Academics

Alumni Speaker Series Returns for 2021

Ira Harris, Director of McIntire’s M.S. in Commerce Program, says that one of the main drivers behind the speaker series was adding another set of perspectives, but the result has been even better than he could have predicted.

Ira Harris (Photo by Tom Cogill)

Last year, when faced with the upheaval created by the pandemic, Professor Ira Harris, Director of McIntire’s M.S. in Commerce Program, moved to make the best use of the virtual learning environment by launching the Leadership Speaker Series.

The series welcomed professionals representing areas related to the graduate program’s wide-ranging curriculum, and offered students vital firsthand perspectives directly from those working in the field. Finding the online meetings beneficial, M.S. in Accounting students also joined many of the discussions, later reporting that delving into topics such as the inner workings of organizations, the challenges of each speaker’s industry, and management perspectives was broadly applicable to their studies as well.

As such, Harris has brought back the Leadership Speaker Series for the fall of 2021, with a schedule composed of mostly McIntire and UVA alumni who, at each session, will speak with roughly 200 students from both of the aforementioned graduate programs.

Harris says that one of the main drivers behind the speaker series was adding another set of perspectives, but the result was even better than he could have predicted.

“We were studying business theory and talking about lots of examples in cases to illustrate that theory, but having practitioners as an added dimension is very enriching and a very nice complement to the coursework,” Harris says. Explaining that last year’s guest speakers were—completely unprompted—referencing the kinds of decisions discussed in class, he says that speakers provided important context by talking about their own organizations, helping students to make connections with concepts.

And though all students are learning back on Grounds this semester, it turns out that the virtual format is perfectly suited to not only accommodate more than 100 students simultaneously, but also allows for participation from alumni located near and far, unfettered by distance or travel complexities.

The series will take place with hourlong sessions held weekly throughout the fall semester and began Aug. 13 with an alumni panel featuring Commercial Real Estate Associate at Truist Robby Byrne (A&S ’17, M.S. in Commerce ’18), Actor and Producer Ryan Perry (M.S. in Commerce ’18), Digital Project Manager at Bluetext Emily Plante (A&S ’18, M.S. in Commerce ’19), and Senior Vendor Manager, MBA Launch Program at Amazon Meade Willis (M.S. in Commerce ’17).

“I like to have the young alumni panel as early as possible, because it’s really difficult for students to understand why we put such emphasis on certain aspects of business. The young alumni who have been working for a couple of years, but they’ve gone through the program, are working out in the marketplace, and they can see the application of all of those lessons in the marketplace. They get the connection, and it’s always helpful to hear from them and encouraging for the students,” Harris says.

Future speakers include MAXIMUS VP of Talent Acquisition Dave Ong, Facebook AI Public Operations Manager and Visiting McIntire Lecturer Adam Parsell (A&S ’09, M.S. in Commerce ’10), Hella Cocktail Co. CEO and Co-Founder Jomaree Pinkard (McIntire ’01), and CoderPad CEO Amanda Richardson (McIntire ’01).

Harris notes that, with few exceptions, the alumni speakers are in leadership positions, but as an intentional approach that ties the entire program together, the series will once again attempt to represent a variety of experiences: “Industries, age, where folks are in their career, private and public companies, and big and small organizations. That’s something that really stuck out to the students [last year]. It leads to richer discussions each week, and then, when you step back and look at the combination that you’ve had over 12 or 13 weeks, it comes together in a really instructive way,” he says.

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