2019 Best EMBAs: James Pierce, University of Minnesota (Carlson)

James M. Pierce

University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management

Age: 49

Hometown: Minneapolis, MN, but originally from Montgomery, AL

Family Members: Stephanie Pierce (Spouse), Olivia Pierce (17), Jamie Pierce (14), Kaitlyn Pierce (8)

Fun fact about yourself: I am a musician, playing saxophone and piano. I also have a great voice. I sing and I currently am a voice over talent focusing on commercials and various corporate videos.

Undergraduate School and Degree: BS, Computer Science from Tuskegee University

Where are you currently working? I currently work at Cargill as Sr. Director, Business Development in the Animal Nutrition enterprise, part of the Health Technologies business unit. I’m also Vice President of the Cargill Foundation.

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: I am very active at Cargill around matters of diversity and inclusion. I’m currently the Executive Sponsor for the Cargill Ebony Council, and I serve on several national boards focused on diversity in agriculture and science for college students. I served on the City of Edina’s Race and Equity Task Force, tasked with developing a list of recommendations for addressing racial, social, and economic challenges, for which I received the 2019 Mayor’s Individual Service Commendation

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I was quite proud of the Mayor’s Individual Service Commendation because it was a year-long effort that yielded 22 recommendations, many of which are being implemented by the city. I was able to use some of the context from school, especially from the Organizational Behavior curriculum. It was a great example of having to manage the workload of school, a full-time job, and a team of community leaders. I’m so proud we were able to get this effort started and bring the community together.

Which achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? One of the moments I’m most proud of was during my role as the SAP Technology Leader. I was responsible for a team of 350 people, which included an Accenture team in India. We were tasked with completing the first two deployments of SAP within Cargill. We were successful, yet perhaps oddly that’s not why I’m proud. Instead, it’s because it required a different type of leadership to get such a diverse team to work together. The day I started, the overall program leader said to me, “James, with what I have heard of your leadership style, you will likely struggle, but if you can be successful in this environment, with that leadership style, I will have a lot to learn.” In my book, people-first leadership always wins!

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Mary Zellmer-Bruhn, professor of Organizational Behavior, and Rand Park, a lecturer in the Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship department.

What was your favorite MBA course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it? I thought that the marketing courses that I took were awesome. One focused on the academics of marketing, while the other looked at the behavioral aspects. I was able to immediately leverage both of those courses in my business development role. It also truly gave me an appreciation for how complicated business can be.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? I choose the executive program because of the cohort model. A well-chosen cohort will have multiple industries and disciplines and varying experience levels. This exponentially increases the depth of perspectives and learning potential. I feel a full-time or part-time program would not have the same diversity represented and the course content likely would be more academic than modeled around the real world.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? I enjoyed the camaraderie and the opportunity to learn about other industries the most.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family, and education? We have three daughters who are all very busy. My wife also is busy, starting a business and being a full-time mom while working for General Mills. The first year of business school was the most intense because of the course work that seemingly demands all of your attention. I got very familiar with local libraries when I needed focused time. However, the most endearing moment for me was one weeknight, two of my daughters said they were going to study with dad. So the three of us sat at the dining room table and did our homework. It was too cute.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? I personally believe an executive MBA program is more beneficial than part-time or full-time programs. The biggest difference is that everyone has at least 7 to 10 years of work experience. With a diverse cohort, you have the opportunity to learn a great deal more from your classmates than you otherwise would. The other advice I always share is that there is no good time to start a program. If you have the interest, jump in and go.

What was your biggest regret in business school? Perhaps the biggest regret was not starting sooner, although I believe all things happen in their right time.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? (I admire my classmate Jason Barney. He’s an all-around nice guy, very smart, and he has a very clever and direct to keep us focused on what really matters. He is ever the pragmatist, too.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when… Sitting at Thanksgiving dinner, I realized that between my mom, dad, and sister, I was the only one who had just one degree! Sis earned a Ph.D. in Nursing and both mom and dad hold an MS in Education.”

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I truly believe the old Greek proverb that says, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees without expecting to sit under their shade.” Professionally and in our community, I want to have an impact that provides benefits for as many people as I can into perpetuity.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? James is a thought-provoking person who respects everyone for who they are and seeks to learn from the opinions expressed by anyone.

What are the top two items on your bucket list? I want to visit Puma Punku in Bolivia, as well as take a trip to Madrid.

What made James such an invaluable addition to the class of 2019?

“James Pierce is a man of unique talent and character, but he’d never say these things about himself, because he’s so humble. From day one, he’s been a natural leader — sharing personal stories and experiences in the classroom that helped illustrate the topic at hand in ways that impacted other students. I know this because after one particular class discussion, several of his classmates and the professor shared how grateful they were to have him in the program. He serves as a voice of reason and purpose for everyone around him. Our EMBA cohort has a lot of opinions, and he’s masterful at cutting through the noise, being direct, and providing candid feedback — even when difficult situations arise.

Outside the classroom, he’s highly involved in serving the community, even chairing a charity event during the middle of a challenging semester. While others cut back on their outside engagements during the program, James delivered on his commitments to the organizations he loves.

He is highly respected by students, staff, and faculty alike. We talk about authentic leadership a great deal in the business world. James has that — he’s the real deal, bringing his whole self to work, school, and everything else he does in life. He is definitely top in our book.”

Robyn Wick

Director of Carlson Executive MBA Program


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