2017 Best EMBAs: Sharon Pian Chan, MIT (Sloan)

Sharon Pian Chan

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sloan School of Management

“Seattleite Californian Asian American woman truth teller writer child of immigrants and refugees.”

Age: 41

Hometown: Seattle, WA

Family Members: Danny O’Neil (devoted spouse), Peach (wrinkly dog)

Fun fact about yourself: My Chinese name Pian means “to flutter” and it comes from a famous poem about a butterfly. When I was young I never told people the meaning because I didn’t see butterfly qualities in myself. Now I embrace it. It means to float, like Muhammad Ali. “I float like a butterfly…”

Undergraduate School and Degree: Pomona College, B.A. in Literature

Where are you currently working? I’m Vice President of Innovation, Product & Development at The Seattle Times

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: Sloan Senator, kick-started an Executive MBA women’s initiative

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Organizational culture is the trickiest thing to get right. We all learned that when we took our MBA course in organizational processes. You must get the culture right from the start. So, I’m the happiest about the work I did with my fellow class senators at the beginning of our program to build an inclusive, supportive culture in our cohort where we celebrate each other’s successes. I ended up benefitting from that culture because later my classmates helped me get through tricky coursework. We all get by with a little help from our friends.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? When I was associate opinions editor at The Seattle Times. In 2013, my editor and I created a social media photo campaign to support a referendum to approve same-sex marriage. This was three years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, before the word “selfie” had even been coined. We published a sign in the Sunday newspaper that said “I do” support same-sex marriage. We asked people to take a photo of themselves with the sign and to share it with us on social media. Hundreds of photos poured in from families, couples, single people, young and old, gay and straight, of all races. Churches sent in photos with their entire congregations holding the sign. We published the photos online and in print, and it showed our state that marriage equality was something people of all backgrounds, beliefs and loves supported.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Would you ask a mother to name her favorite child?! Catherine Tucker, who taught our Marketing Management class, was a standout. She brought quantitative street cred to a subject many students assumed was a soft, fluffy subject. She wore a black dress and knee-high leather boots like she was wearing a uniform.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? For the mission of Sloan: To create principled, innovative leaders who improve the world. I’m here to improve the world through journalism.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? The community of accomplished, down-to-earth students and the professors, program staff and teaching assistants committed to the difficult craft of teaching us. We all worked hard, but we were also absolutely spoiled by the support.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? Last Friday, I dropped off my dog at the dog boarder at 8 am, then went to work and presented my team’s product road map to the company, then drove to the airport at noon and flew to Shanghai for our Global Organizations Lab research trip. It sounds glamorous. The reality was sniffing my sleeve as I walked into the office to check whether I smelled like my dog.

What is your best piece of advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s executive MBA program? Think about the mission of Sloan and how that speaks to your life’s past, present and future.

What was your biggest regret in business school? That I only got to spend two days on campus every few weeks. So many resources at MIT, so little time.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Barry Stein, a radiologist in Connecticut. He grew up in South Africa and left his country because of apartheid. He worked his way up from a small hospital in the hinterlands of Canada. His son had glucose storage disease and they fed him every hour or he would have died. Barry is the Oprah of our class. In South Africa, they would call him “a good oak.” When he talks, he exudes calm and joy. I call it The Golden Light that we all get to stand in.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…newspapers shut down in Seattle, Denver and Hawaii because their businesses were failing.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…getting sucked into volunteer work for the nonprofit Asian American Journalists Association, slowly learning Chopin’s Aeolian Harp Etude and shamelessly binging on television.”

What is your favorite company and what are they doing that makes them so special? I used to be a business reporter. I learned that the minute you put a company on a pedestal, you’ll find out that the CEO was sexually harassing women, lying to shareholders or Greyballing law enforcement. So I’m going with a newborn. My classmate Chris Penny just started a nonprofit called Broken Crayons. That’s my favorite organization right now because it’s helping children access education around the world.

If you were a dean for a day, what one thing would you change about the executive MBA experience? I would set a goal that the Executive MBA faculty and Class of 2020 would reach gender and racial parity with the U.S. population, and I would magically raise the funds that single day to endow professorships and student fellowships to make it happen.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I want to run my own profitable media company.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? Women don’t need dragon slayers anymore but we still need champions. My husband Danny was my Executive MBA champion. He drove me to and from the airport, cooked dinner, financially supported me and never expressed anything but excitement for my MIT Sloan experience. And all that time he was nurturing his own career as a sports radio host.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? We inspired each other to do things we didn’t think we could do.

Favorite book: All the Little Live Things, Wallace Stegner

Favorite movie or television show: Groundhog Day

Favorite musical performer: U2

Favorite vacation spot: Tenzan 天山onsen, a traditional Japanese bathhouse, in Hakone, Japan

Hobbies? Piano, mindless Youtube videos, tiny Japanese convenience stores, giant American grocery stores, independent bookstores, pie and coffee

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

“There are so many ways to describe Sharon: independent thinker; tenacious and courageous are just a few. As Vice President of Innovation, Product & Development at The Seattle Times, Sharon is the example of the MIT EMBA mission, “To develop principled, innovative, senior leaders capable of transforming the world’s important institutions.” She has devoted her life to providing the public with coverage and conversation about urgent public issues. In a world where “fake news” can take precedent, Sharon uses her classes like System Dynamics to shed light on how “fake news” can take over. As an advocate for diversity, Sharon has not only served as president of the Asian American Journalist Association but also a board member of UNITY: Journalists for Diversity. Sharon has also been an integral part of the MIT EMBA Class of 2017 community with her dynamic personality and a leading member of the MIT Sloan Senate as the EMBA representative. She not only takes time out of her schedule to mentor her classmates in the art of reporting, but also acts as ambassador for the program on the West Coast. Sharon is an active participant in our webinars and in making time to meet with prospective students on her side of the country. In everything that Sharon has given back to the MIT EMBA and MIT Sloan community, she represents the very finest traditions of MIT and the MIT School of Management, as a distinguished leader, collaborator and mentor.”

Johanna Hising DiFabio

MIT Executive MBA Program Director

Nelson Repenning

MIT Executive MBA Faculty Director and Faculty


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.