Smartly Student Spotlight: Ian Saville

From art teacher to Facebook partner, Ian stresses the importance of finding your “common thread”

Something that most (if not all) Smartly students have in common is the desire to learn. Students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, with interests and expertise in everything from biotechnology, investment banking, and engineering, to start-ups, non-profits, and more. Some of these students, often with an insatiable sense of curiosity, wish to earn a degree in business so that they can transition into a new field. Moving from one industry to another can be difficult, but it goes smoother with the right mindset and guidance. This is the lesson that Smartly Executive MBA student Ian Saville learned and mastered.

Ian has changed career courses multiple times. In high school, he wanted to become a priest, but was also interested in math and physics. So upon entering his freshman year in college, he was set to double major in physics and religion at The University of the South. But, ever in search of a challenge, Ian opted for a major that pushed him out of his comfort zone: art. He realized that math and physics had answers that were too defined. He was drawn to art because there aren’t right or wrong answers, and that openness left room for him to problem solve and figure things out on his own. Upon this realization, he switched majors and completed his B.A. in studio art, and then earned his M.A. in Art Education from Columbia University.

“I think a lot of art making is about problem solving, coming up with unique expressions and novel ideas to address issues,” said Ian. “It’s challenging, and I like challenges.”

Problem solving is a big deal for Ian. It is something that has guided his career, influencing the various jobs he’s pursued. After college, Ian became a middle school art teacher in New York City because he felt it would help promote kids’ ability to problem solve and think critically. While he was passionate about educating kids, he realized that being a teacher wasn’t his true calling.

Ian then went on to become a career coach. He said that he wanted to help people reach that moment where they realize their potential and what they really want to be doing. He believes that if you can think about the underlying concept of why you are passionate about something, then you can find clarity in what you want to do. While he preached this concept to others, Ian realized that he needed to do this himself.

Ian needed to make a change — a big one. The thought of moving into a new industry can be an anxiety-inducing endeavor; there’s always the risk that what you think you want to do, won’t actually pan out in reality. It’s cause for some serious self-discovery and Ian heeded the call. He decided to meet with a mentor of his to find clarity. 

Ian’s mentor helped him recognize that there was one thing connecting all his jobs and interests — a desire to help people grow. Ian originally wanted to be a priest to help people, he became an art teacher to help kids, and he was a career coach to help people improve their lives. This commonality was the beacon Ian needed to figure out his next step.

“I think there’s something about career transitions and pivots where it feels really daunting, but once you understand what that common thread of your work is, it actually makes it a lot easier,” said Ian. “But you really have to do the work and reflect on it to get there.”

This realization may sound simple, but it is not easy to come to. It takes a great deal of patience and focus to truly take an objective look at yourself and figure out your strengths, weaknesses, and passions. Ian did not simply snap his fingers and figure it out.

“It took a lot of screwups,” said Ian. “I had a lot of really bad interviews in that process. It’s not like an overnight ‘aha.’”

Even though Ian had figured out what he wanted to do, he struggled to convey his industry-hopping in a way that was attractive to employers. Ian realized that he had been going about it all wrong, and that he was trying to hide and downplay his teaching experience instead of using it as a strength. He figured out that the main idea of teaching is “taking abstract concepts and turning them concrete.” By reframing his experience in this light, he discovered that his work had quite a few parallels to the tech industry.

It was in this reframing that Ian was able to land a job at Facebook, where he started as a Knowledge Manager before his current position as a Learning and Development Partner. Even at Facebook, Ian continues this idea of improving the way people figure out what’s important, out of an abundance of unnecessary junk, and builds knowledge pipelines to streamline the essential information.

“When we think about learning and development, there’s the need for learning and there’s the solution,” said Ian. “If we could reduce the amount of time between the need and the solution, then we are doing the right work.”

