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Destined for Leadership: From Activist to MBA

Cristy Johnston Limon, executive director of Destiny Arts (all photos by Noah Berger)

When Cristy Johnston-Limón was hired as executive director of Oakland’s Destiny Arts Center in 2011, the nonprofit was facing eviction from its shared space at a local charter school.

For more than 25 years, the respected center had offered classes—from hip hop to kung fu to karate—to thousands of kids, encouraging violence prevention through the performing arts.

But its future was in jeopardy.

The board had shied away from a plan to purchase and build out an 8,000-square-foot warehouse in North Oakland: with just enough money for a down payment on a new building, some directors and advisors were worried about crushing loan payments.

Even before her first official day on the job, Johnston-Limón began scouting sites. “After touring more than 50 potential sites, I knew this one was it and I did everything in my power to make it happen,” Johnston-Limón said.

It was a tough sell, but Johnston-Limón, EMBA 16, didn’t give up. The daughter of Guatemalan immigrants who grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District, Johnston-Limón has always figured out how to navigate life’s challenges—as a teenager turning away from gangs, as a young urban neighborhood activist, as a first-generation college student at UC Berkeley, and now as a student in the Berkeley MBA for Executives Program.

Working with Destiny Arts board member David Riemer, Johnston- Limón met repeatedly with the the board, listened to what they had to say and calmly countered every argument against the building plan. “We kept laying brick after brick after brick,” until the skeptics got the reassurance they needed, says Riemer, an Executive-in-Residence at Berkeley-Haas. “Cristy is a leader with an incredible combination of confidence, ambition, passion, and vision.”

By 2013, Destiny Arts had moved into the new center, which boasts high ceilings; clean, bright studios; peace murals; a black box theater; and meeting spaces.

“A few nerves”

As an EMBA student, Johnston-Limón is working to gain the business skills required to ensure Destiny Arts Center’s future in a nonprofit environment increasingly focused on ROI.

She admits to having had a few nerves when she arrived at Berkeley-Haas last year. In particular, she worried that, for all her strengths in communication and leadership, she didn’t have the quantitative skills required to keep up. She also learned, on her first day, that she was the only Latina and the only head of a nonprofit in her cohort of 69 students.

A natural bridge-builder, she responded by becoming the first vice president of diversity for the EMBA Program, working closely with administrators and peers in the full-time MBA program on plans to foster more inclusion within the student body and faculty.

“Cristy brings an intense focus on diversity to her fellow students and the program overall,” says Jamie Breen, Assistant Dean of the EMBA program. ‘She has taken a leading role, working with other diversity leaders at Haas to ensure we provide our students with the skills required to lead diverse workforces and find and develop talent.”

Johnston-Limón, who is 39 and the mother of a 2-year-old daughter, never shies away from discussing issues of social justice. In July, while sitting at a local pub with classmates after a long day of EMBA classes, news broke of the shooting of five white police officers in Dallas, the latest shock in a summer of extraordinary race-based violence nationwide.

Johnston-Limón immediately started engaging her group in a discussion about the events, sharing her insights as a leader on the front lines.

“When I see an opportunity to help people talk about and understand the issues around diversity in a way that’s useful and productive, I grab it,” she says.

Before she graduates in December, Johnston-Limón plans to host a voluntary training on how unconscious bias deters inclusion and gets in the way of great decisions. Partly because of her efforts, the curriculum for incoming EMBA students in the fall included bias workshops.

From “super nerd” to activist

Johnston-Limón was an overachiever early in life.

As a kid growing up in San Francisco’s Mission District, she was a star student who turned to music to escape gang life, domestic troubles, and the trauma of eviction notices as rents skyrocketed. A self-described “super nerd,” she walked to the bus stop with a cello strapped to her back for the cross-city ride to a school in a better neighborhood.

The weekly staff meeting at Destiny Arts Center

As a teen, she felt pressure to join a gang, and even dropped out of high school at one point. But her cello—and her passion for learning—kept her on track.

At 19, she joined angry street protests against The Mission’s gentrification that was pushing out longtime residents.

Even then, she says she sensed that dialogue instead of violent confrontation was the answer and that desire for peaceful justice propelled her to major in political science at UC Berkeley.

A post-graduation year as a legislative aide in Sacramento led her to return to San Francisco to work on a pilot program aiming to revitalize one of the city’s struggling neighborhoods: the Excelsior District.

For her work, she received a national community leadership award for the pilot program, which has since become a citywide initiative for transforming local San Francisco neighborhoods.

Working to create opportunities

Johnston-Limón’s younger brother, Jon, hasn’t fared as well over the years.

He joined a Mission District gang and, after several drug-related infractions, is serving a 15-year prison sentence, she said. “My brother didn’t have the opportunities I did,” she says, tearfully. “Having my best friend in prison has been a motivating factor in my work with youth, advocacy work, and our programs that serve incarcerated youth, which I’ve expanded while at Destiny Arts Center.”

