2021 Best & Brightest EMBAs: Shakira Kelly, University of Michigan (Ross)

Shakira Kelly

University of Michigan, Ross School of Business

Age: 45

“Adventurous, driven, resilient, humble, values integrity & honesty, dependable, trustworthy, curious, creative, patient, flexible, loyal, committed.”

Hometown: Dublin Ireland, but lately Sammamish, Washington

Family Members: Husband, Chris Higgins; two sons, Diarmuid Higgins and Odhran Higgins

Fun fact about yourself: I have always wanted to learn how to fly, and so this summer I am taking helicopter pilot lessons now that I have some free time.

Undergraduate School and Degree: BSc. Computer Science, University College Dublin

Where are you currently working? Expedia Group, Senior Director Security & Risk

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: I am a long distance runner, certified personal trainer, and cybersecurity advisor, supporting startup companies through Enterprise Ireland, which is an Irish government organization responsible for the development and growth of Irish enterprises in world markets. They opened an office in Seattle two years ago and I have assisted them with demo-days, offer go-to-market advice for their clients and introduce those clients to potential markets in the US.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school?  The ExecMAP project. My group supported LIFT Ireland, which is a leadership development program aimed at increasing positive leadership in the Irish population. This project strongly resonated with me because I am passionate about positive leadership and the impact a strong leadership culture can have on the workplace as well in the family or in a social context. The organization is nonprofit, providing the program to the general public, corporations, and schools. Being from Ireland, I was keen to assist the organization in any way I could as I believe that the vision that LIFT has will be a positive force for good in Irish culture. The project we undertook was to review the organization, determine the maturity stage it was approaching, and then build a strategy and marketing plan for the next 12 months for the team. Every interaction with the team in Dublin was positive. As a group of students, we learned so much while being able to lean on all of the courses we had studied through the EMBA program, including strategy, marketing, finance, and entrepreneurship.  It was incredibly gratifying to be able to make a positive contribution, knowing the impact could be huge. I was especially proud of the feedback that we received from our sponsor, that our project was exceptional and would provide the boost they needed to take LIFT to the next level.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I worked for Wyeth Biopharma in Grange Castle Dublin for just over seven years. I joined just after the first buildings were completed and was responsible initially for their Unix and Database environment, going on later to lead the infrastructure team. My team built and maintained the systems that supported the manufacture of the first biologic drug to market (Enbrel) that treated rheumatoid arthritis. Seeing the impact that the drug had on patients’ lives gave me incredible satisfaction. I learned to strive for continual flawless execution and build, as well as process improvement. We supported the site, getting the drug manufactured and FDA approved quickly so that it could change people’s lives. I still get emotional thinking about what seems like a small thing, to come to work each day, give 100% that the outcome is impactful to my fellow citizens in a life-changing way. I bring that lesson to everything I do, give 100% and see how impactful the outcome could be.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? In 2018, I attended a professional leadership program, sponsored by my organization, at the University of Michigan. It was there for the first time, I heard Professor Kim Cameron and Professor Robert Quinn talk about the concept of positive leadership and culture and of the transformative impact this can have on an organization both financially and for the employees. I had been thinking about pursuing an MBA, but now I wanted more than just finance, marketing and strategy; I decided that there had to be a large focus on leadership and positive culture for me to get out of it all of the areas that interested me. So for me, the programs at Michigan Ross were the only ones I considered and I am thrilled with the outcome. From the classes that went even deeper into the Michigan Model of Leadership, to the extracurricular classes with industry leaders, to the executive coaching I received, each element provided me with an even deeper education that I don’t think I could have received elsewhere.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? I am very much a planner and so the easiest way I found to juggle work, family, and home was to schedule it. I set a timeline each day which was dedicated to work, which had flexibility to allow for over-run and then scheduled my EMBA work in the evenings and weekends. I tried most weeks to get 2-3 hours of study done each night, which meant that I could get up early on the weekends and finish my work by early afternoon. My goal each week was to set aside time with my family, but keeping it simple like watching a movie or going out for a run or bike ride with the kids. Knowing that I had blocks of time, I could dedicate to each group, which meant I had balance and I wasn’t trying to squeeze commitments in.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? Know that the program takes a time commitment each week. You have to commit to yourself and to your team week after week. If this is really what you want, figure out how you will make that time. Understand what adjustments you need to make. Discuss this with your family. You will need their support, to help with tasks like making dinner or tending to kids. They need to be OK with the fact that you will be less available. Once you have family behind you, supporting you all the way, the rest is easy…well mostly.

