2021 Best & Brightest EMBAs: Mary McKinney Flaherty, University of Chicago (Booth)

Mary McKinney Flaherty

University of Chicago, Booth School of Business

Age: 41

“Lover of the arts, food, and human beings. Making my community a bit more vibrant, inclusive, and innovative every day.”

Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Family Members: My husband, Mark, and his awesome and talented children, Tiggy and Evan. Mark is the co-founder of Flaherty & O’Hara, P.C., a national beverage alcohol law firm; he is a fabulous chef and jazz pianist; and a delightful partner in life.

My parents, Patsy and Don McKinney. Mom was a lawyer and dad was in real estate. These days, they are enjoying sunshine and grandchildren (all 14 of them!).

My six siblings (Jim, John, Kathleen, Karen, Steph, and Liz), three of whom are in Pittsburgh, three of whom are in California, and all of whom are in real estate or construction.

Fun fact about yourself: Any time my husband or I get on an elevator, we dance. I’m talking about the Cupid Shuffle, the Robot, Voguing. It’s a lighthearted diversion that helps shift our minds from whatever we might have been stressing about on the way to work or out of a meeting and reminds us to not take things too seriously. If you’re having a rough day, give it a shot!

Undergraduate School and Degree:

  • The University of Chicago Law School, JD (2005)
  • Georgetown University, AB in History and English (2002)

Where are you currently working? Of Counsel, Frank, Gale, Bails, Murcko & Pocrass, P.C. (a Pittsburgh law firm) 

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: I am fortunate to have a very full life! Here’s what I’m involved in today:

  • Extracurriculars and Awards at Booth 
    • Student Activities and Advisory Council – Member of elected student council
    • Rustandy Center Social New Venture Challenge Competition – 2020 finalist
    • Booth Women Advance – Leadership development program, 2020 cohort
    • Booth Social Impact Initiative – Consulted for Chicago nonprofits
    • Becker “Master Negotiator” Award – awarded by Professor Wittenbrink to top three students in Negotiations class.
  • Community Leadership 
    • Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre – Chair, Board of Directors.
    • Pittsburgh Cultural Trust – Member, Board of Trustees (ex officio)
    • Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy – Co-Chair, Spring Hat Luncheon
  • Professional Leadership
    • Allegheny County Bar Association – Chair, Women in the Law Division; Member, Board of Governors; Member, Committee for Diversity and Inclusion; Member, Ad hoc Committee to Examine Police Use of Force and Court Rules for Bail, Probation, and Incarceration; Member, Judiciary Committee.
    • Pennsylvania Bar Association – Council Member, Family Law Section; Co-Vice Chair, Collaborative Law Committee
    • Mediation Council of Western Pennsylvania – Member, Board of Directors
  • Pro Bono and Volunteer Work
    • Neighborhood Legal Services Association – Represent victims of domestic violence seeking Protection from Abuse orders
    • Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers – Volunteer

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? During my time at Booth, I am most proud of the teamwork with my colleagues, Atri Sen and Benjamin Treves, for our final project in the course Challenge and Crisis: Economic Policy in a Changing World.

The course, co-taught by Professors Raghuram Rajan (Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, 2013-16) and Austan Goolsbee (Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama Administration), was a timely journey through financial crises, antitrust laws and big tech, globalization, international corporate taxation, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic. They taught us to think like policy makers. And then, for our final project, they asked us to think like CEOs thinking about what policymakers might do. The project demanded a sweeping analysis of the global political and economic environment and required us to draw on all of our diverse professional strengths (in law, finance, and engineering) and backgrounds (from time in India, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and the US) to make comprehensive strategy recommendations.

I never could have done it alone and I learned so much from working through this challenge with my brilliant and supportive colleagues. I was so proud of the final product we submitted and am grateful for the experience of working with them.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? While working at Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, DC, I was part of a team representing thirteen Yemeni citizens detained at Guantánamo Bay. I had the privilege of second chairing two of those cases in federal court, prevailing in each. The team was a diverse group of lawyers from varying political backgrounds who all saw a wrong in the world that they felt needed to be corrected and worked tirelessly to ensure that it was. Our clients had been imprisoned for over eight years without a single charge being brought against them and then, after our efforts, were finally free. That feeling was incredible. I am so proud of the work we did together that both impacted individual lives and helped to make a change in the world.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? This is like asking me to pick my favorite parent! One of the most amazing things about Booth is all of the professors. The classroom experience at Booth is universally amazing.

And, perhaps the most amazing of those classrooms is that of Professor Mike Gibbs, who teaches Microeconomics and Organizations & Incentives. When I came to visit Booth in the fall of 2018, I sat in on his class and immediately said to myself, “I want to be part of this!” It was clear that he knew the students individually and pulled students’ own individual business experiences into the class, making the lessons so much more lively and relevant. I came to love his teaching even more when I officially became his student. He engages students, challenges students, and brings a whole lot of humor and joy to the art of teaching.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? Three reasons: the classroom, the student experience, and the global cohort.

As I mentioned above, the classroom at Booth is a special place. The level of energy and engagement from professors and students alike is unparalleled. I experienced this on the day I visited as a prospective and every day as a student.

Then, as I was investigating programs and began to speak to current students and alumni, I observed something very special about the Booth students with whom I interacted: they talked about how the program had changed them. Others with whom I spoke often referenced promotions they had received or a specific skill they had gained. Booth students talked about that, too. For the Boothies, though, the focus was different. Almost every one of them talked about how the program had transformed their entire way of thinking and leading. I’ve had the same experience myself.