If you’ve been following this blog, you might sense a theme in the people we’ve profiled for Student Spotlights — they are all natural leaders. Ian is no different. In his career advising, he worked with executive-level clientele and learned a great deal about leadership. He believes that the key to being a good leader is consistency; consistent in how they delegate, ask questions, and create inclusive environments where everyone’s voice can be heard. Ian says that leaders need to think about the people they are leading and put themselves in their shoes.

“Be really empathetic to the people you are trying to empower or influence,” said Ian. “What do they want? What’s in it for them? Why should they care about your perspective?” 

Ian also believes that good leaders need to be conscious of what they do and don’t know. It is important to reflect on themselves and think about where they have weaknesses and who under them has strengths in those areas.

“Great leaders have the awareness of knowing what they don’t know and can bring in others quickly to fill the gaps,” said Ian. “A bad leader is someone who holds all of the pieces to themselves and feel as though they need to be in control all of the time.”

Outside of advising others and his work at Facebook, Ian stays occupied by looking for other problems that need solving — in one instance, finding a better way for kids to learn Chinese. So, he and his wife created a children’s music book that teaches Chinese. The idea for the book came from Ian’s wife, Peipei, who was born in Shanghai. She wanted their son to learn the language but they soon realized that it was difficult to find books that teach young children Chinese. Peipei and Ian accepted the challenge and recently published the book, Bao Bao Learns Chinese.

During this process, Ian’s knack (or perhaps, penchant) for problem solving came into play when he and his wife had to figure out a business plan, despite neither of them running a business before. While Peipei was the one who actually created the book, Ian supported her with the business aspects. Even though Ian was a novice in this arena, the business parts of launching this venture went smoothly, thanks to the knowledge he gained in Smartly’s Executive MBA program. Ian said that Smartly helped with the awareness of business principles and decision making needed for the success of the book. Ian and Peipei, who works at Facebook as well, also used their combined knowledge of digital marketing to help launch the book.

Ian leveraging what he learned in Smartly to publish a book is something that reflects Smartly students as a whole — they are driven, self-motivated people who aren’t afraid to tackle new challenges. These students actively seek new opportunities, such as continued learning and switching industries, in their quest to reach their true potential. While transitioning to a new industry may seem scary and difficult, Ian’s talent for navigating complexities and the discovery of his “common thread” allowed him to find his dream job. It’s a story we can all learn from and ask ourselves as we broach any major career change — what’s my common thread?

Ian with his son, Miles

Smartly Student Spotlight: Michael Morales

Smartly’s student body is incredibly diverse, bringing together learners from around the globe and across industries. But for all the unique experiences and perspectives each student brings to their cohort, there are a few defining characteristics that embody what Smartly stands for: the passion to keep learning and the drive to push oneself to the next level. Perhaps no one better embodies this mentality than Air Force veteran and White House Fellow Michael Morales.

Mike’s accomplishments range from mentoring fellow veterans, being a TEDx speaker, and holding a delegate post for an international leadership program. How is one person capable of doing all of this? Mike has an answer: curiosity and work ethic.

Curiosity and work ethic have always been major characteristics that have guided Mike throughout his life. As a child growing up in Puerto Rico, he dreamt of being an astronaut, but in order to be one, he would first have to become a pilot. To do that, he worked extremely hard, taking the SAT starting in the 7th grade and set his sights on attending the United States Air Force Academy. He soon achieved this goal, and at the Academy, Mike earned his B.S. in Legal Studies, but his education did not stop there. His curiosity propelled him to earn more degrees, including an M.S. in Logistics from the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology, a Master of Divinity, a Master of Arts in Religion from Liberty University, and then finally, he earned his Executive MBA from Smartly Institute. Clearly, Mike believes that having a broad knowledge-base is important for a successful career and fulfilling life.

“There’s a lot to be said for cross-discipline approaches to leadership, career, and the way we problem-solve,” said Mike. “I think that by being hyper-focused, we’ve closed off potential avenues of wisdom, intellect, and so on.”

