2023 Best & Brightest Executive MBA: Acacia Reed, USC (Marshall)

Acacia Reed

University of Southern California, Marshall School of Business

Age: 44

“Enthusiastically focused on changing the idea and feeling of leadership and work in the world.”

Hometown: Philadelphia, PA

Family Members: Mom – Elizabeth Reed; Dad – Barry Carter; Sister – Jackie Reed.

Fun fact about yourself: I started learning Hangul (Korean) when I started the EMBA program to understand the lyrics to BTS songs and dialogue in Korean Dramas.

Undergraduate School and Degree: University of Pennsylvania, Bachelor of Arts in Political Science

Where are you currently working? L.A. Care Health Plan, Chief Operating Officer

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: Young & Healthy Board of Directors

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Being recognized as one of the 2022 California Black Women’s Collective Trailblazer Corporate Awardees. As a Black and Native woman, who had only lived in California for six years, it felt amazing to have my commitment to improving the health and wellness of Los Angeles County’s vulnerable and low-income communities and residents recognized by an organization that stands in support of issues and priorities that are vital to elevate Black women in California.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I love seeing current and former team members realize and step into their greatness. I am proud of all of them, but two in particular make me smile daily. One is my former manager of operations. She landed her dream job at Meta and told me that she felt prepared for the challenge because of our time together. She also reaches out to me for thought partnership in working through occasional work challenges. Another is my current Manager of Operations, who left to work a stretch position in a function and department in which she had no direct experience, but felt confident she would succeed because I encouraged her to just try.  She came back to her manager of operations position after a year fearless – with more confidence and expanded operational awareness. She continues to expand her healthcare operations expertise.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Professor Tom Chang – the only professor who could make the concept of “idiosyncratic risk” interesting and have the class truly appreciate the “trade-offs” that exist in business and life. He was able to explain the financial concepts behind valuation practices in a way that made it interesting (I’m more “poet” than “quant”) and made me think beyond financial statements and equations. Our final paper was one of the most interesting papers I’ve researched and written in both my time as an undergraduate and graduate student. I will never think about Teslas and kittens in the same way!

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? It was thanks to a mentor-friend, whom I greatly admire and lean on for personal and professional guidance. He is also a double-USC graduate and current adjunct professor.  When I was speaking with him about applying for my MBA, we discussed USC Marshall and other universities – and he didn’t push for USC.  Instead, during one of our Zoom calls, he looked into the camera and asked something like, “Where does the Chief Operating Officer of the largest public health plan in America go to get their MBA? Anywhere she wants.” It was at that moment, I knew I wanted to be a Trojan like him. He and his wife (also a Trojan and mentor) exude the Trojan spirit, and I needed to be a part of that community and family.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? Culture really does eat strategy – and a company’s mission – for breakfast. If you don’t invest in the growth and development of your company’s talent, your articulated strategic goals will quickly become unattainable. Also, growth and development does not only include job promotions. Instead, it is the sincere investment in people to help them identify opportunities to increase their awareness of a topic or function, even if the return on the investment isn’t immediate. I have worked diligently to foster a supportive, collaborative, and invested company culture because I see that it produces sustainable results from a team of people, who are committed to the advancement of the mission and consistent achievement of strategic goals.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? I started the program in 2021 in the middle of resolving two major issues at work with team members who were simply exhausted by working in healthcare throughout the COVID pandemic.  Our enrolled members were increasing significantly, reducing our internal resources for caring for their families and our members simultaneously. Additionally, many of my team members at the time were nurses who were also working at hospitals to help with the clinician shortages – exhaustion was abound.

I recall when I told my team and colleagues that I was accepted in the Marshall executive MBA program. They collectively and individually told me how excited they were for me and my future. Some of them had also worked full time and attended graduate school, so they understood the time commitment, and mentored me through that. What really impressed me was how all of them – team members and colleagues – displayed their commitment to my success in the program. They took on additional responsibilities within my business outside of their respective business units to free up as much time as possible for me, after hours, to study or meet with my other group. They told me it was their opportunity to not only learn more about the operations of the various functions in my organization, but also to have a better perspective of our entire corporate ecosystem. Adding those additional responsibilities showed me that they had my back and we were, in fact, a team.  I would not have made it through the two years without their unwavering support, encouragement, and help. (Thank you Denise, Shannon, Stephanie, Becky, Jennifer, Robert, Chad, Brandon, Dr. David, Erik, Soledad, and especially Cristina and Noah!)

