How the MIT Executive MBA is Helping Sharon Chan Improve the World Through Journalism

Sharon Chan, Class of 2017
Vice President of Innovation, Product & Development, The Seattle Times

After 15 years as a reporter and editor at The Seattle Times, Sharon Chan transitioned to director of journalism initiatives. In that role, she led development work that generated $2 million in community funding and launched three journalism labs to drive social impact: Education Lab, Traffic Lab and Project Homeless. Observing that journalism’s traditional business model is no longer sustainable, she came to the MIT Executive MBA to learn about innovation. “Journalism is the bedrock of healthy democracy, so it’s important to find sustainable solutions,” she said. During the program, Sharon was promoted to vice president of innovation, product and development, leading a team responsible for all digital products. She also oversees business intelligence and analytics and continues to lead development for journalism labs.

What brought you to the MIT Executive MBA? 

I looked at programs all over the country, but I was drawn to MIT Sloan’s mission of developing innovative and principled leaders who improve the world and advance the science of management. My personal mission is to build a sustainable business for journalism because that is critical to healthy democracy. I also wanted to learn with a diverse community of students who also seek to improve the world. AT MIT, I felt nothing but support for my personal mission. This is an incredible learning environment. Students are as committed to each other’s success as their own. It’s a ‘leave no one behind’ culture.

What was a highlight of your time in the program?

A classmate from Oracle, Andre Alfred, and I applied our learning in Systems Thinking to the problem of fake news. We wrote up our analysis, which was published onMedium. This is an example of how we took what we were learning in real time and applied it to an emerging global issue. It really drove home the School’s Action Learning model.

How has your career trajectory been impacted since graduation?

About 15 months into the program, I was promoted to my current role. I now lead our digital product team in areas including emerging platforms, newsletter, analytics, and web apps. I also still lead our community journalism teams. I wouldn’t have this job if it weren’t for MIT and its reputation for innovation. A big part of my position is to build an innovation culture. MIT gave me the confidence for this role because I learned the science of management and innovation.

How is your education adding value to your role today?

It’s adding value in a lot of ways. For example, during the Innovation-Driven Entrepreneurial Advantage (IDEA) module, I learned how to build a viable business idea within a week. Based on that, I started an annual hack week at the newspaper. And I combined my knowledge from the IDEA module with Organizations Lab (O-Lab), where I learned how to start with a problem statement. I’m taking the framework from O-Lab to build a product incubator at the company. Each month, we discuss the problem statement for the customer, do an assessment within our teams, and then come up with and execute a target design that can be completed in one-week cycles.

I’ve also expanded my understanding of analytics. A project that came out of the newspaper’s Hack Week was Analytics Hub. Originally, that helped journalists answer the question of how their story did online. However, it has grown into a platform that shows which stories drive people to buy digital subscriptions. That has been an important tool in building a sustainable business model. I wouldn’t have seen the Hub’s potential without this program.

Another takeaway from O-Lab is the application of lean management. We try to have a clear understanding of our capacity and fully utilize that capacity without overloading people. We want to prioritize the work without waste. I use visual management tools that I learned in school to build roadmaps on a weekly basis.

How has MIT impacted your leadership style?

My classes helped shift my mental model. I’m now an active culture builder because if you get culture right then everything else follows. At the beginning of each year, my team meets to decide on our values, and then we meet quarterly to revisit if we are living up to those values. We put signs about our values around the department and think intentionally about how to create cultural artifacts. We hand write cards to people on a weekly basis to recognize them for embodying these values.

I also use systems thinking tools all the time. I try to dissect the larger forces that create reinforcing and balancing loops and what behavior we want to reinforce. For example, my department is comprised of eight people within an organization of hundreds of employees. Creating the cards was a way to build reinforcement of our values and spread them to others in the organization.

What was an unexpected benefit of the MIT Executive MBA?

In the Leadership Signature course withProf. Deborah Ancona, I learned that communicating a story about myself is a powerful way to communicate values and build culture. As a reporter, I had written thousands of stories about other people, but never even thought about telling my own story. I can now see how telling my story about why I became a journalist helps people understand our work in community-funded journalism and prompts people to think about their own story. I didn’t expect storytelling to be something I would learn at MIT that would help me as a leader, but it is very valuable.

What is the value of this program for women?

A lot of women suffer from imposter syndrome, so having this degree is an important external validation. It evens the playing field. MIT is known for producing the foremost minds in the world when it comes to science, math and technology, and graduates of this program are now in that company. People look at you differently and, more importantly, you look at yourself differently.

There is a lot of support for women in this program. I started a women’s initiative in my class with another woman to provide extra support, and we helped establish similar initiatives in the classes that followed us.

What advice would you give prospective students?

Think about how the mission of MIT Sloan fits into your goals. If your goals are aligned with the School’s mission, then it is absolutely worth every flight and sacrifice of time, sleep and money. I am a fundamentally different leader now than I was before. I now have a deep level of optimism and confidence in my ability to make a bigger impact in the world through journalism.