Dinner With the Boss

Tuck’s Visiting Executive Program brings top executives and CEOs to the school for intimate discussions and real-world lessons.

It’s a Sunday night in late September and Erika Santos T’12 is a little nervous. It’s not that she has a big test in the morning, or an important interview with a recruiter. She has butterflies because she’s about to pick up John Mackey, the founder and CEO of Whole Foods, and drive him to dinner in Quechee, Vt., which is 20 minutes away. “He’s a pretty big deal,” she says, “and what if I don’t drive well?”

Mackey piles into Santos’ car and is a bit surprised to learn that the restaurant, Simon Pearce, isn’t around the corner. “I hope it’s worth it,” he says. Santos and the other eight Tuck students joining Mackey for dinner have no doubts about that.

The occasion is just one of many meals Tuck students share with senior executives in the Alan Smith D’52, T’53 Visiting Executive (VE) Program. Started in 1970 as the Executive-in-Residence Program, it became the VE program in 1993. In 1995, it was endowed by Smith, who worked at the upper levels of General Motors Corporation. The program’s mission is to let executives share their expertise and experiences in the classroom, and give students a chance to speak with them in an intimate but informal setting. Mackey is visiting Tuck at the invitation of Richard D’Aveni, the Bakala Professor of Strategy. Executives also frequently visit core courses and electives taught by Sydney Finkelstien, Paul Argenti, Gregg Fairbrothers, Rafael La Porta, Peter Golder, and others.

Santos is one of six student coordinators in the VE program. It’s their job to handle a lot of the logistics of the executives’ time at Tuck and to keep the dinner and lunch conversations flowing. “When I first came to Tuck,” she explains, “one of the ideas that attracted me was that it is a small community and I’d have a lot of access to the professors, visitors, and recruiters.” During her first year, Santos participated in a number of visiting executive events, gleaning unique perspectives from leaders of various industries. “All of that really enriched my learning experience,” she says. In the spring of her first year, Santos decided to apply to be a student coordinator. Once accepted, she began working with current coordinators to learn the process.

Probably the trickiest part of the student coordinators’ responsibilities is selecting the students who will dine with the executives. The goal is a diverse mix of students who have backgrounds or career interests that match up well with the visitors. Nearly half the student body applied to eat with Mackey—the Whole Foods brand is popular with students, and Mackey is known to be charismatic and opinionated—so the choices were especially difficult to make. Some of the chosen ones include a student with a master’s degree in libertarian economics (Mackey is a free-market libertarian), another who worked at King Arthur Flour and is interested in sustainable agriculture, and Daniel Mueller T’12, who will join his family’s agricultural packaging business after he graduates.

They arrive at the restaurant around sunset and are seated at a table overlooking a waterfall. For the next two hours, the students have Mackey’s full attention. He asks where they had worked and inquires about their career plans. His main pieces of advice: think outside traditional roles; ponder jobs that don’t even exist and go out and make them; and find your passion and go for it right away.

Mueller is fortunate to have 20 more minutes with Mackey on the drive back to Hanover. “I wanted to get a perspective from the supermarket side,” Mueller says, “because our company deals with the intermediaries that sell to supermarkets.” Their one-on-one conversation ranges from the dynamics of a family business to the future of fresh produce and the strategy of a packaging company that hopes to grow. “You need to figure out what your company’s purpose is,” Mackey advises. He offers that it might not be to just sell packaging, but to be a solution-provider for customers. “It was really helpful how he talked directly to me,” Mueller said later.

The next day, Mackey has lunch with eight more students before giving two different presentations to D’Aveni’s two sections of Advanced Corporate Strategy. In the first, Mackey makes his case for “conscious capitalism,” a new paradigm for free-market commerce where companies endeavor to create value not just for shareholders, but for all the stakeholders of the business. Whole Foods, whose mission includes selling high-quality organic food, customer satisfaction, and environmental sustainability, has done remarkably well with this ethos—it has a market capitalization on par with Krogers and Safeway with only a tenth of the stores. In the second class, Mackey tells the story of Whole Foods and delves into its corporate strategy.

Though Santos was nervous about chauffeuring such a successful businessperson, the anxiety quickly faded. Soon she was talking freely with Mackey about the retail industry, where she hopes to work after Tuck. And the experience of hosting CEOs has made the recruiting process less intimidating, she says, and “deepened the way I think about getting to where I want to be.” For Mueller’s part, having Mackey’s undivided attention for 20 minutes was a one-of-a-kind opportunity. “He was extremely present to just think things through,” he says, “and that was really valuable to me.”