A hard lesson in leadership learned in the Foster MBA Program

Jessica Raasch (MBA 2018), last year’s MBA of the Year and Forté Foundation Edie Hunt Inspiration Award-winner, helped emcee the Foster School’s 27th annual Business Leadership Celebration, and shared a hard lesson learned on one of her toughest days in the Foster MBA program. With her permission, we post a more comprehensive version of her story below.

Jessica Raasch speaks at the UW Business Leadership Celebration.

By January of this year, I had already accepted a job offer at T-Mobile, but I had one more crazy idea I wanted to try while I still enjoyed the safety and comfort of being an MBA student. For several months, I had been storyboarding a mobile app and I wanted to build it and launch it before I graduated.

I enrolled in Foster’s course on Software Entrepreneurship. It’s a wildly popular class, taught by two Seattle legends: Greg Gottesman, the managing director and co-founder of Pioneer Square Labs, and Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at UW. The course is open to students from the schools of business, computer science and engineering, and design. Over 10 weeks, students form interdisciplinary teams and learn to develop a software business from scratch. There are guest speakers each week, including seasoned entrepreneurs, investors, and strategic advisers from the pantheon of Seattle’s rich startup history.

For MBA students, the course is an elective. But in my mind, there was no way I would have missed it.

Right from the start, every student in the class was required to deliver a 60-second pitch for a software business. I knew that would be coming, so I practiced mine for hours. In fact, on the day of the pitch, my friend and classmate Rose Long-O’Donnell came over to my apartment and listened to me rehearse my pitch for hours—over and over again, until I could deliver it in 59 seconds every time. Then Rose drove me to campus and wished me luck.

In class that night, we all lined up and gave our pitches, one right after the next—more than 60 of us. Ed set a timer for one minute and anyone who ran out of time was cut off abruptly. (We had a lot of pitches to get through that night!) I felt pretty good about how my pitch went and I was grateful that I had practiced so much.

After the pitches, we had a voting process to determine whose ideas had the most potential. Everyone got to vote for three businesses, but we were not allowed to vote for our own ideas. To be honest, I was so worried about my own pitch that I hadn’t really listened to many of the others. I just voted for my friends and waited for that round to end.

Now, I don’t want to brag, but I killed it! I had more than 10 percent of the votes.

But as it would turn out, that was the end of the good news for my app.

Everyone whose business survived the first round had to give a pitch a second time, in about 15 seconds. It was one last chance to win people over. I had no idea that was coming and I wasn’t ready for it. When it was my turn, I started rambling and Greg said, “OK…” to tell me to wrap it up.

Then we did another round of voting. This time, the objective was to eliminate about half of the remaining businesses and finalize our teams for the quarter.

Everyone was given a sticker and we each had to place our sticker on a card representing the business we wanted to work on. I placed my sticker on my own card, of course, and then I stood back and watched everyone else vote. I had close friends in the class, so I was confident I would survive this process.

But then, I watched in agony as every one of my friends placed their stickers elsewhere. And I kept standing there, waiting.

At the end of the voting, my idea had exactly one sticker out of more than 60: my own sticker.

The scene was pathetic. Everyone was standing in their new teams, giving each other high-fives and talking about how they would get started. I was standing alone in disbelief, trying not to show how crushed I was. And even worse: I didn’t have a team.

When I finally snapped out of it, I had to find a team that still needed a business student, but there was only one—a group of mostly software engineers who wanted to build an app that would be similar to MoviePass, but for restaurants. I am sorry to say it, but I thought it was a terrible idea. The economics just didn’t make any sense to me.

This is where the leadership lessons from the Foster MBA program come in.

Co-emcees Jessica Raasch and Christina Fong with Dean Jim Jiambalvo at the 2018 UW Business Leadership Celebration.

In the very first week of the MBA program, Christina Fong, principal lecturer of leadership and management, had taught us about the four pillars of psychological capital: hope, efficacy, resilience and optimism. (I remember them because if you put them together, they spell “HERO.”)

Christina taught us that PsyCap is something you must preserve and deploy, like any other form of capital. In an organizational context, PsyCap is the secret sauce that separates good cultures from great ones. As an MBA student, PsyCap was how I recovered from my worst days.

