2017 Best EMBAs: James E. Bartlett, IESE Business School

James E. Bartlett

IESE Business School

“A life designer who loves to mentally wrestle challenges to the ground.” 

Age: 35

Hometown: Louisville, Kentucky (Adopted hometown: Brooklyn, New York)

Family Members: Ruby Amanze, fiancée

Fun fact about yourself: Basketball was my first love.

Undergraduate School and Degree: BA in English, Loyola University Chicago; MS in Publishing, NYU

Where are you currently working? Executive Director, Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA), in Brooklyn, NY

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: Co-Chair of Ember Charter School; Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu; Basketball; Cross-fit

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? During my time at IESE, I am most proud of working with several of my classmates to plant the seeds for the creation of an IESE African Alumni Network. This was an organic initiative that came about through conversations with classmates. The growing number of students from Africa and its diaspora, as well as the increasing global importance of Africa as a region, was the impetus for the idea. Myself and several fellow students in the 2017 class, decided to take action on our own to get the idea off the ground. We hope to work closely with the school administration as we plan and implement the network.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? After graduating college, I decide not to get a job. Instead, with no money to my name, I started to produce films, manage musicians, build websites, and generally pursue any creative or entrepreneurial project that peaked my interest. In time, this freewheeling business became a more formal creative consulting firm that worked with artists, media companies, and non-profit arts organizations.  This path eventually led to my first “job”.  At age 30 I became the Executive Director of the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA).  At the time the museum had five employees, a 2,000 square foot gallery, and an annual operating budget of $600,000. Five years later we have raised over $20 million dollars and have begun construction on a new 20,000 square foot building which is scheduled to open in late 2018.

The professional achievement I am most proud of is trusting myself enough to pursue my own vision, not only for my career, but for my life. In hindsight, I realize that I had no clue what I wanted to do when I first started, but I knew that I didn’t want my life to be defined by someone else’s vision. This willingness to jump in the pool and learn how to swim, has given me a comfort with the unknown that I believe has served me well. My true passion is bringing ideas to life that once only existed in my head. And that can’t be done without jumping in the deep end with no guarantees.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Prof. Mike Rosenberg set the tone for our entire Executive MBA experience on day one. He taught our first class, Analysis of Business Problems. Mike is a straight shooter who isn’t bashful about telling you what he thinks.  And he is as dedicated to ensuring that all the students in the class learn and are heard, as he is with giving his own opinions. Executive MBA students, having significant leadership experience under their belts, can be used to commanding a lot of attention. With a case-based teaching method, and several dozen students anxious to contribute, the conversation can easily become chaotic and overwhelming. Prof. Rosenberg was able to nip that in the bud very quickly, while elegantly steering discussions down a productive path. Without his introductory course, the class experience for the remainder of the program would have been very different.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? I chose IESE for the diversity of people and experiences. In the GEMBA program, not only did I get to travel the world studying business from a global perspective, but I got to do it along with 45 leaders from 25 different countries. Each person brought a unique perspective to the experience, and I think we are all stronger for that. Business is truly global today, and I wanted that experience in an MBA program.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? I enjoyed making real connections with people from all over the world, and meeting people who I have no doubt I will maintain life long relationships with.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? Over the course of a 16-month Executive MBA program, work, life, or family challenges inevitably arise, and sometimes everything hits you at once. The experience of juggling all this, while getting an Executive MBA, has taught me a few things: 1) You can always get more done than you thought you could; 2) You won’t always be able to get everything done; and 3) If you don’t get something done, life goes on.

These divergent forces were particularly acute during our two week module in Shanghai.  The first week of the module happened to coincide with the 2016 US Presidential Election Day. Given the global demographics of the students in IESE’s GEMBA program (and the highly-publicized anti-immigration stance of Trump), my classmates were obviously interested in the outcome of the election. I, like most people who live in consistently blue states, didn’t think there would be any major surprises that day. As I checked the results every few minutes on my phone, I somehow became the de facto vote-count-updater for the whole class. As the hours went by, and the results became clear, I was mentally drawn further and further from the classes at hand.

