Michael Greer, WG’21, came to Wharton with a rather unusual background: ballet. He attended elite ballet schools and danced professionally for six years after high school. However, he knew he wanted to have another career, so he “retired” at 24 and went to college.
Studying economics, Michael took the opportunity to live in India as a Gilman Scholar, where he interned as a research assistant in a micro-credit lending firm funded by the Grameen Foundation. This experience led to a post-graduate job in China as a project manager, where he led a team to design, build, and implement a lean production line. Taking positions with greater responsibility, he became general manager at a large metal recycling company.
After seven years in China, Michael and his wife – who he had met in China – decided to raise their children in the U.S. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but when a friend suggested I look into the executive leadership side of nonprofit ballet companies, it made a lot of sense,” he said.
Michael then moved to Maine and became executive director of the Portland Ballet. In that role, he was responsible for business operations, planning, organization, community outreach, and overall management of the company. He also handled fundraising activities and worked with the board to develop strategies for future growth.
He is now executive director of the Oregon Ballet Theatre, which is the largest professional dance company in Oregon.
The Value of an MBA for Nonprofits
Over time, he started to consider going back to school for an MBA. He explained, “I saw the need for a more strategic and fiscally-driven approach to management. Nonprofits tend to be guided by a lot of passion and subject-area expertise, but often lack some core managerial foundations. The field doesn’t typically pull executives from top business schools, but nonprofits deserve to have more people with that level of education.”
He added, “I also knew it would be beneficial to my own career to have this degree. I’d like to contribute on a larger scale in the nonprofit sector and a Wharton MBA is a valuable differentiator,” he said.
Investing in Education
Going back to school meant self-sponsorship for Michael. “It’s not easy to spend that kind of money, but my wife pointed out that we could spend it on an investment property or in an investment fund, but we wouldn’t see the same type of return as this program. Very few people get the opportunity each year to invest in a Wharton MBA and if you get that chance, you should take it. Education offers by far the best return on any type of investment.”
Commuting from Portland
After being accepted into Wharton’s EMBA program in San Francisco, Michael began commuting from Portland every other weekend. “It’s the equivalent of riding an adult school bus because the students from Portland often commute together on the same flights. We hang out in the airport, study or relax together on the flight, and then take an Uber together to campus.”
Applying Knowledge to the Arts
In his first year of the program, Michael says that his classes are “100% applicable” to his job. “I’m learning core business skills and applying them immediately, so I’m able to make a significant difference in the office. For example, I am currently working on a regression analysis model of traits of ticket buyers to provide insights on buyer behavior that we just didn’t have before.”
In marketing and management classes, he is learning about strategy, competitive advantage, and customer preferences – and how to leverage them. “In the arts world, being able to analyze and segment our customer base and understand our competitive advantage is huge.”
He noted, “The classes teach the skills and tools needed to efficiently run a business. I’m learning how to conduct high-level analysis about which levers to pull to make our organization successful. Every industry can benefit from this knowledge, but nonprofits can especially use this to move the needle in further supporting their missions.”
Michael observes that classes are also helping him address a challenge common in the arts world: relevancy. “We provide a product that has been around for hundreds of years and in many instances it hasn’t changed much. We need to ensure that our product stays relevant to existing groups and also attracts new customers. This means understanding what customers want out of arts and entertainment and tailoring our products to that demand while keeping tradition alive. Most of our industry creates a product for people who are already fans. We can do a lot more to introduce our art form to new and more diverse audiences.”
Why Diversity Matters
The diversity of industries discussed in classes is adding value for Michael, who was recently named a commissioner on the Oregon Arts Commission. He explained, “I came here to get different perspectives on our business model. It’s exciting to see how cases from all sorts of industries around the globe can be adapted to what I do.”
He added that the diversity of his classmates is also exciting. “I’ve never been in an environment with this level of talented, yet humble people who want to learn as much from you as you want to learn from them. This kind of environment changes you and changes the way you look at the world.”
Advice for Prospective Students
For people in the nonprofit world considering this investment, Michael’s advice is to just do it. “I’m 41 years old and understand the hesitancy, but this is a transformational program and you will come out of it a different individual. You can’t put a value on that.”
— Meghan Laska
Posted: December 18, 2019