2023 Best & Brightest Executive MBA: Sam Spencer, Duke University (Fuqua)

Sam Spencer

Duke University, Fuqua School of Business

Age: 30

“An optimist who thrives when asking questions to understand the why behind good investments.”

Hometown: Grand Lake, Colorado

Family Members: Incredibly supportive mom and dad, Joan and Greg, and two younger brothers who are both engineers that work on satellites and are far smarter than I am. Most importantly, there is my partner and husband, Alex, who has always been my biggest hype person.

Fun fact about yourself: I grew up working at my family’s homemade ice cream shop. Family dinner conversations revolved around inventing new flavors and naming them.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Bachelor of Arts in Economics, International Business, and Spanish from Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington

Where are you currently working? I’m currently working as an Investment Officer for the Oregon State Treasury, investing in private market real estate on behalf of the state pension fund. I’m about to transition to a new role as a Director at a Canadian pension fund, the Alberta Investment Management Co. Both positions deal with private market investments to enable pension beneficiary retirements through investment returns. Alex and I (and our dog Timber!) will be moving internationally from Portland, Oregon to Calgary, Alberta soon!

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: At Fuqua, I had the honor of serving as one of my cohort’s class representatives. I co-founded the Fuqua ESG Club with my classmate Shelly Mittal and we focused on bringing environmental, social, and governance factors to the forefront of investment and entrepreneurship conversations. We hosted virtual fireside chats with industry experts and welcomed members with no ESG knowledge, as well as those who specialize in ESG investing. Outside of school, I am an Ambassador for the Girls Who Invest (GWI) non-profit, which aims to inspire, support, and train the next generation of tomorrow’s women investors. Each year I mentor women during their summer intensive program who are early in their investment careers. I also currently serve as a board member and the President of the Portland Alternative Investment Association, a non-profit industry organization dedicated to hosting educational events and building the local community of alternative investment professionals.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I am most proud of being elected a class liaison for our Global Executive MBA cohort. Representing an incredibly diverse and global class was both challenging and meaningful, and was formative in my personal business school growth. When I was nominated by my peers, I was excited at the opportunity to lean into my natural instincts, which are to nurture and build community, but I was also apprehensive as I wanted to appropriately manage my commitments. I’m proud of myself for not shying away from the challenge. Getting to know every individual in my cohort was a tremendous joy and was an investment of time that I will never regret making. This role also allowed me to work closely with two amazing individuals – Dylan Thomas and Mario D’Amato. Serving alongside these other class liaisons, we worked hard to ensure our class felt heard, represented, and unified. It was a special experience that I didn’t expect to have while at business school. I’m forever grateful to my class for this opportunity.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I invest on behalf of public pension beneficiaries in Oregon. These are public employee retirees who spent an average of 26 years in public service and are now retired on their pension benefit. I resonate with this mission and find purpose in my position, as my mom was a public school kindergarten teacher for 30 years. She, like all the Oregon retirees I invest on behalf of, can retire and know their retirement benefit is being well stewarded. I serve on a team that ensures we’re making long-term, resilient investment decisions so that both current and future pensioners will receive the retirement they’ve been promised. I’m incredibly proud of that work.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Sharon Belenzon, who teaches “Doing Business in Emerging Markets” as an elective course at the Fuqua School of Business. I registered for the class to challenge myself and better understand the topic as my investment experience in emerging markets has not been particularly favorable. Unfortunately, I’ve observed many over-leveraged, illiquid Global Financial Crisis investments become insolvent when the rule of law wasn’t upheld in ways that we thought it would.

