2023 Best & Brightest Executive MBA: Deidra Willis, UCLA (Anderson)

Deidra Willis

UCLA, Anderson School of Management

Age: 32

“Smart, witty, energetic, Brooklyn boldness yet welcoming Jamaican demeanor with a huge smile & infectious laugh.”

Hometown: Brooklyn, New York

Family Members: Velta (mom), Newton (dad), Rohan (brother)

Fun fact about yourself: I have triple citizenship! I’m an American citizen but also have family (and a passport) from Jamaica but was born in Canada

Undergraduate School and Degree: Dartmouth College, BA & BE in Electrical Engineering, 2013

Where are you currently working? Senior Innovation Project Lead at Kings Hawaiian

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: EMBA Class President, EMBA Biweekly Section Academic Representative, Black Business Students Director of Cross MBA Relations & Special Projects

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Being elected as EMBA Class President. I was shocked and so humbled when several classmates came up to me encouraging me to run and it was a great race! I had a campaign manager, team of endorsers, social media experts and even promotional pins with my picture saying “Deidra for President” – all with the help of classmates. I put out strategic promotional videos of classmates, professors and alumni encouraging everyone to vote for me and had campaign pillars targeting social, academic, career, networking & fundraising. It was exhilarating, nerve-wracking and so much fun!

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I made the big and difficult decision to leave an almost 10-year career at General Mills during my MBA program for a smaller company within the consumer-packaged goods space. Since moving to Kings Hawaiian, I’ve had a broader leadership role, built relationships with our C-suite, and have had more speaking engagements to the company and various teams. I’m proud of myself for making than transition and for the work I’ve done as I’m leading efforts to build a new +$100M facility in Georgia.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Professor Terry Kramer in the Easton Technology Center! My career thus far has been in manufacturing and supply chain, but I wanted to learn more about Tech, which is a huge field. I took his introductory technology class and even traveled to Singapore with him and other students to learn more. He’s provided career advice and connections that have been incredibly valuable. His ability to thoroughly dissect and explain what’s going on in the world of tech and push students to really pull out the “so what” of every case study, speaker, and article is unmatched. He’s pushed me to be a better student and lifelong learner. I’ve learned so much about a field I was admittedly nervous and intimidated about.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? UCLA Anderson presented the best mix of what I was looking for in an executive experience – a space to expand my limited engineering knowledge with rigorous business curriculum, while exploring multiple industries and building an incredible network. I wanted an executive MBA program that was tailored to ambitious professionals so that I could turn around on a Monday after classes and directly apply what I was learning. I wanted to be challenged and meet people from diverse backgrounds, expertise, and experiences without the pressure or distraction of cut-throat competitiveness. I could tell from interest sessions and alumni I spoke to that Anderson would give me a strong fundamental business understanding with the flexibility for electives and international travel. The students there clearly just wanted to help each other to learn and grow as much as possible not only professionally but also personally and mentally. I knew that at Anderson I could run alongside professionals who were equally as intelligent, ambitious, curious and inspiring.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? The biggest lesson I learned during was the realization that leadership, particularly strategic thinking, transcends mere professional titles and skillsets confined to the realm of work. It encompasses a fundamental mindset that permeates every facet of interaction within every sphere of life.

During my MBA I was immersed in literature and narratives showcasing the accomplishments and struggles of companies, leaders, and entrepreneurs. I realized that having a “business-minded” perspective entails more than just building a company. It means fostering encouragement in those around you, judiciously allocating your time, evaluating margins and the value of opportunities, carefully selecting your friends, finding methods to alleviate stress, and nurturing a robust network. I am, in essence a business. This realization gave me a profound sense of confidence where I was then able to apply these principles at work by influencing those around me and leading other project managers and senior executives. I shifted my focus beyond just going my job well to imparting my knowledge and personal power to others to achieve their goals.