What was your biggest regret in business school? Our course was impacted by COVID-19 restrictions seven months into the program. In the first semester, I was very focused on getting a solid foundation of course understanding in place, so that I was in a good position for the courses that were to come. I spent less time on the social aspect and regret that I didn’t get to spend more time other than occasional dinners getting to know more people from the cohort. We moved to online and remote learning for the remainder of the program and had to become a zoom networker. I learned that you should never take the future for granted and should seize every opportunity.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Josh Venable from Ann Arbor. Josh and I were on the same ExecMAP project and I came to admire his grit, determination, and never stopping until we have achieved a great project. He consistently delivered what he promised, reliable, and had a great sense of humor even when it was difficult. He gave more than I could have asked on the project and would never quit. Tenacious, with a high standard for himself and those around him, he was an absolute pleasure to work with and I hope I get an opportunity to do so again in the future.

What was the main reason you chose an executive MBA program over part-time or online alternatives? The EMBA at Michigan Ross offered me the opportunity to attend in-person classes in LA, which is just a short flight from Seattle and in my time zone. I wanted the opportunity to meet the professors, get 1:1 time with them, and have the classroom experience. This was not as easy to do with an online program and part-time was not an option if I wanted to remain in my current role.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I strongly believe we each have a purpose and for me I know I am my best self when I can use my skills to positively impact others. My long-term goal is to create a nonprofit that in some way helps society where I can leverage my technical background as well as my newly developed business skills.

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

“Shakira is “phenomenal!” She is intelligent, has interpersonal savvy, and has earned the respect of her fellow students, Michigan Ross staff, and professors.  In addition to school, Shakira maintains a busy career as the senior director of security at Expedia Group, where she leads a team responsible for enterprise risk and cyber security compliance. In addition, she has a spouse and is a mother of two teenage sons.

Others in the cohort count on Shakira to produce the highest quality of work, ask thought provoking questions, and put other people at ease. She is a true professional with high integrity and willingness to help others excel. For example, one peer said, “I so, so enjoyed our time working on a team together. You taught me so much through your intellectual contribution, your unwavering kindness and patience, and the humor and calmness that you always had even with all we had going on! I am so happy to have gotten to know you through this.” Another peer said, “Thanks for all of your contributions to our program; you are such a strong communicator of nuance and navigator of complexity.  Genuinely excited to see where you head from here and the impact you will have.”

In addition to her work at Expedia, Shakira is a voluntary advisor for Enterprise Ireland working with cyber security startups. Enterprise Ireland is a government organization responsible for the development and growth of Irish enterprises in world markets. They work in partnership with Irish enterprises to help them start, grow, innovate, and win export sales in global markets. Cumulatively, they support sustainable economic growth, regional development, and secure employment. Shakira is passionate about early-stage tech startups, and after obtaining her EMBA she plans to increase her volunteer work in this space.

Humility and integrity are core to the way Shakira lives her life. She is deliberate in making a positive impact on everyone she encounters. She meets each person where they are, with acceptance, always looking to inspire and find the best in others. She has earned the deepest respect from Ross staff, professors, and students.”

Sue Ann Gonis, M.A., CPCC, PCC
Executive Coach & Career Management Coach for Executive MBA & EMBA Alumni


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