Professor Belenzon must have been able to detect my general skepticism of emerging markets investing because, at one point early on in the course, he directly asked me to share my thoughts. I initially resisted, thinking that my questions were better suited for further down the line in the course—but he pressed me and I ultimately shared my experience and skepticism. As it turns out, when someone is truly passionate about something, they think about it deeply. They almost never stop thinking about it. And because of that, they have good, thoughtful answers to the hard questions and can likely offer innovative perspectives. Professor Belenzon is incredibly passionate about emerging markets and, as such, he engaged with my questions in ways that I didn’t expect. Professor Belenzon is my favorite Fuqua professor because I didn’t just learn in his class, I completely changed my mind.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? I love the work that I do. I feel incredibly fortunate that I found such a rewarding career so quickly. When the prospect of pursuing an MBA entered my radar, I honestly couldn’t imagine leaving my job for two years. At the same time, I wanted to develop my leadership and management skills through a top MBA program. While I considered many weekend or evening executive programs, I wanted to maximize my in-person experience with my peers. When I discovered Fuqua’s Global Executive program—where I could travel for 10 days at a time every few months with my class, alongside Fuqua professors and our entire program team—that seemed like the perfect solution. Travel brings people together, and I benefited from that in getting to know my classmates and professors so well as we jumped spots around the globe.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? West Coasters in our program would start Saturday morning Zoom class at 6:00 am PST. This was a bit painful at first, but I learned to savor the quiet (and often dark) mornings. The early start meant I’d be done by lunchtime and would have the rest of the day to juggle my other competing priorities. However, my Saturday mornings were not always free from other commitments, so I would dial into Zoom classes from wherever I was – in another state before bridesmaid responsibilities or at the mountain before a day of skiing commenced. While quiet Saturday mornings were always ideal, the program offered sufficient flexibility that I didn’t feel my entire life had to come to a halt for two years.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? What I loved about being alongside other executive MBA students is that everyone brought their current work issues and live management questions into the classroom. Learning from my peers who spanned across a variety of industries was a big value add for me. For individuals deciding between the executive and full-time MBA programs, I think an important consideration should be what type of students you want to be surrounded by. I appreciated all that my peers had to offer in our classroom discussions, and I always loved when professors would be excited to learn from the collective expertise in the room on a subject.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? The myth that I believed before business school was that everyone in a top MBA program is cutthroat and only enrolled in the program to advance their careers and pursue personal interests. Of course, we all are there to grow and advance our careers, but the focus on teamwork that I witnessed in business school took me completely by surprise. Fuqua was focused on teaching us to be effective team members and strong team players. After all, we spend most of our careers on teams. Honing these skills around collaboration, communication, and teamwork meant that everyone was challenged to be vulnerable and honest when giving feedback. The overall emphasis on collaboration and being a strong team member flew in the face of the individualistic environment I was bracing for.    

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? So many of my classmates make this list, but there are two that I found myself telling people about the most: Atsushi Osada and Kevin Moore. Atsushi Osada lives in Tokyo, Japan with a beautiful family. He has been a pharmaceutical professional for more than 15 years, working in oncology drug development. His integrity and hard work are what set him apart in my eyes. He was always the most prepared person in class and was dedicated to flying to every global residency—even when that meant significantly more travel than most of our cohort. Kevin Moore is admirable to me because he decided to pursue his MBA 20 years into his career. His drive to learn and continue pushing himself regardless of his career stage allowed our class to glean a lot from his deep wisdom and years of experience. Both were incredibly strong team members who could always be counted on. In our many conversations, I observed how thoughtful both individuals are, and I’m grateful to call them both friends.

What was the main reason you chose an executive MBA program over part-time or online alternatives? I love connecting with people. I believe the more people we meet and connect with deeply, the more open-minded we can become. An MBA program is a particularly unique environment because everyone is there to receive the same three letters after their name, but the underpinning motivations vary dramatically. It’s difficult to replicate deep connections in a virtual environment and that was an important part of what I wanted from an MBA program. The Fuqua Global Executive MBA program was preferable to me because we got to travel as a cohort for ten days at a time, every few months. This cadence and length of travel enabled us to really get to know one another. I’m fortunate that my family and employer were supportive of this format as I was using far more PTO than normal, but it was worth it to build relationships in other countries together.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal?  I love working in institutional investment management and want to stay on this path. In all future roles, I hope to continue investing what I call “meaningful money”—that is money that enables positive outcomes for society like employee retirement, philanthropic grants, and community development.  I’m walking out of this program with newfound management and leadership skills that I’m hopeful will continue to propel me in this career path that I know I love. Long-term, I have my sights set on becoming a Chief Investment Officer.

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

“Sam’s pleasant disposition, intellectual curiosity, and selfless leadership style quickly elevated her to a class leadership position. Sam excelled as a community builder, made significant contributions to the academic setting, and also received glowing feedback regarding her team contributions. She seized every opportunity to ensure not only the best MBA experience for herself, but always had an eye towards others, being an advocate, ensuring her classmates were recognized and celebrated.

Prior to EMBA’s Elective Term, Sam saw an opportunity and need for a Business in Africa mini-course, surveyed classmates, and worked with senior administration and faculty to roll out a new course offering. Drawing on her own global network, she organized corporate visits for students while on residency in Berlin. Sam was instrumental in starting the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Club and helped organize the women MBA students in her class, which significantly contributed to student learning outcomes for this cohort.

Throughout her MBA program, Sam’s positive and humble attitude exemplified the spirit of “Team Fuqua” and helped strengthen the overall experience for the cohort, faculty and staff.”

Karen Courtney
Associate Dean, Executive MBA Programs & Global Teams


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