At Destiny, which is an acronym for “De-Escalation Skills Training Inspiring Nonviolence in Youth,” Johnston-Limón works to create new opportunities for kids in a city impacted by high drop-out rates and violence. Over the last five years, she has more than doubled the number of children served by boosting Destiny Arts’ operating budget from $800,000 to $3 million. More than 4,000 students—ranging from age three to 24—now choose from 800 classes annually.

Meantime, at Berkeley-Haas, Johnston-Limón and classmate Alejandro Maldonado are developing an app that aims to help teaching artists connect to parents looking for activities for their kids.

“One reason I love having her as a co-founder is because, even when things don’t go perfectly, she’ll manage to turn them around,” Maldonado says.

For Johnston-Limón problem-solving at work and in her community is about building upon what she’s learned throughout her life. It may sound hokey, she jokes, but she’s hoping to inspire a desire to build a better world in her classmates, too.

“I’m striving for the children we serve to ensure they have safe, inclusive spaces to thrive,” she says. “I’m striving to create the kind of world where everyone feels valued, included, and loved. Who doesn’t want that?”



Berkeley MBA for Executives Class Dives into Applied Innovation

On a Wednesday morning, a group of five MBA for Executives students in the conference room at Grace Cathedral are discussing what people hate—and love—about their commutes.

Johanna Liu, MBA 15, (center), grabs a marker and starts sketching the circles and lines of a diagram that help her group to visually organize information. It’s called mind mapping, and the ultimate goal is to help her team capture messy data so it can generate dozens of ideas that apply to commuting—by car, train, van pool, bus or motorcycle.

The 69 students are just starting the EMBA Program’s Applied Innovation Week and the room is buzzing. Held April 14-18 in San Francisco, the week combines consumer-focused design coursework, visits to some of the hottest local design firms, talks by top corporate innovation leaders, and the creation of a business model canvas to deepen the students’ understanding of innovation in their own organizations.

Led by Haas Senior Lecturer Sara Beckman, (below), Applied Innovation Week is one the five EMBA field immersions, all with a special industry or curricular focus. The week immerses students in the mindset, skillset, and toolset associated with innovative thinking. Her core-curriculum course, Problem Finding, Problem Solving (PFPS), teaches students how to collaborate effectively, open up problems, and find more innovative solutions.

“It’s a challenging process, but after this week the students should leave with an understanding of a new framework for innovation and problem solving that they can apply in their own workplaces,” she says.

Immersion Goes Global

The Class of 2015 completed its first immersion week in Napa Valley, centering on Leadership Communications with Haas Lecturer Mark Rittenberg, and then in Silicon Valley,  focusing on entrepreneurship with Prof. Toby Stuart. Students will travel to Brazil in August for a week led by Haas Lecturer Flavio Feferman, and to Washington DC in December, for a week led by Prof. Laura Tyson.

“EMBA’s field immersions are designed to be transformative,” says Assistant Dean and EMBA Executive Director Mike Rielly. “We go deep, immersing the class in new experiences and curriculum, and connecting them to industry leaders, influential CEOs, policy-makers, entrepreneurs, and business leaders who often become part of their lifelong networks.”

The Frontier of Design

The San Francisco Applied Innovation Week kicked off in downtown San Francisco Tuesday night, with an event at Autodesk Gallery featuring Bill O’Connor founder of the Autodesk Innovation Genome Project—a study of 2.6 million years of innovations that looks for patterns to distill innovation to its essence.

The week also included visits to SF design firms  Cooper, frog, IDEO, and Lunar, and a meeting with local corporate innovation lab leaders who are members of the Berkeley Roundtable on Applied Innovation and Design (BRAID).  Students also participated in a storytelling session with Haas Executive-in-Residence David Riemer and a session on leading innovation in organizations with Haas Executive-in-Residence Barbara Waugh.

How Might We….?

Back at Grace Cathedral Wednesday, students are huddled around tables in small groups. Marymoore Patterson, BCEMBA 10, who spent more than 20 years in customer research with Panasonic, is moving about the room, assisting Beckman with the student commuting exercise.

The students have come prepared—armed with research on commuting-related topics ranging from which towns and cities have the worst roads, to rising incidents of road rage, to the percentage of commuters who ride to work alone. They’ve also interviewed people about their commuting experiences—highlighting safety, traffic, convenience, and affordability issues as well as the emotional responses, positive and negative, people have to their commutes.
Each student has two minutes to tell a story from those interviews. Liu, director of pharmacy at Santa Clara Family Health Plan, says her subject “basically hates BART. If there’s no parking spot when he shows up at BART he has to go home and email his boss that he’s telecommuting.” Liu said the man was once stuck for hours in a dark tunnel without cell phone service after BART broke down. Ryan Evans, an Air Force reserve pilot, discussed the pros and cons of using a free van pool with a commuter. It’s free and safe, Evans said, but the downside is “you give up time for money because you have to stop and pick up people in the van pool.”

