Danseur, astronaut, Laker, G-man: 4 surprising MBAs

BY Mary LowengardApril 27, 2021, 03:00 am
Natalia Botha. Frederic Hood performing in George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante” with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Frederic Hood was a lackluster high school student who never distinguished himself much on the playing fields of his New England prep school. Then he was thunderstruck during the winter semester of his senior year, when he took a modern dance class to complete a gym requirement. 

“No academic course or athletic activity ever grabbed me like this,” Hood says. He enrolled at Vassar College in the fall of 1971, attracted by its highly touted dance program. After a year and a half, he had taken every dance class offered. Hood withdrew, packed his bags, and headed to New York City.

There, over the next 13 years, he launched a spectacular career as a danseur, or male ballet dancer. In that pre–Billy Elliot era, it wasn’t difficult to excel, he says, even given his late start. “I was handed a pair of tights and pushed out on the stage,” he recalls. 

Hood finessed earning a living in ballet without having to wash dishes on the side. He studied with the greats at major New York City–based ballet schools, danced with American Ballet Theatre, and hit the road, signing contracts with troupes in Maryland, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, and then performing in Europe.

Suddenly, he was 33, and his knees were going—an occupational hazard. Hood applied to and was accepted at Brown University on full scholarship. Two and a half years later, a business economics BA in hand, he pranced straight into Harvard Business School, the only ex–male ballet dancer in his class that fall (and, possibly, ever). 

Hood received his MBA in 1990 and headed West, applying his business education in finance and marketing to positions in the Bay Area at Wells Fargo, followed by Charles Schwab. Sixteen years later, he and his wife, Leigh Hercher, his partner onstage as well as in life, moved to Ashland, Ore., where he spent several years as a financial adviser.

Hood continues to put his MBA to good use advising startups and nonprofits. “All those years of dance training and performing definitely helped me develop the focus and concentration necessary to succeed,” he observes. “This enhanced and benefited my life onstage, at school, and in the business world.”

From B-school to G-man

Then there’s Sean Joyce, who graduated from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business in 1987, back when the best and brightest of his classmates were vying for seats in the Salomon Brothers training program. 

Joyce trained at Quantico. “I honestly thought I’d do this for two or three years, then go into business,” says Joyce, who was attracted to the public service aspect of his off-the-beaten-path choice to join the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Over a subsequent 25-year career, Joyce saw action that the typical B-school grad only experiences on the small screen. As a special agent, he investigated violent crimes and drug enterprises, served on the Hostage Rescue Team, and worked in international counterterrorism. 

It was arguably more exciting than life on a trading floor. Just a year or so after leaving Tuck’s Hanover, N.H., campus, Joyce found himself off the coast of Colombia on a Zodiac, bouncing around in rough seas and staking out a Cali Cartel drop. 

After two decades of heart-pounding assignments, he was named the 14th deputy director of the FBI, serving under both Robert Mueller and James Comey with oversight of 36,000 employees and an $8 billion budget. 

Today, Joyce has parlayed his Bureau experience into a more sedate position as global and U.S. cybersecurity, privacy, and forensics leader at PwC, which he joined in 2013. There, as at the FBI, he says, his role is “to lead, enable, and support.” Happily, he notes, the middle-of-the-night calls have ended. 

Blastoff after business school

When Soyeon Yi enrolled at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business in 2012 she came fully armed with a BS, MS, and Ph.D. from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in her native South Korea. And a showstopper job on her résumé.

In 2008, Yi was the first (and remains the only) Korean citizen to travel to and work at the International Space Station on a nine-day assignment. 

Yup, she’s a rocket scientist and an astronaut. Her LinkedIn handle is “msastronaut.” 

You think getting into a top 10 B-school is tough? Yi was one of two finalists out of 35,000 who applied to train in Russia for this mission. That’s an acceptance rate of 0.005714%. (Stanford’s acceptance rate, by comparison, is 6.9%.)

Today, Yi is based in Seattle, where she heads customer engagement for ProtoPie (Studio XID), working with its satellite startup Loft Orbital Systems. “My MBA has helped me grow ProtoPie’s business in the U.S.,” she says.

So, what did Yi think could be gained from B-school after all her schooling and experience? Scientists, she explains, often encounter a vast communications gulf between business and technology. “Businesspeople have a hard time relating to science geeks,” Yi says. “To be successful, I felt I needed to learn how to act as a translator. Business school taught me to be a bridge. That was my motivation.”

From NBA to MBA: Staying in the game

Blending in with his classmates was not easy for Mitch Kupchak, who was on the “four-and-a-half-year plan,” spanning 1982 to 1987, at UCLA’s Graduate School of Business (today the Anderson School of Management). At 6-foot-9, Kupchak literally stood out in the crowd. 

An All-American at the University of North Carolina, Kupchak was a first-round draft pick joining the Washington Bullets in 1976, then recruited by special request of team owner Magic Johnson to join the L.A. Lakers in 1981 on a seven-year (i.e., long-term) contract. 

Injuries plagued him early on, offering time and impetus to consider what he might do if he wasn’t able to play again. Kupchak applied to UCLA, was accepted into its executive MBA program, and began to accumulate credits, returning to the court to play in the 1983–84 season then retiring in 1986. 

Fortuitously, he was invited to “help out” in the front office by general manager Jerry West, leading to the position of assistant general manager. “There was a lot of work,” Kupchak recalls, citing the introduction of salary caps that suddenly required strategic financial planning. His nascent spreadsheet skills came in handy. While he learned a lot in class, for Kupchak, “the most valuable thing was getting through the program, which gave me confidence in my ability to manage.” 

Kupchak served 17 seasons as general manager of the Lakers, moving into his present position as president and general manager of the Charlotte Hornets in 2018. 

Awarded his MBA in February of 1987, Kupchak’s years in business school allowed him to transition his career on the court to one where he remains in the game. And conversely, he notes, basketball helped him finesse his second-year field study—a project that above all else required extensive, intensive teamwork. He had that down pat.