2021 Best & Brightest EMBAs: Keith Spencer, Penn State (Smeal)

Keith Spencer

Penn State University, Smeal College of Business

Age: 49

“A results-driven executive leader committed to extraordinary customer experiences and supporter of the arts.”

Hometown: Dresher, PA

Family Members: Amy (wife); Penelope (age 10), and wonder twins, Zachary and Vivian (age 7)

Fun fact about yourself: Immediately before COVID shut down performance venues, I was able to premier my one-person show, Brothers on Broadway with the Capital Philharmonic of New Jersey. The culmination of over a year in planning, Brothers on Broadway is a celebration of Broadway’s African American leading men showcasing the humble reflections of black minstrelsy through the undeniable progress afforded African Americans through musical theatre. The show premiered at the beautiful Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton, New Jersey, with record-breaking attendance.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Penn State, BS, Marketing

Where are you currently working? Corcentric, VP of Customer Success. Corcentric is a global provider of business spend management and revenue management software and services for mid-market and Fortune 1000 businesses. Corcentric delivers software, advisory services, and payments focused on reducing costs, optimizing working capital, and unlocking revenue.

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles:

* A professional vocalist with an active concert schedule, including appearances at regional theatres, corporate gala events, and with symphony orchestras

* Producer of culturally relevant concert works celebrating the African American cultural experience through his company, Enspire Productions

* Board Vice President for Bristol Riverside Theatre

* Board Trustee for North Hills Collective. North Hills Collective is a not-for-profit entity focused on empowering, uplifting, and advocating for the North Hills community by providing educational support for its students, enriching recreational activities for its youth, and community services for its families.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? For the level of investment and sacrifice required by my family, I’m proud to have been appointed Salutatorian for our cohort at the conclusion of my EMBA journey. For the time, support, and cheerleading my family provided along the way, I view the academic recognition and honors as a collaborative win for my entire family.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? While serving as an executive at an IT professional services organization, I was tasked to build out the company’s solution engineering division. I benefited from beginning with some of the organization’s most seasoned consultants as my core team. I expanded the group and established one of the most successful and sought-after support functions in the organization. Our team shortened sales cycle time, lowered contract acquisition cost, brought solution value closer to the customer, streamlined proposal generation, and improved our close rates. While all these elements were essential to business success, what meant most to me was the team esprit de corps held in pursuit of our mission and the opportunity to mentor and invest in the team’s lives and careers.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program?I was a Penn State undergrad, so I already had an affinity for the Blue/White culture. However, as I researched programs in the area, Penn State rose to the top for me for several reasons.

Penn State’s EMBA ranks solidly against other competitive national programs with similarly-ranked faculty. If I was going to spend the money, I wanted top-ranking experiences and resources.

Second, the duration was only 17 months. I felt I could do anything for a year-and-a- half. With a busy career and family life, the shorter, the better.

Third, Smeal’s EMBA program offered a schedule of in-person learning I felt I could manage between my family and my work commitments. Sessions were every other Friday afternoon and all day on those Saturdays. Other programs offered weekends that extended into Sundays, but that would have interfered with family worship.

Fourth, and this was Smeal’s secret weapon, Smeal’s EMBA Managing Director Teresa Avery and Program Coordinator Tara Banerjee absolutely sealed the deal. Because of Penn State’s student body size, you’ll often hear mention that students feel they’re just a number. That couldn’t be further from the truth with the Smeal program. Teresa and Tara were immensely attentive, genuine, and helpful throughout my decision process. Their professionalism and expertise gave the Smeal program credibility and me a level of confidence while making a weighty decision.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? It was the importance of personal development and continuous learning. I realized that I could only solve problems and lead from my existing base of knowledge. However, times and methods change, and I need to change and grow along with them. Pursuing my MBA allowed me to freshen my perspective and sharpen skills in areas immediately applicable to the workplace. Beyond the EMBA program, the takeaway is to aggressively pursue self-development and learning within your industry and from those around you.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family, and education?