Later in life Mike became a speaker for TEDx in Tysons Corner, VA where he talked about the importance of curiosity. He believes that curiosity is something that can drive people to make the most of themselves and that can also be an antidote for the fast growing epidemic: loneliness. “At the end of the day, curiosity can be a scary thing,” said Mike. “You have to be willing to consistently put yourself out there, and that’s not something that’s easy to do. But it’s worth it.”

After graduating from the Air Force Academy, Mike spent another 20 years serving as an Air Force pilot, flying over 200 airlift missions into Afghanistan and Iraq. He worked his way up, eventually becoming the Commander of the 538th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron in Kabul, Afghanistan where he led a team responsible for developing the fledgling Afghan Air Force. Throughout his multiple positions in the Air Force, Mike learned a great deal about leadership that would carry over into the rest of his career.

This photo took place when Mike was the Commander of the 538th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is standing next to his Afghan Squadron Commander counterpart.

Mike believes that energy, positivity, and work ethic are some of the most important qualities that a leader can have, but he says there’s no one way to becoming a great leader — there’s value in doing things differently and in your own way. In fact, Mike says that some of the best leaders are those who surround themselves with people with diverse strengths, ideas, and perspectives. “In the military, we have this saying: ducks pick ducks,” said Mike. “People pick leaders that look just like them, think just like them, and act just like them. I think if you can be humble and intellectually curious enough to not pick people who are all of those things, pick people who are different than you, which means it might frustrate you, you have a better organization because of it.”

Through the Veterans in Global Leadership program, Mike put his understanding of people and teams to good use by mentoring other veterans. Mentorship is something that is very important to Mike who said, “If I’ve achieved anything of value, I attribute it to two things: work ethic and to the people throughout my life who have given up their time and wisdom to teach me things I wouldn’t have learned on my own.”

He went on to say, “One of the most powerful leadership qualities that any human being could have is intense self-awareness. I think when we’re young, there’s a really great divide between who we think we are and who people see us as. I think as we grow and mature, we realize that the truth is somewhere in between. But mentors help us get to that in-between place much more quickly, because they are giving us that outside perspective.”

Mike went so far as to say that negative feedback is a “gift”, as it is vital to growing in one’s career and becoming a better person. He encourages people to be open to feedback and take it in stride. “If you are one of those people who doesn’t take negative feedback well, then that mentor may never give you that gift again,” said Mike.

Towards the end of his military career, Mike applied to the White House Fellowship and was one of 16 extraordinarily accomplished professionals selected for that prestigious program, where he served as a Senior Advisor to the head of the U.S. Small Business Administration. While there, Mike ran a public-private partnership called the Small Business Technology Coalition, which partnered with 30 tech companies to help small businesses feasibly leverage technology to grow and become more efficient. This initiative held events around the country and reached over a million small businesses in the first year alone.

Mike was also tasked with developing policies to kickstart the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Puerto Rico. At the time, Puerto Rico’s $74B debt crisis made the island a difficult place for entrepreneurs to launch and grow their businesses. Mike worked with the federal and local governments to try to solve this challenge.

Mike’s deep curiosity and desire to expand his horizons led to even more avenues where his abilities could shine. He was a delegate to the United States-Japan Leadership Program, he was selected as a French-American Foundation Young Leader, and he is an advisory board member for The Factual, an organization with the goal of identifying biased news and exposing readers to high quality journalism. All of this he’s done while simultaneously earning his Executive MBA with Smartly. 

Mike’s advice for up-and-coming leaders is simple: “don’t take yourself too seriously.” By having a sense of humility, it allows people to empathize and see situations from another perspective — it helps keep us honest and open to other points of view. Though Mike always tries to remain open-minded, he values the power of having a plan. “Have a plan, figure out where you want to go, and be as detailed about that plan as possible, but also know yourself enough to be willing to deviate from that plan when other opportunities come your way, both forced and voluntary.”

