BOSTON—Four members of the Harvard Business School MBA Class of 2013 have been named winners of the School’s prestigious Dean’s Award. The recipients, who will be recognized by HBS Dean Nitin Nohria at Commencement ceremonies Thursday afternoon on the HBS campus, are Prem Ramaswami, Elizabeth P. (Parker) Woltz, and the team of Galen G. Laserson and Matthew J. Lesniak.
Established in 1997, this annual award celebrates the extraordinary achievements of graduating students who have made a positive impact on Harvard, Harvard Business School, and/or broader communities. True to the MBA program’s mission, they have also contributed to the well-being of society through exceptional acts of leadership. Nominations come from the HBS community. A selection committee comprising faculty, administrators, and students then makes recommendations to the Dean, who selects the recipients.
“These students have made extraordinary contributions to Harvard Business School,” said Dean Nitin Nohria. “With their talents and skills, their vision and enthusiasm, as well as an enormous amount of work and collaboration, these leaders have made a lasting and positive difference in the lives of others, both inside and outside the classroom. In receiving this important award, they are upholding one of the School’s great traditions and setting the highest standard for those who follow in their footsteps.”
Prem Ramaswami: Passionate about Products and Politics
When Prem Ramaswami arrived at HBS, he met many fellow MBA students who aspired to become product managers in technology companies or start-ups. However, they faced a Catch 22. Most were looking to switch careers and lacked the experience and technical know-how that product management positions typically require.
A Carnegie Mellon-trained engineer, Ramaswami had brought many innovative products to market as a product manager at Google before his arrival at Soldiers Field. Recognizing a gap in the existing HBS curriculum, he and classmate Rana Kashyap approached Professor Tom Eisenmann, chair of the MBA elective curriculum, last summer with the concept for a new course to fill this void. The result was Product Management 101 (PM 101). The goal was to launch within a few weeks for the fall of 2012. Mission accomplished. Ramaswami designed the course’s content, taught classes, recruited speakers, and advised students.
Fourteen second-years enrolled in the yearlong elective. In the fall term, they learned the basics of high-tech product management. The winter term was a field course, where students were challenged to hire an external team of programmers to develop and then launch software applications. Examples included a mobile app for sharing taxis, a secondary market for ticket exchanges, and an elective course selection tool. Another key course requirement was producing and delivering documents detailing whether there was a market for the potential application, along with product specifications required for an engineer to develop the app.
PM 101 received high marks from participants, who praised Ramaswami for his leadership, mentoring, and teaching. Outside the classroom, he advised more than 100 other students interested in becoming involved in the technology industry. “Prem is unique in how much he cares about the advancement of his fellow students,” wrote a Dean’s Award nominator.
The course has already had a huge impact on job searches. Six of those enrolled in PM 101 have secured product management positions at Google, Riot Games, Sephora, and TripAdvisor. In light of all these admirable results, plans are in place to make the course a regular part of the elective curriculum next year.
But this was not the end of Ramaswami’s impact on life at HBS. As president of the HBS Democrats Club, he revitalized an organization struggling to survive. The keys to his success were energetic recruiting, increased communications (including a newsletter that was described as both “well written” and “hilarious”), and a series of creative and enjoyable events. What made the situation a bit tricky, however, especially in a presidential election year, was that under IRS regulations, HBS clubs are supposed to be non-partisan.
“Prem did a great job of working with the Republican Club to deal with this situation constructively,” said an HBS staff member. For example, the two clubs organized a successful campaign to help students, regardless of political affiliation, register to vote, since so many of them were from outside Massachusetts. And during one of the presidential debates, both clubs put on a party in the Spangler Grille to have some fun while listening to the issues. "Prem was the heartbeat of this effort,” wrote a fellow student. “He's always happy to share the credit, but he did the brunt of the work." Another classmate noted that "Prem is one of the most impressive people I know, not because of his own demonstrated talents and abilities, but rather because of the conviction he has for his beliefs and his willingness to consider the beliefs of others.”
Graduation notwithstanding, Ramaswami’s work at HBS is not done. Fittingly, having taken a job in product management in Cambridge, he will return to campus next year to help with – what else – PM101.
Parker Woltz : Fostering an Inclusive Community
Although she always stood out as a leader during her two years at Harvard Business School, Parker Woltz made her most lasting mark as co-president of the School’s Women’s Student Association (WSA) in 2012-13. This year was particularly important for the HBS community, as it celebrated the 50th anniversary of the admission of women to the two-year MBA program with a series of special “W50” events. In addition, it marked the 40th anniversary of the WSA.
One of the Association’s marquee W50 initiatives was a yearlong distinguished speaker series, in which inspirational female thought leaders, including Debora Spar, formerly on the HBS faculty and now president of Barnard College, and Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, came to campus to offer their perspectives on the evolving role of women in business and society. In addition, the WSA took part in the making of a documentary about the experiences of HBS alumnae over the past half century.
