Martin Gonzalez refused to let colon cancer prevent him from making the most of his Harvard Business School (HBS) experience inside and outside the classroom. Mo-Yun Lei used her education background to enrich the learning process of her HBS classmates. In recognition of their service to the Business School community, these students received the sixth annual Dean’s Award from Kim B. Clark, dean of the HBS faculty, at a special luncheon Wednesday (June 5).
The Dean’s Award acknowledges and celebrates the nonacademic achievements of graduating M.B.A. candidates. Students are nominated by their peers, as well as faculty, administrators, alumni, and friends. The stories of Gonzalez and Lei exemplify a commitment to leadership that no grade-point average alone could adequately convey.
“If I take one overall impression away from HBS, it’s that everyone here has a powerful story to tell,” says Martin Gonzalez, a lanky Chilean whose own life story took a dramatic turn during his first year at Soldiers Field.
A former long-distance swimmer and former member of Chile’s national volleyball team, the trilingual Gonzalez had traveled widely, graduated from Catholic University in Santiago with a degree in industrial engineering, weathered a failed entrepreneurial venture, and worked in high tech in Silicon Valley before coming to HBS. Eager to get back into competitive volleyball after a two-year hiatus, Gonzalez began playing on the HBS student team early in the fall of 2000. “Since I had been on a national team, I thought that here, I would be the star,” he notes with a self-effacing smile. “But I met a number of amazing players who hadn’t even listed volleyball as an interest on their class cards!”
Elated, from the start, at the level of competition, by November Gonzalez “started getting really tired.” “At first,” he recalls, “I just had to stop volleyball. But soon, I couldn’t even ride my bike to class.” It took more than three months and emergency abdominal surgery for doctors to diagnose colon cancer. “Ironically, we were told the results of my biopsy the same day we found out that my wife, Ana, was pregnant with our first son, Martincito,” he says. “It was the most emotional day of my life.”
Surgery and an extended round of chemotherapy – every Friday afternoon from March through November 2001 – followed. “I felt the sickest over the weekends, so I was able to attend most classes and keep up with my work,” reports Gonzalez, who received strong support from professors, M.B.A. program staff, and classmates. “Students who don’t have the troubles I did go through this place without finding out who their real and true friends are,” he observes. “I found that I had many.”
In addition to completing his coursework, Gonzalez, a self-described “technology fanatic,” served as co-chair of the M.B.A. Technology Committee, participated in the HBS Business Plan Contest, and spent the summer between his first and second year working with M.B.A. Career Services to develop recommendations for better serving the School’s international students. He downplays his ability to continue functioning throughout his medical ordeal. “It is much harder to watch a loved one go through something like this,” he says, quietly mentioning that his mother was found to have the same cancer shortly after his own diagnosis was confirmed.
In remission and “feeling healthy,” Gonzalez has accepted a job in marketing with General Mills in Minneapolis, postponing for now his entrepreneurial dream – a venture that would introduce new engineering technologies to Chile – in favor of some much-needed stability, time with his wife and son, and a chance to contribute financially to his family back home.
Gonzalez has given much thought to the concept of leadership, in sports and in business, and describes it as “the glue for different opinions.” “Leaders need to listen and to value what each person brings to the table,” he elaborates. “Here at Harvard, it’s not necessarily the cases or books or professors who teach leadership. It’s getting to know and work with extraordinary people from all kinds of backgrounds who reshape how you think about the world.” Gonzalez is certainly one of those people.
Leading by Example
Mo-Yun “Mo” Lei still keeps in touch with her first-grade teacher. A native of Taiwan, she came to the United States with her family when she was 5 years old and quickly fell in love with learning. No wonder that this former assistant principal of a public high school, math and science teacher, and two-time graduate of Stanford University – she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in education – was elected by her Business School classmates as liaison between their section’s faculty and students.
“I wanted to contribute to my section and use my skills and experiences as an administrator and teacher. Running for education representative made sense,” says Lei. As “ed rep” of Section E – one of 11 student sections in the M.B.A. program – Lei spent much of her first year trying to find ways to make the learning process easier for all students within the HBS community. She arranged brown-bag sessions with M.B.A. Program Support Services, worked with the Student Association to organize a midyear study group mixer, and streamlined the process by which first-year students choose their second-year electives.
Elected as chairperson of the Education Representative Committee during her second year, Lei created a training manual and a technology module for new ed reps to address more effectively the challenges facing all HBS students. The technology module, she explains, enables ed reps to locate various student resources on-line quickly, create Web-based polls, and disseminate information to their sections in an efficient way.
Serving as an ed rep brought out her maternal side, says Lei with a smile.
“I found myself telling everyone to eat before finals and get enough sleep. I felt such a sense of responsibility for making sure that our section’s experience in the classroom was smooth and that everyone learned as much as possible in a supportive environment.” Lei paid attention to the details; when faculty members or students became ill, she would make sure that flowers and cards were sent and would follow up on their recovery.
Described by her nominator for the Dean’s Award as epitomizing “the principles of quiet leadership,” Lei says that serving as ed rep of her section and then as chair of the Ed Rep Committee taught her much about leadership. “Both students and faculty entrusted me with confidential information that they knew I would treat with respect and integrity,” she says. “It was a responsibility that I took very seriously and I believe that my section mates and fellow ed reps could sense that.”
In addition to her work as an ed rep, Lei also served as vice president of the Social Enterprise Club and as treasurer for the Harvard Christian Fellowship. She came to HBS with the dream of starting a school of her own, she says, “but my professors at the Business School encouraged me to think beyond one school and to think about starting multiple schools or working for an organization that has a broad impact on education reform.” Armed with her new business skills, Lei plans to take up that challenge after taking time off to travel and do some consulting work in Singapore. Her first-grade teacher, she says, is very proud of her accomplishments.