As we all know, the results were not considered a boon to the arts field, nor to the vast majority of people of African descent in the United States. As the Executive Director of a museum of African Diasporan art, with a staff of nearly all people of color, I suddenly had a major issue to respond to. Communication had to be sent to the board of directors, the staff, and other museum constituents, and responses needed to be considered. In addition to this curve ball, at the time I was in the middle of negotiating a merger between the museum and another arts organization. With an 11 hour time difference, I had to call into a merger committee meeting with board members from each organization, the day after the election. Because of the time difference, as soon as the meeting was over I had to rush to the first session, of a 10 hour day of classes. The rest of the week did not get any easier, as I bounced back and forth between classes and communication with the team at the museum.

This is just one of the many times in which the multiple sides of life have collided during the Executive MBA program. And all the while, I have also been trying to plan a wedding with my fiancee (thankfully, my fiancee is a very understanding and supportive woman!).

What is your best piece of advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s executive MBA program? Make sure it is the right time for you. You will get as much out of the Executive MBA as you put into it. The timing will never be perfect, but make sure that you are as prepared as you can be for the time commitment and focus that it will take to complete the program.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? A lot of people think that once they have been out of school for several years, they can never go back to being a student. I think we should always be students in life anyway. So going back to formal schooling is just putting a different structure around it. As an Executive MBA student, the motivation is internal. There isn’t outside pressure, and the atmosphere is very collaborative.  Everyone is very accomplished, and no one is competing with each other.

What was your biggest regret in business school? No regrets at all.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I admire Javi Perez Griffo’s heart of an entrepreneur. He is someone who builds with people just as much as he builds ideas.  When he talks about the people, he works with in his entrepreneurial ventures, his caring and compassion shines through. It has been great getting to know him and all the other classmates.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…thinking I know a lot more than I do.”

What is your favorite company and what are they doing that makes them so special? I can’t say that I have one single favorite company. I admire different things about different companies. Primarily I admire the people within companies, and the particular leaders who create the company’s culture. I admire the way Howard Schultz at Starbucks actively tries to create opportunities for employees to grow within and beyond their company.  That’s because, ultimately, our jobs should be a fulfilling part of our lives. We spend a huge percentage of our lives at “work”. So it should be about more than just “work.” I also admire entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, and his ability to create a brand that transcends sectors. Lastly, I admire leaders from companies like Google and Facebook, who attempt to infuse innovation and innovative thinking within the DNA of the company’s culture.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? To be free…mentally, spiritually, and financially.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? I would like to thank my mother, for shouldering so many burdens so that I didn’t have to. Thank you.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? I would like my classmates to remember me as a kind person, who is inspired by others.

Favorite book: Tao Te Ching

Favorite movie or television show: Coming to America

Favorite musical performer: Stevie Wonder

Favorite vacation spot: Morocco

Hobbies? Thinking

What made James such an invaluable addition to the class of 2017?

“I first met James when he was considering the possibility of joining the program. I was thoroughly impressed by the depth of his questions and his insistence on understanding first hand how he could contribute to the class as well as what he would take away from the program.

As we talked through his career, it was nothing short of highly impressive of just how much he has achieved in the field of arts and culture, but most significant is his ambition and resolve to deliver an iconic project for African Culture at a global level. James is a highly intelligent and eloquent person and also with very developed interpersonal skills.

James has been an outstanding member of the Class of 2017, and epitomises the transformative impact that we seek to achieve in our participants: highly developed leadership skills, a global multicultural and humanistic vision of business and society, an enhanced entrepreneurial spirit, and a deep insight/understanding as to how digital technology will shape the world.”

María Isabel de Muller
Executive Director
IESE Global Executive MBA Program