2021 Best & Brightest EMBAs: David Zartman, USC (Marshall)

David Zartman

University of Southern California, Marshall School of Business

Age: 51

“Grateful for friends and family, and working hard to pay it forward.”

Hometown: Cupertino, CA

Family: My wife, Naceem, is a licensed clinical social worker and is a private practice mental health therapist at Wholehearted Life Therapy. She is very wise and patient, and indeed is the rock I stand on. She absolutely was a large part of my success during this journey—thank you, dear! I have two elementary school-age daughters, so I’m outnumbered in my house. One is a black belt in tae kwon do, the other loves to explore the outdoors, and both are voracious readers. Also, I’ll take a moment to acknowledge the support of my parents; Charlie, HBS ’59 who encouraged and mentored me, and Joan, always there for a pep talk.

Fun fact about yourself: I love exploring old tunnels, mineshafts, and abandoned buildings. I may or may not have once talked my way into the Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot cellars under the UK’s House of Lords…

Undergraduate School and Degree: B.A., Political Science, University of Oregon.

Where are you currently working? Seven Crows Media, Inc.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I had to dive deep into the quant side, having entered the program from a liberal arts background. There were some long nights sweating over income statements, bond pricing, corporate finance valuation spreadsheets, and WACC. But thanks to hard work, accessible professors and my study group teammates, I thrived and succeeded. It really cemented the joy, power and educational experience you can find in team collaboration.

Outside of the classroom, I tapped Ari Rezazadeh and Jenny Liu to join me to produce a “Master Class” interview session with actor/producer Kevin Makely on navigating the Hollywood business world and much more. It’s professionally edited and you can watch it on YouTube. I’m an avid reader and writer, and I’ve penned several features on digital standardization in shipping processes, environmental concerns, and more. Finally, I successfully invited the CMO of Burton Snowboards, Sarah Crockett, to do an exclusive Q&A with our cohort, which was a high moment for me.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? In 2005, I burned the boats on the beach and quit my job to launch a media company, Seven Crows Media, from scratch. I had been working as a managing editor at an offroad lifestyle magazine. I was in a bookstore (remember them?) and saw a magazine about Ford Focus cars. I was amazed that it could possibly survive—how many Ford Foci are there? In that moment, I realized that there wasn’t a publication that covered the world’s largest auto manufacturer, Toyota, and more specifically, the massive global world of 4WD Toyotas: Land Cruisers, Tacomas, 4Runners, Hiluxes, Tundras, FJ Cruisers, and more. I saw an incredible opportunity in this niche market. I started it with no outside funding, no debt, and it was profitable from day one.

I remember reaching out to Toyota’s legal team to pitch my request to use the name “Toyota” in the title of our magazine: 4WD Toyota Owner. They agreed, and it was my first real-world negotiation success. I loved the late nights, the daily rush of making all the decisions and having no one to blame—it’s all on you. Subscriptions and ad revenue poured in. It was here where I got my boots-on-the-ground introduction to the marketing, sales, accounting and strategy realms, and it ultimately inspired me to get my EMBA—more on that later.

I’ve built the company into a success, with subscribers on every populated continent, associated digital properties, and great social media numbers, but what I’m most proud of is assembling a stellar staff who have stayed with me through thick and thin. I’m a big picture guy; complex concept execution doesn’t scare me, but I also know to surround myself with better, smarter people than me. The team is stronger than I am. I treat them above and beyond and they respond in kind. To reference USC Marshall’s own Professor Dave Logan, we have a constant Stage 4 tribal culture with lots of Stage 5 as well. “Work” is fun day in and day out!

Who was your favorite MBA professor? I can’t possibly choose just one! Greg Patton in Communication, Mark DeFond and S. Mark Young introduced an unexpected love of accounting, Gene Del Vecchio for his exuberant marketing class, Steve Moyer and Chris Parsons in corporate finance, Prof. Rajagopalan in supply chain, Arvind Bhambri for global strategy, Christopher Bresnahan on Leadership…they were all so engaging and talented professors.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? In 2016, I was living in Málaga, Spain. I’m adopted, have Basque heritage, and we wanted our kids to have a global cultural experience. After eleven years, the magazine was now functioning as a well-oiled machine, and I could run the company with little effort; it basically ran itself. I realized that although I had learned the basics of business—accounting, marketing, etc.—I was only scratching the surface. What efficiencies was I missing, what strategies could I be employing to help grow and scale? So, in the spirit of kaizen—Toyota’s cultural theme of continual self-improvement—I decided to go back to getting my butt kicked and get an EMBA. What stood out to me about USC were two things: Marshall’s focus on personal communication/personal brand education as well as solid quant classwork. Then, of course, there was the incomparable Trojan Family/Trojan Network we join as students and alumni.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? Personal development, authenticity, and nurturing others is the key to so much in life—and in business as well. I came to the program with a raging case of imposter syndrome. I projected an image of who I hoped would impress the world. It grieves me to think of the missed opportunities—not just of learning, but of personal connection. Luckily, as time passed, I managed to shed those insecurities and present my authentic self to the professors and classmates. The result was a much deeper experience on all levels, rather than one that would have had lingering regret at what could have been.

