Profile with Dana Brown

Dana Brown (New Jersey & St Antony's 1994) is the Executive Director of the MBA at Said Business School, University of Oxford. She was formerly Professor of Strategy at EMLYON Business School and a University Lecturer in International Business at Said Business School. Dana has taught in MBA and Executive Education programs in the UK, US, France, China, Russia, Denmark, Spain and Egypt. Her research interests focus on the way that national employment and social policies affect business strategies and the intersection of public and private roles in determining policies that affect labor and environmental management. She holds a BA in Political Science and Slavic Languages from Rutgers University, an MPhil in Russian and Eastern European Studies from the University of Oxford and a PhD in Political Science from MIT. She lives in Oxford with her husband and three daughters aged 9, 6, and 1.5.

Rhodes Project: When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Dana Brown: A doctor or a veterinarian.

Rhodes Project: You began working for a shop when you were 14, and went into management shortly thereafter. What did you learn from that job that helped you enter the workforce later?

Dana Brown: That you need to understand the whole lives and experiences of the people you’re working with and who work for you in order to motivate them. That was one of the most important things. There were a lot of people working at the business who had difficult life circumstances; there was a woman living in a run-down house on a military base with an abusive husband and two young children, for example, and the owners supported her in all sorts of ways. They helped her develop the skills she needed and move up in the organization, and they provided her with help finding new housing and schools for her kids. She ended up being a successful senior manager in the organization with a lovely house overlooking the sea. They took into account what people’s lives were like and what they might need to give them an extra boost, even if it was just some confidence, and then people were very loyal to the business and to the owners.

Rhodes Project: What did you find most surprising about Oxford when you first arrived?

Dana Brown: How much time you were given on your own compared to the American education system. I remember that you could do what you wanted with your time - it was very open. It was a different kind of pressure, I guess, and a different learning environment.

Rhodes Project: What has changed about Oxford since you were there as a student?

Dana Brown: I think women have changed at Oxford. I remember feeling that the treatment of women was so different at Oxford compared to the American context. I think they are much more modern-thinking today at Oxford. There are a lot more women in leadership positions and faculty who are women, and it just feels different than it did when I came here 20 years ago.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favorite past project?

Dana Brown: When I was an undergraduate I started to look at organized crime in Moscow and how organized criminal groups were setting up the basis of a market economy,essentially, by defining the institutions and rules that would govern a lot of market behavior.  I interviewed mafia members during that time! It was a time when organized crime and oligarchs weren’t recognized in Russia, so the mafia wasn’t really recognized. So I didn’t get the whole picture of who I was talking to, but it was very interesting to see how you move from a command economy to a market economy. It was probably the most interesting research I ever did. It was very timely in the early 1990s. I got to see a whole economy in transition, basically.

Rhodes Project: Have you had any particularly memorable teaching moments?

Dana Brown: I can remember teaching my first MBA class here at the business school, and feeling like I was on a television show with everyone staring at me and expecting me to deliver some great knowledge. The pressure was immense. I remember not quite knowing how to handle the situation – it was so different – and getting very nervous and very stiff, and eventually realizing that I had to engage with people quite proactively in the audience in order to bring something out of them. I couldn’t stand just standing there and being listened to; that didn’t work for me as a teacher. I have since changed my style immensely.

I have also had a lot of positive teaching moments – moments when people have been really like “I get it!” I teach a lot about how the global economy is evolving and my view on the need for understanding social and environmental issues in order to facilitate growth in the 21st century, and when I talk about that and people respond like they really get it, I really love that.

Rhodes Project: What would you be doing if you weren’t working at a university?

Dana Brown: I might be working in a rescue center for animals. If I had the choice and didn’t need to earn money, I would probably be doing some kind of social work with animals or children. Otherwise, I like working in a university. I might be working in a similar type of organisation – a nonprofit, or some other organisation where there was a clear sense of impact.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman looking to teach at a university?

Dana Brown: The first thing is to have confidence in yourself and don’t let anybody take it away from you, because that easily happens. Universities are by their nature very critical environments, so people are critical of one another. That’s kind of the nature of learning, but it crosses over into the way that academics relate to one another, and that can be a very harsh environment - particularly for women. So that would be my number one thing, to keep your confidence, find people who believe in you and focus on them. Don’t focus on people who try to make it difficult for you.

Rhodes Project: What is a particularly hard decision you’ve had to make, and how did you make it?

Dana Brown: I had to make the decision recently to leave France and my tenured job as a professor to come to a job that was uncertain. I had to move my whole family from a nice house in the French countryside. That was difficult, and I made it because I was looking to the future and trying to think about what was going to be the best thing for all of us holistically as a family, going down the line. Sometimes you have to take risks.

Rhodes Project: You’ve lived in several places. Aside from job-related concerns, where was your favorite to live?

Dana Brown: Oxford. My best friend, who is also a Rhodes Scholar from another year, recently said to me “You’ve now come and lived here three times. You should face the fact that this is where you like to live.” And I do really like it here, especially with children. Just the range of people you meet – there’s always something going on here.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite activity to do with your family?

Dana Brown: Travelling somewhere interesting and different, taking a walk in a new city and maybe taking a horse and buggy ride. We always try to do that when we go somewhere, just to take a look around and say “Wow, this is so different.” I love showing the kids how differently people live around the world. We went to Morocco this year, to Marrakech, and we took a horse and buggy ride all around the city - through rougher neighborhoods and better neighborhoods - and it was so interesting what the kids observed and what they learned from that experience. It was loads of fun. 

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