How an MBA led to more meaningful work for Digital Green's Karin Lion


Karin Lion cropped and resized for blog.jpg

For many, being a program officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sounds like a dream job. And for Karin Lion, EMBA 15, it was – for eight years.

As an associate program officer at the Seattle-based foundation, Karin worked in such diverse areas as agriculture, urban development, water, sanitation, and hygiene, emergency response, global libraries, and family interest. She played multiple roles on multiple teams – developing program and donor strategies, creating budgets, managing implementation, and evaluating impact.

She hoped to advance within the organization to higher levels of managerial and decision-making responsibilities that would change the direction of the work, and that’s what motivated her to pursue her Berkeley Executive MBA.

But once she received her degree, Karin realized that she’d hit a wall at Gates. She wanted to become more of a decision-maker with a better perspective on the ultimate impact of programs but, even with her advanced degrees, there wasn’t a clear route to advancement within the organization.

FortunatelDigital Green image for Karin Lions story.jpgy, using her MBA as a path to more meaningful work, Karin was prepared to jump. She landed back in San Francisco to begin a new role as director of global agricultural strategy for Digital Green – a nonprofit international development organization working to improve lives in rural communities across South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

While Gates has about 1,500 employees, Digital Green has 100. Karin is part of the global leadership group, exactly where she wanted to be. “Before, I was an individual contributor, but now I’m leading a team,” she says. “I’m able to shape and build something real. I can immediately see the impact of my decisions.”

Karin enthusiastically credits her Berkeley EMBA experience with her ability to choose more gratifying work. Looking back, she appreciates the framework the EMBA curriculum provided, which helped her to understand how she thinks, designs, strategizes, and presents her thoughts. 

In particular, she loved the courses “Trust-Based Relationships” taught by Rajiv Ball and “Executive Leadership” with Jennifer Chatman. Even more valuable was the confidence she gained through the program and from her classmates. “Everyone is so brilliant, with such strong experience,” she says. “Before, I sometimes had trouble believing I deserved a seat at the table. But they taught me to think outside the world I had created for myself. My contributions were valued, my voice was heard, and they forced me to push my own limits.”

At graduation, Karin was elected by her fellow students to be class speaker. Finally, there is the degree itself. “I know it got me my current job,” she says. “In my interviews, every single person brought up my Berkeley MBA as something that would bring value to the organization. And my salary increased by 35 percent.”

No job, of course, is perfect forever. As we grow and gain experience, our professional sights change, too. And Karin is sure that, as her own career develops, her degree has equipped her with the skills and knowledge that will advance her along that road. “My MBA is preparing me for that dream job ten years from now,” she says. “It’s helping me think long-term about who I want to be at the end of my whole trajectory.”

What do you want your trajectory to be? To think more about what meaningful work means to you, get our free ebook,  Five Steps Toward Making Your Next Career Move.

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Image courtesy of Digital Green


About The Author

Susan is Director of Admissions for the Berkeley MBA for Executives Program. She has nearly twenty years of experience in marketing and advertising, having worked in several different industries including technology, travel, healthcare -- and many others from her media planning days at J. Walter Thompson where her clients included Chevron, Kaiser Permanente, Nestle, and Ford. She enjoys advising prospective students and guiding them through their personal MBA experience.