2020 Best & Brightest EMBAs: Tiffany Pillifant, University of Virginia (Darden)

Tiffany Pillifant

University of Virginia, Darden School of Business

“Proven operations, marketing, and product leader who’s comfortable paying service to forests and trees alike.”

Age: 42

Hometown: Charlottesville, VA

Family Members: Andy (spouse), Lael (stepson, 17), Oscar (son, 5), Miles (son, 4)

Fun fact about yourself: I drove a university bus (like a city bus) as my job while in college. It was one of the most fun jobs I ever had!

Undergraduate School and Degree: University of Virginia, Bachelor of Arts in Studio Art, 2000

Where are you currently working? Thomson Reuters; Sr Director, Marketing Performance & Insights

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

  • Active ceramicist and potter
  • Class president for Darden EMBA Class of 2020, responsible in part for inspiring the creation of a class representative for diversity and inclusion, the hire of an additional D&I staff member, complete revamp of course materials, and peer appreciation program
  • Co-creator of Masks for Cville (multidisciplinary team in the Charlottesville community, formed to support hospitals, skilled nursing and long-term care facilities, and the broader community in understanding their need for personal protective medical supplies, find manufacturing capabilities within the community, model their usage and burn-down rates, and collaborate with local organizations to equitably distribute those items)

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I am most proud to be part of the Masks for Cville founding team.  The team was formed in response to a dire need in our community to protect our front-line medical workers – in-and-out of the hospital setting – so that they could care for us should we need it. Our small team rallied around a need, leveraged our unique capabilities (nursing, medicine, supply chain, project management, data modeling) and was able to find a way to make a difference amid the chaos surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.  To date, we have organized and distributed thousands of crafted face shields and 5000 ear protectors, collaborated with the area assisted living and skilled nursing facilities to assess and monitor their personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies, and have worked with biomedical engineers to manufacture goods where the supply chain has failed.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I am most proud of the creation of a complex suite of analytics and dashboards to support my company’s marketing organization.  Typically, marketing organizations are rife with metrics about the performance of their campaigns. And when I began my most current role, I thought this was the case. After much analysis by my team, we concluded that the analytics we were using were incorrect and unreliable and that the support we were getting on resolving our issues was equally so. I mobilized my team around the idea of rebuilding everything from the ground up ourselves, correctly, and we did that in about 8 weeks. I’m immensely proud that we’ve built something accurate, timely, usable, and light years ahead of where the team was before. However, I’m even more proud that I rolled up our sleeves and stepped outside of the boundaries of my role and asked for forgiveness rather than permission. At the end of the day, it was the right move and one that will benefit the business for years to come – truly a game-changer.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Now, this is an extremely hard question to answer! It takes a really special, talented person to teach experienced adults, recognize that folks in the room may have decades of practical experience with their subject area, and to use the case method, with all of its twists and turns. I have had incredible professors in so many different classes and in different ways – from professors who are bursts of energy, to ones who make you question yourself to your core, to those who bring you from confusion to fluency, to those who are just downright experts in their craft and subject areas. A professor who truly stood out to me was my Accounting II professor, Shane Dikolli. Shane was in his first year at Darden, having recently arrived from Fuqua. He had a true love for accounting, the art of decoding it for students, and being in the classroom, that his enthusiasm and care was palpable. Shane took the time to memorize all students’ names before our first day of class, never forgot them a year later, and was emotional when our class awarded him with both of our only two faculty awards. Shane managed to make accounting fun, and a class that I looked forward to every week. I’ll never forget how invested he is in our success and how much pride he takes over our job well done.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? When initially evaluating programs, I was drawn to Darden’s convenience for me, it’s great standing, and the recommendations of friends that had gone through the program. However, as I moved deeper into consideration, the tone of the classroom (was it competitive? Respectful? Fun? Rushed?), and quality of teaching started to matter more. Darden’s case method makes learning the material fun and reality-based and the teaching staff has a great reputation for being the best. Upon doing a class visit, I observed the collaborative and supportive environment of a live class – with students asking questions, engaged, and helping each other along the way. With all of this, Darden became the only choice for me.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? Hands down, I enjoyed the network of people I met. Business school was a small, tight-knit group of die-hard advocates for me, my career, and my best self. My incredible Learning Team, along with a slew of people who disagreed with me, pushed me to be accountable for my thoughts. They left me wondering, “Do I really think that?” at the end of each day – the honesty I felt in all of it in the classroom truly made me better.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family, and education? Darden does a great job of forcing each student to examine their priorities early in the program. I remember working on our “triangle” of priorities – a trio of the most important things in our life which was different for each person. The catch, though, is that you could likely only have success in two of the three areas at any given time. My triangle at the time consisted of work, family, and school, and I made a personal vow that my “family” node would never be an area that was neglected. There came a time about 18 months into the program where I had to make a choice between attending in-person classes during a weekend or being home and present for my son’s 5th birthday. Hands down, without hesitation, I chose to be home and to forfeit the “points” I would have gotten by being in the classroom at that time. On my son’s birthday morning, my husband and I surprised him with balloons, presents, a special breakfast, and a whole day dedicated to celebrating him as a family. I will never regret the choice.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? An EMBA program is a time-intensive marathon – you need to be sure that the program you choose is the right fit for you. Spend time talking to current and former students about what to expect, the culture of the school, the teaching style of professors, extracurriculars, and real-time requirements, and atmosphere in the classroom. Don’t choose a school without understanding what your life will look like after your choice: will you have 10 hours a week of reading? How are the courses graded? Are students invested or do they commute home immediately after class? Is it competitive? What are the students’ backgrounds?  The professors? Really get to know the school – you’ll be in a long-term relationship, after all!

