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Community Builder

January 6, 2023
Vernon Foster Senior Executive Director of MBA Programs and Asst. Dean

UofL: Tell us about your career before the College of Business. How did those experiences influence your transition into your current role?

Vernon: Life is a journey that takes us down many paths, sometimes purposefully and at other times accidentally, but the paths merge and deliver us at a particular point in time. My career was a combination of many paths, some less chosen than others, but all of those tremendous experiences were invaluable to my current role. I have been a founder or founding partner in starting seven (7) different companies ranging from real estate development, publishing, printing, and marketing, to launching a community bank. I have served on multiple business boards as a director or advisor, public and private. In my career, I have worked at the lowest rung of the organization to being the CFO or CEO, and I have found all the lessons learned to be a critical learning experience in navigating to my next opportunity in life. 

Leadership is an acquired art, but taking on the role of leadership demands a commitment to those you serve and the people in those organizations that depend upon you daily to do your duties with integrity and authenticity and to execute with excellence. 

I don’t always aspire to be the leader, but I do push to have a seat at the table to drive positive outcomes and to build upon the strengths of the people and organization. I have found myself consistently being asked to lead many entities outside of my own businesses. Those leadership positions were a cornerstone of my position today as they exposed me to the academic side of educational organizations. I have served as chair of a K-12, 1,000 students day school; vice-chair of the Wake Forest Comprehensive Cancer Center; and on the business school advisory boards for both Wake Forest University and the UofL College of Business. 

UofL: How have you developed relationships with our students and community?

Vernon: I love being a part of the Louisville community and have integrated myself into the city and state. These involvements serve as a bridge to introduce and connect our students with the business community. I am actively involved with YPAL, Prospanica, NMMBAA, the Association for Corporate Growth–KY, The World Trade Center–KY, and the Rotary Club of Louisville. Each organization creates an opportunity to engage and connect our students with business leaders. 

My number one approach to building connections and relationships has been to get out there; to commit time and energy to know people of all kinds and walks of life. Make a determined effort to attend events and extend a hand. Volunteer my resources and make people feel important. As an extrovert, it’s easy for me to get to know people and build those relationships. 

People are important to me. My father always taught me to respect others, no matter who they were or where they were in life. Let them demonstrate if they deserve to be treated well; don’t arbitrarily decide to treat them with more or less respect based on their life circumstances. Others appreciate being treated with respect and kindness. Ultimately, lifting up others will be more rewarding and open more doors to create valued relationships. Remember, it is not who you know but who knows you!

Vernon is the ultimate connector – in the business community and among prospective students. Coming from a family of modest means, Vernon worked four jobs to get through Wake Forest. He understands the sacrifices that students make to earn a degree. Vernon has been a multiple-times successful entrepreneur. Hence, he really appreciates the students with an entrepreneurial tilt. Finally, Vernon is a community builder with a strong commitment to the arts and educational excellence. Although our Full-time MBA program with a paid internship was my idea, Vernon’s hard work accounts for 95% of the success of that program. He’s awesome.”

R. Charles Moyer, PhD
Professor of Finance, Dean Emeritus
University of Louisville College of Business

 UofL: How has building relationships with students and the business community helped students and the College?

Vernon: Needless to say, our unique internship model at the College was the vision of Charlie Moyer, the dean at that time. It was challenging to execute the launch of the FTMBA program as it requires a lot of business contacts and relationships to execute the internship model. Yet, I was the one who built on Dr. Moyer’s innovative idea and successfully delivered the model that today is the foundation for many of our graduate programs. The graduate internship model has been transformative for lots of our students, setting them up for future successful careers.

The internship model, started in 2010, was brilliant because it did more to help students early on in their careers to connect them with business professionals and start their careers. And for international students, it is even more critical because it helps them to build their skills within an American company; often, this is the catalyst for their being able to stay in the country. 

In the beginning, companies’ mindsets were stuck in the old models of summer internships and not accustomed to having graduate-level interns that worked 11-12 months. It was a game changer for the companies, students, and recruitment for our programs. It has taken years to break into many companies. Now, those participating see great value in having access to students with higher-level skills than traditional interns. 

But the critical vision behind the model is creating transformative opportunities for students who need to learn how to get into the companies we partner with. That initial connection is the hardest for graduates.

I must say, one of our Professional MBA alums, Michael Webb, was the breakthrough needed to get Humana on board in the early years. Humana was a tough company to get into. He opened doors that were firmly closed and stuck in the old model of only recruiting from the top 20 programs for the summer. He understood how the model could be what Humana needed; to build a future manager’s pipeline by creating ongoing access to graduate students who wanted to stay in Louisville. Now Humana hires 10-15 of our student interns every year. Hats off to Michael!

UofL: Who have been some of your professional mentors?

Vernon: There have been many through the years, to those who have inspired my love of the arts or who have propelled me forward, but one person I would jump off the proverbial bridge for is Charlie Moyer. I still go to him for advice. 

He has always had a thoughtful approach to everything in life, a calming and rational voice to coach one through various aspects. His different way of looking at issues has always been a refreshing way to understand the challenges of higher education from both the inside and outside perspectives. He provides insights to help me navigate the thinking and culture of graduate schools, along with the “rules” that govern business school protocols. Charlie is a no-nonsense guy and one of the wisest people I know. 

Several students over the past decade have served as a reflection and learning opportunity for me every day. They inspire me and challenge me to do even more. I have been fortunate to have so many wonderful mentors. Their insights and reflections guide me in creating solutions for other up-and-coming students. Seeing some of their successes as a result of our programs is clearly inspiring. 

UofL: What has been the most significant change you’ve seen at the College during your tenure?

Vernon: Education was already transforming into a digital world, but COVID-19 changed our world forever with its impact on societal well-being, values, and attitudes. We live in a different world than we did two years ago, and there is no going back.  

Change is a fact of life that can make or break an organization. Couple the changes driven by leadership with how different students are today than before the pandemic; one can see the impact it can have on educational organizations and their support systems. The key is to embrace change and look for ways to improve your life and environment. For everyone, strong relationships between our friends and associates make all the difference. 

It [the internship program] has taken years to break into many companies. Now, those participating see great value in having access to students with higher-level skills than traditional interns. 

UofL: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your time so far at the College?

Vernon: Seeing students blossom throughout their careers. So many students have evolved from their internships into the leaders of their organizations that one cannot help but feel proud and applaud their successes. Having alums wanting to connect and become ongoing associates is validation they valued their programs and those that have played a part in their life’s journey. I often see it play out in person and on social media as words of gratitude to those of us in the business school that has made a difference in the student’s life. That feels good and very rewarding.

UofL: What advice would you give those entering the workforce or starting their professional career?

Vernon: Get involved; you must be on the stage to be seen and heard. Seek a mentor who will invest time and energy in helping you grow. Be authentic; put others and integrity over self-interest. Helping others will help you grow far more than you can imagine. Share all you have to give. 

Business leaders still value credentials: learn as much as possible and build upon your skills. Keep seeking credentials such as badges, certifications, and knowledge to help set you apart. When people don’t get to see you in action, they will always look at your credentials to validate your skills. 

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