My name is Alex Cashman-Rolls. I currently serve as one of the directors of an emerging international nonprofit, RAKlife, which is based in California. Prior to this, I spent 11 years serving in various operations leadership positions in the mortgage banking industry. I have become convinced that of all the purposes a business can have, the very best purpose is to drive the prosperity of a community.
Business school had long been on my list of possibilities. I knew for many years that I wanted to go to business school: I’ve always had a very profound desire to learn and thoroughly understand things and I believe in the value of the curated approach to learning offered in an academic environment. But it was just 10 months ago that my plans and goals happened to evolve in a way such that the expense of business school was justified by how it would improve my ability to serve my mission, both in my career and otherwise.
Like most kids who grew up in Rochester, I always had a sense of RIT as one of the higher education powerhouses in the region. And in the 18 years since graduating from high school and leaving Rochester, I crossed paths with enough colleagues, friends, and acquaintances around the United States and the world who knew of RIT, to get a sense of the very high regard commanded by its reputation for innovation and its trademark co-op “applied approach” to education. Location was not one of my considerations as I began building a list of schools to consider – a standard executive MBA format makes it possible to commute anywhere in the country once or twice a month to attend class. But as I began sending out my resume to be screened by executive MBA programs around the country, it felt only natural to include some hometown options especially given that their names kept coming up everywhere life had taken me.
Over the span of a few months I sent my resume to be screened by 9 EMBA programs coast to coast. I was delighted to receive a warm welcome and invitation from all 9 to visit classes, develop a relationship with the admissions team, and begin the application process. My initial interaction with the staff and directors at Saunders was the first thing that stood out to me about RIT. They spoke about their program in terms of a “transformation.” I couldn’t pinpoint it at first but there was a subtle, self-assured, very sharp sense about their communication which conveyed that there was no limit to what their students could achieve in this world. I’ve made enough good (and bad) choices in my professional endeavors to know when I’m dealing with someone who is really, really good at what they do, so I took the next step and visited a class. The quality of the instruction and caliber of the student cohort surpassed many of the other schools I was considering and rivaled the rest. Throw in a unique, distinguished, and just plain likeable culture, the accelerated format, a range of international ties that was especially appealing to me, and the commitment to “high-touch” (personal attention) and faculty interest in my success, and the result was a very specific combination of features I didn’t see at the other 8 schools. I still had one big question: would my cohort be as good as the class I visited as a prospect? There was only one way to find out. I sent in my deposit, blocked off my schedule, and headed off to 3 days of orientation, resolving that just like with any other venture in life if I wasn’t fully satisfied it wasn’t irreversible. My commute to campus on the first morning of orientation would be the last time those thoughts passed through my mind.
The first day of orientation began with a welcome breakfast. I hadn’t even made it into room before I began connecting with new classmates in the hallway, made quick introductions, and had a few laughs. Not the cautious, cliché laughter one might expect in an orientation setting. I mean the clever, hearty laughter that arises when you bring together several enthusiastic, intelligent strangers who are exactly where they want to be. Once in my seat, I looked around and saw that this room was on FIRE. It was as if none of us could build all of these new relationships fast enough. A quick introductory speech from the program director once again reassured us of just how carefully the staff and faculty would be monitoring and supporting our growth and satisfaction. We introduced ourselves to the group and ran through some quick icebreakers at our individual tables. Everyone was comfortable and energized and the day was well under way.
We continued to interact and connect on the fly while program faculty and staff guided us through tech set up, lunch, and portraits. By now I’d spoken to almost everyone in our cohort. It was clear that everyone was here with very deliberate goals and intentions but also understood what a big part our classmates would play in helping us reach our goals. In this program you’re not going to memorize definitions and formulas and then prove it by reproducing them from memory on a proctored exam. You’re going to participate in discussions guided by an instructor who will lead you to a profound understanding of what a concept means and why it matters, then show you how it is used by executives in their work and set you loose with your team to stumble through applying the concept(s) while solving a real problem, and then another, and another, and so forth. The importance of the group cannot be overstated.
