2022 Best & Brightest Executive MBA: Seo Yeon Yoon, U.C. Berkeley (Haas)

Seo Yeon Yoon

University of California Berkeley, Haas School of Business

Age: 34

“Discovering and ensuring that great science becomes a real solution to overcome incurable diseases.”

Hometown: Jeonju City, South Korea

Family Members: Father, Mother, and one younger sister who’s two years my junior.

Fun fact about yourself: As an amateur cellist, I’ve been part of five symphony orchestras in three geographical locations: Vancouver (Canada), New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Through orchestra, I’ve had great opportunities to work with people from all walks of life, ranging from age 9 to 84 – many of whom I continue to enjoy great friendships with to this day.

Undergraduate School and Degree: University of California, Berkeley, Bachelor of Arts (Integrative Biology)

Where are you currently working? Gladstone Institutes, San Francisco, California

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles:

  • VP of Academics for EMBA Class of 2022
  • Class Representative: Leadership Communications, Macroeconomics, Venture Capital & Private Equity
  • VP of Identity, Asian-American @ Haas
  • EMBA Student Advisory Board Member, Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership (EGAL)

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I’m most proud of working with Haas students from all three MBA programs to build practical business solutions for a nonprofit organization called Start Lighthouse. We built financial tools and frameworks to find and build a portfolio of sponsors, partnerships, and a board of directors to grow the organization. As part of the Haas Hearts competition, my team pitched Start Lighthouse and won the Audience Choice Award and the Jamie Breen Impact Consulting Award, winning $3,000 in prize money to donate to Start Lighthouse. It was a rewarding experience to put my MBA education to work and positively impact an organization that provides books and literacy tools to help educate the underprivileged and marginalized middle school students in Bronx, NY.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Through 12 years of biomedical research work, I had the honor and privilege to work with many scientists, ranging from young trainees (undergraduate/graduate students and postdoctoral fellows) to Nobel laureates. Each project and initiative served a purpose and brought us one step closer to understanding the mechanisms behind neurodegenerative diseases. I’m most proud that these steps have positively contributed to opening a new pathway of clinical trials of already-approved drugs using high throughput computation genomics, coupled with robust in vitro and in vivo studies. It’s an exciting vision, that such repurposing of approved drugs to diseases with no cures nor effective treatment options will accelerate our ability to develop and find cures for the patients in desperate circumstances.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? I chose Haas because of its four Defining Leadership Principles. All business schools are the same in terms of the core business curriculum. What differentiates schools from one another is its ethos on training certain types of leaders – leaders who exhibit certain qualities and attributes. It was important for me to not only learn the language of business, but also to become a better leader and a person. There was no doubt in my mind that Haas was the best choice; I had only applied to Berkeley Haas, as I could not imagine myself in any other school.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? Leadership is an act of service. There is a perfect Korean proverb that illustrates this: “Wheat hangs down its head deeper as it ripens”. Humility is a key quality of a leader in any industry, and it should be exhibited, particularly during the moments of conflicts and challenges. I learned this lesson through the examples of my classmates and the greater Haas community, as they all weathered through the pandemic and carved new paths for themselves and the people they lead. Their actions and words during pivotal moments gave me great insight into how I should show up in moments of great challenge at work.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education. While my work and education are in the US, my family is abroad in South Korea and Hong Kong. My family is very close, and it’s important to each of us to carve out time to connect with each other. With the unexpected nature of my work and the heavy academic load, I’ve found it very challenging to keep the regularity of the family call. As I increasingly felt the emotional burden of not being able to be present for my family, they generously reminded me that they fully understand and rescheduling is never an issue. They would also joke and tease me so that I can get out of my head and not take myself or the circumstance too seriously. They encouraged me to choose to celebrate and be grateful for the opportunity to learn and bond with the smartest people on the planet.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? The rigor and the challenge of the Haas EMBA program are real. Through it all, the student is able to transform into his/her/their most authentic self. I highly recommend students to enroll in the program if the goal is to become a leader in service of others from the place of the most true self, using the knowledge and principles of business. Approach the opportunity of the Haas EMBA program with a growth mindset.

What was your biggest regret in business school? I don’t have regrets in my life – I choose not to have nor live with regrets. I learned through my cohort that it’s about making choices and carving out new paths and choosing to walk with my head high.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I admire my friends from the EMBA Class of 2022. We started our journey together on Zoom, not knowing when we could meet in-person and study together in a physical classroom on-campus. During those days, we wasted no time in building relationships and maximizing our time together – at times, being on calls for hours on end. Many of us have been through hell and back – losing family and friends (in US and abroad), falling ill (physical and/or mental), being laid off from our jobs – just to name a few. Through it all, we supported one another, committing ourselves to stand strong and being the friend in need so that no one was left alone. The story of the Class of 2022 is the legacy of the Haas EMBA program, and I admire my fellow classmates for unfailingly living up to the values that unite us, namely, resilience and love.

What was the main reason you chose an executive MBA program over part-time or online alternatives? Business is personal. It’s about making connections. While connections can start online, a purposeful and meaningful connection that one can leverage in moments of pivotal crisis can only be done by in-person interactions. The Haas EMBA program is designed to be taught in-person, where students gather and go to a physical classroom together, on-campus. Chats in the lobby, staircases, elevators, dining rooms, hallways – all of these interactions are necessary to fully leverage the investments in an MBA program. I believe that the best return on investment of an MBA program is earned when I put in the necessary effort to show up and be present – for this reason, I chose the Haas EMBA.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? My north star is to cure incurable diseases. The COVID-19 pandemic taught us that eradicating diseases is not only the work of the scientists or clinicians. It takes leaders in across many industries who understand the complexities and can provide solutions to address them through partnerships. In my case, I look forward to combining my years of experience in biomedical research and the teachings and relationships built at Haas in various industries, sourcing and investing in the science that actually delivers real solutions to the patients. My goal is to invest and lead innovative biomedical companies to accelerate their growth and quickly scale up the solution so that we can get close to curing the incurable diseases.

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

“In a world that has upended so much of what we hold dear – safety, health, routines, classroom, democracy, Seo Yeon has been a beacon of joy and excellence. One that radiates light for those around her and for a way forward that we can all aspire to. Seo Yeon’s dedication to being a fully engaged student in the classroom (or on Zoom), is in evidence in so many ways, including providing probing insights and clarity to the course material. This is just the beginning of what makes Seo Yeon so special, so exceptional. Whether one on one or as a leader in the class, she strives to make sure that each and everyone is welcomed, included and recognized. Seo Yeon puts countless hours into crafting meaningful engagement opportunities outside the classroom for EMBAs to learn further, have fun, and give back. And when she has gone on international immersion, she has asked, ‘What do the people I am seeing need and how can I leave the place better as a result of my learning experience?’.  Recently, going to South Africa, she gave all of the people she knew- classmates, professors and friends the opportunity to purchase laptops and other essential learning materials for a school they were visiting.

But perhaps, Seo Yeon’s most exceptional quality is that in an age where people are overwhelmed and frazzled she takes the time to reach out, write a handwritten note, inquire, care and make each and every person she comes in contact with feel seen, heard, appreciated, and loved. What an immense gift for the world! We are all so grateful.”

Maura L. O’Neill, Ph.D.
Distinguished Teaching Fellow
Haas School of Business
University of California, Berkeley

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