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Double Devil finds 'ikigai' in MBA program

W. P. Carey Outstanding Graduating Senior Denise Napolitano

Denise Napolitano

May 01, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Denise Napolitano had a lot of strengths coming into Arizona State University's W. P. Carey School of Business full-time MBA program. She already had a PhD in chemistry from ASU and had even testified as an expert witness in court while working for the New York Police Department laboratory. Yet Denise shared, “I was in a field where I knew I could make an impact, but I always felt like something was missing, and no paths I turned to could fill that gap.”

Then, when deciding whether to attend the W. P. Carey School of Business for her MBA, she was introduced to the concept of ikigai, “a reason for being.” John Wisneski, the faculty director of the MBA program, tied the idea to doing work that you are passionate about, doing work that you love. Napolitano knew W. P. Carey would be a great next step for finding her ikigai.

Napolitano jumped fully into the experience. She was first-year representative to both the Women’s Leadership Association and the Volunteer Council, organized volunteer activities for her classmates at Feed My Starving Children, the Arizona Humane Society and Ronald McDonald House. She became president of the Women’s Leadership Association for her second year, organized quarterly discussions on diversity and inclusion, was an MBA Ambassador, and organized W. P. Carey’s first ever Mental Health Awareness Week. She was named Outstanding Graduate Student of her class.

Of all these successes, Napolitano said the most meaningful has been the chance to work closely with her MBA classmates.

“Even as we moved online this past quarter, we held each other up with virtual happy hours, group meditation, game nights, health and wellness tips, and all those creative — and sometimes pretty weird — Zoom virtual backgrounds,” she said.

Napolitano realizes her ikigai is found in creating community with others, which she will continue as she starts a new career in finance and start her own small business focused on women’s empowerment.

Here she shares a little more about her W. P. Carey journey with us.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: One surprising thing that I learned when I started the MBA program was how little I knew and understood about personal finances and investments. I realized that if someone with a PhD did not know how to pick a 401(k) plan or put together an investment portfolio, there was something inherently wrong with how we are taught. Fundamental knowledge that we need to thrive in our economy is not emphasized in schools. I have made it a personal mission to work toward changing this, both by volunteering in classrooms for Junior Achievement and starting a business that will empower women to take charge of their lives with knowledge and community support.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose to attend ASU eight years ago for my PhD because of the interdisciplinary nature of the research performed at the university. I recognized that better and more actionable outcomes could be achieved when researchers from different backgrounds worked together and shared perspectives. I decided to stay for my MBA because of our nationally recognized, innovative program. We have small, intimate cohorts compared to most other top MBA programs, while having the vast resources of the country's largest university at our fingertips. Students are encouraged to embrace the school's entrepreneurial spirit and to take the opportunity to craft our futures with a flexible and multidisciplinary curriculum.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: The path you are currently taking does not need to be, and may not be, your final outcome in your career. I have taken many turns since I finished my bachelor's degree over a decade ago, and in some ways I am still working on finding myself and my purpose. Also, do not get caught up in comparing yourself to others — you have your own strengths to leverage into a meaningful career. This is captured perfectly in a quote by author Bob Goff, "We won’t be distracted by comparison if we are captivated by purpose."

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: Whenever I walked down Palm Walk to the Sun Devil Fitness Center during my PhD program, I admired the style and beauty of McCord Hall. Obviously, I was delighted when I was able to call it home for the past two years! From the bright and sun-filled team rooms, to the views of campus from the breezeways, to the courtyard where we would gather during class breaks, McCord has been a great spot to learn, study and network.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: One of our planet's greatest problems is growing inequality, which manifests itself in myriad ways. Especially now that we are in lockdown and schools are closed, we can see in our own communities that many families do not have and cannot get access to the technology necessary for kids to stay up to date with their schoolwork. I would want to ensure that all families have access to the internet and the increased connectivity that drives global economies.

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