The only way I could take on the challenge of completing my EMBA was if it was a family decision and a family sacrifice. It wasn’t just as if daddy was going to school. The whole family needed to be on board and part of the experience. With school and the new job in flight, my wife took on so much of the work in shifting to virtual education for our three children while continuing to run her own independent business. The kids understood that daddy was “in college,” and they were great cheerleaders. They learned the subtle signals for “not now, the camera is on,” and when okay to do so, would come in for goodnight hugs and say hello to my teammates on Zoom. It was a family commitment and a family affair.

My employer was very accommodating with the half days I needed every other Friday and time for residency weeks. If I didn’t have the support there, continuing the program wouldn’t have been possible.

The last area of critical support came from my team members within the cohort. For almost every person, there were weeks where personal, family, or work demands ramped up, and we needed to lean on one another to even out the group project load.

Those three pillars – family, employer accommodation, and my classmates – provided a confident bedrock of support that enabled me to complete the program.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? When considering pursuing your EMBA, you can get caught up in the MBA mystique and contemplate all the strategic leadership and management and marketing musings this advanced degree can bring you. Then, on visitation day, you have a friendly chat with Faculty Director Lou Gattis at the coffee machine, and he casually reminds you of the minefield of quantitative courses you would have to first navigate before getting to the promised land. Record scratch for sure as I remembered how much I “enjoyed” Financial Accounting as an undergrad. My personal myth needed to be overwritten to include an appreciation for the foundational quantitative course requirements essential for the EMBA journey. The quantitative portions of Smeal’s program proved to be a well-rounding complement for me that I am actively applying to current work initiatives.

What was your biggest regret in business school? Pursuing my EMBA was a sacrifice my family and I made together. If I was going to make such a significant commitment, I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity and explore everything the Smeal program and faculty had to offer. That was my plan. However, six months into my EMBA, I accepted an executive position with a thriving company going through an organizational transformation. Heed my advice: if you can ever avoid onboarding into a new company during a transformation, during a pandemic, while pursuing your EMBA, I recommend you do so at all costs. To give my best on both the professional and academic fronts, I had to remain in survival mode and focus on my primary assignments and tactical goals within the program. I regret that I couldn’t explore even more of the host of extracurricular resources and advantages of the Smeal program or deep dive with my professors around particular topics of interest. That said, I feel I still got far more than I had anticipated from the Smeal program through extraordinary classroom experiences and support from the Smeal staff and associates.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I’d call out Jim Gretz. Jim and I were assigned to the same team during our first residency week. During many walks from our hotel to class, I learned Jim had decided to further his education later in life. He had just finished his Bachelor of Science degree and was now moving forward with his MBA. Over the 17 months of the program, I observed Jim’s as he became a top-of-the-class achiever with a love for all things quantitative and a fierce professional ambition I know will make him a successful CFO somewhere, someday. I am proud to have started my journey with Jim, and I’m excited to see what mountain he conquers next.

What was the main reason you chose an executive MBA program over part-time or online alternatives? I had always planned to get my MBA. However, the further you move along in your career with increasing commitment and responsibilities, it seems impossible to carve out the time for anything as weighty as an MBA. That said, the two aspects that made the EMBA track attractive over part-time or online were the in-person experience and the accelerated timeline. First, in-person learning promised a different level of immersive experience. The EMBA weekend class cadence forcibly pulled me out of my work routine. The option to be sequestered away on site allowed me to focus on the material and build strong cohort and faculty relationships.

I also valued the compressed timeline of the EMBA program. First, any master’s program would have been an arduous journey for me but also my family. The shorter time commitment mattered to me as opposed to having it scale over multiple years. Also, as I’m not at the beginning of my career, I was anxious to learn and apply with real-time efficiency anything that would benefit my consulting practice or my area of responsibility as an executive leader.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? It’s never wise to say one has already arrived, but I count myself extremely blessed to be already working in the space and with the span of authority that aligns with my professional goals. As an executive leader in Customer Success, I am close to the customer, able to devise and implement global strategies, and have responsibility for motiving and cultivating leaders. These are the professional goals that continue to inspire and drive me. My next-phase objectives include ongoing personal development and growth as an industry thought leader and serving as a chief customer officer for a global organization.

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

“Keith was a joy in the classroom from day one. He came prepared and enthusiastic every day. What I valued most was his contributions to class discussions. He contributed in a manner that made everyone better – students and professors.”

Dr. Lou Gattis
Finance Professor and EMBA Faculty Director