By Nash Wills, Staff Writer
The Thunderbird alumni network is one of the central components and greatest selling points of the school. To be a graduate from Thunderbird is to be a member of an organization, an exclusive club, where membership is enjoyed for life. It is fraternal, and must be experienced in order to truly understand what it means and feels like. Last Saturday morning, I had the chance to speak with the newly elected chairman of the TELC (Thunderbird Executive Leadership Counsel), David Young (‘87). I liked how David described it to me: “T-birds are different, and when you meet someone from Thunderbird, you immediately know they are ‘OK.’” I believe that on some level, that phrase resonates with all T-birds. Whether you meet one at home or abroad, from your same graduating class or another from long ago, you can always be certain that their story will not only be uniquely different, but captivating. David’s was, and I want to share it and some of the highlights from our conversation in this article.
David grew up in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and chose to go to West Virginia Wesleyan College for university where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in both biology and marketing. While in school, David spent a semester abroad in Japan, which is when his love for all things international came to fruition. Given a choice between Switzerland and Japan, David chose to go to Japan because of what he described as the importance of “putting yourself into an even more uncertain and unusual situation and seeing what happens.” After graduation, and because of his unique combination of degrees, he fostered a lot of interest from pharmaceutical companies and ended up accepting a job as a pharmaceutical sales rep at a company called Marion Laboratories. He worked in New York for a couple of years before deciding that it was time for a change. It wasn’t so much that he was not enjoying what he was doing, but rather, and I think this is something with which all T-birds can associate, there was something in his head that kept telling him to go international. David knew that he should get a graduate-level business degree, but he wanted to get it from a program with an international flavor. He found Thunderbird when his father introduced him to a business colleague who told him, “If you want international, then you’ve got to go to Thunderbird.” Once at Thunderbird, he saw the uniqueness of the student body, was amazed at each person’s distinct story, and decided to focus as much attention on getting to know his fellow students as he did on his class work. It was a strategy that has paid off, and to this day, 25 years after graduating, he maintains strong connections with those with whom he graduated.
After Thunderbird, David’s journey led him to Europe, with the initial plan to spend some time traveling before re-entering the working world. Little did he know, a conversation with the friend of a fellow T-bird would lead him to a great job in Germany with Hoechst Pharma AG as an international product manager. This job allowed David to learn German and gain important work experience, which led him through a series of career steps spanning five European countries, traveling frequently. Eight years ago, he started his own company—Young & Associates, a global branding consultancy for the pharmaceutical industry based in London—where he is the chief consultant. He says the path he’s taken was largely unexpected, but in hindsight it now makes perfect sense.
David did not really get involved with Thunderbird again, at least not compared to his current level of involvement, until about a decade after he graduated. It wasn’t that he had lost interest in the school, but rather that he hadn’t discovered a truly practical outlet for providing assistance. At a certain point, he was approached by fellow T-bird, Marshall Parke (’77), who had the idea to start a new scholarship concept that would provide mentorship as well as funding for students from emerging markets who wanted to get a degree at Thunderbird. The program, now known as the SHARE Fellowship, would give a unique chance to bright students who might not otherwise have the resources to attend the school, while giving alumni the experience to mentor and truly change the lives of students. As David described his initial experience with the program: “The students we work with are amazing. But what surprised me most was that my advice actually seemed to have an effect. I’d honestly underestimated this, but then realized that no matter your age, we’re always looking towards our ‘next thing’. We underestimate the experience we’ve gained so far, and advice that might seem like common knowledge to us can in fact have a huge effect on someone younger.” It was this program, combined with an “invitation from the school to advise on strategic issues,” that recaptured his interest in the school and led to his increased involvement.
Having enjoyed a long and impressive career, I thought I would ask him a practical question about how to approach formulating a career path:
How much control does someone have over their career path? Does a career just happen, or do circumstances make it happen, or is it all self-driven?
“The answer isn’t straightforward. You can force certain things to happen and feel like you are in charge, and things will happen, but they’re not always fulfilling. As a culture we put too much weight on that type of control. Trusting in your intuition and being open to unexpected circumstances and coincidences will lead you to the right places. It’s not ‘control’ per se, but is a much more rewarding driver of a career path. But intuition is like a muscle—the more you cultivate that feeling, the more aware you become of it. You need to have a sense of adventure and a sense of trust in yourself.”
When it comes to creating an exact plan for your future, David recommends having a plan but not necessarily a definite one, because in his experience, “if I had been only focused on my plan, I would not have seen the unexpected opportunities right in front of me and would have missed out on them.” He also suggested that when networking, you should never “turn down the opportunity to speak to someone just because they aren’t in your industry. That person might not have a direct contact or advice for you, but their wife, husband, partner, or friend might.”
Because of his level of involvement with Thunderbird, I wanted to find out his opinion on the school over the years:
Tell me what comes to mind when you think of Thunderbird in the past, present, and future.
When David was at Thunderbird, the campus facilities were very different. “There was no globe sculpture, no dramatic entrance gate—it was simple. It wasn’t about the facilities, it was about the people.” For him, Thunderbird and its past were both powerful and life changing. The students worked hard and played hard. “On Thursday nights when the pub would close, we would borrow the unfinished keg and roll it to another part of campus to continue the party.” I understood and reflected his sentiments….
One thing he has realized by working closely with the school and with students today is that “there is really no difference between students of the past and students of the present.” Everyone thinks their cohort was special, and it’s true. But over the years, despite all the changes that are happening to Thunderbird, he feels that “Thunderbird is still attracting adventurous, interesting, and internationally minded people.” Alumni are very much behind the school and the current students and want “nothing more than for students to do great things.” David also really liked that the school switched back to offering the MGM degree as its seminal program because it better “allows the school to show that it is different” from other graduate level business programs.
Concerning the future, David feels that “there is so much potential with Thunderbird and ASU, which could catapult us to a level much higher than we’ve known so far.” He would like to see the school transform from not just teaching people, but shaping the conversation on important global topics. He believes Thunderbird can become “an opinion leader, a visionary, and be an important voice in tackling some of the world’s more complex and critical issues. Steve Jobs once said that ‘those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.’ There’s no group for whom this statement more applies to than T-birds.”