When I got home from Software Entrepreneurship class that night, with my proverbial tail between my legs, I forced myself to write the four pillars on a piece of paper. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just stared at them. The words “efficacy” and “resilience” seemed to be glowing at me.

Did I have power to change how I felt about this situation? If I did, was I exercising it? What exactly had I failed at here? Could I learn anything from those failures?

After some reflection, I came around to some ugly truths.

The truth was, it really didn’t matter that I had been working for months on this thing; I had offered a decent idea but not a winning one. I had practiced my pitch a lot, but it obviously hadn’t resonated with my peers; maybe I didn’t know how to give a great pitch. I hadn’t done any legwork to get my friends on board prior to the class; I just assumed they would back me. I hadn’t directly asked anyone to join my team; I had just stood by and watched them vote. And when my idea flopped, no one had tried to recruit me onto their team. Maybe that meant that I wasn’t a great teammate.

That was a lot to process. It was truly one of the hardest moments of my MBA journey.

But tonight, we are here for a celebration, so I won’t end this story on such a somber note. There’s a happier ending.

It took me a while, but I eventually realized I needed to change my attitude. I decided I was going to become known for being a great teammate. I would work on that business as if it had been my own idea. I would volunteer to be a spokesperson for our team so that I could learn to give a better pitch. I promised myself I would seek feedback and practice mercilessly.

And over the rest of the quarter, I held onto those commitments. Every week, we pitched to a new panel of investors and asked for their feedback. Sometimes, we would respond with questions, asking them to dig deeper in their critiques. As a team, we took copious notes and revised our game plan after each pitch.

One of the points of feedback was that we had no evidence that “frugal foodies” would pay what we hoped to charge for DiningPass. We ran Facebook ads at different price points and measured the response to so that we could speak to the price sensitivity of our target customers. Another concern was that restaurants would never trust a service that felt so much like Groupon. We went out and talked to restaurant owners all over Seattle and quoted them verbatim in our pitch. We also realized that with machine learning, our app could become more valuable to restaurant owners over time—so we added that to our pitch.

The engineers on the team built a rudimentary working app that featured meals, pricing, location-based filtering, and user reviews. We took it out into the community and asked people to play with it. We asked how we could improve it and we incorporated their feedback as rapidly as we could.

After 10 weeks, our pitch was completely transformed and our app was functioning smoothly enough to give a live demo.

For the final exam, the whole class went to the office of Pioneer Square Labs—Greg’s actual start-up incubator—and we gave our pitches one last time. This time, the audience was a room full of investors. My team finished our pitch and practically danced off the stage. We knew we had hit it out of the park and we were so proud of what we had accomplished.

At the end of the night, our instructor shared some of the feedback he had heard from investors. He said, “the bad news is, none of them wanted to invest in DiningPass. But the good news is, you could not have done anything to have made that pitch any better. Hands down, DiningPass was the best pitch of the night.”

I share this story with you because it embodies a leadership lesson I encountered over and over again at Foster. For me, leadership is not about being able to say that I accomplished a particular thing. In fact, leadership is letting go of that. I am at my best as a leader when I focus on the kind of person I choose to be every day and how I show up in my community.

Jessica Raasch represents in T-Mobile magenta.

Today, my role at T-Mobile is the hardest job I have ever had. I am in a rotational development program and my first assignment is to manage a struggling district of 7 retail stores in metro Atlanta. My team is currently ranked number 199 out of 236 in the country. I’ve never worked in retail before and never worked in wireless, but I have 62 people reporting to me. It’s tempting to look at the leaderboards and feel discouraged, but I don’t.

Every day, I draw on the lessons I learned at Foster. Every day, I put on my branded magenta T-Mobile gear and I go into our stores and obsess over our people. I don’t talk to them about where we are on the leaderboard. Instead, I make sure that all 62 of them feel welcome, included, valued, and proud to represent our magenta brand. I bring magenta confetti canons and magenta silly string if I have to, but I make sure they know I have their back. I do this not because I like being number 199, but because this is who I choose to be as a leader, and this is how I have decided to lead in my community

That is what I learned about leadership at Foster.

Jessica Raasch is currently engaged in T-Mobile’s Executive Leadership Program.