At Anderson I was continually surrounded by extraordinary individuals who accomplishments not only in their careers but also their pursuits outside of work – academia, family life, personal well-being, physical fitness, etc. Their well-roundedness became a beacon for my own personal growth, compelling me to embody the same example and lift up those around me. I became a more empathetic, thoughtful, and caring leader from that main lesson.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? During my last semester, I had one particular week that was challenging to balance. I had an important final group presentation for my Global Immersion trip to Singapore on a Friday night. My team and I spent weeks fine-tuning our idea, writing a paper, and then creating the presentation to pitch our product. Two weeks ahead of our final presentation, a dear uncle of mine in Jamaica passed away and the funeral was the morning after. I worked with my professor and classmates to deliver our presentation early during the class block then immediately took a red-eye to join family in Jamaica for the funeral the next morning. I spent the weekend mourning, healing, and celebrating his life with family and was able to work remotely (my job is not fully remote) and attend class the next week from Jamaica. That week, my work, family and educational responsibilities collided but I was able to be vulnerable, ask for help and find a solution that allowed me to be fully present in each realm. Learning to think quickly on my feet and efficiently manage my time are two skillsets I significantly sharpened during my MBA program.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? Completing business school while working in a successful and growing career is very hard. The conversations you’ll have, the friends you’ll make, the debates you’ll have, and case studies you’ll read will cover everything from data analytics to ethical decisions to macroeconomics to psychology and how people think.

My biggest advice is to lean in and really try to get the most out of this experience – think of it as a two-year sprint. That means figure out your support system early: ask for the support of your friends and family and understand how to best unplug and recharge. There will be times when you’re tired, uncomfortable, or uncertain – do it anyway. Leverage the amazing resources your program provides. Often times, we’re so used to being the one to lead and call the shots, we forget how to be a student. Pause, ask for help and do it anyway. And that means truly everyone – classmates, professors, administration, don’t take any relationship for granted.

What was your biggest regret in business school? I absolutely love my EMBA cohort and business school experience. To this day, I wonder if it would’ve been even more transformative if I paused my career and chose to be a fulltime student.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I admire my capstone project teammate Isabelle Koverda more than I think she knows. Isabelle studied engineering like I did and transitioned to marketing to have an amazing career. We shared similar struggles growing up as women in a male dominated field. As a current Director of Portfolio Strategy at Edwards Lifesciences, Isabelle masterfully balances a challenging career, motherhood and a social calendar while being fun, energetic and authentically herself. I aspire to be like her.

What was the main reason you chose an executive MBA program over part-time or online alternatives? I had a fully remote job when I started my Executive MBA program and I craved in-person experiences. I specifically wanted to build and expand my network in LA through UCLA. I also knew that I’d had leadership experiences and career opportunities a couple steps ahead of those my age. I knew that the Executive program would surround me with people I could learn with and alongside as opposed to most peer learning from me. I was eager to apply my learnings to a career I enjoyed as opposed to trying to start over. I have aspirations at an executive/C-suite level that only a tailored EMBA program could prepare me for.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? My ultimate long-term professional goal is to lead a global team as a Chief Operating Officer. I’m energized by having the ability to shape and influence the culture and values of an organization while doing work that is meaningful, impactful and strategic.

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

“Deidra is a born leader. she has a special ability to connect with people and always sees a solution to any challenge. Deidra immediately became a leader within her class and was elected as the Academic representative, one of the positions on the UCLA EMBA Council. In this role, Deidra was a great advocate for the students, and liaison between the students and faculty each quarter. She would create, send, and organize the feedback for the midpoint “academic surveys” each quarter, present it to the administration and professors, and provide updates to the section. She also did the above for a comprehensive/overall academic (and program) feedback survey. Her approach is always thoughtful and supported by data. She ensures that any feedback she is raising represents the most important issues that the majority of her classmates are expressing.

When it came time for the Class of 2023 cohort to elect their Class President, a role that represents their class to the most senior administration at the school and is part of the alumni board for five years following graduation, Deidra put her hat in the ring for consideration. Like everything Deidra does, she went above and beyond to demonstrate to her classmates how much she wanted the position and why she felt she would be an impactful leader. Deidra was authentic is every aspect of her campaign and took the opportunity to speak from the heart and present her case in her own unique way.

Deidra was elected as her class present and in this role she created a quarterly newsletter, liaised with alumni relations, attended board meetings and coordinated the details/strategy for the campaign for students to move forward with Giving Opportunity for the Class Gift. Gonzalo Freixes, The dean of the UCLA Anderson Professional MBA programs has expressed that Deidra is one of his favorite presidents he has every worked with. He compliments her incredibly thoughtful approach to connecting with her classmates and thoughtfully bringing their feedback to administration in a way that is easy to understand and actionable.

In addition to all of these contributions, Deidra made a successful job transition during the program and also contributed outside of EMBA in a leadership position in the UCLA Anderson Black Business Students Association.”

Shannon Bell
Executive Director of Admissions UCLA Anderson EMBA and UCLA-NUS


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