2019 Best EMBAs: Lisa Rawlings, U.C. Berkeley (Haas)

Lisa Rawlings

UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business

Passionate about social impact, driven to create a more just, efficient, and beautiful world.”

Age: 44

Hometown: Washington, DC

Family Members: My family includes my partner, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and nephews and nieces on both coasts

Fun fact about yourself: My secret fantasy is to be a Salsa Queen.

Undergraduate School and Degree:

  • Rutgers University – Bachelor of Arts, Africana Studies & Public Health
  • City University of New York – Master of Public Administration
  • Howard University – Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work & Master of Social Work

Where are you currently working? After seven years in criminal justice, I left a position as chief of staff at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency in Washington, DC, to more fully immerse myself in the Haas experience as I pivot to a career in social entrepreneurship.

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: Between 2005 and 2017, I volunteered in short- and long-term disaster recovery efforts related to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In my most recent role, I established a workplace volunteerism program for federal employees that allowed staff to contribute to the communities in which we serve, promoting a sense of camaraderie.

One of my favorite extracurricular activities has been volunteering with the National Urban Fellows (NUF), a national public service leadership development program that provides educational and professional opportunities for underrepresented groups. As a program alumnus, I served in several volunteer capacities: as a DC host committee lead and creator and instructor of a Research and Statistics Bootcamp for new program admits. I also chaired the academic workgroup of the NUF Academic Partner Search/Selection committee that was responsible for selecting Georgetown University as NUF’s newest academic partner, beginning in 2020.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Reflecting on my time in business school so far, I am most proud of doing my part to question the status quo at Haas by advocating for more attention to the underrepresentation of marginalized communities in the classroom and within the course content. I was pleased to be asked to help shape an equity, diversity, and leadership course in the Executive MBA program. My belief is that this was not only the right thing to do but in today’s world, it is also a must do. I was proud that Haas is “walking its own talk” by taking the initial steps of listening to students and incorporating our input to strengthen the program.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? In my role as chief of staff of a probation and parole agency, I am proud of my legacy of improving operational and organizational effectiveness. The work included a series of internal controls, system enhancements and employee capacity building and engagement activities such as the establishment of the Quality Improvement Unit. My work to improve how men and women in the District of Columbia were treated under probation and parole supervision was particularly rewarding. I led the development of a strategy tailored for the 18 to 24-year-old population. I also led an agency-wide reorganization and process reengineering to create a more responsive and hopeful approach to supervision that would balance accountability with behavioral interventions and restorative justice. These efforts were undertaken despite a budget cut, negative media campaigns, crime spikes, two government shutdowns, changing political winds, and transitions of two presidentially-appointed agency leaders.

What was your favorite MBA course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it? Our week-long immersion courses at the end of each term have allowed us to learn more about ourselves and our classmates; practice and apply the knowledge and skills from core courses, and expose us to the real world of Silicon Valley start-ups. Combined, these experiences allow us to synthesize the course content into tangible and meaningful insights. The most profound of which has been my belief that I now possess the access, tools, and talents to become a successful social entrepreneur.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? I liked that UC Berkeley and Haas are known for being progressive. Because I believe that business can be a driver for economic growth and social change, I needed to find an MBA program that aligned with my beliefs. As someone who had spent her entire career in the social sector and who had never seen herself in the business world, I was immediately attracted to Haas’ culture. I was pleased to learn that it was more than just a marketing scheme, but that the culture is embraced by the students.

Another important consideration was the structure of this program: course blocks every three weeks, experiential immersion courses, and the residential component, which made commuting feasible.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? So far, what I enjoy most about business school are the new perspectives and tools that I immediately put to work. I am able to ask more thoughtful questions, make more compelling cases, and implement more effective protocols. The fact that I get to do this in a place that values respect and collaboration over dominance and competition makes this process even more rewarding.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? My biggest lesson: Culture eats strategy! “Hard” business skills are imperative, but they are not sufficient. My belief that poor “soft” skills can undermine or accelerate performance was reinforced, as was my belief that one of the most important responsibilities of leadership is to build and maintain an organizational culture. Having a deepened appreciation for this allowed me to successfully advocate for executive coaching and a series of developmental retreats for our entire executive team.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family, and education? Frankly, for the first half of the program, I don’t think I did a very good job of juggling, work, family, and education while commuting from the East Coast. Going in, I knew that this commitment to an EMBA would be a tough one, especially serving in a very demanding role at work, but I underestimated the time I needed to make the most of the program.

Because I knew that my future was on the other side of the lessons I would learn at Haas, I had to make some real changes to the second part of the program. Although my employer graciously granted me scheduling flexibilities and my family was supportive, I ultimately decided to leave my job to focus exclusively on school and family.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? My advice to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program would be to ruthlessly prioritize and be intentional with your time, and to then manage expectations in personal and professional relationships by being clear and transparent about these constraints.

What was your biggest regret in business school? Since I worked and commuted for the first half of the program, I haven’t been able to spend as much time cultivating relationships with my classmates and alumni network and taken better advantage of all of the resources that Berkeley has to offer.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? It is absolutely impossible for me to narrow it down to one classmate! In my cohort of 72, there are 32 intelligent, dynamic, and thoughtful women, several successful entrepreneurs, a comprehensive medical team, and a priest. Two examples of classmates who embody the qualities of the cohort I admire—high IQ and EQ, curiosity, compassion, strength, humility and humor—are Meenu Natarajan and Alex Martin. Meenu is a financial wizard by day, dedicated mother and wife by night, diligent student and a class leader who somehow also manages to coordinate celebrations for classmates’ birthdays and weddings. Alex is a co-founder and CEO in throes of growing his company. He is the ultimate taskmaster, but remains grounded, principled, passionate, and does not shy away from sharing his successes and failures for the benefit of the whole. Despite his impressive resume and accomplishments, he remains humble, generous, and thoughtful.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I knew that I wanted to go to business school when I recognized the challenges in the social sector were greater than the tools at my disposal. Since I wanted to address health disparities and other inequities in new ways, I needed to learn about innovation and disruption of traditional systems and industries.”

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? My ultimate professional goal is to build a health and wellness business that addresses health disparities among women of color.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? I would like to be remembered by my Haas peers as someone who is genuine, thoughtful, and committed to helping others improve their lives, navigate difficulties, and overcome challenges.

What are the top two items on your bucket list? This may be the part where I am supposed to name climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro or scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef, but the two highest aspirations I have are for a life defined by PURPOSE and FREEDOM.

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

“Lisa Rawlings exemplifies a Berkeley Leader through her embodiment of the Haas Defining Leadership Principles within the academic setting and beyond. She is a tireless and unwavering advocate for marginalized populations, encouraging our Haas community to recognize broader implications of power and privilege that are not explicitly evident but are always at play.

She speaks with a quiet and confident authority, utilizing data to support her contributions, and challenging her peers to consider alternative perspectives that deepen the conversation, and ultimately, the learning. Our EMBA Program, and Berkeley Haas, is better for Lisa’s tenacious quest for knowledge and her courageous leadership.”

Emma Daftary

Director of Academics and Student Experience

The Berkeley MBA for Executives


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