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A Business-Savvy Storyteller

From a remote island campus, alumnus Jim Olson spreads the word about education and opportunity for Africans 

April 28, 2020
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When US Airways Flight 1549 splashed down in the Hudson River in 2009, it could have been a catastrophe. But Captain Chesley Sullenberger safely landed the Airbus 319 jetliner. And that’s when Jim Olson EMBA ’02 and his team sprang into action. 

As the new vice president of corporate communications at US Airways, Olson was in charge of telling the story of the “Miracle on the Hudson.” Fortunately, just one month before, he had organized a cross-functional crisis management summit and crash simulation. “Crises aren’t stressful,” Olson said. “Not being prepared is stressful.”

“Our proactive storytelling campaign illuminated the crew’s heroism, the airline’s safety culture and its post-accident customer care,” Olson said. 

That campaign was a big turn-around for the struggling airline. US Airways earned global visibility as a model for crisis management and recognition by Businessweek as a Customer Care All-Star. 

That’s the kind of impact Olson has always strived to make in his more than 25 years as a communications executive for Fortune 500 brands, including Starbucks and United Airlines. 

As VP of global corporate communications at Starbucks between 2011 and 2016, he spearheaded campaigns promoting the company’s initiatives for social good, such as returning overseas mug production to the United States, teaming up with other companies to hire disadvantaged youth and offering free college education benefits for employees. 

Olson credits his Executive MBA from USC Marshall with turning him from a public relations executive into a business-savvy leader.

“My Marshall MBA equipped me with a leadership presence and mindset that enabled me to move from responding to issues and opportunities ‘downstream’ to anticipating and attacking ‘upstream’ opportunities and threats,” Olson said. “Marshall grounded me in a much more sophisticated approach to strategic planning—arming me with timeless problem-solving frameworks I continue to refer to today.”

Olson, who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to celebrate his 30th birthday a year prior to starting his MBA, said, “My EMBA journey was the toughest thing I’ve ever done. My Marshall MBA was the bedrock that prepared me for all the hard things that followed and the hard things still to come.”

A Far-Flung Adventure

Today, Olson holds the title of Executive in Residence and Chief Communications Officer at African Leadership University (ALU), whose motto is “Do Hard Things.” 

Olson said he did a “crazy hard thing” when he took the job. He sold his home and moved his wife and 14-year-old daughter 10,000 miles from Chicago to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. At 11,500 miles from Los Angeles, Olson may be the most distant Trojan from campus.   

With campuses in Mauritius and Rwanda, ALU aims to develop 3 million ethical and entrepreneurial African leaders by 2035. Its “Missions Not Majors” approach charges students to solve Africa’s biggest challenges, such as wildlife conservation, unemployment, education and agribusiness, rather than pursue a traditional education. The university has been recognized for its innovation by Fast CompanyThe New York Times, CNN and Stanford, among others.

“There were hundreds of reasons that sprung up along the way to call off this adventure,” said Olson, who has visited 50 countries across six continents. “But the key is staying true to the one central thing that calls you on a mission like this—and for our family that was to do our small part in helping create a new era of opportunity for a continent that has so much to offer the world.”

Olson said that in 15 years Africa will have the largest workforce in the world, one billion people; and by the turn of the century, Africa will represent 40 percent of the world’s population. Yet currently, only 8 percent of young people pursue a college education. 

It may come as no surprise that social entrepreneurship was on Olson’s radar in 2001 when he was at USC. For his capstone project, Olson contacted an orphanage/school in Northern Kenya started by Kenyan Olympic gold medal distance runner Kip Keino. 

“I looked at the school through the lens of the strategic and operational frameworks I had learned in my first year of MBA coursework and returned to L.A. with my report,” he said. “It was the experience of a lifetime. I learned a lot about myself and the quest for purpose that I was on. I would never have embarked on that second journey to Africa if it had not been for my Marshall experience and the out-of-the-box thinking that the EMBA program encouraged as part of this capstone assignment.”

Olson has written about his new adventures in Mauritius, where he is scheduled to be until at least August 2020, in The Relevance Report, which features key findings from the USC Center for Public Relations’ annual research. Olson was invited to be an advisory board member of the center based at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2016. 

While focusing on building ALU’s image around the world, Olson had time to enjoy the island’s beauty and charm with his family (before a police-enforced quarantine because of COVID-19). 

“Needless to say, this is one of the most awesomely magical experiences of my life,” Olson said. “And my work here embodies the entrepreneurial and consequential leadership virtues that Marshall instilled in me 20 years ago.”