One more thing: I learned that details matter. Every little thing matters in business. I tend to operate at the 10,000’ level—big vision, big picture. I’ve had to learn to come down to ground level and apply basic principles to the vehicle build projects we do, experiential events we produce, marketing relationships we forge, and even the core publication content creation. I’ve learned to slow down, listen carefully and speak less. I’m taking more notes too. And my wife will tell you…I’m welcome constructive feedback as a matter of course.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? I might be the only one to say this, but I absolutely prioritized family first, then work, then school—in that order. If the choice was studying for an exam versus watching my daughter’s tae kwon do tournament, it was the tourney every time. There’s a misconception that being an entrepreneur (and an EMBA candidate) means you have to give up family life. That’s not true. It’s a choice to do that. You decide where the tradeoffs are and what is most important to you. And, as the company owner, I have a responsibility to myself and my staff to keep the lights on and the paychecks coming. After family and work were covered, I threw myself into the EMBA.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? When you find a group of fellow students in a study team that you have chemistry with, stick with them! Your study group will be the rock you stand on during your EMBA program. Ours wasn’t a “super group,” but we were beautifully diverse, fantastically funny, super smart, and everyone pulled their weight. If someone had to miss a session, we all covered for them. Our own Marcus Capone said it best: “Our study group is the SEAL Team 6 of Marshall.” He would know—he was on SEAL Team 6. A lot of groups implode under pressure. Our core stayed together for all 22 months and added a few as well. Respect and gratitude for Team Nellie: Billy Blase, Aviva Buller, Zori Buser, Marcus Capone, Lakshmi Chaube, Alan Saviano, Ian Thompson, plus Katie McDermott and Maria Watson.

What was your biggest regret in business school? Having to go remote due to the pandemic and not being able to connect with the cohort in person, in class.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I couldn’t possibly name just one. I’ve met so many incredible friends in the cohort—generous with time, brilliant at work, Excel champs, stats wizards, marketing pros, the list goes on and on. There was Team Nellie, of course. Others whom I highly admire in leadership style, competence and character are Ari Rezazadeh, Raquel Padilla, Saad Tariq, Derrick Daye, Allie Orechwa, Chris Wilkerson, Kym Belzer, Ron Perkins, Justin Pegram, Jenny Liu, Seda Bolulu, Francis Pollara, Attis Bouillon and Cindy Ha. Ultimately, USC EMBA35 is a tight-knit group. We work together. I have forged deep relationships with so many of my classmates, so this acknowledgement is for all of USC EMBA35 and, equally important, their families, for supporting them for 22 months.

What was the main reason you chose an executive MBA program over part-time or online alternatives? I knew at the outset that I wouldn’t enjoy online as much as in-person, and part-time just meant “more time.” But then the pandemic happened, and we all went online anyway. I’m a people person. I enjoy and seek out interpersonal relationships with people. It’s a key part of business and life, so attending in person was very important for me. Luckily, we had had a few themes to bond and get to know each other, so online wasn’t as bad as I feared.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I’ve been a successful entrepreneur for 16+ years now. Believe it or not, I want to return to the corporate world. I’ll be transitioning from my roles at my company and pivoting to corporate; possibly into a tech field—EVs, AI, big data. Yet I’m always intensely curious and interested in a wide array of industries. For example, supply chain management, especially transportation modes such as railroads and ocean shipping, and exploring cost savings from blockchain utilization (hint: it’s substantial). I’ll be looking for a place to learn new skills, lean in, work hard and collaborate with new teammates. Fight on!

What made David such an invaluable addition to the class of 2021?

“David really leaned into the opportunities to learn, understand and develop himself daily and facilitated the growth of himself, his team and classmates who have become good friends. Taking our mantra of 1% better to heart, he modeled the way of looking internally and enhancing himself with each interaction – being more present, listening more fully, building deserved confidence and building more meaningful relationships in his business, leadership roles, and interpersonally.

At USC Marshall, we start building relationship, communication and networking skills on day one as they will ultimately be the most valuable aspect of any MBA Program.  David came in with strong EQ, and modeled the way. In the first few weeks of the program, the class is assigned to conduct informational interviews with industry leaders to help map out their future career success. David took the process to heart, conducting more than two dozen networking sessions, connecting with diverse leaders, helping to connect others and learning and better understand his leadership potential. He deeply enhanced his personal board of advisors, created strong mutual value for his new contacts and led the way with classmates, creating opportunities for regularly sharing insights and lessons learned from interviews as the Class mutually built much stronger pathways to career grow for all.”

Dr. Greg Patton
Professor, USC Marshall School of Business

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