We learned who our assigned teammates would be for the duration of the program (the class is broken into several project teams of 3-4 people), hustled through some quick teambuilding exercises, and sat down for part one of a two-part course in Business Ethics taught by Bob Barbato. This is when I first knew I was here to stay. As class went on and I listened to the comments and questions offered by my classmates I knew that I was in the presence of top minds. This cohort had turned out to be exactly what I wanted it to be. I knew I was going to experience immense growth, enjoyment, and transformation while I learned from these peers and faculty for the next 15 months. At one point I thought to myself “what if I hadn’t made the choice to come here? What if I had missed out on this?” This thought was quickly followed by feelings of great fortune, combined with a touch of sorrow – because I loved it here and I could only stay for 15 months!
The second day began with another breakfast. A new degree of familiarity existed this morning such that we felt as if we had known each other much longer than 24 hours. The day kicked off with an introduction to written communications from Pat Scanlon, the writing coach who supports the EMBA program. Concision was the main message here. This was a relief to most of us: no verbose, stylistic, 100-page academic research paper writing like during our undergrad days. Next was another hour with Marty to introduce MyCourses, the online portal on which all of the information, resources, and syllabi are housed for each course as well as Zoom, the smooth and seamless video conference platform used for the online class we’ll take each semester.
We chatted amongst ourselves while we walked to the library where we met business librarian Jennifer Freer and all agreed that we want some of whatever coffee she’s drinking! Jen’s energy, clarity, and enthusiasm make you excited about research and leave you feeling assured that she is there to guide you through any changes in the technology-based research landscape that have occurred since whenever you went to college. Later Marty and Jeff Davis spoke to us about presentation skills. I see presenting as the most influential way to convey a message in business and beyond, so I was excited to hear that we will constantly be presenting, practicing, and improving for the next 15 months.
Lunch flew by. Then Marty reviewed the formal academic policies with us and lecturer and leadership professor Molly McGowan met with us to unpack the results of our DISC evaluations. Everyone was glued to their screens for this part. There is something very fulfilling about having new ways to articulate our own strengths and weaknesses, and the value of having insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the folks you’re about to work with so closely for the next 15 months is implicit. The last 2 hours of the day were spent on campus at the Red Barn doing some fun team building exercises. A rubber chicken was hurled around like a fastball. We laughed, played, solved problems, and reflected.
After breakfast on our last day, we jumped straight into part two of our Business Ethics course with Bob Barbato. The same high level of discussion continued. We each began to understand what each of the alumni we’d met had been talking about when they expressed how much they miss the lively debate in this program. Even those of us who “can’t live” without a clear resolution began to gain a level of comfort grappling with questions that have no definitive answer. Next, instructors from our upcoming statistics and accounting courses stopped by to introduce themselves and review the syllabus with us. This was helpful in acclimating to the pace of this program: as one area wraps up, the next has already begun. Corporate sponsors (the bosses or other company representatives who employ each student and support them with schedule flexibility to attend the program) were honored at lunch so we could leave them with a sense of the exponential increase in value each employee was about to bring back to the workplace week after week.
After lunch, Jeff Davis led a panel of 3 alumni who volunteered to talk to us about their experience in the program and answer all the questions we had. I walked away from this alumni panel with a very clear understanding of how this program transformed each of the panelists lives. You’ll notice that your own excitement only climbs to new levels from one day to the next as orientation week proceeds and different elements of the program are unboxed.
We had one more meeting for the day, again with Molly McGowan, to dive into part one of the Leadership Development Skills course that will run parallel to our classroom work for the next 60 days or so. This was a great opportunity to reflect on how we have developed as leaders so far in our lives and careers, as well as identify some areas we’d like to build on. We learned that we will set some goals related to our leadership development and build periodic measurement into our plan in order to hold ourselves accountable for desirable change.
The day wrapped up and we had a couple of hours to ourselves before meeting the class at the Genesee Valley Club in the heart of downtown Rochester for dinner. In a setting of great comfort and elegance we talked and laughed, enjoyed an exquisite meal, and heard a brief address by an alum and his spouse who took turns describing the experience of fitting the demands of this program into their family. They described the struggle that will exist at times, but were twice as effusive (tears were almost shed) when describing why they would do it all over again. This presentation was nothing short of inspiring. Coffee was served, conversations were concluded, and farewells for the night were exchanged. We all needed a good night’s rest and a weekend of reflection and planning before our first online class session on Monday night. Our transformation had begun.