
I would like to thank the Ivey Staff and our professors. Brenda, and later Sarah Ferguson made sure our lvey lives ran as well as they did. It was Sarah’s first time managing a trip overseas, but she ran as tight a ship in India as she does here. She even stayed a couple of days over in Bangalore to make sure a very sick Andarz got home ok. I have never seen her in a bad mood.
Thank you also to Liz Snelgrove[xi] who knew what we were going through and for being a guide and supporter through the difficulties of juggling work, family and Ivey.
To Murray, Peter, Simon, Lyn, Tony the other professors, thank you for challenging and inspiring us. Thank you for the business lessons that often became life lessons. It was a pleasure to be taught by you. I hope you appreciate how each of you has influenced all of us.
Without the support of our families, friends and co-workers we couldn’t have survived the grind of the program. I often think they had the hardest job in the EMBA, particularly those with young children. While we had the support and companionship of our classmates as we navigated the learning challenges and deadlines of the program our families handled all that we didn’t have time for.
Near the end all we cared about was finishing the program so we could go back to our lives with our families and friends. Our appreciation for you has never been stronger.
Finally to the EMBA class of winter 2015,
Thank you to our individual learning team members. You had the biggest influence on us during our Ivey experience. Thank for your friendship and support.
On a personal note, my admiration for all of you will continue to grow. I look forward to seeing your successes in life and in business. I have learned so much from every one of you and you have made me a better person.
I cannot thank you enough.
I would like to end with a quote from Peter Drucker, one of the most influential business thinkers of the 20th century.
“Pick the future as against the past; Focus on opportunity rather than on problem; Choose your own direction—rather than climb on the bandwagon; and Aim high, aim for something that will make a difference, rather than for something that is “safe” and easy to do.”
I would like to raise a toast. To all of you. We did it!!
Footnotes[i] Tony Frost taught us “Global Environment of Business”, a macroeconomic course that was part of the overall 3rd term theme of global business. [ii] Murray Bryant taught us that the obvious problem a business may have is usually related to another element within the business. Although he taught us Managerial Accounting, it wasn’t just accounting; we used more numbers in Marketing than we did in this course. Murray trained us to open our minds to the internal and external forces at paly within a company. The nickname comes from a case where we were determining the value of buying a new wine label machine for a winery. The calculations justified the purchase, but when we discovered that a good wine label can help a winery stand out from the crowd on the shelf we realized that the company couldn’t do without the new labeller. [iii] Murray loves rugby and his native New Zealand All Blacks. He often used the structure of that team as metaphors in how a business should be run. His examples were right on target. [iv] This was the course I feared the most and had one of my lowest marks, but it was the course I might have learned the most from in the EMBA. It raised my awareness of the power of data to influence decisions within a company. Our own business has benefited greatly from this course. [v] If you answered a question from Mark he would keep pushing you with other questions. We used to joke that we would “Tap out” like a MMA fighter when we ran out of answers. It was a great way for us to learn to respond logically and comprehensibly under pressure. [vi] Ajay Gulati would regale us with his life experiences in different industries and countries. It became a running joke in the class that whenever Ajay would answer a question he would involve some career in had in an exotic country. He was one of the most impressive people to me in our class for what he has done with his life from very humble beginnings. [vii] 3 other professors that were attending the dinner.
Simon Parker taught us Entrepreneurship. I hear his voice every time I am tossing around business ideas with friends and colleagues.
Lyn Purdy taught us Leading and Change Management. Both are essential soft skills and Lyn was an excellent professor. She is also Director of the EMBA program.
Tony Frost, as mentioned was our professor for Global Environment of Business.[viii] AS part of Tony’s GEOB class we would work on drawing out demand and supply curves in response to certain pressures in the economy. Essential learning to understand the national and global economies. Fascinating stuff. [ix] https://www.ashanet.org/canada/ [x] http://www.motherteresa.org [xi] Liz is the Director of EMBA Recruitment and Program Services. She graduated from the program a couple of years back so was valuable in guiding and supporting us as we navigated through the program.