2022 Best & Brightest Executive MBA: C.J. Stermer, USC (Marshall)

C.J. Stermer

University of Southern California, Marshall School of Business

Age: 38

“An enthusiastic growth marketing professional with a drive to empower others unlock their true potential.”

Hometown: Walnut Cove, NC

Family Members: N/A

Fun fact about yourself: I’ve worked with Michelle Obama and other members of the White House.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Bachelor of Science, Industrial Organizational Psychology, Appalachian State University

Where are you currently working? Go-to-Market Senior Manager, Delivering Deal Value, PricewaterhouseCooper

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: Graduate Marketing Student Association, Board Member

Rainbow Labs, Founding Board Member, (Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Youth Mentorship Program)

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Commonly amongst other students, I have to mention doing a full-time program during the uncertainty of COVID-19 and attending our first year online. Being able to adapt at a moment’s notice, striving to engage with classes and other classmates and simply trying to make the best of the situation was difficult at times, to say the least. But at the end of the day, it’s an experience that will propel us in dealing with large-scale adaptations we will need to make as leaders in our industries.

Personally, however, it was developing a framework for successful execution of my career-discovery.  The “7 Tenets of Success” helped me and other individuals explore their personal values, career goals and how to utilize networks and resources to succeed in obtaining the next steps of their career path.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I’ve always taken pride in the fact that I like to challenge the status quo. “This is the way we’ve always done it,” is my least favorite phrase. Some of the greatest accomplishments in business come from challenging what is normal, doing things differently, and seeing what happens. It doesn’t always work out, but more often than not, it yields surprising, astonishing outcomes. This mindset has created opportunities to practice being malleable, agile, and to show those we mentor that it is possible to surprise yourself and succeed by stepping into the unknown.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? For me, it was USC or bust; this was the only EMBA program for which I applied. USC Marshall is known for the Trojan network, a networking school with no borders. I’ve previously witnessed the power of ‘who you know’ and networking in multiple instances in my career. It was the contacts and experiences of the Alumni Network that made me realize this was a fast track by leaps and bounds for my career progression. Other programs seemed to had more focus on research or writing, but what attracted me was the ability to harness my ‘never met a stranger’ mentality and broaden my reach.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? Approach leadership with empathy and humility. People are assets, not expenses. As a leader, it’s our responsibility to continue to invest in our assets, challenge norms and create space for growth. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all in the business of learning from our failures. And that’s ok. Getting uncomfortable is a good thing. There will always be roadblocks and complications in our work and throughout life; however, how we respond to those is what defines us as leaders. This key learning has taught me to lean in, ask for help,  and listen and learn from lived experience of others when creating solutions. How we adapt and coach our people makes all the difference.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? During the fall of 2021, I was starting the second year of our EMBA program. Additionally, I had also made a huge leap in my personal life and moved in with my partner for the first time, just one month prior.  As if that wasn’t enough, I took the time to plan and execute my four-month journey towards the next phase of my career journey in light of my MBA aspirations. It was a lot of nuance and challenges I had never faced before in my life. It was during this time, I truly learned the power of asking for help. It was important to create time to rely on personal, professional, and (now) schoolmate relationships to get me across some of these difficult finish lines. As overwhelming as this time seemed, even wondering if I had made the right decisions, I find it is the people you bring along the journey with you that make all the difference in the world.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? The best advice I could give to any prospective student is, take the leap. It is so easy to create excuses as to why it’s not the right time: we have to accomplish something else first or the cost is too high. The program is designed to rely on teams and other classmates for support.  Family and/or work will absolutely need to take priority at times; life happens. There will always be people to support you, everyone is in this together.

Lastly, costs can be scary, especially for those of us further in our career, or family and life planning. There are many ways to cover costs. The quality and opportunity in your career and leadership advancement will outweigh the costs over time.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? “I’ll never get into a school/program like this.” Whether you feel you received a degree decades ago, or you feel a prestigious program is out of reach… don’t believe it. As a low-income trailer park kid from the Deep South, this was the first thought in my mind.  But I put in my all, I tried and I got accepted. For that, my life has drastically changed for the better. You will never know unless you try.

