Finding the Right Path
Tom Strong, MBA '08 (second from left) and the
original student venture team members of 50 Mile
Farms at the 2008 Innovation Day at UA tradeshow.
Program Manager, The Hitachi Foundation
By Liz Warren-Pederson
Tom Strong grew up in New York City, then moved to Portland, Oregon, to earn his undergraduate degree in classical Chinese literature at Reed College—an experience that gave him a chance to spend a year in China. But when it came time to begin a career, he said, “I ended up meandering from job to job, trying to figure out what I wanted to do.”
He joined Sevananda Natural Foods Market, a co-op grocery store in Georgia. “At first it was just another job to me,” he said. “I had never been exposed to the co-op model, and when I bought in, I had to go to a new membership orientation.” The store’s general manager led the session, which was small—Strong was one of just a few people there. “It lit up something in me. I had never had the experience of owning stock. I found myself taking an interest in the co-op, and improving it.”
He worked his way up to education coordinator, developing and leading an annual schedule of training programs. He joined the co-op board, eventually becoming president. “I helped lead the co-op through a major policy change,” he said. “Being a co-op member had taught me I was interested in entrepreneurship, but I realized that I would need to improve my level of business literacy to be successful.”
Strong began investigating MBA programs. Initially he was drawn to programs with a specific focus in sustainability. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a traditional MBA,” he said, “but a traditional MBA is more marketable than one with the niche focus. I decided to go the traditional route to challenge myself.” He also thought that a traditional MBA program would expose him to a wider range of people and viewpoints, something he said that he found once he entered the Eller MBA. “I appreciated that Eller offers a good intellectual climate for exploring all kinds of questions,” he said.
While at the Eller College, he also completed the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program. “In an MBA program, you’re training to understand how an organization works, not necessarily for the process of trying to build an organization from the ground up,” he explained. The entrepreneurship program gave Strong that experience as he worked on his urban agriculture venture, 50 Mile Farms. “I felt a pride of ownership with 50 Mile Farms,” he said. “Even navigating the challenges that we encountered was exciting.”
Tom Strong works on the Winning Workplaces case
study development project — the website is shown
here. Click image to view site.
Strong and his teammates launched 50 Mile Farms out of the Eller MBA program, but raising funds took longer than expected. “This was in the middle of the financial crisis,” Strong said. “My wife and I decided that it was time to look at trying something else.”
They had some prospects in Washington, D.C., and thought that the job market would hold up better than other parts of the country. Strong was awarded the Mita Business and Society Fellowship at The Hitachi Foundation. A year later, the Foundation hired him on full-time. As a program manager, Strong oversees a portfolio of projects and nonprofit partnerships in health care, workforce development, and business education. He is also working on a case study development project based on the concept of "pioneer employers," successful businesses that have not only weathered the economic downturn, but in doing so have created economic advancement opportunities for lower-wage workers.
“One of the great things is how timely it is,” Strong said. “The economy crashed around our ears here in the U.S., and people with MBAs were lucky. Pioneer employers strike me as the most essential innovators of our time.”
Learn more about Winning Workplaces, helping small and mid-sized organizations create high-performance workplaces.