2020 Best & Brightest EMBAs: Catharine Smith, MIT (Sloan)

Catharine Smith

MIT, Sloan School of Management

CEO of US healthcare at the Clinton Foundation, Mom.  Obsessed with equity, human rights and non-profit turnaround.”

Age: 40

Hometown: Kansas City, MO (hometown)… Boston, MA (current residence)

Family Members:  Son, Eoin, 8 years old

Fun fact about yourself:  I competitive roller skated (figure skating on roller skates) for many years during my childhood and as a teenager. I guard the pictures with my life!

Undergraduate School and Degree:

Master of Arts in Social Sciences, University of Chicago, 2004

Bachelor of Arts in International Studies, DePaul University, 2001

 

Where are you currently working? CEO, Clinton Health Matters Initiative, Clinton Foundation, New York, NY.

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: (Include school awards and honors)

Stride, Board Chair, 2020-present

Ronald McDonald House, Volunteer Translator and Editor, 2014-2015

Human Rights Campaign, Board Member & Gala Dinner Chair, 2004-2010

Fulbright Scholar, Uruguay, 2002-2003

 

Awards from undergraduate years:

International Studies Departmental Award, 2001

International Studies Leadership Award, 2001

DePaul University Academic Achievement Honors Award, 2000-2001

Missouri Bright Flight Scholarship, 1997-1999

 

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school?  A friend and leader. In early 2020, I nominated my colleague Stephen Barr for the MIT Martin Luther King Leadership award.  Stephen embodies service to the community and Sloan’s spirit of principled leadership. He is the light of our EMBA class, a strong and supportive colleague and a wonderful friend. I was honored to nominate him. Last month MIT gave Stephen the Leadership award and I have never been so proud.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Teaming. I have been very fortunate to work with some great organizations and experience some thrilling wins in my professional career and I am proud of everything- the wins and the heartbreaking losses. I am MOST proud of the teams that I have built and the role I have played as a mentor. In my first executive leadership role at the Society of Hospital Medicine, I inherited a small, junior team with a ton of potential. One of my team members, Michelle, started as a coordinator (entry-level), and over a few years I promoted her to Director and now she runs a very successful, $3M+ product. I hired Nick to serve as a project manager and quickly realized his leadership skills were unlimited. I promoted him to Director and now he serves as VP of Organizational Development. At Harvard, I worked with Caroline, a communications coordinator who was extremely quiet, hard-working and totally under everyone’s radar.  When her boss left for another role, she asked for a promotion.  At that moment, I knew nothing about her skills, but I agreed to mentor her. In a few short months, Caroline turned into a marketing and communications superstar with little from me other than encouragement and support. I am most proud of Nick, Michelle, Caroline and my other rock star team members who make me proud every day.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? Mission and challenge. I started my investigation into EMBA programs by talking to alumni and was immediately drawn to the MIT EMBA alumni. I loved the focus on people and relationships, the balance of qualitative leadership and organizational management development with intense quantitative skill building. As I’ve become more immersed in MIT’s ecosystem, MIT Sloan’s mission to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world is tangible in the work going on around me. Many, if not most, of the faculty and students are starting or developing social impact organizations as they run their companies or re-invent their careers. Many are working to improve leadership, green policies or the social footprint of their companies. As a social justice-minded person who has worked in non-profit my entire career, this resonated with me from my initial meetings with students and alumni to my interactions with faculty, staff, and students across the institute.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? The people and the relationships. My MIT EMBA class is a diverse class of brilliant, kind executives and I’ve had the opportunity to build lasting friendships and an infinitely valuable professional network. A great example of this is my global lab team. Each spring, the EMBA class has the option to participate in Go-Lab, a learning/consulting project with a company or organization outside of the US. (This was shifted to a digital project due to COVID). My team was the dream team – we were extremely diverse, both phenotypically and in terms of our careers. The team consisted of a biophysicist, a media revenue expert, a non-profit executive, a finance guru, a high-rise construction executive ,and a gastroenterologist.  That is not a group that would ever get together naturally…except at MIT. The best part is that the Go Lab team members are literally some of the kindest, funniest people I have met in my life.  Despite COVID-related shifts in scope and travel, we had so much fun and learned a ton from each other.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? Roberto Fernandez’s Red Lens. In our first semester, Roberto Fernandez teaches us the 3 Lens framework- political (red), cultural (grey) and structural (blue).  This class made me realize how much effort I had invested in cultural and structural skill-building. I also realized I was blind to the red lens. I had been missing political connections and networks across my organizations and ignoring the need to build essential relationships and manage complex linkages all around me. I started to sit in meetings and see the interactions, decisions and challenges through the red lens.  Halfway through my EMBA program, I took a position leading a division of the Clinton Foundation, the foundation created by former President Clinton and led by former White House staffers. The red lens was blinding in this context! I am forever thankful to Dr. Fernandez for opening my eyes to a key role as leader- navigating political (and in my case, Political) networks and challenges.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? The sandwich generation.  During orientation, one of my teammates mentioned that we are at a sandwich stage, caring for both parents and children, which can be a stressful position. Even in the early days, that resonated with me given my aging mom in Kansas City and my 6-year-old son in Boston. About 4 months into the EMBA program, my mom became ill. At the time it looked like she might recover, but within a few weeks, it was clear that she was terminally ill, and my family and I decided that she would go into hospice care.

