Komal Shah MBA ’20 thought she was taking a risk when she ran for Marshall Graduate Student Association (MGSA) president last spring on a wellness platform. One year later, she and Cara Planitz-Clatanoff MBA ’20, president of the Mindful Marshall student organization, are looking back with pride on a partnership that created a culture shift, bringing wellness and mindfulness to the forefront of the Marshall community.
“In my first year, I noticed that people were struggling to speak about mental health, especially the emotions that come with being in a rigorous MBA program,” Shah said. “A lot of what’s top of mind intellectually is job recruitment, getting an internship, being successful in classes and networking. There was no space for conversations about how you’re doing emotionally, or space to be vulnerable, to take off the business hat for a little bit and relate as a human being.”
Shah’s promise to bring this kind of space to Marshall resonated with the FT-MBA classes of 2020 and 2021. “Komal’s platform opened up this conversation for people to engage in what wellness means, both on a personal level and as students at a top-tier MBA program, an environment that can be really stressful,” Planitz-Clatanoff said. “It changed the game in our class.”
And now with COVID-19?
“Today, MBA students are faced with a situation no one could anticipate—a global pandemic, online classes and events, and an uncertain job market,” Planitz-Clatanoff said. “As future business leaders, it is important we respond to challenges and uncertainty with calm, intention and compassion for ourselves and others.”
“The reality of life is that each of us will encounter situations that are uncertain and out of our control. COVID-19 is one of those situations. The goal of the wellness programming implemented this year, and now continuing online, is to build the foundation necessary for the success of graduating MBAs.”—Komal Shah MBA '20
MGSA and Mindful Marshall wellness programming introduced tools for stress management, community building, self-reflection and personal growth—tools that Shah and Planitz-Clatanoff hope will help students get through this challenging time, and any others they may face.
“The reality of life is that each of us will encounter situations that are uncertain and out of our control. COVID-19 is one of those situations,” Shah said. “The goal of the wellness programming implemented this year, and now continuing online, is to build the foundation necessary for the success of graduating MBAs.”
Mindful Marshall is the organization at the business school that integrates wellness into the MBA experience. This year’s members totaled more than 100, a 168% growth in membership from last year. In order to reach the entire FT-MBA community of over 430 students, Planitz-Clatanoff and Shah collaborated to bring partnership programming throughout the year.
“We had to look for new ways to shift the culture of Marshall and integrate wellness into spaces where maybe it didn’t exist before,” Planitz-Clatanoff said.
For example, the Courtyard Series brought monthly events, including mindful coloring, gratitude cards and board games, to the space between Popovich and Fertitta halls. “These were opportunities for people to invest time in stress reduction, gratitude and meaningful community building,” Planitz-Clatanoff said.
Both MGSA and Mindful Marshall also brought Wellness Week, designed to support MBA students during the stressful time of exams with yoga, massages, a therapy dog and healthy meals paired with intention setting.
The first-ever Marshall Comedy Night at Ground Zero Performance Café featured five professional comedians from L.A., including Shah’s brother. “Laughter is a medicine,” Shah said. “We reminded our fellow MBAs to laugh.”
Melanie Lin MBA ’21 experienced the benefits of wellness programming and even got involved in producing it. “I was incredibly stressed the first couple terms of the program, and I went through a lot of personal and professional stress, as I know many of my classmates did too. Having this type of programming, and being able to help facilitate some of the events, I saw just how much of a positive impact it had on not only my own MBA experience, but also that of my classmates.”
Planting a Seed
“Messaging was key to shifting the mindset,” Shah said.
MGSA sent 26 e-newsletters to both classes every Wednesday. Marshall Minutes included a wellness update and a link to articles to read more about various topics. Some of the top reads of the year featured gratitude, following your passion, overcoming fear, managing rejection, surrender and visualization.
“We had a high click rate,” Shah said. “It is like planting a seed, and then if people want to grow it on their own, that’s their choice. It’s also sending the message that you’re a business school student, but you’re also more than that, and we want to ensure that you’re continuously cultivating your well-being.”
“What’s unique about our initiative in the MBA landscape is the overall culture shift and messaging, but also unique efforts like the Mindful Leadership Series and Mindful Interviewing program”—Cara Planitz-Clatanoff MBA '20
Rachel Rapp MBA ’20 said: “Marshall Minutes consistently provided the words of wisdom I need to hear. It helped me embrace ambiguity, live with heightened purpose, have the courage to pursue what makes me happy, make time to meditate, and accept and overcome rejection.”
Bringing in the Experts
Mindful Marshall board members did some research and found that while other business schools do offer mindfulness activities and wellness weeks, Shah and Planitz-Clatanoff were going above and beyond, collaborating with administrators including Deans of Graduate Programs, Suh-Pyng Ku and Anne Ziemniak. Both offered support in organizing special wellness events.
“What’s unique about our initiative in the MBA landscape is the overall culture shift and messaging, but also unique efforts like the Mindful Leadership Series and Mindful Interviewing program,” Planitz-Clatanoff said. Both of those events brought in expert facilitators.
The Mindful Leadership Series, in which Mindful Marshall partnered with MGSA’s VP of diversity and inclusion, brought in Dr. Allen Weiss from Mindful USC and Dr. Sharoni Little, chief officer of diversity, equity and inclusion at Marshall, for a five-week lunchtime leadership series. The discussions were intended to provide students with a foundation for being mindful, self-aware, inclusive business leaders.
Chris Carlson MBA ’21 said: “Allen Weiss, who led The Mindful Leadership Series, taught me that mindfulness meditation is so much more than simply watching your breath. I learned how to identify, label and regulate my emotions through meditation, which is an invaluable skill to take with me as I launch my own business this summer where I’m guaranteed to experience extreme highs and lows.”
“We have a really unique population of MBA students here,” Planitz-Clatanoff said. “These are future CEOs of top companies, and the power that comes with that is really impactful. We want to build this foundation for leading with compassion and self-awareness, for leveraging mindfulness and meditation and considering your own wellness and the wellness of others — that can be impactful on a broader level.”
That vision also guided the Capstone Panel: Wellness as a Business Imperative. The event featured experts from Headspace, PwC and The Prather Group, who highlighted how costly burnout can be and made the business case for investing in wellness on both personal and company-wide levels.
"I learned how to identify, label and regulate my emotions through meditation, which is an invaluable skill to take with me as I launch my own business this summer where I’m guaranteed to experience extreme highs and lows."—Chris Carlson MBA ’21
“We try to embody that ourselves,” Shah said. “Both Cara and I have our own wellness practice that informs how we lead our boards. This is not just a platform, it’s also a personal passion. We walk the talk.”
Taking Wellness Online
After the “shelter in place” order to prevent spread of COVID-19, Mindful Marshall conducted a survey to determine how best to serve their community. They are now providing twice-weekly guided meditations, a weekly mindful activity on Fridays and a virtual retreat for the remainder of the semester — all online and open to all Marshall MBA students.
Their first Zoom event in March was a Mindful Personal Finance session in partnership with the Marshall Finance Association. They also emailed their membership a curated list of free online wellness resources.
After spring break, the new MGSA president, Asia Liza Morales, took the reins, reaching out to the next Mindful Marshall president, Maranda Elkin, about continuing their joint programming. Students are also sharing resources with each other and inviting each other to mindful, community-building Zoom sessions. That makes Shah and Planitz-Clatanoff particularly proud.
“Our work has allowed other people to feel empowered to do wellness programming,” Shah said. “We always wanted this to go beyond us and be something that sustains itself for years to come.”
Contact information for MGSA and Mindful Marshall:
Mindful Marshall: email@example.com