2019 MBAs To Watch: Karen Noblett: U.C.-Irvine (Merage)

Karen Noblett, M.D.

University of California Irvine, The Paul Merage School of Business

Age: 56

Describe yourself in 15 words or less: Highly motivated, curious, visionary, life-long learner, open-minded, nimble, passionate, dedicated, love to laugh, and tenacious.

Hometown: Orange, California

Family Members: Spouse of 21 years, two stepchildren, one grandson, mother, father, brother, sister, and one niece.

Fun fact about yourself: When I retire, I want to own a Winery/Dog Rescue; the name will be “Paws and Relax” and our featured wines will be a “Malbark”, a “Chateauneuf de Pup” and a “Grrrrrrnache”. Instead of a “drink of the day”, we will have a “dog of the day” who is up for adoption and roaming the winery that day, shamelessly looking for scratches behind the ears.

Undergraduate School and Degree: California State University, Fresno, BA in Biology with a minor in Chemistry; University of California Irvine School of Medicine, MD degree; University of California San Diego, MS in Clinical Research

Where are you currently working? Chief Medical Officer at Axonics Modulation Technologies. Also have a faculty appointment at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine.

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: Serve as a board member and board examiner for the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology; Serve as the Foundation Chair for American Urogynecology Society Board of Directors. 43rd Annual Lauds and Laurels, UC Irvine School of Medicine Distinguished Alumni Award recipient.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I am most proud of being intimately involved in the successful IPO of our company in October of 2018. This was in large part due to the successful clinical trial that we were able to execute in record time. Overseeing the pivotal FDA trial with an outstanding team and having a professional background in this area allowed me to provide clinical expertise to the Axonics story during our IPO roadshow. Even though this was a rough time in the market, our IPO was 10X oversubscribed and we ended the roadshow a day early due to the demand. This was definitely the experience of a lifetime and real-world learning during my MBA.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I am most proud of becoming the founding Chair of the OB/GYN Department at the newly-minted medical school at UC-Riverside. In this role, I was able to create a department that embraced a culture of respect, professionalism, and gratitude. We were able to recruit outstanding faculty that represented all subspecialties in OB/GYN, develop and create an accredited OB/GYN residency program within 2 years, and also engage community physicians to participate with the residency program. This was so meaningful to me because there is such a need for medical care in the Inland Empire of California. With such a paucity of physicians in Riverside County, especially subspecialists, patients were having to travel many miles just to get the care they needed – and many never got that care. Being able to bring high-caliber, subspecialty physicians in OB/GYN to the Riverside area was so impactful to the women in the region. We actually coined the tagline “UCR Women’s Health, Bringing Health Home”. I was very proud of what we accomplished in such a short time, and it really had a positive impact on the community.

Who was your favorite professor? Professor Leonard Lane was my absolute favorite professor. Professor Lane had a true gift and a love for teaching. If I had to describe Professor Lane’s approach to teaching, I would say he is current, relevant, and passionate, which is a great combination for effective teaching. I was fortunate enough to have him for 3 quarters which included Strategy, Global Strategy and our International Residence where we traveled to Israel.

Leonard taught the expected traditional curriculum (and did it very effectively), but more importantly, he taught from real-world experience. Many of our classroom discussions would often take on whatever the most recent related topic was in the media and he would tie it to a current topic we were studying. He was dynamic with his approach and understood how emerging technologies are changing the strategic approach for most industries and adapted his curriculum to accommodate this evolution. The most impactful course I had with Professor Lane was our International Residential trip to Israel which was truly a transformational experience for me. Leonard has a special connection to Israel and was able to coordinate multiple meetings with companies, individuals, and incubators that really gave us a global insight into the struggles and barriers for Israel to be able to become a scale-up nation. This was a very special trip with so many opportunities to connect with the people of Israel and gain first-hand insight into their entrepreneurial nature as well as the struggles they face. This was only possible due to the careful planning of Professor Lane.

What was your favorite MBA course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it? My favorite course was Competing with Digital with Vijay Gurbaxani. This course really opened my eyes to all the technological advances occurring in so many industries. Being in the medical field and practicing in an academic environment for so many years, I felt like I had been in a cocoon with no real awareness of the outside world. The digital and technological advances were of specific interest to me, especially as they applied to the medical device industry. The final project of our class was to do industry analysis and make recommendations to the CEO of a company on how they can become competitive in the digital world. Our group picked the medical device industry and I began to research how my company could take our technology into the digital realm. What is so exciting is that I now have buy-in from my CEO, CFO, and our Chief Technology Officer and we have started research on how we are going to accomplish this. Had I not taken this class and been exposed to what is happening, I may have never come up with the ideas to take our company to the next level.

Also, I now know that Python is not just a snake, but a program to write code. I’m feeling pretty current!