What was your biggest regret in business school? Not getting involved with more resources and activities on campus.  Working full-time, while maintain and home/family life and attending a full-time program is time-consuming.  But there are so many programs and resources available to us as graduate students, especially on campus, that would have provided me the opportunity to learn from other lived experiences.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Lizette (Liz) Vargas. Liz lost her father to COVID-19 early in the program. One month later, she gave birth to her first child. She works for a global construction company that often disregards boundaries and creates unrealistic expectations. She spent her first year working in a difficult group and often worked independently to complete class assignments. Throughout all of these roadblocks, she was never faltered or allowed the difficulties of life keep her from accomplishing her goals. I admire her to exercise great emotional intelligence and to keep pushing forward. I had the privilege of creating a new group with her in our second year. She is the prime example of a strong, confident women in business that truly can do it all.

What was the main reason you chose an executive MBA program over part-time or online alternatives? I have 15+ years of professional experience and felt many part-time and online programs weren’t pushing boundaries and exercising skills for c-suite leadership growth. It was also important to me to have time on campus, to be in-person to become more familiar with the power of the Trojan Network though alumni and other students and faculty. The EMBA program was able to do this for me.  Despite the effects of COVID-19 on our first year, spending time on campus and getting to know the people first hand made all the difference.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? My goal is to show the global corporate world that it is possible to build successful business while doing good. I want to change hearts and minds to solve worldly problems through active progression of society and the environment. We, as business leaders, need to understand that times are changing and the workforce of the future cares greatly about how companies are approaching some of the world’s greatest challenges. It is possible to promote DEI initiatives, invest in the education and advancement of our people, and create sustainable solutions to reduce our impact on climate change and the environment around us. As the world continues to evolve, we must evolve with it. It is up to us, as the future leaders of the world, to think in the future. If we do not evolve, we are doomed to become extinct.

What made C.J. such an invaluable addition to the class of 2022?

C.J.’s presence in his class was transformational for both students and faculty, and “transformational,” in the sense of “transformational leadership.” First, he met everyone in his class, getting to know details of their backgrounds, the vision of their future success, their hopes and fears, and what they could offer the class as a whole. Whether he did this as a strategy or if he was just “being C.J.” is something I’ve long wondered. I suspect it was both—his natural exuberance as a learner and leader, and immediately putting into practice what he learned in the program.

Second, he looked out for every person (including faculty), as to whether they were engaged, having trouble, or just needed a safe space to talk. One example is that my Zoom simply didn’t work one day, and during the class, he FaceTimed me, solved the problem, and then returned to his role as a student. That single incident has hundreds of parallels. He helped each person, and in so doing, solidified his role as a servant leader.

Third, he leads with the conviction of an “open” gay man, sure of who he is, and also giving people the space to be who they are (including perhaps living a more private life). His courage stance in his identity encouraged other people to be who they are.

Fourth, he looked for opportunities to act as a convener. With COVID making in person gatherings impossible (or highly problematic), he would organize virtual socials. In several cases, he phoned me to express concern about people who seemed to be struggling—including one faculty member—in light of the isolation of the pandemic.

In his second year, I needed one student who come into the next class (37, while he was in 36) and present a problem they were having related to their career, and get the students working out solutions (that they themselves might also use). He presented his difficulty in his job coming into the EMBA, and his desire to move into a role that would fully utilize his skills and leadership ability. He told his story, with his usual vulnerability and conviction. After hearing the recommendations from student groups, he presented his 7 tenets of success, and how he’d used them to land a job in a major consulting firm that they had created for him. As he talked, he wrote his points on the whiteboard, and a photo of what he wrote has been accessed many times on our EMBA LMS system.

On a final and very personal note, I had a major health setback during my time with C.J.’s class. As a result of significant head trauma from a 2012 car accident, I began having small seizures, culminating in two grand mal (or “tonic-clonic” seizures). Thankfully those incidents happened outside of class hours (between weekends when I was scheduled to teach), and by the time I met with C.J.’s class again, they were largely controlled. As I write now, they have fully controlled for well over a year. But in those difficult few days between when my wife finding me after the major seizures, and when I returned to teaching, C.J. reached out many times. I will never fully be able to express my appreciation to him for doing that. And, that’s just who C.J. is—one who acts in a caring and nurturing way, even as he also encourages people to be their best self. My only regret is that my mentor, Warren Bennis, never got to meet C.J. I’m pretty sure if he did, he’d smile and nod, and say, “yes, that’s it’s done.”

Dave Logan, Ph.D.
Senior Lecturer


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