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? Do it – don’t wait.  Make a plan (work schedule, financial) and do it! Once I started, I regretted being afraid to apply for a Master’s program sooner.  Then, I quickly realized my cohort was the one I was meant to learn with and from. Many of you will tap into power and focus you didn’t know was available. Others will enhance skills and capabilities already in use. All will increase their capacity to apply new information and tactics to scenarios in real time. I’ve heard parents say, “You can never fully plan for children.” As a non-parent, I think going back to school for an executive MBA is the same. Life happens – but going to school while working will give you the agility to deal with it in new and improved ways.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? You will only have time for work and school – you will give up your entire social life or all of your family time for two years. Do you have to be more intentional about planning for those events – yes. In my cohort, we had not only made time to hang out with each other, but to also include our families in our team bonding events. We went on vacation with our friends, families, and each other; attended weddings of fellow cohort members; and celebrated the birth/adoption of babies (human and fur) and pregnancies. All of this while studying for exams, reading case studies, writing papers, and preparing for major projects.

We realized we were executive MBAs because we were accomplished leaders – and that leadership fueled our ability to strategic with our time to maintain existing family and friend connections while building new, life-long relationships.

What was your biggest regret in business school? My biggest regret initially was not going back to school sooner. As I stated previously, the cohort I was with, were exactly the group of leaders I was meant to learn from and grow with. So my next biggest regret was not building significant relationships with others in my cohort beyond my study team in my first year.

I’m not from Los Angeles, and naturally socially anxious and introverted, so I chose to go home a lot after class. It dawned on me that my cohort would be my first, and only, non-work friends. So I made up for it in the summer between my first and second year, and changed to be more social in my second year. I don’t regret it – I was able to build relationships that not only helped to mentor me in the program, but enabled me to different individuals on projects. This exposed to their perspectives and taught me new ways to address problems or more about myself.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Veronica Q. Garcia. When we started the program during COVID, we were asked to test for COVID weekly and submit a questionnaire about our possible exposure outside of campus. Veronica worked for USC at the time and was part of the team that developed and implemented the application for the entire university, which most students in the cohort didn’t know.  That is Veronica – a quietly impactful force of a leader.  Throughout the two years, she provided such insightful feedback on cases and I would take notes on her comments on everything from leadership to the benefits of design thinking. Her brilliance was matched by her kindness and compassion – she was always willing to reframe financial concepts in ways the I could understand, and help me work through various lengthy equations – all while telling jokes to make me laugh. She is an emotionally intelligent and thoughtful leader, and I would love to make her blush by telling her that I look forward to working for her one day, which I still do.

She is the epitome of leadership of the type of leader all corporations should look for – fair, objective-oriented, and committed to improving herself and others.

What was the main reason you chose an executive MBA program over part-time or online alternatives? I wanted to participate in an executive program partially because of the other executives who would be students in the program. Most of whom had been in the workforce for as long as I had been (or longer) and could offer perspectives based on their time as a leader. Additionally, after I was promoted, my team worked very hard to build a collaborative and transformative culture.  As I was researching programs, we were in the midst of curing very large issues, and I could not fathom leaving them to pursue an MBA full time. Additionally, time was very important to me as my mother lives with me. I like to spend a lot of my free time with her, giving her the life she deserves, so I didn’t want to commit the additional time many part-time programs required. So, the executive program at USC Marshall met my needs for both in-class time and program length.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I joined the program to prepare myself for a Chief Executive Officer position in a mid-sized-to-large managed healthcare organization, and I remember a dear friend laughed and said, “I know you. You’re going to start your own business and become an entrepreneur after you graduate.” At that time, the idea made me very uncomfortable.

The beauty of the USC Marshall’s executive MBA program is that I have had the opportunity to have conversations and share ideas with such a diverse group of leaders – students, professors, and administrators. I am now equally as confident and excited by the idea of leading an organization with over 2,500 team members as I am confident and excited with working to build something new and innovative with friends or own my own.  So now my long-term goal is, as Simon Sinek says, “to be the leader who inspires others to have confidence in what THEY can do.”

What made Acacia such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2023?

“Acacia exemplifies the best of what it means to lead with one’s head and heart. During her two years as part of the USC EMBA program, she was honored with a California Black Women’s Collective Trailblazer Award for mission-based service to vulnerable and low-income communities and residents in LA and featured in OUTFRONT Media Inc.’s 2022 HERstory Month “Lifted Up” campaign. She was also not just a USC student, but also served as a USC guest lecturer talking to graduate students about leadership and undergrads about Medicaid and government-sponsored managed healthcare. She even managed to squeeze in a 30-week Korean language program and now probably knows more Korean than I do!

There is a Korean concept called “nunchi,” which roughly translates into the ability to understand others and the wisdom to respond appropriately.  And while Acacia has continuously impressed me with her intellect and business insights, it’s her “quick nunchi” that has impressed me the most. Regardless of whether it is a contentious discussion with her classmates about the economics of health care, or nerding out with me about Prince, she manages to enrich and uplift the conversation. I will miss her, but take comfort in the fact that as a graduate she will be a great ambassador and advertisement for the USC EMBA program.”

Tom Y. Chang
Associate Professor of Finance and Business Economics


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