“Parker and the leadership team were instrumental in aligning what both the School and alumnae wanted for the W50,” said a fellow student. “Her main qualities are poise and an ability to listen. She is wise beyond her years.”
Woltz also played a major role in coordinating the WSA’s efforts in hosting the sold-out 2013 Dynamic Women in Business Conference, with more than 1,000 participants traveling from near and far to listen to 140 speakers and panelists focusing on the topic “Success Redefined.” Another of the conference’s attractions was the Alumnae Portrait Project, which featured photographs of 25 women with distinctive answers to the question, “Why do you do what you do?”
“Flawless execution and extreme thoughtfulness,” is how a member of the HBS community described the WSA’s portfolio of programs, as Woltz and her colleagues sought to actively support a community that empowers and mobilizes women to thrive academically, socially and professionally for long-term success.
She also helped facilitate the endowment of the Women’s Student Association Fellowship, the first time in the School’s history that a student organization has endowed such an award. Up to $20,000 will be given annually to a second-year student who embodies the characteristics of integrity, leadership, and excellence and has contributed to the development of the women’s community at HBS.
Given the fact that women now make up 40 percent of the MBA Class of 2014, Woltz and the WSA team realized that the mission and vision of the WSA needed to expand from simply encouraging more women to apply to the School and become active in the HBS community to creating a dialogue around family, work-life balance, and women in leadership positions. As a result, she worked on turning some of the WSA’s attention toward engaging more male students in the conversation.
One staff member noted the example of International Women’s Day last March, when specially-designed crimson and gray W50 T-shirts were given out to the entire student body (as well as faculty and staff) for an all-School discussion of the history of women at HBS. “To see an overwhelming majority of of the School population—men and women—wearing those shirts emphasized a feeling of community and inclusiveness and ensured that we weren’t just talking about ‘women’s issues,’” she said. To further that goal next year, Woltz and her colleagues have been working with the new WSA leaders to create a position that will focus on promoting the discussion of gender issues on campus and increasing male participation in WSA activities.
“Parker exemplifies leadership and contribution to community,” said a section mate who nominated her for the Dean’s Award. “What she and the WSA team have done with the Women’s Student Association this year will have an impact on all HBS students for many years to come.”
Galen Laserson and Matt Lesniak: Upholding Community Values
Galen Laserson and Matt Lesniak have spent much of their extracurricular time at Harvard Business School promoting “mutual respect, honesty and integrity, and personal accountability”-- the backbone of the School’s Community Values and the mantra of the Leadership and Values (L&V) Committee, comprising 20 first- and second-year student representatives. Elected by to the L&V Committee by their sections (J and H, respectively) when they were in the Required Curriculum (RC), Laserson and Lesniak went on to do a superb job as its co-heads while they were in the Elective Curriculum (EC).
In this important and highly visible role, they both devoted much of their time to training and supporting newly elected first-year L&V “reps” and providing advice and guidance to their peers, creating a multifaceted support system that included home-cooked dinners where all the members of the Committee could get to know each other.
But Laserson and Lesniak went far beyond that, embodying and supporting the mission of the Community Values Program, which aims to “create an environment in which all HBS community members strive to align their actions with the School’s stated values, keep value-based decision-making top of mind, and foster a positive learning environment inside the classroom.” A hefty agenda indeed, but according to a classmate who nominated them for the Dean’s Award, “They always did more than what was expected of them.”
As part of its purview, the Community Values Program addresses alleged policy violations and conduct issues within the student body as they arise. While most matters are dealt with informally by HBS administrators, some require review by the Conduct Review Board (CRB), made up of a combination of faculty, staff, and students. One of Laserson and Lesniak’s most significant contributions to the HBS community was the work they began last spring and summer as part of a joint task force convened to reexamine and redesign the MBA disciplinary process. The two collaborated tirelessly with other committee members to create a process that was viewed as more fair and transparent than the old one. Laserson and Lesniak were “pivotally instrumental in helping the School focus on the need to revisit the procedures,” wrote one nominator. “They had the courage to step up and bring about meaningful change,” observed another.
To accomplish all this, the two did not let summer internships on different continents get in the way of their task force responsibilities. Although Laserson was in Rwanda and Lesniak was in the United States, the two showed their penchant for communication and teamwork, conducting meetings over Skype and emailing back and forth constantly with their committee colleagues to ensure that the necessary revisions would be completed for the start of the new academic year in the fall of 2012. Even after the new disciplinary process was in place, they continued to make adjustments throughout the year. “Galen and Matt circled back with both students and the HBS administration to make sure that the revised CRB process was working,” noted a supporter, “and they also took the opportunity to solicit and relay feedback from students. Their dedication and ongoing commitment to the process were amazing.”
Another student said, “I admire the holistic view they bring to tough issues. If there’s a difficult decision to be made, they approach the role from a very human level, incorporate many different points of view, and talk for hours on end about the ramifications of the choices under consideration.”
No wonder, therefore, that an admiring administrator concluded, “Galen and Matt have set the standard for what student leadership should be."