21 May 2018

Three Harvard Business School Students Win Dean’s Award for Service to the School and Society


BOSTON—Frances Dixon and Shannon O’Connell, both members of the Harvard Business School MBA Class of 2018, have been named recipients of the School’s Dean’s Award. Cheng Gao, a graduating doctoral student in the field of strategy, has been honored with the HBS Doctoral Programs Dean’s Award.

These coveted and prestigious awards celebrate the extraordinary achievements of graduating students who during their years of study here have also made a positive impact on Harvard, Harvard Business School, and/or broader communities. In addition, they have contributed to the well-being of society through exceptional acts of leadership. Nominations come from the HBS community, and Dean Nitin Nohria makes the final selections.

This year’s recipients will be formally recognized during Commencement Week. Information on their achievements follows:

Frances Dixon and Shannon O’Connell have spent much of their extracurricular time at Harvard Business School working to effect change for those who experience sexual assault and harassment.

Frances Dixon
Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Both sought to improve Harvard Business School's procedures for responding to allegations of sexual misconduct they felt did not align with the School's community values. They approached senior leadership at HBS to discuss how the system could be refined to better meet future students' needs.

As part of this effort, Dixon and O’Connell worked to clarify and enhance the way the School's processes to investigate sexual assault and harassment complaints are coordinated with those of the University through its Office for Dispute Resolution (ODR). One important change the School will adopt as a result includes tighter integration of HBS's internal community values investigations and fact-finding with those of ODR.

Shannon O'Connell
Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

In addition, the requirement that students demonstrate that their educational experience was negatively affected as a result of sexual misconduct was dropped—a condition that, given the unique HBS culture, had rarely been met. Finally, Dixon and O'Connell advocated for processes that would enable bystanders and witnesses, not just victims, to report sexual harassment and assault, empowering more students to combat sexual misconduct and reducing the burden on victims. The School has since developed materials to help students understand steps they can take as a bystander or witness.

Many students will benefit from Dixon and O’Connell’s extraordinary efforts. As one staff member observed, “These two students were unbelievable advocates for something they cared deeply about improving; they are leaving behind them an important legacy that will benefit countless students in the years to come.”

Dixon and O’Connell’s contributions to HBS were not limited to this important work. Dixon was co-president of the Armed Forces Alumni Association, a club for HBS students who serve or have served in the military. An Active-Duty US Air Force officer from 2006 to 2013 and now in the Air Force Reserve, she furthered the club’s mission “to assist in the professional development and job search process of members, to promote camaraderie among members, and to raise awareness and support for the military on the HBS campus.” One classmate explained that while in the co-president’s role, Dixon was “a champion for inclusiveness” and “a consistent and impact-oriented advocate for women, families, and veterans on campus.” She was also known in her section as someone who “wants to make sure everyone feels comfortable.” Another classmate noted she was “always there for everybody.” Even though she was not her section’s Community Values Representative, a fellow student pointed out that she still acted as an unofficial one, working as a resource "to help facilitate safe conversations in the section." In short, Dixon was known in her section for “volunteering for everything and being incredibly supportive and inclusive.”

O’Connell was also active in her section. As one classmate pointed out, she was “the backbone" of the section in her role as one of its three social representatives, responsible for planning events to encourage engagement and community. “Shannon is very warm, social, and vibrant,” said a sectionmate. “She is great at facilitating and forging relationships with others.” Passionate about renewable energy, sustainability, and collaboration, O'Connell served as the Vice President of Community for the Energy and Environment Club, organizing events to foster a strong, interconnected community for the club's members. An extraordinarily talented dancer who participated in the HBS Show, she served as co-president of the Salsa Society, a new student club she helped found with several classmates “to provide a social forum for students of all levels to practice salsa dancing, improve their dancing skills, and form an active community to enjoy salsa dancing on campus and in the Greater Boston Area.”

While Dixon and O’Connell may be best known on campus for their visible leadership, it is their commitment to the difficult work of sexual harassment and violence prevention and response and the key roles they played in moving Harvard Business School toward better serving future generations of HBS students that make them Dean’s Award winners for 2018.

Gao Honored with Doctoral Programs Dean's Award

During his six years as a doctoral student in strategy, Cheng Gao made his mark as a “triple threat”--an outstanding student and scholar with publications already to his name; a highly regarded teacher and mentor of Harvard undergraduates “across the river;” and a role model for other Harvard Business School doctoral students in a number of fields, impacting and enriching their lives in many ways with acts of outreach, kindness, and generosity. As Professor David Scharfstein, the School’s Senior Associate Dean for Doctoral Programs, noted, “Cheng exemplifies the qualities we seek in our Dean’s Award recipients. His impact on the HBS community is both deep and widespread.”

Cheng Gao
Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Gao’s reach and energy on the HBS campus seemed endless. According to fellow doctoral students, he organized educational and social events for them, gave feedback on their presentations, critiqued papers that were part of their job search process, and offered advice on everything from most useful conferences to most appropriate faculty for their research questions.

In addition, he helped bridge the gap between current students and graduates of the various HBS doctoral programs by initiating a Return of the Scholar program that brought back already-minted PhDs and DBAs to meet with the current cohorts in an informal setting.

In short, wrote one nominator, “Cheng is a community builder who has taken the initiative time and time again to improve the life of doctoral students by advising, organizing, and connecting people on this campus and beyond.” “When I think back over the last five years of my doctoral studies,” another wrote, “it is remarkable how much of my experience has been buoyed by Cheng’s support, enthusiasm, advice, good spirits, and laughter. He is a pillar of the doctoral student community here.” In his work with Harvard undergraduates, Gao taught a popular course that included class visits by the former CEO of Boeing and the former chief operating officer of the New England Patriots as well as a field trip to a local venture capital firm--winning a Harvard University Certificate of Distinction in Teaching for his efforts. He also mentored several students in the Program for Research in Markets and Organizations (PRIMO), an HBS summer program designed to bring together a select group of Harvard undergraduates interested in getting exposure to business research on a variety of cutting-edge ideas, and served as a non-resident tutor in Lowell House.

In the realm of research, Gao was honored by HBS last December with a 2017 Wyss Award for Excellence in Doctoral Research for his study of how firms in emerging industries such as personal genomics can overcome regulatory challenges and help shape new industry standards. He is also a coauthor, with HBS professors Geoffrey Jones and Tarun Khanna and former doctoral student Tiona Zuzul (DBA 2014), of an article published last November in the Strategic Management Journal focusing on how firms effectively navigate challenging business environments in developing markets. And an HBS case study, “HomeAway: Organizing the Vacation Rental Industry,” bears his name, along with two HBS working papers, all co-written with Assistant Professor Rory McDonald.

“Doctoral life at Harvard Business School is difficult to imagine without Cheng Gao,” another doctoral student concluded. “I truly believe he stands in solidarity with the values that HBS stands for, especially the rights, differences, and dignity of others.”

Gao will join the faculty of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business as an assistant professor of strategy in July.


Jim Aisner

About Harvard Business School

Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 250 offers full-time programs leading to the MBA and PhD degrees, as well as more than 175 Executive Education programs, and Harvard Business School Online, the School’s digital learning platform. For more than a century, faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching, to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. The School and its curriculum attract the boldest thinkers and the most collaborative learners who will go on to shape the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.