Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto

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Ash Pugh

Valedictorian, Executive MBA Class of 2019

Ash Pugh

How does it feel to be valedictorian?

It’s overwhelming when 60 of the some of the smartest and most successful people you know choose you to represent them at the public event that celebrates such a significant personal and academic accomplishment. It’s deeply humbling and, plainly, moderately terrifying. But truly, having a vote of confidence like that from your peers is very touching.

Why do you think your classmates chose you for this honour?

A guiding principle for me has always been that everyone has something to teach you. Throughout the program I kept this in mind as I sought to learn from my classmates’ experiences, struggles, and personal journeys. I think my classmates recognized and appreciated my sincere personal interest in them - not simply as an addition to a network.

Then again, I also have a strong penchant to tell a fun story. So maybe it was that.

How has the program changed you?

In today’s parlance, I would say I’ve leveled-up - big time. Primarily in three key areas: knowledge base, self-assessment and personal leadership. The EMBA covers a broad range of content areas, many of which were largely or entirely new to me. I can now confidently engage in productive conversations with anyone from any industry, understand their business model, and have an honest conversation about the challenges they face. Not only am I far more capable in many disciplines, I can quickly identify where and when I need support.

As a start-up founder, this kind of effective self-assessment is critical. I’m responsible for everything. I can more honestly identify my weaknesses, own them, and improve on them - quickly. Now, I know the unknowns. Prior to the program, the unknowns were unknown. That’s a huge change.

Throughout my career I have found myself in leadership roles, whether in command of a Search and Rescue base with the Coast Guard or directing the operations of a successful international education business. Being able to learn more about personal leadership, and share experiences with a class full of other leaders was immensely rewarding.

Describe a highlight of the program.

Access to world-leading research from Rotman and the University of Toronto is a huge highlight. Learning from the cutting-edge research that will form the content of textbooks two years from now is amazing. The impact of that research, combined with and contextualized by the peer-based learning from a class of industry leaders, is not to be understated. Being able to gain personal insights from highly-capable individuals leading some of the most exciting projects and companies at play is a huge privilege.

What makes your classmates / graduating year special?

Our program was marked by two key contextualizing influences that amplified our learning. First were the remarkable political, social and economic events that transpired during our program. Studying leadership and governance amidst the groundswell of the #metoo movement, finance and accounting alongside the US Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, and economics and international trade in the context of hyperinflation in Venezuela and a tariff-fueled trade war, there was no shortage of real-world events to bring our learnings into clearer focus.

More important was the fantastically diverse makeup of our class. We had just over 40 per cent women, as well as students from every continent, leaders from a broad range of industries, and all kinds of opinions. We had our very own Gordon Gecko's, AOC’s, Gloria Steinem's, and Cesar Chavez’s duking it out daily. Despite the differences, we managed to stay civil and get the work done.

Any final thoughts or advice to future students?

During the program, Dean Tiff Macklem presented the new Rotman tagline - ‘Here’s Where it Changes’ - to our class. The executive program is exactly that: a knowledge-rich, liminal space where you can try out different versions of yourself. A place where you can stretch and test your limits. It’s only when we test our limits and flirt with failure, that we see our actual limits are much more than we thought. That’s the place where deep learning and growth - real change - happens.

So, for future students my advice is this; Be vulnerable. Take risks. You’ll either win or learn.


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