Mike now lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife and his four sons. He recently started a new job at JPMorgan Chase & Co. as an Executive Director in their Performance Consulting practice — yet another station where Mike is fulfilling his innate curiosity, exercising his leadership skills, and using his Smartly Executive MBA education to push himself to the next level.

Smartly Student Spotlight: Amy Dalton

Smartly students are often initially attracted to the program for its flexibility and affordability, but there’s something deeper at play that draws people in — particularly those of a certain mindset. To truly be successful in the program one must be highly self-motivated, disciplined, and passionate about learning new skills. Amy Dalton, a Smartly Executive MBA student and Senior UX Designer at GE Aviation, has these traits in spades. Like many Smartly students and alumni, Amy’s resume credentials are impressive, yet they don’t convey the full scope of the accomplishments she’s had outside of her “standard” job description.

As a UX designer, Dalton has built her career in a male-dominated field and has placed an emphasis on attracting and empowering other women and girls to enter this line of work. Though she’s been met with obstacles in her own career, she has never stopped advocating for herself and others. From public speaking engagements, mentorship, charity work, and founding an award-winning program for GE Women, Dalton’s drive to improve her career prospects and those of others is something worth acknowledging. 

Dalton is from Toledo, Ohio and studied journalism at Ohio University. However, she was more interested in graphic design and after graduating, decided to pursue user experience (UX), eventually leading to her current position with GE. While her inevitable trajectory doesn’t directly apply to the degree she earned, Dalton said that her background in journalism has been incredibly valuable in her career because “communication and the ability to write well is such an important part of any job you have,” and it allows you to come up with ideas and communicate them clearly and succinctly.

This knack for communication is evident in her multiple public speaking engagements. Dalton was a guest speaker at the 2019 GE Women In Science & Engineering Symposium, the keynote speaker at Early Career Women Collective’s Co-Create Live 2019, and a guest speaker at New Orleans’ FrontEndParty. These experiences not only reaffirm Dalton’s ability to command the attention of a room, they are a testament to the value that her words and actions bring to others. In short — her words of wisdom are in high demand. 

Further proving her leadership abilities, Dalton was the recipient of the 2018 GE Women’s Network Empower and Inspire Award, which recognizes women across the 280,000 person company for outstanding work and engagement that supports the Women’s Network (WN). As a Co-Lead for the WN, Dalton is committed to supporting women in STEM fields. 

“I have a passion for bringing more women and girls into technology because it’s always been a struggle to achieve gender parity in the field,” said Dalton. “I’ve been in it my entire career and there are relatively few women in the field — and for those who are in it, there are a unique set of challenges we face everyday.”

Dalton said that getting more women into STEM fields starts early, “it’s about exposure at a young age to spark their interest in it.” This is why she helped start GE Girls Camp, a week-long free STEM camp for 12-14 year-old girls. During the camp, girls learn to code, are introduced to robotics, and can even learn about cybersecurity and other in-demand sectors of the industry. The importance of early involvement serves as a pathway for young women to envision a career that they may not have otherwise pursued. 

Dalton isn’t just working on opening doors for young minds, she also started a program aimed at empowering women in the GE Women’s Network called Bragging Rights. Dalton initially had the idea to start the program after meeting a few of the GE interns. Even though they were just out of high school, they had accomplished amazing things and few people in the company knew much about them. This experience mirrored another observation Dalton had had — too few women spoke up about their accomplishments in the workplace. This had implications for career progression too, as she learned that women are often less likely to seek acknowledgement for their work than men. In fact, men are four times more likely to ask for a raise than women. Bragging Rights became a forum to enable and encourage women to openly and proudly share their accomplishments and challenges in life and in their career. These stories have become powerful sources of validation for those sharing them and inspiration for others involved in the program. Bragging Rights, which started at Dalton’s hub in New Orleans, took off and is now available at nine locations and still expanding. Dalton describes the program as “inexpensive but so effective” in its ability to provide women with the opportunity to grow their confidence and learn about each other.

