Families celebrate as Berkeley MBA for Executives toss caps

EMBA 2017 commencements
Dean Lyons with valedictorian John Illia and daughter, Nicole. All photos: Jim Block

The close-knit 2017 Berkeley MBA for Executives class came together for commencement last Saturday, celebrating their achievements and acknowledging the program’s life-changing impact.

About 400 people attended the ceremony for the 68 graduating students at UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall.

“The way you have come together as a group, as a team, really, is nothing short of extraordinary,” said Dean Rich Lyons, in his welcoming remarks. “Your class is leaving its mark on our institution, and contributing to the experiences of those who come after you. You set the standard.”

Learning from failure

Commencement keynote speaker Karesha McGee, BCEMBA 12, and head of global corporate communications at Slack, reminded the students that graduation, while an extraordinary achievement, is just a beginning.

Commencement keynote speaker Karesha McGee, BCEMBA 12
Commencement keynote speaker Karesha McGee, BCEMBA 12

McGee shared a story of how being laid off from a job within her first year of graduating from her MBA program taught her to learn from the failure and choose a path of continuous growth.

“By looking inward and reflecting on all of the challenges, but also the strengths that I sharpened here in school, I recognized that my stalk—and that’s S-T-A-L-K—and my roots, my vine, was so much stronger than I had ever imagined,” McGee said.

During the 19-month program the students, who are often well along in their careers, engaged in five field immersions in locations that range from Silicon Valley to Washington, D.C. to Singapore.

Students noted that a classmate’s tragedy brought the group closer together during the program. Members of the EMBA Class of 2017 established the Sanaya Shah Memorial Fund after the passing of Sanaya Shah, the daughter of their fellow classmate Sumit Shah and his wife, Astha Shah. Sanaya was born prematurely and passed away after just 52 days due to complications from prematurity and a rare heart condition.

With 100 percent participation by the class, the record $145,000 raised for the fund will provide seed grants to underrepresented minority students at Haas, or for students starting companies with social impact.

“For 19 months we have struggled together, we have overcome together,” said class president Eli Andrews. “To all of you who have helped shape who we are, to all of you who have taught us, to all of you who have cared so deeply for our development, thank you for helping us to develop the unique value that we have to bring to this world.”

Watch the EMBA commencement video

From ‘they do that’ to ‘I do that”

Class valedictorian John Illia reflected on the diversity of the class, and shared his experience of bonding with classmates who at first seemed to have little more in common than a desire for a master’s degree. “This is a group of people focused on collaboration, not competition,” Illia said. “During this program, I witnessed 68 individuals who approach the world and each other with respect, compassion and empathy. I could not be more proud to be part of this family.”

Maura O'Neill, Cheit Award winner
Distinguished Teaching Fellow and Cheit Award winner Maura O’Neill

Dean Lyons spoke of the transformation students undergo while in the program. “You came in thinking ‘They do that’ and you walk out of this place thinking ‘I do that,’ ” Lyons said. “These transformations are possible because of how and what you’ve learned here about leadership. In short, you’ve become Berkeley Leaders.”

And the awards go to…..

The day’s awards included the Earl F. Cheit Award for excellence in teaching, which Distinguished Teaching Fellow Maura O’Neill received for the third year in a row. O’Neill, the former Chief Innovation Officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development, has organized and led the Washington DC Immersion Week for EMBA students for the past two years.

“She does more than connect people, she invests and takes pride in them,” said Jay Stowsky, Senior Assistant Dean for Instruction.

Jenny Petersen, Tansy Brook, Chijioke Emenike
(L-R) Jenny Petersen, Tansy Brook, & Chijioke Emenike, EMBA 17s

The award for Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) was given to Veselina Dinova for her support in Financial Accounting, one of the first classes the EMBA students take.

The Defining Principles Awards: (presented by Jamie Breen, Assistant Dean of MBA Programs for Working Professionals, and Emma Hayes-Daftary, Director of Academics and Student Experience)

Question the Status Quo and Confidence without Attitude: Tansy Brook.

Students Always: Chien-Hsin Lee.

Beyond Yourself: Sonali Patel.

Fifth Principle Award: Hallie Higbee and valedictorian John Illia.Teddy bears were handout out at the reception

After the ceremony, students celebrated at a reception held at Haas. Dean Lyons capped off the evening with an acoustic guitar performance, and O’Neill toasted the group.

Graduates acknowledged the sacrifice that their partners and, in some cases, their children made during the program, and presented the children with teddy bears and the adults with long stemmed red roses.