In the meantime, my 6-year-old son was starting to refer to MIT as a place that stole me from him, and our classwork was extremely heavy and very challenging.

At the end of the day, I wasn’t able to balance much. My work suffered, and I am grateful for an understanding boss and kind coworkers who supported me every day. My MIT EMBA team carried me through a long winter of my mom’s illness and death. My mental wellness suffered, and it took a lot of exercise, reflection, and a wonderful group of friends to make sure I didn’t permanently drown. My son is resilient and, as I end my EMBA program and am at home due to social distancing, is very happy to have me back.

Juggling is an appropriate metaphor. We tend to talk about work-life balance or work-EMBA-life balance. This was impossible during my EMBA program, as it did seem like I was throwing many balls in the air and hoping to catch some of them (while dropping most of them). I survived because of my EMBA and work teams and some wonderful friends.

What was your biggest regret in business school? Loss. Towards the end of my first year of business school, my mom passed away. She raised me as a single mom and was, in many ways, the center of my world. She was so proud of me and I am very sad about not being able to share the news of my new job. She was so excited to vote for Hillary Clinton for President and support a female leader and she would have been very proud of my new role with the Clinton Foundation. As I look towards (virtual) graduation, I realize this is the first time that she won’t attend one of my graduations. My mom grew up in 1940s and 50s post-depression Kansas. Her father was a gas station attendant and her mom a homemaker. My mom worked as a receptionist and my two older siblings did not attend college.  My mom would never have dreamed that one of her children would attend MIT.  It’s a huge regret for me that she won’t see me graduate (even virtually) from Sloan.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Do I have to choose just one? Although there are many, I will choose Megan Lanham. Megan is my mentor, my friend and my confidant. She has helped me through some of the most difficult moments in my life. When my mom passed, she quietly left food on my doorstep. When I needed career advice, she took time out of her crazy schedule to talk to me. When I needed life advice (and didn’t know that I needed it!), she was kind, firm, direct and brutally honest. Mid-EMBA program she was promoted to CEO of her company and she is so successful and so humble. Our class loves her and looks to her as a model executive. She’s an excellent mom, spouse, advocate, friend and DJ.  I cherish her friendship and am so lucky to have her as a mentor. 

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I had worked in non-profit for over a decade and realized my profession needed an infusion of entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen.”

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? Learn. Be Challenged. Work with good humans. I have spent my career working in non-profit focusing on sustainable business models and integrating management best practices into non-profits and working with community leaders, experts, and activists. My ultimate long-term professional goal is to continue this work in leadership roles and/or board positions. I’d also love to spend some time in the for-profit world, bringing social impact and community engagement to companies with digital products and services.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? Hilarious, creative, kind, and the person who is always willing to be the liberal queer that plays Donald Trump in Dr. Sterman’s climate change simulation.

What are the top two items on your bucket list? Take my son to Spain and learn to scuba dive.

What made Catharine such an invaluable addition to the class of 2020?  “Catharine Smith is a passionate and determined leader of the MIT Executive MBA Class of 2020 that we deservedly nominate as our choice for Poets & Quants’ Top 50 Executive MBA graduates.

Catharine is committed to strengthening communities wherever she goes by applying her knowledge and dedication into her work. She takes the mission of MIT Sloan seriously as a “leader that wants to improve the world,” and strives to work on ways to continuously improve communities. Within the MIT EMBA, Catharine is part of the Women’s Group and is attributed by her classmates as the reason the community has continued to grow closer and stronger together. In our program, innovation is key in the development of our students and the methods in which they are taught. Catharine has helped provide valuable feedback from her peers on how we can better the program for future students, too.

Catharine is a voice for the voiceless, speaking for those in need. In her professional life, she is the Chief Executive Officer of the Clinton Health Matters Initiative (CHMI) at the Clinton Foundation and has previously served as Executive Director of the Harvard Center for Primary Care. It has been a privilege to watch Catharine grow and lead during her time in the program.

Johanna Hising DiFabio
MIT Executive MBA Assistant Dean

 

Georgia Perakis
MIT Executive MBA Faculty Director

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