Executives from Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Mars Challenge Immersion Students
Finding actionable goals within complex global systems
Among the seven top executives leading this week’s Industry Immersions, one message was clear: When navigating a complex system with a broad global reach, find the niche that’s unique to your own expertise and passion.
This was sage career advice from those speakers hailing from multinational corporations. It was also a call for taking action on grand challenges like the impact of climate change in food systems or introducing sustainability to massive server farms.
To succeed, they told the students: Understand specifically where within the existing framework that you and your company can make the most impact.
Intersection of Business and Environmental Sustainability
As Global R&D Officer for Coca-Cola Co., Nancy Quan works for a brand dating back to the Industrial Revolution and with products found on the shelves in all but two countries around the world. With a company this large and a product so well established, finding room to innovate can be difficult.
Quan explains to the students in the Food and Ag Industry Immersion how her team focused on targeted initiatives to tackle greater sustainability goals. They developed partially plant-based disposable water bottles for Dasani and leveraged Coca-Cola’s scale to work closely with smallholder farmers in developing countries to sustainably source their products. They trained mango farmers on how to get much more yield from their crops, benefiting the growers, the company and the environment.
Ralph Jerome, vice president of innovation at Mars, Incorporated, worked closely with Quan during her earlier years at Mars. His advice for students in the course is to understand the difference between individual problems versus the larger systems failures driving those issues.
“You need to lift yourself 50 feet up and see the entire playing field,” says Jerome. “Where are the weakest links and how can you assemble them in a way that have impact?”
Robert Bernard, Microsoft’s chief strategist for the environment and cities, champions a similar approach when talking to the Sustainable Energy Industry Immersion class.
Sustainability, Bernard says, is no longer segmented to a wing of the company, but dispersed throughout departments and activities. In his role, Bernard applies the technological might of Microsoft to the biggest environmental challenges facing the planet.
“My job is to think about the intersection of two worlds,” says Bernard, in posing both a case study for the class and Microsoft’s latest initiative with environment and innovation. “The first is the Anthropocene and the world that’s changing all around us and the second is the Age of AI.”
Like “a Bridge Still Being Built”
Glenn Nedwin, CEO and president of Second Genome, compares building a startup in a rapidly changing industry landscape to driving a racecar across a bridge still being built.
“You are going at light speed and you’ve just got to make things happen fast,” he says to the Biotechnology Industry Immersion class. “It’s exhilarating, but it’s not for the faint of heart.”
Nedwin is just as excited about his work as he is with his rock band “of nerdy scientists” that he’s been playing with for 26 years. His advice for the students is to follow what they’re passionate about.
In the CFO for Technology Industry Immersion, students gained insights into the career journey of Mike Kourey, CFO for Medallia, Inc.
“There is no one path, no right answer,” says Kourey. “Everyone has a zig-zag path in their career.”
Kourey served on the Graduate School of Management’s Dean’s Advisory Council when students adopted their first-ever ethics pledge. At times when he had to resist succumbing to internal pressures as CFO, Kourey took the pledge to heart: “‘Stand like a rock in the river’—that just cannot be more true,” he says.
David Hedin instead tracked the river’s current from the safety of the riverbank when he and his wife began their biotech startup. His company, Expression Systems, provides technology to big pharma companies, small biotech businesses and academic institutions like UC Davis. Yet he likens his experience to the Gold Rush days.
“I’m just the shopkeeper selling the picks and shovels and Levis that enable the goldminers to go out and prospect,” he says to the Biotechnology Immersion class. “The goldminers are doing the high-risk, high-reward activities. They’re going to make a ton of money if they’re able to.”
Speaking of a prospect of a different kind, Xu Jing explains how she came directly from China to attend the Biotechnology Industry Immersion just the day before. Jing is excited to be able to sit in on the lectures as the next step in her application process to be an MBA student.
“This study method is totally different from China,” MBA prospect Xu Jing says of the Immersion format. “And it’s a great opportunity to participate in the class.”
With a much shorter journey, from the UC Davis College of Engineering, postdoctoral researcher Sara Pace has been taking the Food and Ag Immersion as a chance to see what some of the businesses in this industry are doing regarding food waste, the subject of her research. Pace discovered the class as a Business Development Fellow at the Graduate School of Management.
She says one of the most impactful insights for her in the course has been the idea that AGR Partners CEO Ejnar Knudsen spoke of the week before on finding the “truth.” Pace now aims to take a step back to think about the overall need regarding food waste and to make sure her work is “hitting the full truth” to ensure a lasting impact.
“It’s great to see so much energy from the students and that they’re interested in what we have to say,” says Coca-Cola’s Quan. “Being able to share our challenges, as well as the things we need help with, is really exciting.”