Getting to Insights
By lunch, the group’s mind map is done and Post-its featuring dozens of ideas are stuck in rows next to the map. (“Road rage incidents are on the rise!” “West Coast cities have some of the worst roads in the world.” “Over 75 percent of the commuters drive by themselves.”)

Christine Elfalan, EMBA 15 and head of product at The Bouqs Company, an online flower retailer, is nudging the group forward, trying to narrow the information down and complete Beckman’s key question, which she uses in all of her exercises to move from insights to concept generation: How might we…?

“The objective for the morning is to get to that insight, working with a specific framework around commuting,” Beckman said. “How might we reduce the stress for commuters, how might we help commuters connect with their commuters while commuting?”

The team weighs three potential ideas from each member. With two minutes to deadline, they quickly votes and come up with winning ideas: “save time” and “relax.” Their question: how might we save time and relax while commuting?

For their final project, the class will apply the day’s innovation process to one aspect of their jobs. On Thursday and Friday, the class, assisted by Haas lecturer David Charron, used the same process to help students innovate new business models for their own organizations.

The innovation work proved more difficult than expected, said Ryan Blood, EMBA 15, who works with a Seattle-based energy company.  “I have to solve problems at my job but I don’t think of myself as an innovator,” he said. “But even though it’s not my usual role, I’m discovering that I can learn to innovate.”

– Sara Beckman photo by Lucky Sandhu


First Berkeley Executive MBA Class Graduates

Honors, accolades, and a musical performance by Haas Dean Rich Lyons marked the historic graduation last Saturday of the first 68 students in the inaugural Berkeley MBA for Executives (EMBA) program.

Approximately 500 people attended the graduation ceremony at Wheeler Auditorium, which was followed by a reception at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley.

The graduating students are the first to complete the Berkeley MBA for Executives Program, which launched after Berkeley-Haas and the Columbia Business School agreed to end their joint program in 2013.

“There’s something special about a first, as was the case with our first class of EMBA students,” said Mike Rielly, assistant dean and executive director of the EMBA program. “As a group, they were incredible pioneers for the program. And they had a phenomenal 19 months together, inside and outside of the classroom.”

This group is the first to experience the Haas School’s unique brand of experiential learning, which comprises 25 percent of the curriculum. At the heart of this new EMBA format are five immersive learning experiences led by Haas faculty on location: leadership communications in Napa Valley, entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley, applied innovation in San Francisco, business and policy in Washington DC, and innovative pricing in Shanghai.

An “Amazing Experience

At graduation, Kevin Brown, MBA 96, CEO and founder of startup Innit, and an Inktomi co-founder, delivered the commencement address. Brown encouraged the new graduates to stay connected with each other and with Berkeley-Haas, advice which he said has served him well.

Laura Adint (pictured) was class valedictorian. “It was an amazing experience from the first day all the way through the graduation celebration,” she said. “I am thankful it won’t end at graduation, as I have made lifelong friends in the program. “


As student commencement speaker, Tony Stobbe drew from his years of experience working as captain of a U.S. Coast Guard ship in Alaska. He noted the parallels between surviving a shipwreck and succeeding in life, concluding that success relies on our mindset and the people we choose to accompany us on our journey.

“The beauty, the wonder, and the vibrancy of life are found by those who bravely venture out there,” he said. “And when you do set sail, be ready, have a survivor’s mindset, be ever vigilant for mediocrity, and draw inspiration, strength, and support from those around you.”

Prof. Toby Stuart received the Earl F. Cheit Award For Excellence In Teaching for his instruction, for setting the bar for experiential learning, and for the profound effect he has had on the EMBA program and its students.

The ceremony included Haas’ Defining Principles Awards, which went to Greg Durkin (Question the Status Quo), Scott Robertson and Peter Yang (Confidence Without Attitude), Laura Adint (Students Always), and Carmen Palafox (Beyond Yourself).  An award unique to EMBA, The 5th Principle, went to Luke Johnson, for embodying all four defining principles and for always choosing graciousness.

At the dinner, Stuart toasted the students to get the evening started. Dean Lyons also took the stage with his guitar, singing special lyrics he adapted for the grads to the tune of a Counting Crows song.

Thanks and teddy bears

Four EMBA students then thanked “all of the children who allowed their parents to be away for a fair amount of time these last 19 months, as well as the partners, spouses and family members, who were pillars of support,” Rielly says. The children received Cal teddy bears and the family members roses.EMBA kids

The dinner finished with a video, which captured the essence of the students’ time together.

Joe Inkenbrandt, EMBA 14, a former engineer for a semiconductor company, said the program was transformative.  “By the end of the Silicon Valley Immersion Week, I was convinced I could found a company and that it was completely doable,” says Inkenbrandt, who went on to co-found Indentify3D with Stephan Thomas, a guest speaker at one of his Haas classes.

Lasting relationships are an integral component of the EMBA program. “There is a sense of community that develops within each of our cohorts,” Rielly said. “Of course, this inaugural class developed important business and leadership tools.  They are also graduating with deep friendships that will provide both personal and professional support for the rest of their lives.”