Finally, Booth is a truly global program. In the Executive MBA cohort, I have 241 colleagues, from 52 countries, working in dozens of industries around the globe. I learn from them as much as I learn from my professors and have grown so much as a result.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? The trifecta of Professor Richard Thaler’s Managerial Decision Making, Professor Eric Budish’s Competitive Strategy, and Professor Abigail Sussman’s Marketing Strategy completely transformed the way I consider strategic decisions.

First, all three of these professors are just awesome. They are responsible for groundbreaking and timely research in their fields. Professor Thaler won a Nobel Prize for identifying systematic errors in how people decide. Professor Budish is designing markets to ensure COVID-19 vaccine supplies get where they need to get. And, Professor Sussman is leveraging scientific knowledge to create messages that ensure people will take those vaccines when they arrive.

Professors Thaler, Budish, and Sussman brought these brilliant, analytical, and creative brains to the classroom and taught me how to think differently about how I and others think. I’ve become better able to spot my own biases, better able to reframe and re-message to address others’, and better able to both make and communicate about strategic business decisions. At the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, this has helped me to frame how we evaluate new projects and markets and was instrumental in guiding our decision making processes through the pandemic.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? I need to begin here by acknowledging my husband Mark, who has been so supportive through the program (and is really enjoying getting to know the whole cohort!).

Friday classes were always a challenge. No matter how much I try to make it happen earlier in the week, legal cases usually settle on Fridays. I was often sneaking out during class to pitch a proposal to opposing counsel, to get numbers from experts, and to formulate counter offers with clients. It definitely felt like juggling (with more than a handful of dropped balls) much of the time. Even if it was rather chaotic at times, it all worked out just fine.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? There are more minutes in the day than you think there are. If this is something you really want, do it. You will not regret it and you will find the time to do the work.

What was your biggest regret in business school? My only regret is that, because of the pandemic, we didn’t get to spend more time together in person. I am really grateful for the efforts the Executive MBA team has made to bring us back together and all they are planning for the future. I am confident we will make up for lost time!

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? After expressing my admiration for every single parent in the class–and in particular the three women who welcomed new children during the program–I want to call out one new parent in particular.

Dr. Nitender Goyal, MD is the Medical Director of Kidney Transplant at Tufts Medical Center and a Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine. Before COVID-19, his schedule was grueling. Then, the pandemic hit and he was working double shifts, tending to COVID-19 patients, preparing to welcome his first child (Niten’s wife is also a doctor), moving into a new home, and publishing COVID-19 research that helped to save lives. Through all of this, I had the pleasure of working with Niten on two teams. He was dedicated to our efforts, even though he was stretched thin. And, he did every single bit of it with a smile, always lightening the mood and bringing joy into everything we did. Niten is changing the world and still took the time to change every single moment he spent with us for the better. It is a privilege to call Niten a friend and colleague and I cannot wait to see what he does next.

What was the main reason you chose an executive MBA program over part-time or online alternatives? The global program, the global cohort, learning from others in the field making decisions, the structure, and the community. This is an immersive program and one that builds a tight-knit community. As I mentioned above, I’ve learned as much from my colleagues as I have from the material. I’ve built lifelong friendships with people who have taught me so much about business and about life, and will continue to do so. I don’t think that’s possible in the same way with part-time and online programs.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I love my hometown, the City of Pittsburgh. And, I am committed to making it an even more vibrant place for all of its residents to live and work; for businesses to build; for families to grow; and for creators and innovators to generate beautiful new ideas. Any role that enables me to do that is one I want to be in.

I am so excited by the work of non-profit leaders in my city like my neighbors and friends like Meg Cheever, who founded the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy; Leah Lizarando, CEO and Co-Founder of 412 Food Rescue; Sabrina Saudners Mosby, President and CEO of Vibrant Pittsburgh; Joylette Portlock, PhD, Executive Director of Sustainable Pittsburgh; Melia Tourangeau, President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Symphony; Saleem Ghubril, Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Promise; Stefani Pashman, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development; and of course Susan Jaffe and Harris Ferris of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Every day, each of them and their amazing teams in their organizations are making a tremendous positive impact in our City: elevating the image of Pittsburgh, making it a more inclusive, equitable, and vibrant City, and bringing the beauty of creativity and the arts to all. I would love to have a similar impact.

What made Mary such an invaluable addition to the class of 2021?

“I read Mary’s application before she interviewed for the program. On paper, she looked like a fantastic candidate – BA from Georgetown, UChicago JD, compassionate attorney for her clients, supporter of the arts. What she brought to us on paper was nothing in comparison to what she brought to us in person.

Even before admission and starting the program, Mary made several trips to Chicago to attend masterclasses, Women’s Winter Weekend, and other admissions events. She became an ambassador for the program during these events and helped us yield other female candidates.

Mary was elected to the Student Advisory and Activities Council (SAAC) by her classmates, and has been an enthusiastic supporter and promoter of her classmates, the program, and the school. She is truly a partner with us in her education, especially as we have navigated the challenges of the past year and the pandemic.

I look forward to the impact that Mary will continue to have on our program, future students, and our staff as she prepares to become a Booth alumna. In the decades I have spent with the program and the thousands of students with whom I have worked, Mary is in the top 10 of students whose intelligence, collaboration, leadership, enthusiasm, curiosity for learning, and supportive nature stand out as a shining example of the best of Chicago Booth.”

Patty Keegan
Senior Global Director of Student Life and Program Operation
Executive MBA Program