“I think a lot of times women feel isolated and don’t have the natural tendency to put themselves out there as much,” said Dalton. “If we as women band together and understand each other’s skill sets, then we can help each other get promoted and put each other out there. We’re more likely to give kudos and talk about the person sitting next to us, than talk about ourselves. We’re more likely to lift that person up than lift ourselves up.”

Dalton is a natural leader. Prior to working at GE, she spent six years working at Ochsner Health System, where she held a management position for three years. While in this role, Dalton received the highest “employee engagement” score, a figure determined by how her direct reports rated her as a manager. Dalton received a score 20 points higher than the next highest score.

The key to Dalton’s successful management style? A more personal approach. She wanted to learn about the people she managed as much as possible, identifying their strengths and weaknesses. “If you spend enough time getting to know people and listening, really listening, you’re going to understand them enough to guide them,” said Dalton. “I focus so much attention on helping them be better at their jobs.”

This ability to listen, empathize, and understand others is perhaps one reason why Dalton is such a talented UX designer.  “When you understand things from the user perspective and you put importance on that, that’s when your product is going to be successful,” said Dalton. “When I’ve had an awesome product owner, it’s because they put the person first and understood the value of UX.”

In her senior leadership role, Dalton emphasized the need for executives to have, at a minimum, a basic understanding of UX and design. In our digitally-driven world, having the ability to view and build online experiences from the perspective of the customer is essential. Being well-versed across disciplines is one reason Dalton decided to pursue an Executive MBA with Smartly. By adding business acumen to her technical expertise, Dalton is positioning herself to take on bigger roles and broaden her invaluable influence on her organization — and if past experiences are any indication, she’s more than ready to take on whatever is next.

A flexible course schedule is something that initially attracted Dalton to Smartly as it allows her to spend more time with her two children.

Smartly MBA Student James Lu Morrissey on Higher Education and Making Forbes 30 Under 30 List

We sat down with 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient–and Smartly MBA student–James Lu Morrissey to discuss co-founding Mentor Collective, learning with Smartly, and disrupting the world of higher education.

Smartly learners tend to reflect the platform itself: innovative, disruptive, and equipped with a global scope. Those are just a few of the qualities that have led to three Smartly learners being named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 lists in the past two years.

James Lu Morrissey (MBA – August 2018) is a perfect example of this. Lu Morrissey’s personal experiences with international education inspired him to found his company Mentor Collective, an international online mentoring community. Lu Morrissey was born in the United States, but he attended elementary school for a couple years in Taiwan. Moving to a new school can be difficult for any child; moving to a new school in a new country is even more challenging.

Adjusting in school was made easier, however, by joining the school’s sports teams. There, he was mentored by his older teammates, who eased his transition and helped him find his place. At a young age, he began to understand that mentorship was critical to adjusting to and excelling in a new environment.

He also recognized the need for peer mentorship as an undergraduate student at Carleton College. He had several friends from international and diverse backgrounds, and he noticed that many of them had difficulty adjusting to college. There wasn’t always a clear structure like a track team with teammates that could mentor them.

“When adjusting to college, all students are a stranger in a strange land,” Lu Morrissey reflected. “You might be coming from Minnesota to go to NYU. That’s a very foreign experience.”

A lack of personalized support for college students is one of the factors contributing to a college completion crisis, particularly at public universities. According to Forbes, less than 60 percent of students graduate from public institutions in six years or less. Rising tuition and student loan debt coupled with the increasing necessity of a college degree for career advancement, often puts students who do not graduate at a serious disadvantage.

To solve this problem, Lu Morrissey and colleague Jackson Boyer co-founded Mentor Collective. Mentor Collective uses scaleable and transformative mentoring, through a format supported by technology and designed for large-scale application. Mentor Collective achieves this by matching students to mentors who have a similar background.