What was your biggest regret in business school? My biggest regret was that I didn’t take more global trips with my classmates. Especially now, amid the restrictions necessitated by the pandemic, my wanderlust and need to discover new places and things, is really at the forefront of my mind.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I most admire Karen Henneberger – she entered business school at a more “seasoned” time in her life, after a career in a particular vertical in Government, and completely embraced the student lifestyle.  She was fully present in each class, always prepared, ready for contribution, and willing to help others.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I realized that I didn’t have much longer in my career to become fluent in the key motions of business, and that time was a-wastin’.”

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? Long-term, I want to work in an operations capacity to help late-stage tech startups stabilize and prepare to grow, be acquired, or go public.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? I would like my peers to be able to say, “Tiffany is a smart, natural leader with a human side who is not afraid to ask the hard questions.”

What are the top two items on your bucket list? Another hard question! I’d love to spend some significant time in Japan one day – getting to know the entire country, customs, food, climate, culture – it’s always been a fascination of mine.

What made Tiffany such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2020?

“Tiffany is the epitome of what Darden aspires to be – and creates through our program. She is bright, energetic and passionate about learning. She comes to class prepared and isn’t afraid to ask hard questions that stretch her thinking and that of others in the room. Tiffany doesn’t seek the limelight – she finds ways to contribute that involve her peers and make the learning and the conversation the focus. I also so appreciate her frankness and her honesty. She was never afraid to say what she really thought, even if it had some rough edges to it, because she respected her peers and the learning enough to take that risk. And, in most every case, her leadership allowed others to feel like they could also share things they might have held back were it not for her example. Tiffany spent countless hours connecting with peers, faculty colleagues, and other staff to make sure we had a healthy community, that student concerns were heard and addressed, and that faculty had an ear and a pulse on what was happening with their students. One might say she was a servant leader within our community as she certainly went well beyond what one would expect from a section leader.

Her work related to COVID-19 is amazing. And while I was initially a bit surprised to hear about it, since she didn’t work in health care, once I gave it a minute’s thought I realized it was classic Tiffany. She saw a need, she thought about how she might be able to help and she did something. More than that, she reached out to people who would know more about what would make a difference, she engaged with them, learned how to use her talents to greatest effect, and she worked tirelessly to make it happen. In my view, she is an outstanding example of what Darden tries to help cultivate in our students.”

Darden Professor Andy Wicks

DON’T MISS: THE FULL LIST OF THE TOP 100 BEST & BRIGHTEST EXECUTIVE MBAS OF 2020

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