2022 Best & Brightest Executive MBA: Joel D. Harper, University of Texas (McCombs)

Joel D. Harper

The University of Texas at Austin, McCombs School of Business

Age: 44

“Northwest kid migrated to Austin chasing the sun, good BBQ, and business school dreams.”

Hometown: Pullman, Washington

Family Members:
Jessica (wife, 7th grade ELA teacher at Canyon Vista Middle School)
Grace (daughter, 8, 2nd grade, loves dance class)
Lawson (son, 6, kindergarten, loves t-ball)

Fun fact about yourself: I didn’t have a cell phone or personal computer until I was 25, yet was able to carve out a career in the digital space. When I look back at my career path, it’s astonishing how quickly technology has shaped my life.

Undergraduate School and Degree:
Washington State University,
Bachelor of Science, Psychology

Where are you currently working? At Apple on the Worldwide Digital Channel team, building and scaling content platforms

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: I participated and completed the McCombs MBA+ Leadership Fellows program led by Deidra Stephens, Director of McCombs+ Global & Experiential Learning (a little more on that below).

In addition, I was an active member of the Class Coordinating Committee, and was chosen as the Philanthropy Chair. Working closely with the class of ‘23 and McCombs leadership, we were able to do the following:

  • Raise $5,425 for the Central Texas Food Bank, which created 21,700 nutritious meals for families across 21 counties.
  • Plan and launch a fundraising event for ATX Basecamp, which is a non-profit organization focused on helping veterans experiencing homelessness in the Austin, TX area.

Lastly, I enjoyed helping the Admissions Team and our Director of MBA Admissions, Sharon Barrett, as part of her McCombs Ambassador Committee (MAC), talking with prospective McCombs students who were interested in learning more about the program.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school?  I’m most proud of completing the McCombs MBA+ Leadership Fellows program.

The Leadership Fellows program is designed to develop influential business leaders. It provides enhanced leadership and professional development opportunities based upon the Leadership Framework developed by the McCombs School of Business Center for Leadership & Ethics.

The framework consists of the following core skills: Authenticity, Integrity, Meaning, Agility, Communication, Teamwork, and Diversity & Inclusion. The goals for the framework are to improve self-awareness, inspire purpose, make ethical decisions, engage performance, and adapt to change.

Completing the program came in addition to the regular MBA coursework and consisted of attending 25+ presentations and workshops by McCombs Leadership Coaches and writing reflection papers for each one.

It was a transformative experience for me and one of my favorite parts of the program at McCombs. I thought I understood what it meant to be a good leader, but upon further reflection, I had a lot of areas that needed improvement on how to lead people and organizations. In roles throughout my career, I’ve made a lot of the mistakes highlighted in the coursework, which was humbling to say the least. Moving forward, I now have a tangible framework to reference. With this experience, I will continue optimizing my skills as a leader.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Starting my first company and launching our first products was quite a thrill. Further down the road, getting the job at Apple was a pretty significant moment for me and my family.

That said, I think I’m most proud of my resiliency and ability to overcome adversity. When I was younger, adversity would set me back emotionally for longer periods of time. I was far too sensitive and would let things bother me. Over the years, I’ve become much more efficient with shortening the loop, letting negative emotions go, pulling the learnings from the experience (there are always several things to learn, you just need the dust to settle to see them), and moving on. It has allowed me to find balance with my family and my career and keep things in perspective.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? Right after graduating from WSU, I began hearing about Austin, TX and how great the city was. All of Austin’s qualities drew me in: booming tech hub, live music capital of the world, and home of the Texas Longhorns. At the heart of Austin, it is a college town. After moving here, I would drive through campus and envision what it would be like to graduate from UT. I started to research and quickly learned about McCombs’ strong reputation for world class academics, professors, and faculty. When you live in Austin, it’s hard not to fall in love with UT. “What Starts Here Changes the World!” commercials narrated by Barbara Conrad and Walter Cronkite had me at “Get Your Horns Up!”

Turn the page a few years and I started my own business and learned a lot of tough lessons on the fly. It was hard to make the decision to close the doors on that first business. I remember feeling like I didn’t have the necessary skills that I needed to be successful at running a company.

Then COVID-19 arrived and it forced the entire world to slow down. It forced me to prioritize what is most important to me in my life. Family and education. I loved business, learning and growing, and UT. It was a bucket list type thing for me.

Ultimately, it came down to several long discussions with my wife, Jessica. She was supportive of my dreams and was willing to make a lot of personal sacrifices for me to chase them.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? Over the course of the program, I’ve learned how important it is to ask questions and to actively listen. Leadership is about serving others and facilitating performance and growth in others as well as your organization. 