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? The Paul Merage School of Business at UC Irvine has an excellent reputation and I have several colleagues who have matriculated through this program and endorse it highly. When I first applied, I it was to the Healthcare EMBA program. However, based on my entrance essay and future goals, it was recommended to me that I enroll in the EMBA program and I am so glad I did as the curriculum matched exactly what I was looking for in an MBA program. I also knew that UCI was focused on digital innovation and I was very interested to become knowledgeable in this area. Another key feature that guided my decision was that it was primarily an in-person program. This resonated with me, as I am a more interactive learner and believe this provides a very rich learning environment. As the only physician in my class, I have thoroughly enjoyed the in-person dialogue and exchange of thoughts and ideas from peers that have very different backgrounds.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? What I enjoyed most was meeting people outside of medicine and being back in a learning environment. The camaraderie of the class and the relationships that we developed are invaluable. I also enjoyed getting out of my comfort zone as I struggled with using a financial calculator! Without a doubt, the thing I most value about going back to school is really challenging myself to be more in the growth mindset and out of the fixed mindset. This has been a personal challenge and I am grateful being back in school has afforded me the opportunity to better myself in this arena. I enrolled in the MBA program because I really wanted to learn about business, so I really focused on the learning aspect of the program and not the grades I got. This was a real step forward for me coming from a competitive environment when I was trying to get into medical school and grades were extremely important. My ego is still a bit tied up with my grades, but this has given me the perfect opportunity to gain awareness and insight into myself and make specific strides to be more mindset-oriented.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? The biggest lesson I gained during my EMBA was the introduction to the digital technologies and machine learning capabilities that are currently available and how they may be applied to the medical field. I have taken these ideas and applied them at work by engaging my Chief Technology Officer and several key engineers to begin exploring how we can develop a closed-loop system to improve the delivery of our current technology to further improve clinical outcomes for our patients. This has led to the initiation of a proof-of-concept study that we will initiate in the next few months. Had I not been exposed to this in my EMBA program, I would not have had the idea to begin exploring these possibilities.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family, and education? Fortunately, I have a very understanding and supportive spouse, but she is looking forward to having our weekends back! One of the times I really had to juggle work, school, and personal life was during a trip we had planned for our 20-year anniversary. Prior to joining my new company, Axonics, and applying for the MBA program, we had planned a 2-week hike along the Salkantay trail into Machu Picchu (bucket list item). As luck would have it, by the time our trip rolled around I was brand new on my job and had just started my MBA program. One of the weekends we were going to be gone one of my classes had a major group presentation. To accommodate for this, I videotaped my portion of the presentation with Machu Picchu as the backdrop and was able to fully contribute to my group. At that time, we were also in the middle of our clinical trial, and I was able to check in with the clinical team on a daily basis at the end of our day to troubleshoot any issues and ensure continued patient enrollment in the trial. This was all quite the coordination, but it all worked out and we had a fantastic 20-year anniversary celebration.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? I would highly recommend they follow their instinct and do it when they have the momentum, excitement, and energy to fully commit to the program. Even though I had been thinking about getting my MBA for several years, the time wasn’t really ideal for me until I joined Axonics and then I dove right in. This was the perfect timing as it gave me so much insight into my new corporate role, especially as we went through our IPO and now are gearing up for commercialization. I also recommend that they talk to their employer and spouse to make sure they will be supported through this process. This is so important to allow for maximal learning. I was very fortunate to have an extremely supportive spouse who understood that many of my weekends and nights would be occupied by homework or school and never wavered in her support. My CEO was also completely supportive of my time away from work and really respected my commitment to the program. In fact, when I approached him with the idea of getting my EMBA, his immediate response was “that’s a great idea”. Having that support has been key to my success in the program.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? The biggest myth is that you won’t have a life and you will be barely able to juggle work and school, let alone family life. Although the curriculum was rigorous and required a significant time commitment, it was very manageable for both work and family life, with the caveat that you have support from home and work.

What was your biggest regret in business school? Not having more time to read and absorb all the rich information provided to us. There is so much that is available, but it would be more than a full-time job to be able to take advantage of it all. I also regret that it went by so fast and that I will soon no longer see my classmates on a regular basis. I will miss being in the classroom learning environment and having great interactions with my professors and colleagues.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? The classmate I most admire is Debra Baetz. She was part of my small group and mid-way through our first year, her husband unexpectedly passed away. This was at the end of a quarter and our class and professors rallied behind her. She somehow was able to make up the work for the quarter despite this great tragedy. She continued on in the program without wavering and continued to excel in her performance, not once letting our group down. In the midst of this, she also got a promotion which significantly added to her responsibility. Debra never missed a beat and continued on with resilience and fortitude that was impressive and deeply moving. I have a tremendous amount of respect and affection for Debra and consider her a great example of thriving in the face of adversity.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I joined Axonics as the Chief Medical Officer and knew it was the right time for me to advance my knowledge in the business arena.”

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I ultimately see myself as CEO of a healthcare related company. The lessons I have learned having been involved in Axonics from the beginning of an idea to an IPO and now onto commercialization have been invaluable. Couple that with the fact that this all occurred in tandem with completing my EMBA was an amazing experience and has given me the skill set and experience to pursue my goal of becoming a CEO. I do however feel I still have a great deal to learn before I take that step, and the EMBA program has given me a great foundation on which to build.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? I would like my peers to remember me as collaborative, reliable, a team player with valuable contributions, genuine and someone who conducted themselves with integrity.

What are the top two items on your bucket list?

  1. Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro (did Machu Picchu last year!)
  2. Becoming CEO of a healthcare related company

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

“When one thinks of what the words Entrepreneurial Learner mean, the image you get is Karen Noblett.  A person who truly exhibited entrepreneurial attitudes, skills, and knowledge that enabled her to turn creative ideas from the classroom and global residential and into teachable moments she could share with her classmates. Through her coursework and collaboration with her classmates, she engaged and motivated them through sharing her extensive and relevant learning experiences from her life and work. Her deep and rich knowledge from the medical and business disciplines coupled with an intense curiosity and generative listening ability enabled her to facilitate the class learning process to another level.

Karen is truly a learning role model that accelerated the learning journey of the EMBA class of 2019.”

Leonard Lane

Professor of Practice, Strategy

Paul Merage School of Business

University of California, Irvin


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