To that end, Mentor Collective has developed partnerships with more than 50 universities, including Penn State, Johns Hopkins, and Washington University in St. Louis. Through these partnerships, they’ve mentored over 35,000 students, resulting in an up to 9% increase in retention rates and 5x decreased likelihood of academic probation.

Working towards these results has certainly kept Lu Morrissey busy, but he has still found time to pursue a Smartly MBA. While residential MBA programs have a high opportunity cost, Smartly made it possible for Lu Morrissey to “continue running my company day-to-day, while having a flexible option to learn at my own pace.”

Furthermore, Lu Morrissey has found Smartly’s courses are directly applicable to running Mentor Collective. “I can complete a lesson, take what I’ve learned, and use it the very next day at Mentor Collective.”

Lu Morrissey also appreciates the flexibility and global perspective that Smartly offers. He tries to work overseas for two to three weeks every winter, and, with Smartly’s online platform, he doesn’t have to disrupt his learning schedule to travel. “I can do Smartly while traveling in Shanghai and not have any problems with time differences.”

Lu Morrissey also sees both Smartly and Mentor Collective as helping students receive the full value of higher education. Universities, with “massive endowments and very strong brands,” may not feel the urgency or need to innovate “in the same way as many other industries,” Lu Morrissey noted. “And that can come at a big cost to students. If a school is not making an impact on students’ lives, then it’s not fulfilling its promise.”

Like Smartly, Mentor Collective’s team is passionate about the students they reach. Lu Morrissey attributes Mentor Collective’s success rates in large part to his 24 Boston-based employees. Noting that his team is interested in social impact, he emphasized that “something unique happens when you collect a lot of very mission-driven, hungry learners and put them all in the same room.”

Today’s Inspiration from T.H. White

“Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

― White, T.H., The Once and Future King. New York: Putnam, 1958.

Embed from Getty Images

Learning Game Trees and Forgetting Wrong Paths

This is the second of two blog posts delineating the pedagogical approach of Herb Simon, the man credited with inventing the field of artificial intelligence, for which he won a Turing award in 1975. (Read the first post here.) Simon was a polyglot social scientist, computer scientist and economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University, He later won the Nobel Prize in 1978 in economics for his work in organizational decision-making.

Game Tree
Tic Tac Toe Game Tree, Gdr from Wikimedia Commons

Dr Simon would often tell his students that he liked to think about human learning as a game tree: when you start out learning about a new topic, you begin at the root of the tree with what you already know, and follow connections to related topics, discovering new “nodes” in the tree. You employ a variety of search strategies to follow connections both broadly and deeply through related topics, loading as much of the explorable tree into memory as possible. As you discover and master each “node” on the tree, you learn which branches of the tree are fruitful and which are fruitless.

During and after exploration though, the entire game tree remains in your working memory, slowing you down. When you take breaks, not only are you relaxing, but you are also forgetting wrong paths – pruning those fruitless branches from your working memory. When you next return to the task at hand, you resume exploring connections and mastering concepts not at the very top of the tree, but in the most fruitful subtrees where you left off, making better use of your working memory.

At Pedago, we believe in learning by doing, and we want to break complex topics and concepts down into what Seymour Papert in the book Mindstorms calls “mind-sized bites.” One of the benefits of breaking complicated topics into “bites” is that it is easier to build learning content that learners can work through when they only have a few minutes free, on whatever device they have on hand.

As we build our database of short concepts and lessons, we find ourselves also building a rich tree structure of topic relation metadata that in structure is not unlike Simon’s game tree of learning. A nice side-effect of a learning solution with rich, encapsulated, short lessons is that you don’t have to commit to a thirty minute video – you can learn in bits and pieces throughout your day. And by doing this, you are unintentionally building and then pruning your learning game tree in an efficient way, forgetting wrong paths and making the best use of your working memory each time you return to your lessons.