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? I am not sure ‘juggling’ accurately describes it. I have kind of stumbled through a few patches and thankfully had great support and patience at work, at school, and at home.

Midway through the first semester of the program, I accepted the job at Apple. Later that spring, we were knee deep into studying for final exams. Final exam week happened to land during Apple’s Spring Event of ‘21. Apple ‘Events’, or product launches, are THE moment when work spikes out of control and we all lean in to ensure that Apple partners get everything they need to launch our products on their websites. I felt like I broke a few times that week, as the crack in the dam became an all-out flood.

Somehow, I survived. The power of community around me helped pull me through this challenging time. Everyone at UT, at Apple, and at home were quick to lean in and help – whether it be professors, study groups, administration, or my family. We have truly all been ‘in it together’. Also, extremely important in helping me survive was my gym family at Atomic Athlete. During those rough moments, stress management and mental toughness through Atomic’s strength and conditioning program really helped a lot. Mental health is something that I’m more cognizant of monitoring as I get older.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? If you are thinking about applying, make sure you have full alignment at work and at home. Make sure you have a path to ROI, or at least are thinking about how you will leverage the experience to advance your career. Trust yourself. If you decide to do it, you will love every second of it

If you have already been accepted to a program, enjoy the process! It goes by very fast. Don’t focus on competition between people in your class for grades. Focus on improving yourself. Run your own race.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? For me, I think the biggest myth about going back to school was that I was too old. I had always felt that I had ‘missed my window’ to get my MBA. Most of the people that I worked with that had an MBA had gone back to school within 10 years of their undergraduate degree.

The truth is that there are several different programs to choose from, depending on where you are in your career. The full-time program is great for those with ~5 years of work experience. The evening programs seem to fit great for young professionals that are ~10 years into their careers. Then there are the working professionals and executive programs for people ~20 years into their careers. The average age for the Executive MBA program at McCombs is 39.

Taking it one step further, I think it is safe to say most everyone in the program considers themselves ‘lifelong learners’. We are all on our own journey, and learning and growing is an important part of every step along the way.

What was your biggest regret in business school? You know what, I do not have any regrets about my experiences in business school. I have truly enjoyed every second of the journey. It is going to be sad to say goodbye to it all. Every class weekend, I have a routine to get up early and drive down to campus before the sun comes up, listening to George Strait and the UT Marching Band on Spotify. I will miss those drives.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? We have just north of forty people in our class and every person adds value to the collective class and program. It’s nearly impossible to single out one person. We have some tremendous leaders in our cohort. To name two that I admire: Leilani
Valdes and Quoc Tran. They are both incredibly smart, hardworking, charismatic, thoughtful, humble, and kind.

What was the main reason you chose an executive MBA program over part-time or online alternatives? The part-time and online programs are great options for many people. For me, I wanted to be part of the class of ’22 at Texas McCombs. I have had the opportunity to meet lifelong friends and meet some of the best professors and administration in the world along the way. Hook ’em!

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? My long-term goals include continuing to learn, grow, and be challenged. I will continue to give back to the communities that have helped raise and support me over the years.

What made Joel such an invaluable addition to the class of 2022?

“JD Harper is a busy professional, husband, and father of two elementary-aged children. Adding an Executive MBA Program to the mix of his life is complicated enough. But JD has not only excelled academically, he has also taken full advantage of the McCombs+ Leadership Fellows Program.

Participation in the McCombs+ Leadership Fellow Program is one of the highest-level commitments that our Executive MBA students can make. Guided by the McCombs+ Leadership Framework, students are required to participate in 20 different McCombs+ programs/services and write a brief reflection paper about what they learn from each experience. There are various options to make progress in the program, and JD chose mainly our synchronous and asynchronous seminar content.

JD told me that the process of learning various leadership and communication skills through our workshop materials was informative, but the act of reflecting on what he learned was truly the most transformational thing that he could have done during his program. The process wasn’t simply to listen to an expert presenting a workshop. It was to truly apply what the expert was presenting to his own life and making meaning of it in his individual context. Where so many students simply write down a summary of what they learned, JD took the time to truly reflect on how what he learned was going to change his behavior in the future. JD grasped the concept of reflection like so few students do, and as a result, he reported that the program was invaluable in helping him become a better leader and communicator. Moreover, he has told me that he plans to use this same practice in the future to continue his growth and development. I think the future is bright for JD Harper!”

Deidra Stephens
Director, Texas McCombs+ Global & Experiential Learning


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